Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years
Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years by Long Mai (CC BY-NC)

The Best-Selling Cars From the Past 40 Years

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Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years
Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years by Long Mai (CC BY-NC)

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In 1978, cars still burned leaded gasoline and came standard with cigarette lighters and ashtrays. Today, drivers are lured into dealerships by rear cross-traffic alert systems, connected apps, and adaptive cruise control. The past 40 years have been some of the most consequential in automotive history, and this list examines the most popular passenger car — not trucks, SUVs, motorcycles or other vehicles — from every year in terms of domestic sales. Here's a look at the cars that converted the masses every year for the last four decades.

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1978: OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

1978: oldsmobile cutlass

Units sold: 520,279
By 1978, GM's Oldsmobile Cutlass was already at the apex of America's automobile culture. Sales of the Cutlass actually peaked the year before when 632,742 units were sold in 1977. The '78, the first year of the car's fifth generation, was a foot shorter than the prior model year and to make it more fuel efficient, the classic V8 was replaced with a Buick V6.

1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Hurst Edition
1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Hurst Edition by That Hartford Guy (CC BY-NC-ND)

1979: oldsmobile cutlass

Units sold: 518,160
In 1979 the Cutlass was, once again, America's favorite middle-class car. That year, GM offered the Cutlass in a well-received diesel V8 engine as part of a package that came with a special gold-over-white paint job.

Related: 50 Classic Family Cars of the Past 50 Years

1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Coupé
1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Coupé by Spanish Coches (CC BY)

1980: oldsmobile cutlass

Units sold: 469,573
In 1980, the Cutlass reigned supreme again even though sales dropped from well above 500,000 to well below. Although the design was still more 1970s than 1980s, the '80 model began to look more like a traditional sedan as GM scrapped the trademark aeroback design.

1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

1981: oldsmobile cutlass

Units sold: 454,188
Sales dropped yet again in 1981, but even still, the Cutlass was king of the hill for the fourth year straight. That year, the aeroback coupe met the same fate as the aeroback sedan had the year before. Also in '81, GM dropped the 4-4-2 performance package — 4-barrel carburetor, 4-speed transmission, and dual exhaust — which had been available since 1964.

First Generation Ford Escort
First Generation Ford Escort by Michael (CC BY)

1982: ford escort

Units sold: 337,667
In 1981, Ford unveiled the Escort, a cheap but practical replacement to the woefully obsolete and notoriously dangerous Pinto, which was Ford’s original subcompact model. The next year in 1982, the Escort would topple the mighty Cutlass and take the throne as America's best-selling car.

1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham
1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY)

1983: oldsmobile cutlass supreme

Units sold: 331,179
In 1983, the Cutlass made what would end up being its curtain call at the top of the domestic sales charts. The Cutlass Supreme was one of two distinct lines unveiled in 1983 as part of a brand new Cutlass family. The Supreme was the larger of the two offerings, and it maintained the traditional rear-wheel drive design while the smaller Cutlass Ciera received a front-wheel-drive chassis.

1984 Cavalier Convertible
1984 Cavalier Convertible by Josh Graciano (CC BY-SA)

1984: chevrolet cavalier

Units sold: 383,752
First released in 1982, the Chevy Cavalier was designed to accommodate changing American attitudes — the country now wanted smaller cars that were better on gas. It was also designed to directly compete with imports that were gobbling up a large share of the market, specifically the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. The Cavalier would sell at least 250,000 units a year from 1983 through the mid-1990s, taking the top spot in 1984.

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1985: chevrolet cavalier

Units sold: 422,927
Cheap, practical and American, the Cavalier again took top billing in 1985. Chevy had introduced a convertible option in '83, just one of four available body styles, and in 1985, the V-6 Z24 models offered upgraded performance from the traditional four-cylinder engine.

Related: 22 Vintage Convertibles That Will Blow Your Hair Back

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1986: chevrolet celebrity

Units sold: 408,946
The Chevrolet Celebrity lasted just a single generation over the course of a nine-year run after debuting in model year 1982. Its moment in the sun, however, came in 1986 when it sold more than 400,000 units to become the best-selling car in America. In 1990, the Celebrity nameplate was put out to pasture to make way for the Lumina.

1987 Ford Escort XR3i Cabriolet
1987 Ford Escort XR3i Cabriolet by Riley (CC BY)

1987: ford escort

Units sold: 392,360
Five years after its first brief stint at No. 1, the Escort, once again, found itself at the top of the heap in 1987 after selling nearly 400,000 units. The 1987-90 model years were the final installments of the first generation Escort.

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1988: ford escort

Units sold: 381,330
As part of the 1987-90 edition, the '88 Ford Escort could achieve 90 horsepower in the standard model and a beefed-up 110 horsepower in the GT. The entry-level Pony model became available for the first time in '88 with the option of an automatic or a four-speed manual transmission. After 10 years, every single No. 1 car on the list was still American made — but that was all about to change.

Honda Accord 1.8 EX 1989
Honda Accord 1.8 EX 1989 by RLGNZLZ (CC BY-SA)

1989: honda accord

Units sold: 362,707
Although the venerable Honda Accord is now in its 43rd production year — it debuted in 1976 — and is one of the world's most popular cars, it was still a second-tier alternative in the 1980s. That all changed, however, when the Japanese import topped the sales charts in 1989. By that time, the Accord was already in the final year of its third generation.

1990 Honda Accord [CB]
1990 Honda Accord [CB] by Spanish Coches (CC BY)

1990: honda accord

Units sold: 417,179
The year 1990 signaled the start of generation four for the Accord, and the changes were not just cosmetic. A wagon, a coupe, and a sedan filled out the lineup, and a 2.2-liter engine gave it 130 horsepower. It was also longer with a wider wheelbase.

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1991: honda accord

Units sold: 399,297
The Accord continued its impressive run with just shy of 400,000 units sold in 1991. As part of the fourth generation, the '91 model featured sport shift mode, which gave the driver the option of manually selecting gears on an automatic transmission.

Ford Taurus GL 1992
Ford Taurus GL 1992 by RLGNZLZ (CC BY-SA)

1992: ford taurus

Units sold: 409,751
In 1992, Ford dethroned the Japanese Honda company and brought the sales title back to America's Big Three when the Taurus became America's best-selling car. It was the first year of the second generation of the Taurus, which phased out the L option, but introduced the LX and GL.

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1993: ford taurus

Units sold: 360,448
The Taurus defended its title in 1993 as the second generation proved a winner once again. The new models featured an automatic V6 instead of the four-cylinder and manual transmissions that came before. It was also bigger and heavier, and it came with a new-and-improved radio that doubled as a safety feature — it was easier to adjust while keeping your eyes on the road.

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1994: ford taurus

Units sold: 397,037
In 1994, the Taurus extended its streak to three years, and once again, it stood out for innovative safety features. This time, the Taurus came with passenger side airbags. It was the first mainstream sedan to do so, making it the first car in its class with dual front airbags.

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1995: ford taurus

Units sold: 366,266
The SE package joined the Taurus line in 1995, yet another year that Ford's blockbuster model topped all other comers in terms of U.S. sales. The SE was an upgrade from the GE, offering a center console, bucket seats, a rear spoiler, and a floor-mounted shifter.

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1996: ford taurus

Units sold: 401,049
The 1996 model year represented the start of the fourth generation for the Taurus, which had now extended its impressive No. 1 streak to five years. It was a brand-new look, both inside and out, with a redesigned interior built to impress drivers looking for something a little more upscale.

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1997: toyota camry

Units sold: 397,156
In 1997, the American-made Ford Taurus was knocked off its perch by a Japanese import called the Toyota Camry. It was the first time Toyota could brag that it was America's best-selling car, and the bragging rights would endure for a long time to come. It was the start of a dynasty, unlike any other that had come before.

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1998: toyota camry

Units sold: 429,575
Fifteen years after it first debuted in 1983, the Toyota Camry was enjoying its second year at the head of the pack. It was now in the second year of its fourth generation, and although it was still a Japanese car, Toyota was now relying on its engineering facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to develop half the Camrys it produced.

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1999: toyota camry

Units sold: 448,162
In 1999, Toyota reintroduced an updated version of the Camry coupe that it had previously discontinued. It was called the Camry Solara, and it was faster than the same generation Camry sedan with the exact same engine.

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2000: toyota camry

Units sold: 422,961
By 2000, Camry had dropped the wagon from its lineup — and for good reason. Consistently selling more than 420,000 units a year, the Camry was now the undisputed go-to mid-size sedan for the American middle class.

2001 Honda Accord EX
2001 Honda Accord EX by James B. Bleeker (CC BY-SA)

2001: honda accord

Units sold: 414,718
In 2001, the Accord once again clawed and scratched its way to the top of the U.S. sales market and established itself as the only real competitor to the Camry. But its time at the top would be fleeting as the battle between the two Japanese automakers would again soon favor Toyota.

Jamie's Car
Jamie's Car by Kevin Jarrett (CC BY)

2002: toyota camry

Units sold: 434,135
For the fourth time in five years, the Toyota Camry was again the best-selling car in the United States. It was the start of the model's fifth generation, which was a bit heavier and longer with a bigger trunk and three available trim levels.

2003 Toyota Camry...
2003 Toyota Camry... by Matthew Paul Argall (CC BY)

2003: toyota camry

Units sold: 413,296
The now-familiar Camry once again won the day in 2003 — it was the only car that year to sell more than 400,000 units. The Honda Accord trailed with 397,750, and the Toyota Corolla/Matrix and the Ford Taurus were distant second- and third-place finishers with sales in the low 300,000s.

Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years
Best Selling Cars from the Past 40 Years by Long Mai (CC BY-NC)

2004: toyota camry

Units sold: 426,990
Toyota sold 3.3 percent more Camrys in 2004 than it had the year prior, once again earning the title of the only passenger car to break the 400,000 mark in the U.S. The familiar rivals were distant competitors yet again. Accord sales actually dropped, and the No. 3 spot again went to Toyota's second-most popular car, the Corolla/Matrix.

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2005: toyota camry

Units sold: 431,703
Most of the Camry's 2005 upgrades were cosmetic — updated gauges, new seat fabrics, and audio controls on the steering wheel — but there was one change that was truly substantive in how cars were made. Starting that year, all models came standard with anti-lock brakes.

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2006 Toyota Camry (ACV40R) Altise sedan
2006 Toyota Camry (ACV40R) Altise sedan by Brenden Ashton (CC BY)

2006: toyota camry

Units sold: 448,445
Toyota had a banner year in 2006, and not only because the Camry approached the 450,000 mark in terms of domestic sales. That year, sales of the rival Honda Accord dropped by a full 4 percent. Toyota Corolla/Matrix, on the other hand, saw a massive gain of 13.5 percent, allowing the Corolla/Matrix to jump the Accord and give Toyota both the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the list of America's best-selling cars.

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2007: toyota camry

Units sold: 473,108
The 2007 model year represented the start of the Camry's sixth generation. By that time, Americans were buying 1,200 Camrys a week, a stunning statistic that was reflected in total sales. It was the first year that the Camry cracked the 450,000 mark, but with more than 473,000 units sold, crushed might be a better word. By the time Motor Trend named Camry the Car of the Year in 2007, more than 10 million had been sold worldwide since the model's debut in 1983.

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2008: toyota camry

Units sold: 436,617
Model year 2008 marked the tenth time in 11 years that Camry sales topped 400,000 units in the United States. This was quite a feat, considering 2008 marked the beginning of a global financial crisis that cratered the economy and, of course, car sales. Four of the five best-selling cars saw sales tank that year. Although the Camry took the worst hit of them all with a decline of 7.7 percent, it still sold nearly 437,000 units.

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2009: toyota camry

Units sold: 356,824
By the end of 2009, the recession was in full swing and all five top models suffered devastating double-digit sales slumps. Although the No.1 and No. 2 Camry and Corolla/Matrix saw sales drop by 18.3 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively, Toyota actually fared the best of the top five. The Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Nissan Maxima suffered losses of more than 22 percent each. It was the first time since the Accord briefly dethroned the Camry in 2001 that Camry sales slid under 400,000.

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2010: toyota camry

Units sold: 327,804
The year 2010 represented another crushing blow for the auto industry. Although the Camry clung to the top rung of the ladder with sales under 328,000 after another year of significant declines, the Toyota Corolla/Matrix suffered an even more crushing, double-digit hit. The loss of 10.4 percent in domestic sales allowed the Accord, which actually saw sales increase, to regain the No. 2 spot behind the Camry.

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2011: toyota camry

Units sold: 308,510
The Camry defended the title in 2011 despite suffering its third straight annual decline for sales under 310,000. The Toyota Corolla/Matrix was not so lucky. With a third straight steep tumble, this time at a loss of nearly 10 percent, the Corolla/Matrix sold only a little more than 240,000 cars, sending the model plummeting in the rankings to No. 5 in domestic sales. A newcomer to the top 5, the Nissan Altima, improved sales by a stunning 17.3 percent to storm into second place. The Ford Fusion was now in fourth place.

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2012: toyota camry

Units sold: 404,886
By 2012, the effects of the federal bailout of the auto industry had translated into a remarkable single-year turnaround. Camry purchases surged by 31.2 percent, pushing sales over 400,000 again for the first time since 2008 and the start of the recession. The No. 2 and No. 3 Honda Accord and Civic saw sales growth of more than 40 percent each.

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2013: toyota camry

Units sold: 408,484
A flood of new revenue allowed Toyota to develop and release a range of safety upgrades. That year, the Camry added Traction Control, Smart Stop technology, anti-lock brakes, and Blind-Spot Monitoring as standard features.

2014 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) Altise sedan
2014 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) Altise sedan by Mic (CC BY)

2014: toyota camry

Units sold: 428,606
By the end of 2014, sales had been roaring for three straight years. Although every model in the top 5 except the Honda Civic enjoyed yet another year of increased sales, only the Camry came in over 400,000 units sold. The Honda Accord was now a distant second with sales of just over 388,000.

A 2015 Toyota Camry
A 2015 Toyota Camry by Austin102 (CC BY-SA)

2015: toyota camry

Units sold: 429,355
In 2015, the Camry once again retained the No. 1 spot and flirted with sales approaching 430,000. This year, however, the Toyota Corolla found itself back in second place thanks to the Honda Accord’s steep sales decline of 8.4 percent that sent the Accord tumbling down to third.

2016 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) Altise sedan
2016 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) Altise sedan by EurovisionNim (CC BY-SA)

2016: toyota camry

Units sold: 388,618
Camry sales took a steep hit of nearly 10 percent in 2016, leading to sub-400,000 sales for the first time since the country was in the throes of the recession. The Corolla, Civic, and Accord were not far behind, with all three models earning sales above 345,000.

2017 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) RZ sedan.
2017 Toyota Camry (ASV50R) RZ sedan. by EurovisionNim (CC BY-SA)

2017: toyota camry

Units sold: 387,081
First released back in 1983 when the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was still the most popular car in America, the Camry entered its 34th production year in 2017. It had been the undisputed leader in domestic sales since it first toppled the Honda Accord in 1997. In 2017, it earned the distinction of being the best-selling car in America for 20 of the past 21 years.

2018 Toyota Camry XSE (13)
2018 Toyota Camry XSE (13) by Automotive Rhythms (CC BY-NC-ND)

2018: toyota camry

Units sold: 343,439
In 2018, the Camry reigned supreme again, but it holds the No. 1 spot during a time when sedans and other passenger cars are cratering in popularity. Compact car sales were down more than 11 percent over 2017 — more than 20 percent for subcompacts. The Camry exists today in a landscape dominated by SUVs and trucks. In fact, the three best-selling vehicles of 2018 were all trucks, and half of the top 20 best sellers were crossover SUVs.

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