The late nineties was a divisive time period for gearheads and car culture – on one hand, you had spectacular supercars, sports car models, 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 cars from the 1990s 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.
The Best 90s Cars That Are Always Overlooked!
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. Not a looker, but it was fun to drive, and could well be one of the best cars of the 90s.
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 was one of the best car models that 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, and even if you can, those that know good classic cars when they see them snap them up. Still, it’s one of those cars from the 90s worth remembering.
1998 Honda Prelude
Completely overshadowed by sixth-generation Honda 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.
But for all the underrated best 90s cars, there were more questionable models being forced upon the public. How about some 1990s car we wish never happened? Read on!
90s Cars That Couldn’t Possibly Have Been Born In Any Other Decade
In the ’90s, especially the early ’90s, car designers apparently lost their heads. Out of that era came some strange looking cars – here are 10 of the worst.
There are cars that look like the front was styled by one group of designers and the rear by another – neither group apparently ever talking to one another. Another tried to live in the past while others tried to push too far into the future – a future that never really came. Check these out:
1992- 1996 Subaru SVX
Designer Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesigns developed a concept car for the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show, Subaru received sufficient interest in the display car that it decided to put it into production, Subaru’s first entry into the luxury sport coupe market. Though they claim Giugiaro’s design was exactly transferred to the production model, clearly certain proportions changed and the car looks a great deal more lumpy than the show car. Add to that the weird tiny power window, the only access to the outside world short of opening the door, which made paying tolls and ordering at the drive-through a chore.
1996 – 1997 Suzuki X-90
The Suzuki X-90 is almost the poster child for weird car designs. Perhaps they were trying to separate themselves from the Suzuki Samurai by taking a version of its replacement (the Sidekick) and turning it into a not-quite-sports-car, not-quite-SUV vehicle that failed to connect with the marketplace because 1. no one needed it, and 2. it was pretty ugly. Suzuki took it off the market with 18 months. Arguably one of the weirdest cars of the 1990s, or any other decade for that matter.
1991 – 1993 Nissan NX2000
The Nissan NX2000 was the replacement to the Nissan Pulsar (remember the car you could swap the rear hatch for a station wagon back?). It was an OK looking little coupe, except for the front, which not only didn’t match the rest of the car, but it looked as though the car was being punished for something and the punishment was the front end design.
1990 – 1992 Isuzu Impulse
The Isuzu Impulse was also sold as the GM Storm, and oddly enough the Storm ended up looking better than the car from which it originated. For whatever reason the Impulse ended looking like a different car from every angle: its front end not sharing a common design theme with the rear or the sides. The good thing about these cars was they were built during the period when GM owned Lotus and Lotus engineers were brought in to tune the suspension of the Impulse.
1992 – 1994 Acura Vigor
Acura had the Integra and the Legend, but needed a car in-between. So they took the Integra sedan body (not the Accord, as some sources claim – the Accord had a much larger interior), stuffed a five-cylinder engine under the hood and then stretched out the fenders to accommodate a wider track. The net result was a car of strange proportions, looking like 11 lbs stuffed into a 10 lb sack. The Vigor lasted two years before being replaced by the much better TL.
1990 – 1994 Chrysler LeBaron Sedan
It was like the no one had bothered to tell Chrysler the 1980s were over. Looking like a car much better suited to 1984 than 1990, Chrysler offered up a very square-cornered LeBaron Sedan, complete with vinyl roof and a smaller “formal” rear window (still based on a version of the original K car platform) , as other car makers were starting to pay attention to aerodynamics.
1991 – 1993 Chevrolet Lumina APV
While Chrysler was ignoring aerodynamics, Chevrolet jumped in with both feet with its new minivan design. As is sometimes the case, GM took things to the extreme and attempted to make the Lumina APV so aerodynamic that ergonomics suffered. For example, the angle of the front windshield was so steep that drivers had problems seeing through it due to internal reflections. GM ended up covering the dash with carpet to eliminate the problem. In 1994 when the minivan was restyled, Chevy pulled things way back and made the Lumina APV much more conventional looking, realizing the first design was a step too far.
1996 VW Golf Harlequin
Volkswagen created a multi-colored Golf for car shows in 1995 and received enough positive feedback that they produced 246 of them for sale, in 1986 only. Each of the attached panels were of one of four different colors. It was referred to as Harlequin, even though that’s not an accurate description of the pattern. A more accurate description would be that it looked like the car had been in several small accidents and that each time a replacement panel of a different color had been acquired from a wrecking yard.
1991 – 1994 Mercury Capri
Even before the Mazda Miata broke cover Ford had been playing with the concept of a two-seat sports cars. In 1983 it showed the Ghia Barchetta concept car to universal acclaim. Over the next few years there was a tug of war back and forth between whether it would be FWD or RWD, and eventually the bean counters won. Called the Capri (at least the fourth incarnation of that name by my count), it was to built in Australia on a FWD Mazda 323 platform. Introduced in 1991 not only did it not look like the Barchetta, it lacked the cohesiveness of the Miata’s much more holistic design. By 1994 the Capri was gone (again).
1996 – 1999 Ford Taurus
The third generation of Ford Taurus was completely redesigned from the ground up, and used a rounded, oval-derived design that was very controversial at the time, considered to be the main reason for this model’s massive drop in sales. The most controversial feature of the design was the front fascia which was composed of separate circular headlights and circular turn signals. Another element criticized was the oval shaped rear window. Ford lost its sales lead due to the awkward design and replaced it with a more conventional look after a very brief three-year run.