The 1970s had hippies, punks and the Pontiac Firebird, while the 1980s had disco, New Romantics and the Audi Quattro. The 1990s, on the other hand, had the Spice Girls, N*SYNC and some of the worst cars that motorists had ever had the misfortune to drive. For the vast majority of drivers, the 90s really was the decade that fashion forgot!
However, amongst all the duds, there were still some great cars produced in the 1990s. They may have been few and far between, but these stylish vehicles really stood out of the crowd among their ugly and boxy competitors. And if you wanted to get your hands on one of the more attractive 1990s cars, you usually had to be prepared to shell out a lot more cash than those drivers who were willing to settle for one of the more modest motors.
Those motorists who lived through the 90s will know that those classy cars tended to be driven by fashionable and sophisticated people. And those uninspiring vehicles were usually owned by motorists who didn’t have the money or the sense of style to aim for anything higher.
Whether you were a stud who drove one of the rare gems of 1990s motoring or a dud who joined everyone else in driving something functional but unattractive, the cars on this list will be a welcome (or perhaps an unwelcome) blast from the past.
One of the success stories of the 1990s was the Mazda RX-7, a front-engine, rear-drive sports car that was made by the Japan automotive giant between 1978 and 2002. The RX-7 was definitely at its peak in the 1990s when improvements to both the design and the engine meant that it seemed to be years ahead of its time.
Over 800,000 models rolled off the production line over the 24 years that Mazda was making the RX-7, a testament to its popularity around the globe. A racing version of the Mazda RX-7 even enjoyed a relatively successful motorsports career, becoming the first Japan-made car to win the prestigious Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1991.
The Integra model was sold under different brands around the world, as the Honda Integra in Japan and Europe, and as the Acura Integra in the US. The Acura Integra Type R was first sold in the States in 1997, and at the time it set the record for the most power per liter from a naturally aspirated piston engine – a record which was later broken Honda’s own S2000 sports car.
There were only a very limited number of Acura Integra Type R models manufactured for the US market, which increased their desirability and has led to them becoming real collectors’ items twenty years later.
The award-winning Nissan 300ZX was one of the most successful sports cars of the 1990s, although it had its roots back in the 1980s. The first generation of the 300ZX was first in production between 1983 and 1989 and was much slower than the second generation, as well as looking quite different. When Nissan relaunched its 300ZX in 1989, it was a more stylish and more expensive version of its predecessor.
The upmarket Nissan 300ZX was on the Ten Best List produced by Car and Driver magazine for seven consecutive years and was also named Import Car of the Year in 1991 by Motor Trend magazine.
You could be forgiven for thinking that all the best cars from the 1990s came from Japan – and this next entry will do nothing to dissuade fans of Japan-made automobiles that this is the case!
The Subaru Impreza was a moderately impressive compact car, but the Subaru Impreza 22B was a step-up from the original model in every way and was one of the most powerful street-legal cars on sale in the US throughout the 1990s. Like the Acura Integra Type R, very few Subaru Impreza 22B models were ever made, and they very rarely come up for sale these days – though when they do, they can cost as much as $100,000.
Finally, the US automotive industry gets a look-in when it comes to the best cars of the 1990s, and it is a vehicle that at first glance doesn’t look like the kind of car that studs would be seen driving! The GMC Syclone looks like a miniature pickup truck, and in many ways what you see is what you get.
However, while the GMC Syclone may not have been the most practical pickup truck in the world, what it lacked in storage space, it more than made up for in speed. In fact, the 1991 GMC Syclone was so powerful and so fast that it once beat a Ferrari 348ts in a drag race over a distance of a quarter of a mile.
The Chevy Corvette is one of the most iconic vehicles in US automotive history, so it is hardly surprising that even during the desperately dull 1990s, there was a version of the Corvette that was still desirable to motorists. The version which was available in the 1990s was the second generation of the Chevy Corvette ZR-1, and as well as looking the part, it also had plenty of impressive features under the hood too, not least the V8 engine which was actually designed by British motoring company and Formula One team, Lotus.
This kind of engineering didn’t come cheap, however, and even back in the 1990s, it would set you back nearly $60,000.
Honda’s luxury division, Acura, was only launched in 1986, which makes it all the more impressive that it has not just one but two cars on this list of some of the best vehicles available in the 1990s. The NSX has become a well-established brand for Acura over the intervening years, but this is one sports car that actually seemed to get pretty much everything right from day one – when the very first Acura NSX drive off the production line in 1990.
Acura was determined to keep their cars exclusive, and only a few thousand were ever sold in the States, but those lucky few who got their hands on an early Acura NSX would have enjoyed their 90s driving experience.
Motoring giant Toyota is not going to be left out of the parade of 1990s motoring success stories from the Far East either. Their compact but stylish sports cars, the Toyota MR2, has enjoyed a long and successful lifespan, being in constant production between 1984 and 2007, but it was the second generation model that really took the 90s by storm.
Toyota took advice from racing drivers in developing this Toyota MR2 mark two, and even borrowed heavily from the Italian stallions themselves, Ferrari, leading to the MR2 frequently earning the nickname “Baby Ferrari” or if you wanted to be unkind, “the poor man’s Ferrari”.
The iconic Ford Mustang has been around since the mid-1960s, but it was in the 1970s that the car really came into its own, with several designs and engineering modifications that changed the Mustang from a fastback to one of the best-selling muscle cars in the States.
The 1990s Ford Mustang Foxbody still kept many of the traits which had made the original models so successful, but it also gave the exterior design a modern twist, as well as making it more accessible to motorists who not normally even consider driving a muscle car. It may have looked more respectable, but there was still a lot of power under that hood!
The Dodge Viper is another US classic that made it through the 90s unscathed. In fact, the Viper was born at the start of the 1990s, with the first production model sold in 1991, after a concept version of the car appeared at the Motor Show in 1989.
The Dodge Viper’s V10 engine always packed a punch, and the designers went for an almost retro feel when it came to the car’s exterior, creating a vehicle that looks timeless, whether it was made in 1991 or in 2017. The very earliest Dodge Vipers had their issues for regular motorists, as it was originally designed to be a track car, but Dodge soon began to realize that there was great consumer demand for their Viper.
The Mazda MX-5, better known as the Mazda Miata in the US, was one of the big motoring success stories of the 1990s. This stylish and well-engineered two-seater sports car looked like it could have been made by Ferrari, and yet it was an affordable option for many motorists who fancied a little bit of glamour in their lives.
Mazda engineers took a lot of their inspiration from the Lotus sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s, and there is a retro feel to the exterior that is somewhat reminiscent of the Dodge Viper; which probably goes a long way towards explaining why these two cars stood out from the crowd in the 1990s.
Finally, we come to another Japan-made creation and one which is still an object of desire among motoring aficionados even today. The Nissan Skyline GT-R was essentially a race car which had been engineered so that it could be driven on the road – but only in certain countries!
Mainly sold and driven in Japan, Australia, and in 1997 the UK, there were nevertheless a few models which made their way to the US, despite the fact that it was illegal to drive them on US roads. The Skyline was simply too powerful for the States and contravened the Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act which was passed in 1988.
From the very best cars of the 1990s to some of the very worst. These cars are the ones that drivers would be embarrassed to drive, and which would definitely be tucked away in the garage, rather than being proudly displayed on the driveway. And yet many were perfectly capable of getting you from A to B, despite their unimpressive looks.
Production of the Ford Taurus started in 1985, but it was the third generation launched in 1996 which utterly failed to excite 1990s motorists – and it is easy to see why. That classic 90s boxy shape may have been everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we have to like it!
The 1980s and the 1990s were the eras of the minivans, a type of vehicle which has – thankfully – all but died out in the face of stiff competition from luxury SUVs in the 21st century. Too many 1990s teenagers lost a lot of cool points by having to drive their parents’ minivans when they first got their license, and they don’t come much worse than the Plymouth Voyager.
The Voyager wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but its interior also suffered from cost-cutting, with cheap plastic parts that regularly snapped off in your hand, and which looked anything but stylish.
For all the great cars made in Japan that were sold in the 1990s, there always has to be a few exceptions that prove the rule – and one of those exceptions was definitely the underwhelming Honda CRX.
Nominally sold as a sports car, the Honda CRX neither looked like a sports car nor performed like one. Originally launched in 1984, it only made it one year into the 1990s before Honda finally called it a day and halted production on the CRX in 1991. In fact, the Honda CRX is so unfashionable that it almost has some kind of kitsch value among modern motorists!
How can the same car maker get things so right – the Dodge Viper – and yet at the same time get things so wrong with the Dodge Shadow? Granted, the Shadow was only a fraction of the price of the Dodge Viper and aimed at a very different market, but that’s not an excuse to put zero thought into how their hatchback was going to look.
The Shadow was only in production for eight years, between 1986 and 1994, and was cheaply made to keep prices low for consumers. A false economy when drivers started to report long lists of faults.
The name Mercury has somewhat disappeared from the annals of automotive history – and cars like the Mercury Topaz make it easy to see why! It was actually a smaller division of the larger Ford company, but Ford no longer uses the brand – and the damage done to the Mercury name’s reputation during the 1990s must have gone a long way to supporting that decision.
It was intended to be a slightly upmarket version of the Ford Tempo, but why would anyone pay more for a car that was virtually indistinguishable from the cheaper original model, which was something of a disappointment itself anyway.
The very name Mercedes-Benz conjures up images of well-engineered luxury cars, and this was the case for most of the cars that the German company produced during the 1990s. Perhaps, though, they should have stuck to what they do best, rather than trying to muscle their way into the growing market for compact cars, as the end result was this rather ugly Mercedes-Benz A-Class, which was nicknamed “Baby Benz” but was anything but cute.
Sold exclusively in Europe, the A-Class never made it to the US, much to the relief of US motorists, who hadn’t yet embraced the idea of compact cars by the mid-1990s.
Leaving Europe’s failures behind, we come to another US motoring mishap; the Chevrolet Lumina. Looking at the Lumina’s exterior design, you could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. After all, this car looks remarkably similar to the Ford Taurus, the five-door version of the Mercury Topaz and Ford Tempo, and a dozen other cars made during the 1990s which looked like they could have all been made from the same kit.
Originality was not a strong point when to car manufacturers in the 1990s! In fact, the only original feature of the Chevy Lumina was a bench-style front seat; something which had gone out of fashion back in the 80s…
The Ford Aspire was the name given to the second generation Ford Festiva when it was launched on the US market in 1993. A subcompact car at a time when small was big in Europe, it nevertheless struggled in the States, where size still very much mattered to motorists.
It would be a few years before US drivers started to see the benefits of driving smaller vehicles. The unusual design, which could have been a stand-out feature, just ended up looking odd, and sales numbers were very low across the US, even if the vehicle did enjoy moderate success in Europe.
The four-door sedan model of the Oldsmobile Achieva – somewhat optimistically named by General Motors, to be honest – was another of those typically 1990s cars which most drivers would probably struggle to pick out of a line-up. It was a quintessentially 90s car, made from 1991 to 1997, and with very few redeemable features to set it apart from the crowd.
It wasn’t a bad car; it just was a very unimpressive car, with few of those little design touches which end up making a car memorable. Motorists want to be inspired by the cars they drive and there was very little inspiration from a car which probably should have been called the "Underachieva."
At least the Suzuki X-90 looks different from the identikit 90s cars which have made up most of this list. The problem is that’s it’s probably too different for most drivers to even consider getting behind the wheel! Perhaps the Suzuki X-90 was just ahead of its time, or perhaps it was trying to be too many things – it was, after all, marketed as a two-seater, convertible SUV, but didn’t really manage to do any of those things particularly well.
In fact, it looks more like a toy car than a real full-size car, which probably explains why it only lasted two years before production ended in 1997.
The iconic Pontiac name may be no more, having been ended by General Motors in 2010, but the writing was on the wall for the brand as long ago as the 1980s and 1990s, when the company produced the ugly and boxy Pontiac Grand Am. Amazingly, this unimpressive mid-size car turned compact actually made it all the way to 2010, despite the fact that it was pretty much universally hated by gearheads.
The truth is that the Grand Am should never even have made it to the 1990s; the 1985 model is considered to be one of the worst US-made cars of all time, so why the company continued to make it throughout the 90s is a mystery.
This unusual piece of automotive design is the Fiat Multipla, a minivan that was first produced in 1998, and which was only put out of its misery in 2010. It sold well in China, however, which goes some way to explaining its perplexing longevity, but was less of a hit in Europe thanks to its unusual appearance.
The exterior design may have been tough to ignore, which is a shame as the actual car was well designed inside, and well-engineered under the hood. UK motoring show Top Gear even named the Fiat Multiple its Car of the Year in 2000, although it also picked up the award for the worst looking car in the same show.
Geo Metro was a joint enterprise between General Motors and Suzuki, a company better known for its motorbikes than its cars. Given that they were trying to create a US competitor to cars like the Mazda Miata, the Geo Metro Convertible was a failure in every way possible.
It looked bad, performed worse, and failed to sell in the US. Everything on the Geo Metro Convertible was done on the cheap. One owner even reported that when you turned on the air conditioning, the car would struggle to go faster than 65mph! The interior was made with cheap plastic fittings, and the narrow tires made handling problematic.
Sources - Top Gear, The Drive, Car, and Driver & Road and Track