IT'S hard to know which creative works will endure. Which current pop songs will be played at nostalgia-themed parties 20 years from now. Which movie quotations will join the ranks of "Luke, I am your father" or "We're gonna need a bigger boat." And which cream puffs will be proudly displayed at classic-car shows a generation from now.
That last one is tricky. Cars, like films and songs, are creative works. But they're also commodities built to serve a purpose, and their value often wanes in proportion to the superiority of newer machinery. So a car's attaining collector status often has less to do with its monetary value than with mojo. If a machine can make hearts sing, then there will always be a devoted following, regardless of the depreciation curve. The fact that there are still pristine Corvairs on the road speaks to the power of charisma.
So which of today's cars will defy the call of the salvage yard? It helps to establish a frame of reference. Consider five classics: the first-generation Porsche 911, the Volkswagen Beetle, the original Ford Mustang, the '70s-era Cadillac Fleetwood and the Ford wagons known as woodies. This section's editors have assigned three automotive journalists to choose, from vehicles on the road today, the cars that will one day compare to those revered rides. For their verdicts, read on.
As it turns out, the judges, each deliberating alone, agreed on precious little, and you in turn could well disagree with them. But impassioned debate is part of the fun of being a car aficionado. Some so-called instant classics have moldered away into obscurity, and even scorned cars have found a second wind of appreciation (see: the late-'70s Screaming Chicken Pontiac Trans-Ams). So let the arguments begin.
FROM PORSCHE 911 TO AUDI R8 Ah, how fitting to choose a member of the convoluted Porsche-Volkswagen family tree. The R8 is spiritual heir to the original 911 because, oddly enough, the 911 is a prisoner of its much-beloved, rear-engine, flat-six-cylinder design. Porsche's reluctance to tinker with that success left the designers of the R8 free to build what Porsche didn't dare -- a midengine chassis, V-8 or V-10 power and radical styling that introduced us to the term side-blades. You can buy quicker cars for less money, but the R8 is all about the experience it delivers, the sharp clack of the metal shifter, the rearview-mirror glimpse of a hulking motor behind the seats. Long after three-second zero-to-60 times become blasé, the magic of the R8 will endure.
FROM BEETLE TO TOYOTA PRIUS The Beetle was a revolutionary car that changed how people thought about mass-market transportation. As dedicated as the Beetle was to simplicity, the Prius is equally focused on fuel economy. Typically, cars that obsess over a single objective become niche products, like the previous fuel-economy champ, the original Honda Insight. The Prius succeeded where others failed because it offers a beguiling combination of technical wizardry, everyday practicality and offbeat styling at a mainstream price. People buy a Prius for the efficiency, sure, but not just for the efficiency. The Prius exudes an endearing optimism; its colorful charts and graphs challenge you to be a better person (if, possibly, a more aggravating driver). It'll fit right in during the next Age of Aquarius.
FROM FLEETWOOD TO HUMMER H3 Like the Cadillac, the Hummer H3 Alpha is a big American dinosaur that seems tragically dated not long after its showroom heyday. And like the dreadnoughts of the 1970s, the Hummer will find salvation in its brashness. Hummers are inextricably of their era, the most steroidal sport utility vehicles on the road during the apex of the S.U.V. mania. Such flag bearers eventually incite nostalgia, no matter how distasteful they seem in hindsight. The H3 Alpha is my favorite model because it's relatively nimble, yet packs a V-8 and serious off-road equipment like locking differentials and massive skid plates. Yes, the H3 has attitude, but its boasts aren't empty. Someday, we'll appreciate that.
FROM MUSTANG TO JEEP WRANGLER It's unlikely that any car will ever replicate the impact of the Mustang, a critical and popular smash hit that reached a million vehicles sold within two years of its debut. But the Jeep has iconic style and similar demographic-crossing appeal. Last year, Jeep sold a whopping 122,460 Wranglers; it appeals to men and women, young and old, blue collar and white. It tells you something that in the cutthroat world of carmaking the Wrangler has no competition. I don't need to be Nostradamus to predict that if the 2012 Wrangler doesn't have any rivals now, then it won't in 2032, either.
FROM WOODIE WAGON TO CHEVY SSR Woodie wagons conjure a beach cruiser vibe of good times, surfboards and vacations. And that's why my pick for a latter-day woodie wagon is not a literal interpretation like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, but rather a vehicle that captures the woodie's fun-loving ethos: the Chevy SSR. Introduced in 2003 and discontinued after 2006, the SSR was a concept car brought to life, a retro-styled hardtop convertible pickup. At the time, critics questioned the purpose of a vehicle that seemed to occupy a no-man's land between truck and sports car, and the SSR had only one year where its sales broke into five digits. But the SSR wasn't meant to be useful (though it could actually tow quite a bit). It was meant for top-down, V-8-rumble, surfboard-in-back summertime fun. The SSR seems a little bit goofy now, but I'm already wistful. EZRA DYER
BUG = MINI COOPER
FROM PORSCHE 911 TO TESLA The 911s had simplicity, reliability and high performance in a visually distinct package. Fifty years from now, the Lotus Elise and its electric variant, the Tesla Roadster, will offer the same qualities to collectors. The Lotus Elise, built for the North American market from 2004 through August of this year, has a 4-cylinder, 198-horsepower Toyota engine with a state-of-the-art midengine configuration. The Tesla is built on the Elise platform, but replaces the gasoline drivetrain with 6,831 lithium-ion cells. It offers breathtaking performance and represents the next era of high-performance cars. The Elise and the Roadster have instantly recognizable profiles, like the 911. They will be looked upon as the high point of simple, no-frills compact gasoline-engine sports cars, and the beginning of high-performance alternative-energy vehicles.
FROM BEETLE TO MINI COOPER When BMW rolled out the new Mini in 2001, it became the Beetle of its era. Produced in vast numbers, it offered panache and performance in a reliable package. There still is nothing quite like it on the road, and like the classic Beetle it has an instantly recognizable shape. It has developed a cult following, and like the Beetle and its convertible and van variants, the Mini has a range of models, including a droptop and a small wagon. BMW did a masterly job of keeping the simple touches of the original Mini alive, while complying with modern safety and smog regulations, and the evolving demands for more competence and luxury of car buyers as well.
FROM FLEETWOOD TO ESCALADE Cadillacs at their high points are imposing statements of success and conspicuous consumption, and the 1970s Fleetwood ticked all the right boxes. Fifty years from now, the 2012 Cadillac Escalade will make the same statement. For Cadillac to introduce an S.U.V. in 1999 was an outrageous move, and exactly what was necessary to bring bling and younger buyers into the Cadillac fold. The 2012 Escalade comes with more features and accessories than a Manhattan condo, and with a megawatt sound system thumping as you move through traffic, it lets the world know that you are personally using enough natural resources to support a small town.
FROM MUSTANG TO TOYOTA PRIUS Like the 1964 1/2 Mustang, the Prius changed the company making it and its customers. The Mustang conveyed sexiness and fun from the maker of the staid Falcon, on which the Mustang was initially based. The hybrid Prius allowed owners to appear environmentally responsible in an inexpensive car that could be fueled at any gasoline pump, with an air-conditioner and heater that function without cutting driving range in half, as they may a pure electric vehicle. There are six Priuses on our block in Portland, Ore., and when the next-door neighbor came home last week with a new red one, it was high fives all around. The Prius is a feel-good car for the 21st century.
FROM WOODIE WAGON TO FORD F-450 PICKUP The 1948 woodie wagon was a blend of craftsmanship and practicality; in addition to looking good, it had a job to do, typically picking up passengers from a train station and taking them to their final destination. Fifty years from now, the Ford Super Duty F-450 King Ranch pickup will represent the ultimate station hack -- an over-the-top S.U.V. able to take passengers and their luggage wherever they need to go, while cosseting them with comforts like touch screens, leather interiors and multizone climate control systems. Underneath is Ford's big, tough 6.7-liter turbo diesel putting out 400 horsepower and 800 pound-feet of torque. It's the ultimate working luxury truck.
WOODIE = CUBE
FROM PORSCHE 911 TO AUDI R8 The Audi R8 has quietly moved into a spot once held by the Porsche 911 -- a racecar that was a practical, daily drive. In the beginning, the mid-1960s, arriving in a 911 was a striking statement. The R8, inspired by a racecar, came along in 2007 with its own distinctive shape. The work of Walter de Silva, former designer for Alfa Romeo, it summarized Audi's sensual take on German technology the way the 911 summarized Porsche's cool, Bauhaus approach. Like the 911, the R8 has established itself as a perennial shape that can evolve. Audi has charted the future of the R8 by offering an electric version, the E-tron. Although built on the underpinnings of the Lamborghini Gallardo -- Audi, Lamborghini and Porsche are all part of the Volkswagen group -- the R8 radiates subtle power rather than the gold-chain macho of its Italian sibling.
FROM BEETLE TO VOLKSWAGEN UP No car will ever match the original Beetle. None will sell as many copies -- the Bug topped even the Model T -- or serve as so many people's emotionally weighted first car. The people's car had personality, too -- enough to become the Love Bug star of a Disney film franchise. But VW executives and designers say the real new Beetle is the Up, a smaller, basic car that the company hopes can make it the world's largest auto manufacturer. But while the Up may be the new people's car for Europe and Asia and even Africa, there are no plans to sell it in the United States. The Up shares the practical design cleverness and the spatial versatility of the original Beetle, with a sense of personality. It is less like Herbie and more like R2-D2 or Wall-E. Martin Winterkorn, the Volkswagen chairman, pitched the Up as the iPod of cars and showed a prototype to the late Steve Jobs.
FROM FLEETWOOD TO SUBURBAN AND ESCALADE Roseanne Cash wrote the song "Black Cadillac," referring to the big cars driven by her father, Johnny Cash. Similar cars carried mourners at his funeral. Today the limousine-sedan is a vanishing breed; the new Cadillac XTS is smaller than the old Fleetwood, and Lincoln is ending production of the Town Car. Its replacements are already here: giant black S.U.V.'s, especially the sibling Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade, differentiated mostly by their trim. They make up caravans for politicians and stars. Suburbans and Escalades roll out of the same factory in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas. They are giant chunks of metal, often with darkened windows, that hold lots of people and lots of luggage. They appear as if carved by some computer-driven milling machine out of solid obsidian. They blend into the night outside nightclubs, leaving the focus on the stars and celebrities moving in and out of the spotlights.
FROM MUSTANG TO VOLKSWAGEN GTI The Mustang was introduced at the New York World's Fair in 1964, starting as an ordinary compact car, the Falcon, and was so completely transformed as an affordable sports car that its origins were forgotten. The Mustang has gone through generations of evolution. It can be dressed down into a cute convertible for teenagers or up into a muscular fastback for the likes of Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." It created a whole new category of car, the pony car. Neatly enough, 20 years later, with the 1984 GTI, Volkswagen offered an updated take on the mass car as sports car for a postboomer generation. Volkswagen's television ads dropped German lyrics over the tune "Little GTO," the hit from Ronny and the Daytonas about the Pontiac GTO muscle car. But VW didn't even change the shape of the basic hatchback Golf, only the motor, suspension and paint. VW has now presented six generations of the car and developed a cult following of drivers who appreciate jokes about its five-hole, "telephone dialer" wheels. And the GTI created a whole category of car, too, the so-called hot hatch.
FROM WOODIE WAGON TO NISSAN CUBE The odd, box-shaped Japanese car is more social space than transportation device. It is defiantly antiaerodynamic -- it is an anticar. Future historians will point to it as a model appropriate for a generation that, polls suggest, is ambivalent about cars. The rugged woodie suggested a beach shack on wheels. The Cube plays a similar role at the beach, the park, in city and suburb. It is a functionalist modernist room to go -- a spot for talk and music. Its creator, the head Nissan designer Shiro Nakamura, said the Cube was inspired by Japanese architecture. It is the room young people use to socialize because they lack space at home. But like so many Japanese designs, it has become a worldwide icon. There are other kid box cars, like the Scion xB or even the Kia Soul, but the Cube is a future classic.
Ezra Dyer writes for the Automobiles section of The New York Times, Keith Martin is editor and publisher of Sports Car Market magazine and Phil Patton writes about auto design for The Times.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.