10 Cars From the ‘90s that Hit the Sweet Spot

A real classic is nice, but hard to live with. Here are 10 affordable ‘90s cars that offer some of the character of a classic but none of the trouble.

It’s not easy to use a classic car on a daily basis, but it’s even harder to accept that fact and buy something modern, practical and boring instead. The thought of cruise control, automatic windscreen wipers and an engine that doesn’t need a choke and a lot of finesse to get it going on a cold day is, indeed, quite terrible. There is a way to make it bearable, though, and it comes in the form of cars from the ‘90s: a transition period when the automobile became easier to live with and its design became, well, increasingly more repulsive to look at. The trick is, then, to find those few sweet spots in that transition and you’ll end up with a reliable, interesting and affordable car.

Alfa Romeo 156

We’re kicking off in style with this Italian design masterpiece. The 156 was tasked with saving the reputation of Alfa Romeo after its take-over by Fiat and some of the sloppy, front-wheel drive emergency lane hoggers that came with it. The public was stunned by the 156’s audacious design, surprised by the excellent handling for a front-wheel drive layout and then utterly disgusted by the introduction of a diesel in the Alfa… until they noticed that the diesels are still effortlessly racking up the miles after almost 20 years. Timeless styling, no rust and the option of a glorious Busso V6… This might just be the perfect Alfa!

Volvo 850

In the complete opposite corner of the ring there is the Volvo 850: a large, practical car most seen in the estate form. It is often considered the last real Volvo since it was the last car to be produced by Volvo before Ford stepped in and introduced the designers to concept of a curve. Don’t be fooled, though, as this was in its day considered a pretty sporty car for a Volvo. The handling is on point and it comes with nothing but 5-cylinder engines that produce breath-taking exhaust notes—even from the diesel. Keep an eye out for the positively schizophrenic 850R, the family car producing 250 of the squarest horses ever seen.

Mercedes 190

This one might have been introduced in the mid ‘80s but, being a Mercedes, it was made until well into the ‘90s. Also being a Mercedes, it comes with a naturally aspirated diesel engine that will get you everywhere no matter what, but it won’t get you there fast. Once you get over that little drawback, though, you’re left with utter perfection. This car’s design is so well proportioned that it might just be impossible to call it ugly, and nothing in or about it will ever break. The reason for that is simple: Mercedes was so scared to make a ‘small’ car for the first time that they spent their biggest budget until then on the research and development of their smallest car until then. So, just to be clear, they spent more money on this car than on the S-Class of that time. Oh, and if you really can’t get over the diesel’s lack of power, spend your savings on the amazing 190E 2.3-16 and never need another car in your life.

Citroën XM

Just from time to time, it’s OK to leave reliability out of the equation and simply look at the coolest, weirdest thing your limited bank account can get you. This Bertone designed French luxury saloon might be a good start, then. It might not be the prettiest, but you’ll stand out from the crowd. It might not be the fastest, but cornering will always be fun with its hydraulic suspension. And it might not be the most reliable, but that doesn’t make it unreliable per se… It’s an old Citroën, OK. It’s cool.

Audi 80

If you’re not looking for the weirdest possible thing, though, and really just want an old car that can take you anywhere, forget the XM and look for an Audi 80. The expression “good car” was probably invented for this one. It’s not excellent like the 190, it’s not terrible like the Yugo, it’s just a really good car. It doesn’t look half bad, too. But it also doesn’t look amazing. It just looks good. This car is part of the first generation where Audi started to galvanise the bodywork of its cars, so it can’t rust. Which is also good.

Saab 900 / Saab 9-3

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all drive something with the reliability of, say, an Opel or a Vauxhall but with interesting styling and a lot of character? Here it is, the Saab NG 900 or—after its facelift—Saab OG 9-3. Its underpinnings are nearly identical to that of the ‘90s Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, but Saab did everything else themselves. As a result, it has that distinctive Saab roof slope, lovely Scandinavian seats and this weird thing where you have to put the key in the centre console instead of next to the steering wheel, but it won’t rust or do anything you don’t want. And you’re driving a Saab, exactly how special are you?

Fiat Barchetta

I’ve been told that the name means “little boat” in Italian, and it’s easy to see why. The design of the Barchetta is not unlike a boat, although it is beautiful in its own, unusual way. One thing it does not have in common with a boat, though, is its handling. A friend of mine owns one of these and he once allowed me behind the wheel for a few minutes. It’s glorious. The Barchetta corners like a cart with that sensitive little steering wheel and accelerates surprisingly fast while sending the sweetest notes a 4-cylinder can summon up through its exhaust pipe. Also, you can get a decent one for less than you’d spend on an abused VW Jetta, and that’s unlikely to send the same shivers down your spine.

BMW E34 5-Series

This third generation of the BMW 5-Series was completely redesigned from the ground up, although it still looks distinctly ‘80s BMW: it isn’t exactly curved yet and the separate double headlights remind of the E30 and previous 5-Series, the E28. That makes it a bit of a classic already, although they are not an uncommon sight on today’s roads. People still use these on a daily basis simply because they keep going and their performance is already on par with modern requirements. Also, it’s the first 5-Series to become available as an estate car, and its boot is absolutely massive!

Mazda MX5 (“Miata”)

It wouldn’t be right to forget the reliable machines produced in Japan in the ‘90s, but two cars specifically deserve a place in this list. The first of those is the Mazda MX5. I’m not sure I need to explain why, but for the sake of integrity: the MX5 is the sum of all roadsters. It is revered for its handling, its reliability and the fact that some people think it looks like a hairdresser’s car. If that were true, I wish I had become a hairdresser instead.

Honda CR-X

The second Japanese ‘90s masterpiece is the CR-X. Being a Honda, it is mechanically indestructible and immune to the concept of decay. It shares its drivetrain with the Honda Civic so the wheelbase is short enough for manoeuvring in town, but it’s got a lower centre of gravity making it fun on track as well. The sloping roof line also makes it look unmistakably sporty. Honda produced this CR-X until 1991 and then replaced it with the Civic CRX which, although it has a Targa top, does strike me personally a bit as an example of ‘90s design going in the wrong direction…

Honourable Mention: Lancia Thesis

I wanted to end the list with this car because it really is a special car to me. You might be thinking “wait, this isn’t from the ‘90s at all,” and you’d be right. Production only started in 2001. The reason why I’ve added this car to the list is twofold. Firstly, it looks to me like Lancia missed that sweet spot I mentioned earlier by about 10 years: the ‘90s Lancia Kappa preceding this Thesis is nothing special to look at. It isn’t at all something you’d want to look at, really, so spare yourself and don’t. Secondly, I am in love with the Thesis. I’ve been in love with the Thesis since the first time I went to Italy with my family as a kid and saw an unmarked Thesis of the Carabinieri. I had never seen a removable emergency light look so good on anything before. I drew Thesisses (Theses?) everywhere and couldn’t stop thinking about those sexy rear lights. I know this all seems very personal, and it is. I don’t care. Enjoy the 10 pictures of the amazing Lancia Thesis in the gallery above, and count exactly how many pictures you’ve seen as you scroll. Because the 11th picture is the rear-end of a ‘90s Lancia Kappa Coupé and it’ll give you nightmares.

Do you know any more ‘90s cars that are on that sweet spot of usability and style (or that you’ve had an irrational crush on as a kid)? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments (12)

  • Great article! I'd have to take the E34. That just looks so stunning and sharklike all these years later.

      4 years ago
    • The E34 has a really nice, classic design, I don't think it's ever going to be out of fashion. But I'd have the Thesis, though... God I love the thesis :)

        3 years ago
    • I got that impression!

        3 years ago
  • E34 or Audi 80. I think the Audi 90 would be a bit more powerful and fun, especially the 20v 5 cylinder version.

      3 years ago
    • Good point, I did not think of that one! Is it equally reliable?

        3 years ago
    • The 80 and 90 series are very similar. The V6 Audi 90 is cheaper. I think they are both just as reliable, you should watch out for the broken timing chain on the V6. Also it is one of my favorite cars.

        3 years ago
  • Volvo 850 for me, an 850R specifically

      3 years ago
  • Very nice article, the 156 wins it for me, infact I may even get one as my next car!

      3 years ago
    • So will I, I think! I'm hoping to find a 2.5 V6: beautiful car, epic soundtrack and a very durable engine. You can't buy anything like it at that price.

        3 years ago
    • Yup, the 2.5 V6 is the best version, the GTA is very hard to find!

        3 years ago