There may not be a perfect formula to know exactly what will make a car popular — as much as auto manufacturers might wish there was. But most of the cars we've loved over the years often strike the balance of style, efficiency, and plenty of bang for the buck. Whether we're driving a sporty muscle car like a Ford, a sturdy and reliable ride you can drive into the ground, or a spacious classic to transport the family, certain cars capture our attention and become best-sellers — in some cases for generations of drivers. To find out which cars and trucks have been the most successful at winning the popularity contest of the road, we took a look at approximate global sales numbers for vehicles over the past half-century from a variety of automotive sources. Here are the most popular cars of the past 50 years, ranked by sales numbers — find out where your favorite ride falls on the list.
50 Most Popular Cars of the Past 50 Years
This was the midsize vehicle for General Motors' sporty Pontiac brand. Made intermittently from 1973 to 2005, there are still a bunch kicking around U.S. roads, which isn't entirely surprising considering that 4 million were made.
First made in 1951 as Toyota's four-wheel-drive answer to the Jeep, it is now the most high-end, full-size SUV that Toyota offers outside its Lexus line. It's also sold more than 4 million vehicles just by sticking around this long.
The circular headlights, metallic trim, and wood-sided wagon versions weren't this U.K. vehicle's only legacy. The version of the Cortina made for South Korea in 1968 was Hyundai's first vehicle. Between 1962 and 1982, more than 4.3 million Cortinas were sold worldwide, with nearly 3 million sold in the U.K. alone.
Named after a resort in Switzerland, this coupe/sedan/station wagon was considered a large family car for Europe. It was a rear-wheel drive vehicle when it was introduced in 1970, but left the market in 1988 — 4.4 million vehicles later — as a front-wheel drive.
The Ascona's replacement was similarly popular and built like a midsize Chevrolet. There were more than 4.5 million sold across a broad spectrum that saw the Vectra used as both a minivan-sized wagon and a race car.
Thank the Cold War for this. When this vehicle was first made with Italian parts in Poland back in 1973, the Iron Curtain was still effectively separating Eastern and Western Europe. The Polski Fiat 126p would've been popular for its tiny price anyway, but having little competition in the Eastern Bloc helped nearly 4.7 million of these vehicles find homes until the end of their run in 1980.
This sporty, brawny pony car has been a fixture on American roads and a favorite among gearheads since 1967. Despite General Motors discontinuing the vehicle from 2002 through 2008, Chevrolet managed to sell nearly 5 million during the Camaro's lifetime.
The Galant got a lot of help from Mitsubishi's partners at Chrysler. First built in 1969, it was imported to the United States as the compact Dodge Colt in 1971. Known as the Dodge Colt, Chrysler Colt, Plymouth Colt, Chrysler Sigma, and Mitsubishi Sigma, it finally took the Galant name here in 1993 and was made at a plant in Normal, Illinois, until it was discontinued in 2012. In all, it ended up selling more than 5 million vehicles worldwide.
From 1983 to 2011, Ford made a tough little compact pickup that could take a beating. It eventually became the Bronco II SUV, which led to the iconic Ford Explorer, but it was discontinued when the market for small pickups shrank and was dominated by Toyota. It's making a comeback this year, and the more than 5 million sold during its initial run indicate there will be a market for it.
It's been a moving van, it's been a church van, it's been a band van, and it's even been a trailer-towing family van. During its long run from 1960 to 2014, the Ford Econoline and Club Wagon vans that made up the E Series accounted from more than 5 million sales and, as recently as 2007, held 80 percent of the U.S. van market.
They weren't a beloved family car, but taxi drivers and police departments loved them. The Crown Vic's fleet vehicle sales led to more than 5 million of them being sold from 1993 through 2012.
Get ready to see a whole lot of European subcompacts on this list. Popular throughout much of the world as both an affordable hatchback and a rally car, the 205 had a tremendous run from 1983 to 1998. With nearly 5.3 million vehicles sold throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America, this is a vehicle the United States just missed out on.
The more modern incarnation of the 205, the 206 debuted in 1998 and went on to produce more than 10 million units worldwide. It is still made in Iran and remains popular around the world.
A favorite in Europe during its original run from 1972 to 1996, it's one of the few European superminis to make it stateside. Though it performed well on U.S. roads as the American Motors Corp. "Le Car," the bulk of the 5.5 million Renault 5 sales came outside of the United States.
We aren't talking about the BMW mini models you see today, but about the iconic British Motor Corp. Mini build from 1959 to 2000. The Mini surprised drivers with its handling and ton of space — created by keeping the engine out of passengers' way. In its more than 50-year original run, it sold more than 5.5 million vehicles.
It took exploding tires and rolling vehicles to slow sales of this iconic SUV, but even the switch from a trucked-up midsize SUV to a full-size crossover vehicle in 2011 couldn't stop the Explorer's momentum. Though sales last year were about half of what they were at their peak in 2000, the Explorer has just kept rolling since its introduction in 1990: Selling more than 7.2 million vehicles to date.
General Motors answered Japan's small cars of the '80s and '90s with its family of so-called J-Cars. The Cavalier hung around from 1982 to 2005 and, as of last year, is still being made in China. It was so successful that not only did it sell more than 6 million vehicles worldwide, but Toyota briefly sold it in Japan as the Toyota Cavalier.
From its birth in 1959 to its demise in 2005, the LeSabre was one thing: A really big sedan. It had a wagon option until the mid-'80s, but managed to sell more than 6 million vehicles even without it.
In the U.S. alone, it's been known as the Colt Lancer, Dodge/Plymouth Colt, Chrysler Valiant Lancer, Chrysler Lancer, Dodge Lancer, and Eagle Summit. It saved families money when it was introduced during a gas crisis in 1973 and looked enough like a Volvo from the rear to pass as a costlier car. Even after selling more than 6 million Lancers worldwide, though, Mitsubishi killed off the Lancer last year in all markets except Taiwan and China.
It doesn't look anything like the 500, but this sleek, modern subcompact has sold more than 9 million vehicles since arriving in 1993. It's still made by Fiat Chrysler, as supermini versatile enough to be either an ideal rally car or a three-door van.
In 1986, Ford took the novel step of downsizing its midsize cars, giving them front-wheel drive, rounding their bodies, increasing fuel efficiency, and dropping V8 engines altogether for four-cylinders and V6s. It was hailed as genius and helped the Taurus to a majority of its nearly 7 million global sales, including more than 3 million in the United States alone. Reviving it as a full-size in 2007 slowed sales considerably.
Renault's first front-wheel-drive family car looked like nothing else on the road when introduced in 1961. It was the world's first look at a hatchback, and the world liked the bulbous look and lean price well enough to buy 8 million before the Renault 4's run ended in 1992.
The Uno rode the "hot hatch" craze from its introduction in 1983 to its last day of Italian production in 1995. Markets in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, India and elsewhere weren't done with this sporty, cost-efficient vehicle, though, and kept making it until 2013. When its run finally ended, more than 8.8 million had been sold.
Don't let General Motors tell you it can't sell a compact family car. It's been selling this one since 1991 — including here, briefly, as the Saturn Astra. It's sold this vehicle under the Chevrolet, Buick, and Holden brands, moving more than 11 million throughout its run.
Build the right supermini and you can own the European market. This hot hatch will never make it to the United States, which is a shame — Europeans have been enjoying its surprising space and sporty handling since 1990. To date, more than 12 million have been sold.
Yet another sporty budget subcompact not available in the United States, the Polo is built for drivers looking to cut costs without diminishing the driving experience. While we're offered the larger Golf, the rest of the world has bought more than 12 million Polos.
Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler Town & Country, Chrysler Pacifica, Volkswagen Routan: However you know these vans, you know them as the family car of a generation. The Pacifica and Caravan are still going in the crossover SUV era, but it was the minivan's heyday in the '80s and '90s that convinced more than 12 million buyers to drive them home.
Known in the United States as the Mazda Protegé and briefly as the Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer, the Familia enjoyed a long run from 1963 and 2003. More than 10 million were made in Japan alone, with more made around the world, but the small family car was pushed aside in 2004 for the Mazda3.
Considered an entry-level luxury car in the United States, the C-Class is far more accessible elsewhere and has sold more than 10 million vehicles worldwide since its introduction in 1993. Diesel versions that serve as cabs in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East take a beating and end up rolling their odometers on a regular basis.
Until its own RAV4 crossover and Nissan's Rogue crossover passed it last year, the Camry was the best-selling car in the United States. Considering those vehicles are glorified SUVs, it could be argued that the Camry is still the best-selling U.S. car. The Camry's consistency in the face of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs has earned it more than 10 million global sales since 1982.
The Volkswagen Jetta was a de-hatched Golf when it first debuted in 1979, but this sporty little sedan found a global following. It sold 10 million vehicles worldwide just by being a fun, affordable, stable vehicle.
Lee Iacocca's sports car for the working person debuted at the New York World's Fair in 1964 and has gone through several metamorphoses since. Whether it has a "fox body," a retro design, or a 5.0-liter engine straight out of a Vanilla Ice video, enthusiasts have loved it enough to buy nearly 10 million.
It wasn't supposed to be this popular. Launched in 1998 strictly for Europe, the Focus made its way eventually to North America to replace the foundering Ford Laser. But this small car wound up selling more than 13 million vehicles, though it's about to leave the North American market so Ford can focus on crossover vehicles instead.
Though the Kadett started as a small family car in 1962, General Motors began giving it the look of an American compact by the late 1970s. By the end of its life in 1992, it was just a rebadged Pontiac LeMans. But making a tiny car for Europeans paid off: More than 11.7 million have sold.
First made in 1961, the Cutlass held on for 38 years by adapting to U.S. drivers' needs. It came in wagon form, it once had a V8 engine, it was long and brawny in the '70s, but a short and efficient family of Cieras, Supremes, and Calaises by the '80s and '90s. When its run ended in 1999, more than 11.9 million had sold.
The Ford Fiesta has existed in one form or another since 1976, but showed up in North America only during various fuel crises in the late '70s and, again, after rising gas prices made it viable in 2010. Still being sold here by Ford, it's been a European favorite for generations. Roughly 16 million Fiestas have been sold worldwide.
More than 14 million entry-level 3 Series have been sold since BMW introduced this line of vehicles in 1975. By putting BMW quality within reach of more car buyers, the German automaker broadened its market and made a luxury car a mass-market success.
This Toyota pickup debuted in 1968 and, despite getting dumped for the Tacoma in North America, is still sold around the world. With sales estimated at 12 million worldwide, the HiLux has gained a reputation for durability and versatility that's made it a favorite among rebel factions and other militant groups.
After making its debut in 1958, the Impala has spent the better portion of the years since as Chevrolet's bestseller. With high-performance, big-block V8 engines, super-sport packages, and enormous bodies, the Impala was built for families that still had a love of the American road. The version sold today is a bit smaller and more of a fleet vehicle, which has only helped it sell more than 14 million models.
It got its start as the Nissan Sunny in Japan back in 1982, but this vehicle has since been built at Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi. Last year, Nissan announced that more than 15.9 million of this small car have been sold around the world.
First sold in 1973, the Passat has been known as the Dasher, Quantum, and CC here. Now built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it has held on as a full-size vehicle in the U.S. market and sold more than 16 million units worldwide thanks to a strong presence in China.
Never sold in North America, this supermini is widely embraced in Europe for its cost, efficiency and surprising sportiness. Superminis may never catch on in the United States or Canada, but more than 18 million of this one have sold in the U.K. and on the continent.
The Accord debuted in 1976 as a larger Civic and, in 1981, was the first car built in the United States by a Japanese brand. It remains one of the top-selling U.S. cars, but more than 18 million have sold worldwide.
This car got 40 miles to the gallon on the highway when it launched in 1972. That's more than most non-hybrid vehicles get today without any of the Civic's safety and entertainment features. As a result, Honda has sold more than 18.5 million Civics worldwide.
Ford is about to halt U.S. sales of every car that isn't a Mustang, but there was a time it could sell a small car to just about anyone. The Escort debuted in England in 1967 just to prove that Ford could make a car as small and efficient as its European competitors. When it worked there, Ford brought the Escort home in 1980 and kept it here until it wrapped up global production in 2002. By that time, Ford sold more than 20 million.
The Eastern Bloc knew how to make and sell a cheap compact car. The Riva was first made by Russian automaker AvtoVAZ in 1980 and only stopped production there in 2012 (Egypt kept it going until 2015). Known for being spartan at best, the Lada Riva developed a huge following in Russia and South America, as well as finding adherents in the U.K. and New Zealand. By the end of its more than three-decade run, the Lada Riva sold more than 14.1 million units worldwide.
Though it's drifted in and out of the United States, the Beetle (or Bug) has been a global presence since 1933. Despite U.S. flakiness over the iconic Beetle, Volkswagen has sold more than 23 million of them in more than eight decades.
For many U.S. families, this was their introduction to a hatchback. First brought into the United States as the Rabbit, the Golf became Volkswagen's best-selling vehicle of all time: more than 30 million units since 1974.
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