The 10 Best Cars from the 90s—Ranked
The decade that gave us grunge also gave us some true automotive classics.
It’s a fitting time to look back on a certain golden age of the automotive arts. No, I’m not talking about the 60s. I’m talking about the 90s. Yes, the era that gave us boy bands, “Beverly Hills 90210,” and the Geo Metro.
Believe it or not, that decade gave us some truly memorable rides that are too often overlooked. And, like now, things like design, power, and the thrill of driving were on the rise, the economy was kickin’ butt, and Nirvana ruled the airwaves. (OK, Nirvana may not be around anymore, but we do have the Foo Fighters.)
While it’s tough to say that all of these cars would make solid investments, each offers a unique experience and the certainty that you won’t blend in with traffic. (Just be prepared with a good story each time you stop to fill up.) And if you’re in the market for a new set of wheels, don’t miss our collection of the best new cars that are anything but subtle.
Volkswagen Corrado VR6 (1988-1995)
None other than Richard Hammond, the former host of “Top Gear,” once mused that the Corrado was “a kind of classic waiting in the wings . . . I think it’s really rather special . . . the result is fantastic.”
Indeed, accolades abound for the sexy three-door 2+2 hatchback. Considered one the best-handling, fastest cars of its time, the VR6 is the one to get with its sonic, 179 horsepower high-revving and class-leading V6. A true driver’s car, its balanced chassis and impeccable steering response is even more impressive coming from a front-wheel drive platform, unmatched ten years on. It had a nifty electronic spoiler that raised and lowered automatically at speed. And then there’s the styling: crisp, purposeful, elegant. Aging splendidly, it gets respect with the Southern Cal crowd. ‘Nuff said. Considered expensive in its day, you can get yours for as little as $2900.
Nissan 300ZX Turbo Z32 (1989-2000)
Spiritual ancestor to the legendary Datsun 240Z of the 1970s, the 300ZX was Nissan’s second-most successful design. Unfussy and nicely proportioned, the project was the Japanese carmaker’s moonshot, aimed at besting performance benchmarks Porsche 944 and Corvette C4. By most meaures, they succeeded. Twin-turbos delivered 300 horses (comparable to a Ferrari 348), which was newsworthy when the car launched in 1989. It featured advanced tech like four-wheel steering, all for around $30-large, a terrific bargain. Autoweek called it “the world’s most thoroughly modern sports car,” when it launched in 1989. By the mid-nineties it was that much better, though it started losing ground to newer competitors. Very much a period piece in terms of design, it has aged well, a strong counterpoint to Nissan’s currently overwrought lineup. Values are climbing, slowly but steadily. Maintenance for turbos of the era are migraines-inducing. If you can brave that, expect to pay only between $4,800 to $17,000 for a sleek, sensuous dream car.
Dodge Viper (1992-2010)
Unapologetically bombastic, the Dodge Viper gives the middle finger to moderation. Crude and rude, it was born out of defiance by true believers at Chrysler during the company’s darkest days when it was known mainly for K-cars, minivans, and Neons. One could argue that, perhaps, they overcompensated. Which was entirely the point. Developed with the help of Lamborghini, the beating heart of the original 8-liter V10 was based on a massive truck engine, modified to 400 horsepower and a brutish 465 lb.-ft of torque—truly impressive numbers in 1991. Late nineties models have more refinements in styling, engineering, and driveability. Hand-built in the City of Detroit, Vipers in good condition have held their value well but prices run the gamut depending on condition and mileage. A well-maintained first gen car can still fetch north of $49k. Not bad for an umcompromising, all-American classic.
BMW 850i (1989-1999)
With slightly more than 7,000 sold in North America over seven years, sightings of 8-Series Bimmers are rare. Despite being a technological tour-de-force boasting many industry firsts, it was not a huge hit for BMW. It was imbued with impeccable workmanship, and owning one today is for the fiscally stout, as maintenance and repair costs can be staggering. If that’s not enough to disuade you, the rewards include strutting around in one of the most drop-dead gorgeous cars of the past 25 years. Sexy, lithe, and mildly aggressive by today’s standards. A grand tourer meant to sprint the Autobahn at high speed for hours on end, that regal 5-liter V-12 powerplant pulling seamlessly. (A 4-liter V-8 was available too, but why bother?) Though you may be forgiven for expecting more for an eye-watering $130,000 in 2017 dollars. In truth, the 850, with only 300 horsepower was heavy, and lacked that certain road-feel drivers had come to expect from propeller-badged cars. Still, its desirability factor is off the charts, but be prepared to part with a stack of benjamins as these are not only holding their value but climbing. Go for later year models and expect to pay upward of $85k for a 1994 or newer.
Mazda RX-7 FD (1992-2002)
Mazda RX series enjoys cult-status, which that as an owner, you’ll never be wanting for input on how to add even more zoom to your zoom-zoom. The third gen FD with forced injection is a symbol of devotion, since nothing about owning one will be simple or rationale; you own it because it’s a challenge and when the stars align, winding out that wonderful—and fickle—rotary engine at 7000 rpm as you carve out canyon ribbons, you and your car are one. A thoroughly proper sports car, it’s light, nimble, responsive, elemental, the way God intended. Beautifully engineered, its front/mid-engine, rear-drive layout provides 50/50 weight distribution, critical to its balanced, refined handling. Twin turbos motivate its 276 galloping horses, though RX-7s are easily upgraded to more than 500 hp. At under 3,000 pounds that certifiable giant-killer. Refreshingly easy on the eyes, it’s a tabula rasa for personalization. Because you wouldn’t consider owning an RX-7 if you weren’t a hopeless tinkerer. Stock up on quality oil. If you find one not too badly abused for under 20 grand, take it.
Corvette ZR1 C4 (1990-1996)
The brackish waters between pre-’67 Sting Rays and the latest C7 generation of Corvettes typically elicit yawns. In between beats the heart of a predator, a magnificent iteration of what was otherwise an unimpressive car. In 1986 General Motors teamed up with British specialty car maker Lotus to develop the world’s fastest production car. The resulting bespoke LT5 motor placed the ZR1 ‘Vette squarely among the world’s top performance machines circa 1990. The first and only non-pushrod ‘Vette engine to this day, it’s a 375 horsepower fire-breather with a top speed of 180 with zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds at 7,200rpm. By 1993 output was raised to 405bhp, adding to its stunning all-round capability. Easily on par with elite European supercars of the late twentieth century, it remains the best value of any Corvette. The ZR1 option package added $27,000 in 1990 to the $32,000 base price, crazy money back then. A mere 6,939 ZR1s were built, assuring its status as a collectible, though the market hasn’t yet caught up. The LT5 engine is considered indestructible, as many endurance records will attest. Maintenance costs are much lower than most other snowflakes in its class. One of the best looking cars of its era, they’ve been fetching between $20,000 and $40,000.
Porsche 928 GTS (1992-1995)
Intended as the replacement for the venerable Porsche 911 in the late 1970s, the 928 went big for its final act. While the market is heating up for these late models, reaching in excess of $100,000—more than when new—it’s not too late to jump in. Prices are certain to climb since only 406 of these unique, stylish, and powerful Grand Touring cars were shipped Stateside. Count on expensive maintenance, but with 17 years of refinement, Porsche had time to sort it out, so reliability is not a big concern. Beneath that sleek hood lives a 5.4 liter V8 gem, muscling 350 horsepower to speeds in excess of 170mph. Its styling can be polarizing, though its adherents believe it to be one of most beautiful cars ever. That may be a stretch, but there’s no question it possesses a certain something. Even more impressive in the flesh, hunkered down low and wide in a menacing crouch, the spiritual ancestor to the Panamera has a legacy all its own.
Subaru SVX (1991-1996)
Once upon a time Subaru took a walk on the wild side and built one of the most ambitious and underrated cars ever. The SVX was Subaru’s first and last attempt at a high-performance, high-technology luxury coupe. It’s fascinating in an Edsel, bellyflop kind of way. With only 14,257 sold in America over five years, the company took a cool $75 million hit. Perhaps too ahead of its time, its price stopped buyers in their tracks, costing eight to eleven grand more than anyone expected to pay for a Subaru (over $42,000 in today’s dollars). Despite a formidable street presence and fast look, the unusual design, especially the weird, space age windows, was a tough sell. But you’ve got to admire its cheek, a ’90s vision of hi-tech, complete with four-wheel steering mated to an advanced all-wheel drive system, it was somewhat advanced. The body’s low drag coefficient anticpated the growing importance of aerodynamics. Performance was decent with a 3.3 liter, 230 horsepower flat six was no slouch. The SVX is compelling in its rarity and time-capsule quality, a glimpse into the optimism and blue-sky thinking of the pre-internet era. Find one for under $10,000 and ponder what might have been.
Acura NSX (1990-1995)
A bonafide supercar, the NSX had big ambitions as a world-beater, setting its crosshairs on the prancing horse from Italy with the intention of matching Ferrari performance with Honda reliability. Let the record show that on this score it met its target. The original NSX models gets tons of respect, and for good reason. Honda threw everything it had at this project, with advanced engineering and manufaturing processes, not to mention a purpose-built factory. Extensive use of lightweight aluminum body panels, chassis, suspension, and mechanical components was way ahead of the curve. Styling was executed by premiere Italian carrozzeria Pininfarina, the design house responsible for most latter-day Ferraris. Powered by a naturally-aspirated six-banger good for 270 horsepower, thrills and delights. Its rear mid-engine/rear drive layout achieved the objective of supercar driving dynamics. Styling on the earlier models can seem a bit Flash Gordon, though no one seems to mind. As a halo car for the fledgling Acura marque, barely four years old at launch, it was an unqualified hit and secured a legacy for an untested name. High-mileage, early 90s cars still command upwards of $40,000. Honda got it right.
Mercedes-Benz 500 E (1991-1994)
We have John DeLorean to thank for the brilliant notion of dropping a honkin’ V8 into a mild-mannered midsize car like the Pontiac Tempest, in the process creating the GTO and igniting the muscle car wars. Years later in Stuttgart someone thought to apply that same formula to the basic, schoolmarm-variety E-Class sedan. Though in this case it was likely more a response to their Teutonic rivals on the other side of the Black Forest who had been enjoying success with the M5, itself a hopped-up 5 Series sedan. Unlike the bawdy GTO, however, the Germans were the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. Only the astute observer would notice the subtle differences in stealthy sedans that did not betray what lied beneath all that modesty. The 500 E, later to become the E500, is highly collectible and sought after, though not out of reach. Developed with Porsche, it’s built like a tank and borrows a 5-liter V8 from the 500SL sports tourer, delivering 326 horses. Naught to 60 for the nearly 4,000 pound beast is under 6 seconds. Hand-built in limited numbers, it’s a true classic to own and experience daily. Average price for a well-maintained, fairly low-mileage find is in the $40,000 range.
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