From video game characters, it's almost certainly Sonic. Say what you will about the quality of some of his games (and plenty have), but consistently being there, as well as being the public mascot of SEGA has ensured that pretty much everyone will know who he is, whether they like him or not.
Just takes too long to ramp up, I think. Even Dragon Ball only got popular here with Z/the Raditz saga.
Since you mentioned Dragon Ball as being disqualified, I guess anything that came from manga but got adapted to a cartoon is disqualified? Otherwise I'd put Doraemon way way up there. Anpanman as well.