There's a huge difference between modern and classic cars. The number of technological changes over the years is simply staggering. These modifications have resulted in new cars featuring sharper steering, improved fuel economy, and better performance than ever before. While many of these developments came around in the ‘80s, it was the ‘90s that saw the rise of thoroughly modern automobiles, both in terms of mechanical design and styling. However, automakers were still finding their footing during this time and, as a result, created some interesting machines.
Even though cars would obviously continue to evolve well past the ‘90s, car companies don’t tend to experiment as much as they used to. There are still strange cars are still being built these days, but they're fewer and further between. Some features have also disappeared over the years, resulting in less variation in the automotive world. During the ‘90s, automakers were simply more willing to add bizarre and unusual models to their lineups to get a feel for what consumers wanted. Despite this exploration, buyers ultimately decided that the only major changes they wanted were smaller motors and front-wheel drive. While newer cars can’t be matched with regard to performance, there are plenty of ‘90s vehicles that are considerably more noteworthy for their weirdness. Here are 25 of the most bizarre, strange, and original cars from a time when automakers were more willing to experiment.
25 Nissan Figaro
There are plenty of unique JDM cars from the ‘90s, but many of them aren’t particularly unusual, as they were just high-tech sports cars with turbocharged muscle under the hood. For a truly strange and eye-catching design, look towards Nissan in the early ‘90s. Given Japan’s cramped cities and narrow country roads, the country has a strong market for small cars. Nissan decided to inject something more attractive into this crowded market. The Figaro was a tiny, four-seat convertible that was styled from a combination of classic cars. Under the retro skin, the Figaro wasn’t particularly special, as it was powered by a one-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that was good for 76 horsepower. It was also only available with a three-speed automatic, revealing the car’s more laid-back, city-oriented nature.
24 Toyota MR2
Mid-engine cars are usually only available from Italian companies who'll sell them for six figures. Toyota is known for producing some of the most reliable and mind-numbing cars on the road. It’s not the company that would be expected to bring a mid-engine sports car to the masses. However, that was exactly what the MR2 was. The original MR2 debuted in the ‘80s, and it was highly revised for its second generation as the model entered the ‘90s. This new version featured a considerably smoother design that looked far more modern.
It also received newer and larger motors, the most potent of which was the turbocharged 2.0-liter option, which produced 200 horsepower.
This MR2 could be considered the best generation, as it had supercar styling and remained decently practical, unlike the comparatively spartan third-generation car.
23 Lotus Elise
There are few manufacturers that strive for lightweight designs rather than luxurious ones. Lotus has no interest in offering a car that'll coddle the driver with a thick layer of leather and compliant suspension. One of its first models to receive worldwide attention was the Elise. This mid-engine British exotic was powered only by a feeble 1.8-liter Rover engine. However, it wasn’t slow, as the Elise only weighed around 1,600 pounds. That said, acceleration wasn’t what Lotus was looking for, as the Elise was meant to be one of the best-handling cars in the world. Despite its handling-focused chassis, the Elise was only offered in a less rigid targa body style. Later models would feature smoother styling and looked less original as a result. The first Elise’s bubbly and round appearance was far more recognizable.
22 Honda Del Sol
The Honda Civic is a generally a bland car that's meant to be used as a fuel-efficient daily driver. However, the Civic’s design has proven to be surprisingly flexible, as it's seen multiple performance and luxury versions over the years. And those are only the more well-known variations. One of these lesser-known models was the Del Sol.
Instead of being a performance-oriented car, this two-seat model was more of a cruiser.
The lack of back seats and its flat rear deck were a result of the Del Sol’s targa roof. Instead of being a full convertible, the center part of the roof can simply be unlatched and removed. Some countries had an automatic retracting targa roof, known as the TransTop, but that option was never available in North America.
21 Acura NSX
There have been multiple attempts to create an affordable mid-engine performance car. While models like the MR2 and the MG F were still great cars, they had certain drawbacks due to their low price. As a result, these cars couldn’t ever be confused with a supercar, much less actually compete with the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini. The Acura NSX was a reasonably affordable mid-engine car, but it actually did compete with the Italians. Its styling was a great blend of originality and classic Italian supercar. While it didn’t have a V8, its high-strung V6 made the NSX surprisingly quick. Despite being a Honda, the NSX was an analog sports car at a time when technology was becoming highly popular in the performance market. It’s a shame that the new car can’t make the same claim.
20 Dodge Viper RT/10
While the Chrysler brand was doing quite well in the ‘90s, many of its normal cars weren’t anything special to drive. Even though Dodge had a history of producing incredible muscle cars in the past, such models weren’t as popular anymore, and the company was focusing on producing fuel efficient and cheap cars. However, after making so many of these cars throughout the ‘80s and getting a close relationship with Carroll Shelby, Dodge had the resources to build something unforgettable.
The Dodge Viper was one of the rawest sports cars on the planet.
It wasn’t so much a full car as it was just a shell with a gigantic V10 and some wheels. The original model didn’t even have a roof or external door handles. This aggressive machine was like nothing the world had ever seen before.
19 GMC Syclone
Until the Dodge Viper came out, the Corvette remained America’s only true competitor to European and Japanese performance cars. However, in 1991, there would be a new contender to rise out of the States that was able to out-accelerate almost any new car in the world. The twist was that this quick machine was a GMC pickup. On the surface, the Syclone is just an old, lowered S10 pickup coated in black paint. However, under the hood was a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6 that produced a claimed 280 horsepower, a figure that many consider to be underrated. In the quarter mile, Car and Driver found this simple pickup to be quicker than a Ferrari 348ts. This pitch-black truck is even striking to look at due to its squatting stance and curvy body panels.
18 Aston Martin Vantage
One of the few brands capable of building truly elegant sports car is Aston Martin. While there are some competitors, like Jaguar and Maserati, no other company has been able to make a car that matches the James Bond look like Aston Martin. However, the brand stopped producing its old-fashioned, sophisticated-looking cars in the ‘90s, replacing them with some space-age-looking models.
The 1993 Vantage had a rather strange-looking, curvy body.
This certainly wasn’t a Bond-ready car with its brash appearance. However, what really mattered was the motor. The Vantage had a 5.3-liter V8 that had two superchargers that could produce an incredible 600 horsepower in late-model applications. For a while, this Aston Martin was one of the most powerful cars on the planet and was claimed to accelerate to 60 in under four seconds, though this number has been disputed.
17 MG F
When it comes to small performance cars, it’s common for most automakers to build a somewhat sporty version of a small economy car by throwing on a turbo and buttoning down the suspension. However, Mazda created the Miata convertible, starting a new segment for budget sports cars. MG, having traditionally produced small British sports cars, decided to create its own competitor to the Miata, called the "MG F." Despite its rather plain styling for the segment, this car had a secret. Instead of going with the normal front-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform, MG decided to make a mid-engine car. To make the car simple, the company used a powertrain usually reserved for front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. And because of the MG F’s engine location, it was surprisingly practical, as it had two trunks.
16 Isuzu VehiCross
Mid-size and compact SUVs were a fairly new product for the ‘90s. Not too long before, all SUVs were either gigantic truck-based vehicles or Jeep-like off-road machines. However, these big vehicles were shrinking in size to make them more usable and fuel efficient for average consumers. Given how new this segment was, there were plenty of unique approaches to it.
Isuzu produced some fairly standard models in the American market with the Trooper and the Rodeo.
The VehiCross, however, was quite different, as it was a uniquely styled, two-door SUV. Its combination of extra body cladding and matte-black paint touches means that it still looks quite modern, despite how old it is. On top of the exterior styling, the VehiCross also had plenty of red leather touches to the interior, furthering its one-of-a-kind look.
15 Mazda RX-7
Cars rarely feature an unusual motor. Besides inline and V motors, there aren’t many variations on the internal combustion engine. However, Mazda was once working hard to make a motor without cylinders a viable option. Unfortunately, many of Mazda’s applications of this rotary engine had been discontinued by the ‘90s. While it wasn’t a practical choice for normal cars, the rotary-powered RX-7 sports car was surprisingly popular, as the high-revving motor worked well in this lightweight vehicle. Even though the RX-7 entered production before the ‘90s, its most powerful and best-looking generation, known as the "FD," started in 1992. This model had a twin-turbocharged engine that produced up to 276 horsepower; impressive for a 1.3-liter. Given its timeless styling and powerful motor, the RX-7 has become a modern classic.
14 Mini Cooper Sport
The ‘90s was the last decade of production for the original Mini Cooper. While the model initiated its production in 1959, it used the same body shell throughout its entire run. However, the final version had a few changes to the design.
In place of the car’s original, carbureted motor, the newer models were powered by a fuel-injected 1.3-liter engine that made a thunderous 63 horsepower.
Sure, that’s not a lot, but this tiny car only weighed around 1,500 pounds. For the end of the car’s production, there were multiple special editions, featuring special paint jobs and interiors. To modernize this ancient design, the Mini of the ‘90s featured a surprisingly upscale interior and the Sport model added wide fenders to accentuate the car’s planted handling. It must’ve been strange to see such an old design still on the road so many years later.
13 VW Eurovan
Vans are usually only designed for utilitarian purposes. Full-size vans are solely used for hauling huge loads or being converted into specialty vehicles, such as buses and ambulances. Minivans are similarly built to move as many people as possible in the most practical manner. With the exception of some modified vehicles, there aren’t many vans designed to have anything other than utilitarian styling. However, VW decided to make something that would stand out a little more than the Dodge Caravan and Ford E-Series. Volkswagen’s Eurovan was a practical vehicle that had styling that blended in quite well with the rest of the company’s lineup. This car was offered in camper models from the factory, making it an easy choice for those looking for an easy-to-drive RV-style vehicle.
12 TVR Griffith
Unlike other brands from the country, TVR isn’t particularly well known outside the UK. This British automaker is known for building sports cars that are just as bizarre as they are hardcore. These lightweight cars have extremely basic technology all around, but that’s not because TVR can’t use more advanced components. It’s because the company wants to build some of the most dedicated performance machines in the world. The Griffith was one of these uncompromising cars. Despite looking like a classic British roadster from the ‘60s, this model started production in the early ‘90s.
While this lightweight convertible may be expected to have the powertrain from a hatchback, it was only powered by a range of Rover V8s.
Given that this sports car weighed just over one ton, the Griffith was a little rocket ship.
11 Plymouth Prowler
The ‘90s wasn’t a particularly strong time for retro designs, as buyers generally preferred modern-looking vehicles that separated themselves as far as possible from the original model. After producing the world-shaking Viper, Chrysler decided to build one of the most retro-looking cars of all time. Designed to look like a classic 1930s hot rod, the Prowler had open front wheels and rear fenders that resembled a running board and a fender look. It even offered some old-school interior touches. Every part of the car was styled to look like a classic hot rod of the modern age. Unfortunately, the motor was an underwhelming 3.5-liter V6, which didn’t quite match the car’s aesthetic. It was also only offered with a four-speed automatic. Even if this powertrain was able to provide the car with decent acceleration, buyers wanted a V8.
10 Subaru SVX
It’s no surprise that Subaru made some weird cars in its past. While the brand currently offers some fairly standard cars, there are still some weird elements remaining in these otherwise normal vehicles. Components like the longitudinal flat-four and compulsory four-wheel-drive system are rather unusual. This weirdness is a result of cars like the SVX. At the time of its launch, most of the company’s lineup was made of simple four-wheel-drive cars that were considerably cheaper than other all-wheel-drive options. The SVX, on the other hand, was a two-door performance car powered by a flat-six motor, yet it still retained a four-wheel-drive system.
This coupe was a shocking addition to the lineup, as it had a wild exterior that featured a bubbly roofline and sectioned-off windows.
Unfortunately, the high price meant that the model didn’t sell well in the US, and Subaru left no successor.
9 Hummer H1
There are few designs that'll immediately and reliably attract customers. One generally safe choice, however, is to sell a civilianized version of a military vehicle to the American public. Jeep has been doing this successfully for decades, and Mercedes has earned a reliable consumer base with its G-Wagen. AM General decided to get into this market by selling the gigantic Humvee to US customers in 1992. This large SUV offered incredible off-road capabilities in an enormous brick-shaped body. With a noisy diesel motor, a cramped interior that only had four seats, and horrendous fuel economy, the H1 was hardly a practical vehicle. However, despite this and the fact that SUVs are incredibly common now, the original Hummer still stands out in a crowd of modern crossovers.
8 Chevy 454 SS
The Malaise era absolutely decimated performance, leaving most V8-powered American cars with rather embarrassing horsepower figures. As performance slowly returned throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s, GM was seemingly making the biggest effort to return muscle-car performance to the American people. There was the Buick Grand National, the Impala SS, and the Chevy 454 SS.
Much like those other cars, the 454 SS was originally a rather plain truck that was souped-up with a special motor and a liberal use of black paint.
The formula for this model was simple: take a single cab Silverado, black out all trim, and stuff a massive 7.4-liter V8 under the hood. While it’s not blisteringly quick today, with a zero-to-60 time of just under eight seconds, the 454 SS provided an old-school muscle car experience in the ‘90s.
7 Shelby Series 1
Carroll Shelby created some of the most well-known American performance cars of the ‘60s. His most well-known car was the Shelby Cobra, a small British roadster with an enormous Ford V8 crammed under the hood. After a while, the Shelby name was separated from Ford, and Carroll went on to make two Cobra follow-ups in the ‘90s. While he had a hand in the Dodge Viper’s development, he later went on to make his own modern take on the Cobra. The result was the Series 1, a car that featured a far more retro look than the Viper. Its 4.0-liter Oldsmobile V8 was claimed to produce more than 600 horsepower in its supercharged form, resulting in a staggering zero-to-60 time of 3.2 seconds, according to Road and Track. Both the Viper and the Series 1 proved to be as hardcore and as dangerous as the original Cobra.
6 McLaren F1
Supercars are often strange vehicles, at least in comparison to normal cars. These vehicles are so focused on performance, they sacrifice many practicalities and conveniences of normal cars. One of the strangest supercars also happens to be one of the fastest. The McLaren F1 is powered by a BMW V12 that's surrounded by gold foil, as gold reflects heat very well. Unlike many of its competitors, the F1 had not just two seats but three, all mounted next to each other, and the driver’s seat was placed in the center. If that wasn’t enough, the F1 doesn’t look like anything else. Its short front end and aggressive face flow seamlessly into a cab with butterfly doors and onto a long rear end with a split window view into the engine bay.
5 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR
It’s not often that race cars share components with their road-going counterparts. This is largely due to road cars requiring an extra level of refinement that's unnecessary on the track. However, there was a time when some race series required automakers to produce a certain number of road-legal production versions of the race car to compete, a process known as "homologation." As a result, this low-slung race car was sold to whoever could afford it.
The race-ready CLK GTR had almost nothing in common with the standard CLK, other than some minor details.
If this butterfly-doored supercar wasn’t bizarre enough, there was a number of roadster versions produced. They either involved converting original cars or building new ones from remaining components after the initial production run. Only 35 street-legal CLK GTRs were ever built.
4 Mazda Cosmo Eunos
When discussing rotary-powered Mazdas, the conversation will usually only surround the RX cars and maybe the rotary-powered pickup. One model that had this legendary motor was the Cosmo Eunos, which never saw a market outside of Japan when it was new. In the ‘90s, the Cosmo was a step above the renowned RX-7. Unlike that car, the Cosmo was a four-seater and was meant to be more of a comfortable and fast grand-touring model.
Besides the angular styling, the interior had several high-tech features, including an early attempt at an infotainment system in the form of a CRT touchscreen.
The optional 2.0-liter, 300-horsepower triple rotor motor was similar to the engine used in Mazda’s 767 race car and was unique to the Cosmo in street applications.
3 BMW M Coupe
One of BMWs early attempts at a modern sports convertible was the Z3. This model was incredibly varied when it comes to performance and powertrains. Its smaller four-cylinder models, especially when paired with the feeble four-speed automatic, didn’t provide much in the way of straight-line performance. However, the straight-six motors, especially when paired with a manual, granted the car some much-needed acceleration. While the standard Z3 wasn’t much of a unique or a different car, the Coupe version had a strange-enough appearance to earn it the nickname ‘clown shoe.’ Its long nose and stubby, two-door hatchback cabin give this automobile some unique proportions. Given this model’s impressive performance in the M Coupe trim and its bizarre looks, it should be no surprise that the car has a strong following and can command high prices on the used market.
2 Panoz Roadster
If there was anyone who was heartbroken over the fact that the Plymouth Prowler only had a V6 motor and four-speed automatic, there was another company making a vehicle that addressed those issues. In fact, the lesser-known Panoz sports car company had been producing their own take on the same idea five years prior to the Prowler’s release.
Rather than being powered by a Chrysler sedan’s powertrain, the Panoz Roadster acquired its engine and manual transmission from the Mustang GT.
However, unlike the Mustang, the Roadster weighed only 2,500 pounds, meaning that this car is considerably faster than the Plymouth. Another dissimilarity with the Prowler is its production cycle, as Panoz started building Roadsters again in 2015. Regardless of year, the Roadster will provide a considerably more exhilarating experience than the old Plymouth.
1 Nissan R390
It’s a shame that homologation models are becoming considerably less common, as race series generally don’t require them anymore. Modern race cars usually only need to share the same name as a production car to qualify for a race. As late as the ‘90s, there was a chance that some rich consumers would get the opportunity to buy a road-legal race car. Nissan’s R390 wasn’t based on any production car but a street-legal model was required to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ GT class. The mid-mounted 3.5-liter V8 produced over 350 horsepower and only weighs over 2,200 pounds, according to Nissan. Unfortunately, the company only built one street-legal example to comply with Le Mans rules, and Nissan never intended to sell it to the public. However, the company claims the R390 may have had an MSRP of around $1 million if it had been sold.