6 Most Underrated Vehicles of the Late 90s
The late nineties was a divisive time period for gearheads – on one hand, you had spectacular supercars and rev-happy imports making an impact. On the other hand, the non-halo cars of the period were unspectacular, to say the least. It was a period highlighted (low-lighted?) by low power output out of large engines, boring driving characteristics, and poor design choices. In short, it was not a great time to look for good cars for the everyman.
However, there were a number of shining stars from the time period that went underappreciated. Either from low sales numbers, poor utilization or sheer unimaginativeness, these cars never got the accolades they deserved, or could have received.
1999 Ford Contour SVT
Plenty has been written about the Taurus SHO, and rightly so – it was a fun car for a four-door sedan. Late into the 90s though, Ford’s design team took a radical right turn with the model, and the abomination that was the third-generation SHO put a stake through the heart of blue oval fans.
The smart ones looked a little further down the line-up, and found a car that is now all but forgotten – the Contour SVT. Granted, the fact that it was special-order-only and only available at specific dealerships didn’t help much in getting the word out. However, anyone who went the extra mile was rewarded with a 200-horsepower engine, a 5-speed manual transmission, and upgraded brakes and suspension.
While the SHO had little beyond straight-line speed, the Contour supplied tight handling and Euro-style performance. It also didn’t look half bad – while the SHO suffered from a too-large rear window and rounding off everywhere (those headlights, so ugly), the Contour SVT featured styling that still stands up today. Add on to that a price tag under $25,000, and you have to wonder why only a little over 2,600 made it onto the roads.
2000 Oldsmobile Alero
So maybe I’m fudging the timeline here, but technically, you could have this car on the road in 1999. So deal with it. And you might think it hard to consider a model that sold 129,000 units “underappreciated.” However, the Alero had the potential to be a leader for American sedans – better design than the Taurus, more power than the Malibu, more comforts than the Dodge Intrepid. While the Alero has the distinction of being the final vehicle sold under the Oldsmobile name plate, it wasn’t a marquee-killer – in fact, it could well have saved the brand had Oldsmobile been a little more experimental with it from the outset.
Available with a 5-speed manual and a 170-horsepower V6 engine, the Alero was available in coupe or sedan form, and provided a sporty yet subdued vehicle not found in the GM line-up of the time. Compared to the Pontiac Grand Am with its ribbed-condom look on the side, or the 4-door-only Malibu with an even more anemic engine, the Alero stood out. The Alero offered a lower curb weight, coming in at a shade over 3,000 pounds, offered classic lines, and wasn’t a budget-buster. The Alero was ripe for customization and special models, but GM dropped the ball – the proposed OSV and OSV II variants sported a supercharged I4 and the 215-horsepower DOHC 3.5-liter V6 found in the Intrigues of the era.
1996 Mitsubishi Montero
The mid-90s Mitsubishi Monteros had the distinction of having racing aspirations drive development, and also meant that yes, you too could own a vehicle just like one that competed in the Dakar Rally. Unfortunately, soccer moms don’t care much for that sort of pedigree, which meant the Montero got outshined by the Hummer H1, which had the grace of a beached whale, or the derpy early-model RAV4s and Suzuki X-90s, which apparently people actually bought.
It’s a pity, as the technology put together in the Montero outshone the rest of the pack. In an era where SUVs gave you the choice of either 10 miles to the gallon or a horrendously underpowered engine, the 3.0-liter SOHC V6 turned out 177 horsepower while still giving up to 17 miles to the gallon. 188 ft-lbs of torque gave the Montero a towing capability of 5,000 pounds – you won’t get that Suzuki going anywhere with that much weight on its back.
Beyond the power numbers, the Montero also introduced the groundbreaking Super Select 4WD system. This combined a variety of drive options with the ability to switch between two- and four-wheel drive at up to 62 miles per hour. It also had multimode ABS that was functional in all modes, accounting for the different braking parameters needed with the locked center diff. This all lead to an extremely capable and spry SUV that nonetheless only cleared just over 128,000 units worldwide. You can still spot plenty of them on the road though, they’ve shown to be dependable vehicles as time has passed.
1997 Eagle Talon TSi AWD
While every late-teens girl was all over its import twin, the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Talon flew under the radar. The biggest difference between the two was aesthetic – while the Eclipse went for subtlety, the Eagle went a little crazy with an aggressive fascia, the all-black greenhouse bubble, and the unique always-black sickle-shaped rear spoiler found on the TSi. We all knew an Eclipse owner back then, and we all thought they were kind of a douche. Sorry to all the Eclipse owners that will read this – you may have thought your burnt-orange convertible was awesome, but it really wasn’t.
Under the hood, the Eclipse and Eagle featured interchangeable parts, and had an available all-wheel drive system that, while commonplace now, was innovative in sports cars of the time. The fact that it was a combined-effort engine meant the Eagle didn’t have to suffer with some of the terrible Mopar engines of the time – no one looks at the Neon or the Stratus with fond memories.
1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R
The Nissan Silvia-derived 240SX is remembered fairly fondly amongst fanboys, but when it came to efficient, user-friendly models from Nissan, the 200SX SE-R was a gem. It was marketed as an affordable sports coupe, but apparently that marketing didn’t work too well – the 200SX underperformed to the point that Nissan shut down production after the 1998 model.
It wasn’t necessarily the highest-powered car around – only 140 horsepower from the 2.0-liter than came from the two-door Sentra – but it was easy to modify to the tastes of the driver. Inheriting the engine meant that there was plenty of knowledge and parts already floating around for it. It was very easy to handle, and featured a stiffened suspension and four-wheel disc brakes that allowed drivers to throw it through corners easily.
It wasn’t much to look at, with a rather generic profile and alloy wheels. It did come with Nissan’s reliability behind it, not to mention a very low price tag. Still, it was generally ignored while other, less-capable compact “sports” cars grabbed the spotlight. You won’t find too many versions of the 200SX SE-R around anymore, unfortunately.
1998 Honda Prelude
Completely overshadowed by sixth-generation Accord and Civic Coupe models, the Prelude faded into obscurity in the late nineties, petering out at a sales rate of only 12,000 per year for its final generation. It’s a shame, because even the stock Prelude held great promise – a 2.2-liter, 195-horsepower under the hood gave it a great weight to horsepower ratio, above and beyond such budget track-day favorites as the Mazda Miata. It was easily modifiable, as Honda’s screed of cheap and reliable meant that repairs and upgrades were fairly easy for anyone with a sense of technology.
It was fairly innovative as well. The SH Model of the Prelude sported Honda’s Active Torque Transfer System, which helped to improve high-speed handling by channeling torque to the outside wheel during hard cornering. While only available in cars with a 5-speed manual transmission, it certainly added some handling confidence.
So why didn’t the Prelude get the accolades of the Civic or Miata? Most likely, simple economics. The Prelude was more expensive from the outset, regardless of what trim level you got. On top of that, it’s cheaper to add horsepower than it is to cut weight – giving the Civic an extra 30 horsepower is much easier than trimming a few hundred pounds off of the Prelude. In retrospect, though, the Prelude was overlooked by far too many gearheads as a true driver’s car. The good news? Prelude owners recognized their quality, and you can still find some great second-hand models for relatively low prices.
You may have some cars of your own that you feel are underrated, but you can’t deny that these models, in retrospect, deserved a little better than they got.
Categories: List Articles