GM, Chrysler and Ford's Revolutionary Cars and Failures

Can one car save an automaker?

General Motors sure hopes so.

The flailing carmaker is staking a lot of its recovery on the fate of the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that it says will revolutionize the market and restore the company's image.

It isn't the first time that an automaker has pinned its success on one breakthrough model.

The minivan changed the way Americans thought about cars.

Many have tried but only a few have succeeded. Here is a look at some of those game-changing cars and those who fell way short of the promise.

Minivans: Chryseler's Family Auto Invention

One of the best-known success stories is that of the minivan.

In November 1983, Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager. The world was never the same for soccer moms again.

"It's a far cry from today's minivan, but it really did revolutionize the market," said AutoTrends consulting analyst Joe Phillippi.

Chrysler dominated the market at first as other car companies struggled to play catch-up. That, in turn, helped turn the company's profits around.

"It's hard to imagine that it was 25 years ago," Phillippi said.

Chrysler's Birth of the SUV: Jeep Cherokee

Chrysler struck again in 1984 with the Jeep Cherokee.

Nothing said outdoor ruggedness, but family-friendly, like the Cherokee.

This revamped, smaller version of the old Cherokee really kicked off the modern SUV age. It also came in a four-door version, making it a the first jeep that could also serve as a family car.

"They sort of invented the four-door mid-sized sport utility vehicle," Phillippi said.

But not every car is a success, despite Detroit's deepest desires.

The Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto both came out in 1971 and were an attempt by American automakers to compete with the compact, more fuel-efficient cars imported by Toyota and Honda that were then first flooding the market.

The Vega's reliability was … well, less than reliable.

Phillippi said Chevrolet came up with an all-aluminum engine, "what they thought was going to be an innovative way to manufacture" a car. The problem was that the engine cylinders wore out faster than expected and burned though oil at "an alarming rate."

Jack Nerad, market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the car was crucial in hurting General Motors' reputation, compared to the reliability of foreign cars.

"What we've seen today is the ultimate culmination of many years of iffy, so-so products in the face of what turned out to be better products," Nerad said.

Ford's Big Blunder: Pinto

The Pinto lasted a decade and might have been considered a success story if it weren't for the car's safety problems. Because of a design flaw, the gas tank tended to rupture when the car was hit from behind, sometimes resulting in deadly fires and explosions.

To make matters worse, a memo surfaced indicating that Ford knew of the design problems but did a cost-benefit analysis showing that it would be cheaper to pay out any potential injury and death claims than to redesign the car.

The Pinto was tiny and popular but ultimately a PR nightmare.

"The vehicle just became a ball of fire," Phillippi said.

Maybe not as spectacular of a failure, but equally hated was the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. This car was groundbreaking as it helped herald in the age of the crossover SUV, vehicles that offer the size and feel of an SUV but the manageability and handling of a typical car.

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