Ten Cars from the 1990s That Every Enthusiast Should Drive
By Ronan Glon
November 24, 2014
The 1990s signaled the arrival of fluid-looking cars that represented a drastic departure from the boxy designs often seen in the 1980s. The car landscape in the United States changed considerably, too. Peugeot and Alfa Romeo packed up and returned to Europe, Ford purchased Volvo and booming SUV sales convinced companies like BMW and Cadillac to enter the off-roader market.
We’re taking a look at ten cars built in the 1990s that every enthusiast should drive at least once in his or her life. Let us know in the comments section below what car(s) you think we left out.
In the early 1990s, Audi started toying around with the idea of building a halo model capable of keeping up with some of the best Autobahn cruisers built by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Engineers decided coupes and sports sedans were too common so they built a hot-rodded version of the 80 Avant station wagon.
Although the 80 Avant was arguably one of the more mediocre wagons on the market, the RS 2 was a serious sports car capable of reaching 62 mph from a stop in just 5.4 seconds. A well-trained eye noticed the wagon was fitted with Porsche 911-sourced alloy wheels and door mirrors, revealing that the folks in Stuttgart had a hand in developing the car that convinced Audi to take on AMG and M head-to-head.
The RS 2 was never officially imported to the United States but a handful of examples have trickled into Canada. We expect many RS 2s will arrive in the United States once the super wagon turns 25-years old.
As its name implies, the Z3 M Roadster was designed as a track-ready variant of the standard Z3 convertible. It was introduced to partially fill the void that was left in the BMW lineup when the E30 M3 convertible was given the axe in the early 1990s.
The M Roadster was powered by the same 3.2-liter straight-six engine that was found under the hood of the E36 M3. Early European-spec cars got a 321-horsepower version of the six but North American-spec models had to get by with a market-specific mill that only produced 240 ponies. Later models built in 2001 and 2002 were upgraded with a 315-horsepower 3.2-liter borrowed from the E46 M3.
In the early 1990s, Chevrolet asked GM-owned Lotus Engineering to make a number of performance-focused modifications to the fourth-generation Corvette, one of America’s greatest sports cars at the time. Lotus started by designing an all-aluminum 5.7-liter V8 engine that featured four overhead cams and 32 valves. A stiffer suspension setup and beefier brakes on all four corners were added to keep the 375 ponies in check, making the ZR-1 one of the best-handling Corvettes built in the 1990s.
An article published by Popular Mechanics indicates the ZR1 stood out from a stock ‘Vette thanks to 11-inch wide rear wheels, a wider rear end, rectangular exhaust pipes and model-specific tail lamps. Another key difference was revealed when buyers signed the dotted line: The ZR1 carried a hefty price premium - $31,000 in 1991 - over a stock C4 ‘Vette.
When launched, the Chevrolet Impala SS was one of the last specimens of a dying breed: a full-size, body-on-frame, rear-wheel drive sports sedan. Starting with a stock Impala, Chevrolet installed a 260-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 engine that was derived from the LT1 mill found in the fourth-generation Corvette. The Impala SS gained numerous performance-focused enhancements such as a quick ratio steering setup, a heavy-duty suspension and bigger brakes all around.
The Impala SS was instantly popular among muscle car enthusiasts. However, Chevrolet pulled the plug on the sedan when it announced plans to stop building large body-on-frame cars in late 1996.
The idea of stuffing a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6 under the hood of a Sonoma pickup must have raised eyebrows at General Motors’ headquarters yet, against all odds, the truck was given the green light for production.
With 280 horsepower under the hood, the Syclone famously beat a Ferrari 348ts in a drag race organized by Car & Driver in September of 1991. It was quick off the line thanks in part to a permanent all-wheel drive system that sent 65 percent of the power to the front wheels and the rest to the rear axle. The suspension modifications lowered its payload to just 500 pounds, meaning it was designed to spend more time at the race track than at Home Depot.
Production ended relatively quickly, but GMC followed up with a similarly-tuned variant of the two-door Jimmy called Typhoon.
Honda previewed the S2000 with a concept that was presented at the 1995 edition of the Tokyo Motor Show. The production version of the show car didn’t arrive until 1999, a launch date that coincided with the company’s 50th anniversary.
The 2,756-pound S2000 was powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that made 240 horsepower and 153 lb-ft. of torque in U.S. trim. The mill was mounted between the front axle and the firewall, a setup that considerably improved weight distribution and made the S2000 as pleasant to drive as it was to look at.
Introduced in 1991, the third-gen RX-7 immediately stood out thanks to an aerodynamic design that made it look considerably more modern than most of its rivals. On paper, it initially impressed with its rotary engine and it later made headlines by boasting the first full-production sequential twin-turbocharged setup to come out of Japan.
Power peaked at 255 horsepower in the United States, though the RX-7 was given as much as 276 ponies in its home country. The third-generation RX-7 was also the last, but Mazda quickly replaced it with the RX-8.
The 500E (w124) hails from a time when Mercedes’ nomenclature system was almost a science. 500 stood for a 326-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, and E stood for einspritz, “injection” in German. The engine was closely related to the V8 found under the hood of the 500SL (r129) roadster.
The 500E was designed jointly by Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, and early examples were partially assembled by Porsche in the Zuffenhausen factory. A deep front bumper and prominent fender flares all around made it impossible to confuse the 500E with a run-of-the-mill w124 sedan.
Later in the production run, the 500E was re-christened E 500 and given a minor facelift that fell in line with the rest of the w124 lineup. Production ended in late 1994 after a little over 1,500 examples were imported to the United States.
Introduced in 1996, the Porsche Boxster was essentially a toned-down version of the Boxster Concept that debuted three years earlier at the Detroit Motor Show. The Boxster came at a crucial time for Porsche because the company gradually axed all of its front-engined models and, by early 1996, its lineup was reduced to just the 911.
Visually, the Boxster accurately previewed the 996-series 911 that debuted a year later. While Porsche was heavily criticized for the similarities, no one could argue that the company’s first mid-engined model since the 914 lived up to its promise of providing formidable handling at a fraction of the price of a 911.
Widely considered one of the best Japanese sports cars ever, the Supra became a cult classic partially because it was relatively easy to squeeze a huge amount of power from its 3.0-liter straight-six engine. However, even a bone stock example was a force to be reckoned with on the race track.
Toyota offered both turbocharged and naturally-aspirated variants of the Supra. The twin-turbocharged Supra packed 320 horsepower in U.S. trim thanks to sequential turbochargers and market-specific fuel-injectors. Toyota also kept the weight in check by fitting the coupe with numerous aluminum components, and cars equipped with the turbo six came with a six-speed manual transmission – a novelty at the time. All of these features came at a price: the Supra retailed for $48,700 in 1996, roughly the same price as a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz E420 (w210).