Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1; photo courtesy BoldRide.com. Click image to enlarge
By Mike Schlee
Icons of the 1990s
The 1990s were strange times. There seemed to be a bit of everything in the 1990s; grunge, epic televised court cases, boy bands, cheating presidents, a championship Toronto sports team, and a female prime minister. Things were no different in the automotive world. The decade began with the market craving a rash of hot new sports cars and morphed priorities towards sport utilities and retro cars by decade’s end. Some of the cars that saw the light of day in 90s are still icons in 2013 and will go down in history as some of the best vehicles ever produced. Below I present my list of 15 vehicles that will forever be associated with the 1990s.
When the NSX arrive on the scene in 1990, it brought along with it one aspect that had been missing from supercars previously: reliability. This mid-engine, perfectly balanced supercar could out-handle vehicles costing several times its price while still being driven to work and back every day. After the introduction of the NSX, the concept of an everyday supercar was a reality and several exotic European manufacturers had to step up their game.
Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
The 1990–1995 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 was more than just a mighty LT5 V8. Every aspect of the car’s performance was elevated, including the suspension and brakes. Initially offered with 385 hp, it was increased to 405 hp before ending production. The ZR-1 brought the Corvette from sports car to supercar and showed the world Chevrolet could build a serious contender.
Top: Dodge Ram, photo courtesy Tractors.Wiki.com; bottom: Dodge Viper, photo courtesy TheDetroitBureau.com. Click image to enlarge
Before the 1994 Dodge Ram came on the scene, pickup trucks did not offer much in the way of style. Most were rectangular boxes with a cab sticking out the top. Spurred on by poor sales, the Dodge team decided to make a dramatic redesign of their full-size pick-up truck. With styling mirroring that of Big Rig transport trucks, the Ram was an immediate success. Instantly recognizable, the same styling cues are being used to this day and forced all other full size pickups to think outside the box.
Inspired by the original Shelby Cobra, the Viper used the same concept of a very large motor in a small roadster body. When it first appeared at the Detroit Autoshow in 1989, no one thought Dodge would build this monster. But by 1992 the car was available for sale complete with an 8.0L V10—but no windows. There was nothing subtle about this car, including its performance. Thankfully, in 2013 the Viper is set to return to showrooms still wearing a body reminiscent of this original.
Top: Eagle Talon, photo courtesy CarInPicture.com; bottom: Ford Explorer, photo courtesy Wikipedia used IFCAR. Click image to enlarge
Eagle Talon / Mitsubishi Eclipse / Plymouth Laser
These compact hatchback triplets were the kings of the ‘tuner scene’ before the world even knew there was a tuner scene. Before there was ever a Lancer Evolution or WRX STi, these vehicles were running around with 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engines sending power to all four wheels. When they came on the scene in 1990, they could be specified with 195 hp attached their all-wheel-drive system. Unfortunately, these cars also became iconic for the phrase ‘crank-walk’.
The latter half of the 1990’s was dominated by the influx of sport utility vehicles, led by the bestselling Ford Explorer. There was a period of time where it seemed everyone was ditching their minivans and sedans for these body-on-frame brutes. It felt like Explorers, Blazers, Pathfinders and Cherokees were as common as Civics and Cavaliers in the late 1990s. It hasn’t take long for consumers’ tastes to change, though, and the crossover is now the king of the family vehicle. So much so that the Explorer has even become one.
Top: GM EV1, photo courtesy CarInPicture.com; bottom: Honda Prelude, photo courtesy NetCarShow.com. Click image to enlarge
The GM EV1 was the first modern electric car. Available for lease only and in very few places, the EV1 was a glimpse into the automotive future. While many conspiracy theories and hypotheses exist as to why it was cancelled, the EV1 did show a short-range all-electric city car could work in today’s world. Less than 20 years later, we have consumer-ready electric cars. Still unconvinced it was iconic? How many other cars from the 1990’s have award-winning feature-length movies made about them?
Honda Civic/Honda Prelude/Acura Integra
Although it was on sale for a long time before the 1990s, it was this decade when the Civic really came into its own. By the end of the decade it had become Canada’s number one selling car, a crown it has not given up since. The Civic, along with its front-wheel-drive relatives, the Acura Integra and Honda Prelude, was the cornerstone of the import tuner craze that swept through North America in the late 1990s. To this day, mint condition examples of any of these front-wheel-drive Hondas are coveted by enthusiasts.
Top: Hummer H1, photo courtesy CarPhotoGallery.com; bottom: Lexus LS 400, photo courtesy CarAutoPortal.com. Click image to enlarge
The Hummer H1, or just ‘Hummer’ in the 1990s, was the first real ‘excessive’ sport utility vehicle to be sold. During the height of the SUV craze, the Hummer was the poster child for wretched excess and manliness (or compensation for lack thereof). No one needed an essentially combat-ready truck to pick up some milk and drop the kids off at soccer practice, but many still wanted them. The H1 paved the way for a class of excessive monster SUVs like the Escalade, Navigator, QX56, and G55 AMG—though this last one had its own similarly military utilitarian roots well before the craze spread.
Lexus LS 400
In 1990 Toyota released a new division named ‘Lexus’ with the sole intent of taking on the luxury heavyweights from Europe like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. Their first model to wear Lexus badging was the LS 400, which may have been the most over-engineered car ever produced. Just as the NSX brought reliability to supercars, the LS 400 showed that supremely luxurious cars could cost a lot less than German manufacturers were offering at the time. Ironically, Hyundai has attempted this same trick with its Genesis Sedan, trying to match the Lexus LS on quality and content while undercutting it on price.
Top: McLaren F1, photo courtesy Mobil-Kadal.Blogspot.ca; bottom: Mazda RX-7, photo courtesy AutoInfoz.com. Click image to enlarge
Although it wasn’t officially on sale in Canada, everyone knew, lusted for, and respected the McLaren F1. The F1 Road Car basically held every production car performance record known to man when it came out in 1994. A supercar amongst supercars, the F1 was the car every enthusiast wished they could get their hands on. Until the more recent introduction of the Bugatti Veyron, no car had ever created so much buzz, or been as highly regarded as a performance tour-de-force. The three-seat abreast configuration was just plain cool, as well.
Mazda and rotaries have gone hand in hand for decades. However, the pinnacle of this relationship seems to have been the 1993 RX-7 FD (787B Race Car excluded). With a gorgeous, brand new body, this car was capable of outrunning several higher-powered sports cars thanks to its perfect 50/50 weight distribution and twin-turbo rotary engine. To this day many consider this to be one of the best handling cars ever made (and one of the least reliable). This car officially has a cult status.
Top: Mazda MX5 Miata, photo courtesy Mazda Canada; middle: Toyota Supra, photo courtesy AutoSeekAndSell.com; bottom: Volkswagen New Beetle, photo courtesy VW Canada. Click image to enlarge
Mazda MX-5 Miata
First introduced in 1989 in Japan, the Mazda Miata really took off throughout the 1990s. The secret to the Miata’s success was combining modern reliability with classic British roadster principles. The simple, lightweight roadster may not have been the quickest car out there, but there was hardly a vehicle available in 1990 that could give you a more thrilling drive. Now entering its 24th model year, the Miata has become the bestselling roadster of all time by sticking to the core principle of driving fun at a reasonable price.
To many, the 1993-2002 (1996 in Canada) Toyota Supra is the ultimate Japanese sports car. With a timeless shape and a bulletproof motor, Toyota Supras can still be seen at racetracks and car meets to this day. Easily tunable, the Supra could be taken from impressive to deadly in no time. In stock form, there were few vehicles in any price range that could outperform the Supra Turbo. The Supra Turbo’s giant rear wing may have been ahead of its time as the late 90s and early 2000s would see an epidemic of oversized wings on everything from Honda Civics to Geo Metros to Dodge Caravans.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Although it shared virtually nothing with its predecessor except for its shape, the 1998 ‘New Beetle’ was a hit based on nostalgia. The first of the ‘retro remakes’ in North America, the New Beetle proved people were interested in new cars packed with new technology sporting a classic shape. The New Beetle opened the door for a flood of retro remakes like the Mini Cooper, Ford Thunderbird, 2005+ Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger, to name a few.