The 1990s offered a lot of high tech gadgets, from the first Playstations, to those new and useful Palm Pilots. Cars were a similar story, and as the hangover from the ‘80s wore off, manufacturers jumped on new and daring designs. Dust off your copy of PaRappa The Rapper and put on your JNCOs, ‘cause it’s time to look at the most iconic cars of the 1990s.
While the Corvette was considered powerful with 250 hp, and the ZR-1 was incredible with 400 hp, the Viper was outright insane compared to everything else on the road. Back in the day, the car world was weird, as Bob Lutz was president of Chrysler, which owned a little company called Lamborghini. The Italians helped design the aluminum V10 that sat under the Viper’s long hood, where it made 400 hp. The Viper wasn’t just a Corvette competitor, it was a big step up in performance, and a true resurrection of the legendary Shelby Cobra. If you were at all interested in cars in the ‘90s, Viper was one of your favorites as it was absolutely insane, but realistically affordable.
Although decently equipped for off-roading, the Explorer became the minivan of the ‘90s, despite all its on-road limitations. The Ranger-based platform offered torque down low with a 4.0 liter V6 and four-wheel drive. The interior was no nonsense, and no luxury, and the Explorer should have gone to outdoors types and fleet sales. Instead, the body on frame SUV created a segment of vehicles that were over capable for their typical real world use. The first and second generation Explorers led the class in sales and recalls, as the Firestone tire recalls infamously demonstrated.
After the first Gulf War, Americans were enamored with the strange looking trucks that had helped defeat Saddam Hussein’s army. The civilian model was introduced in part because of the persistence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. With gas hovering around a dollar, and diesel even cheaper, it made sense to drive the civilian variant of the HMMWV military light duty truck as a daily driver. Granted, a 6.5 liter diesel V8, Torsen differentials, and short overhangs and massive ground clearance made the civilian Hummer (later, H1) the ultimate off-roader. It was fun while it lasted, but even Arnie sold his by the end of the ‘90s.
From 1992 to 1996, just 106 McLaren F1 supercars hit the road. That is a disproportionately low number compared to the car’s historical and technological significance. Supercars like the F40 and XJ220 were impressive monsters, but tended to rely on brute power, light weight and extreme aerodynamics. That’s fine, but the F1 proved the way for the hypercar, by bringing real F1 racing technology to the street, and making it livable and reliable. 627 hp was unreal in the early ‘90s, and the rest of the car was equally nuts, including the 24 karat gold engine heat shielding. While it was a low seller, the F1 was the F40 for the ‘90s, and adorned millions of kid’s bedroom walls.
The NSX is relatively unknown outside car enthusiast circles. Most people that don’t have an interest in cars see one of these and think it’s a Ferrari, which isn’t an insult. The ‘90s were a time when Honda was still fun, and making solid, economical, and relatively exciting cars. The NSX was their take on a supercar, made in peculiar Honda fashion, and it forever changed the game. A mid-mounted naturally aspirated 3.0 liter V6 drove the rear wheels, with choice of auto or manual transmissions. While that doesn’t seem all that impressive, Honda managed to wring 275 hp out of it, and with just 3,000 to push, the NSX was quick, handled amazingly well, and proved that supercars could be reliable as everyday cars. Ferrari took notes, which is the true compliment.
The Mustang was all-new for 1994, and it was a looker. While it was still essentially a Fox chassis underneath, all the sheet metal and interior components were replaced with proper ‘90s rounded pieces. The same adequate 215 hp 5.0 V8 remained in service for a few years, before being replaced with the future, the 4.6 liter “modular” V8 at the same power level. While it was slower than its Chevy rival, the breathtakingly attractive looks for a good price meant that it outsold the wedgy Camaro 2 to 1. While it looks dated today, a mid ‘90s Cobra still has a decent design, performs well enough, and looks like there is certainly Nirvana in the tape deck.
While the tenth generation F-150 was produced between 1997 and 2004, this is THE ‘90s truck. The rounded design was finalized back when the Taurus was the hot seller, and its aero influence is easily seen on this generation’s truck. Since we hadn’t hit the power and torque wars of the new millennium, output from the 5.4 liter V8 was a pathetic 220 hp. The interior was coated in plastic (also rounded), but no one cared, as Ford would set sales records before the end of the generation.
Sadly, most people remember ‘90s cars for their “jelly bean” design. Aerodynamic design, kicked off by the Ford Taurus a few years prior, was in full effect by 1990. Unfortunately, for a lot of designs this meant excessive curves. Look no farther than the first and second gen Chevy Lumina. This front wheel drive snooze-fest offered unexciting engine and transmission choices in a flexible and rattling W-chassis. Early ‘90s offered a Lumina that looked like something Robocop would drive, while the late ‘90s delivered jelly bean obscurity. Oddly enough, over 2 million Luminas littered car lots until 2001.
This little 4×4 was a hit early on in the mid-‘80s. An upgrade in ’91 gave it better looks and a fuel injected four cylinder belting out 63 horsepower. That may not sound like much, but the Samurai was rated as a lightweight subcompact, and it actually kept up with traffic. It was brilliant off-road, as the slight weigh, and simple but tough suspension made it easy for n00bz. The Samurai was replaced in 1995 with the X-90, featuring 95 hp and a CD player. Definitely a product of the 1990s, with lots of curves the X-90 looks like a Geo Metro that’s trying hard to grow up and be a Wrangler. For cheap, fun, high school cars, this is where it was at.
Lexus debuted in the States for the 1990 model year with a car that would become synonymous with the brand. While the LS was nicely appointed, had a solid interior, a 250 hp V8, and offered a fair price, it was a rather bland looking vehicle. It sold well, by the similar appearing second generation in 1995, these guys were everywhere and Toyota was on their way to being unstoppable. While depreciation finally took its toll and sent these luxury cars to poor neighborhoods, most of them are still running today. The two-tone paint, usually white over silver, will cause flashbacks to the Clinton administration.
Those are the top 10, but here’s a brief list of several others that were ‘90s icons or just huge sellers back then.
This subcompact crap-wagon is well known for its tiny size, cheap price, and superb gas mileage. It’s actually a Suzuki Cultus, which is kind of a creepy name. Choice of engines was limited to a 53 hp 3-cylinder, or the “big” 1.3 liter four banger with 70 hp. It was not fast.
The final version of the Supra had a point to prove. Born out of the derivative Celica, the 1993 was all rounded corners and turbo boost. The unbelievably strong inline six engine block became a legend, and the car ended up in everything from Need For Speed to The Fast and the Furious.
The entire Saturn lineup was an interesting experiment, but the S-Series is what people remember from the ‘90s. Spanning three generations from 1991 to 2002, the S-Series was nerdy cool, and an attempt by GM to make products that were less like GM. It worked, and they sold well over 2 million of em’.
The right car, at the wrong time. The last generation RX-7 sported 276 horsepower from a smooth 1.3 liter rotary engine. Sequential twin turbos made predictable power and impressive torque, while the light weight and perfect 50:50 weight distribution made one of the best handling cars of the time, at any price. Unfortunately, sales of all sports cars were down, and the rotary had a hard time meeting emissions and mileage figures, so Mazda canned the entire program.
The first generation Dodge Neon introduced itself to America in 1994 with an asinine commercial where the car drove up to the viewer and said “Hi.” Despite the advertising stupidity, the compact was well reviewed and sold in large numbers. Interestingly, it handled well, and the ACR version flat out destroyed the competition in SCCA Autocross.
Aston Martin DB7
This was the entry level Aston in the ‘90s, and it certainly worked, becoming the highest selling model in the brand’s history. Oddly, the car was designed to be a Jag (Ford owned both companies back then), but instead was styled into the familiar DB7 lines. Jag sold over 7,000 of the big grand tourers, and was able to return to profitability.
It’s tough to remember just how groundbreaking the “semi-truck” 1993 Ram was when it hit the streets. It looked unlike anything else on the road, and buyers picked up a stunning 480,000 in just 1996 alone. This model is also an amazing look back, as the new Pentastar V6 Ram makes more hp than the old 8.0 liter V10 Ram 2500.
Pontiac Grand Prix
This car defined Pontiac in the 1990s. A fat front-wheel drive sedan or coupe on a dated chassis. A choice of large V6s with four cylinder power output, connected to a 4-speed slushbox. The roundy-round looks didn’t help either. “We Build Excitement.” Uhh no, you don’t.
What? Isuzu, of all brands, built one of the very first crossovers back in 1997. Built on the Trooper platform with a stout V6 and 4-wheel drive, the Vehicross had decent capability, but looked absolutely insane. It’s a two-door compact SUV with teeth. Literally, there’s fangs in the grille. I miss the ‘90s.
Back when manufacturers took risks, Subaru released a competitor to the Dodge Stealth/Mitsubishi 3000GT. The all-wheel drive V6 coupe had 230 horsepower and sporty looks, but the $25,000 price tag kept sales low. The odd “Scooby” looked like a Saturn Sport Coupe mixed with an early Lexus SC. Surprisingly, not a bad look.
VW New Beetle
Volkswagen dropped the New Beetle on the US in 1997, and the country was never quite the same. Radically different from the legendary classic Beetle, the all arches design hid the front-wheel drive and water cooled front engine layout. Despite not being true to the original, buyers snapped up everyone they could get and marketers bombarded us with clever commercials. Everyone, even non car people, knew about the New Beetle.
Honda Civic Si
Arguably the face of the tuner crowd in the ‘90s, the Civic Si became a legend among fanboys in 1998. While there were earlier Si models, the sixth-gen featured a 1.6 liter four with 160 horsepower, and impressive output for the size. While it wasn’t blisteringly fast, it only weighed 2,500 lbs, had double independent wishbones up front, was rather affordable and was easily customized and tuned.
Ford Crown Victoria
Replacing the ancient LTD, the Crown Vic took over the job of Ford’s police car, fleet sales and rental car special, and old fart car. It was one of the few remaining V8/RWD American sedans in ‘90s, although that V8 was a 4.6L making only 210 hp. While it was nothing special in its time, the CV has a following among enthusiasts looking for a tough and durable race car or beater.
Cadillac started the ‘90s as the top manufacturer of luxury cars in the world. They ended the ‘90s in sixth place. The Eldorado exemplified everything that was wrong with Cady at that time. Overweight, and with zero sporting pretensions, the front wheel drive coupe was designed for the Greatest Generation that was rapidly hanging up their keys.
Looking back, it’s strange how some of the iconic cars from the 1990s are already legends and still hold up well to scrutiny, while others are rather disappointing and deserve to be forgotten. Interesting decade. Have a favorite ‘90s car not on this list? Let us know and upload a pic, but skip the pic if you’re using a ‘90s modem.
By: Andy Jensen