Here's a shortlist of the cars from US manufacturers that I think haven't gotten the recognition they deserve. You're about to see a lot of 1995-2005 stuff, but bear with me. There's a few you likely won't expect.
#8) Second Generation Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Sebring
WAIT! Don't stop reading after seeing the above silver mound of self-propelled apathy. It's more interesting than you might think. See, this is clearly a modicum of transport predisposed to a life of banal servitude at the hands of a geriatric. And that's fine, every car needs it's niche.
But what interests me immensely is the automotive trickle-down effect I'm seeing associated with these Dodges and Chryslers lately. Recently, I've seen a considerable number of these picked up by high school and college-age kids. And it makes sense, they're fairly cheap and usually well taken care of. It's sensible, affordable transportation.
The part capturing my attention is watching them figure out that these are a lot quicker than anyone expects from a retirement chariot. See, the 2.7L V6 that many of these hide mounted sideways under the hood packs heat nobody ever saw coming. Others may run with a 2.4L turbo I4. Either engine nets you at least 200 horsepower, while some variants run as high as 235 ponies depending on which year and trim level you land with.
Realistically, 200-235 hp at the front wheels is quite a bit for this car. It's not particularly heavy, and the 2.7 will rev into the heavens if you're brave enough to let it. These cars aren't particularly fast, but they certainly aren't slow. So, be careful. These may have absolutely no street credit, but it might just smoke your Civic hatch in some Friday night light-to-light action. 0-60 in the '03 Stratus R/T comes in only 7.1 surprising seconds, while a '02 Civic Si finds itself there in 7.5.
#7) Fourth Generation Chevrolet Camaro
In my mind these are the least "Camaro-looking" of the Camaros. Every previous and successive generation has a wide-open, aggressive face, while these scowl at you with narrowed eyes from across the room. I won't call it ugly, it's just a product of the times. Bulbous and oblong was the style of the 90's.
Anyway, the reason this plastic missile is presented before you today: V8 power. That's really it, to be honest. At the time, it was hard to find a better way of securing 250+ ponies delivered through the rear wheels for late-night McDonald's parking lot antics. They're not bad cars, but carry a stigma from the type of owners they attract. Starting in 1998, one could option the LS1 for 305 horses, gaining a claimed extra 5hp the last two years of it's run ('01-'02).
The 4th Gen is a car for Chet. Chet is 20, he dropped out his first year of community college before the conclusion of week three. Now, he crashes high school parties because he is trapped in his hometown and doesn't know anything else. While completing his 2 hours of nothing but bicep curls twice a week, Chet hits on every girl that walks into the gym, regardless of age. He's not even a member.
#6) First and Second Generation Jeep Grand Cherokee
"Jeep Grand Cherokee" is synonymous with "rugged utility" to me. It's basic, and beyond tough. Anything you need, this Jeep will do. Snow? Yeah. Rocks? Hell yeah. Track day? I.. I mean, I guess.
Forged in the heart of a dying star, the legendary 4.0L I6 at the heart of many of these machines is pictured in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary under both "unstoppable force" and "immovable object". Other engine alternatives included a laundry-list of more powerful but less mythical V8's throughout the years. The 1st Generation Grand Cherokee could be had with a 5-speed manual as standard, while the 2nd Gen dropped this option.
This was the first really good look at the future of SUVs for America. While everything else we'd seen marked "SUV" was a pickup truck minus a bed and plus some seats, this was a true Sport Utility Vehicle. It combined ground clearance, high-torque power plants, and 4WD with creature comforts expected of traditional commuter cars.
It may lack the off-road reputation of the Wrangler or Cherokee XJ (2nd Gen), but the Grand Cherokee is capable and comfortable. Plus, it means you can pick one up a lot cheaper.
#5) First Generation Dodge Viper
Now, you probably don't hear "Viper" and think "underappreciated". In fact, you may think "overhyped". I won't deny the first generation's celebrity status for adolescent rubber-shredders in the making throughout America's heartland.
But, I don't think people really appreciate what the 1st gen is as a vehicle. It's a stupid car with no reason to exist. And that's why I love it. Said best, it's "profoundly dangerous". But Chevrolet had dropped their boxers over 30 years ago, and Dodge had finally had enough, and decided to show theirs and claim the title as king of the locker room.
While the Corvette wanted to be your cool friend who swipes Marlboros from his dad , the Viper just wanted to get close so it could murder you behind the Best Buy with a rusted golf club. The Viper had 400 horsepower and 465 ft-lbs of femur-shattering torque, which was blatant insanity at the time. The first-year (1992) Viper's rival, the C4 'Vette, had just gotten a boost from 250 to 300hp for 1992. The rare ZR-1 option brought it close at 375, but not quite.
All of this power comes with no safety net. The earliest Vipers do not have the following: stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, airbags, a hard roof, glass windows, exterior door handles, or air conditioning. You're buckling into a hypersonic sled powered by a glorified truck engine screaming to 60 mph in just over 4 seconds and shattering the 1/4 mile in the 12-second range if you can row the 6-speed fast enough to keep the factory side-exit exhausts howling. No automatic transmission was ever produced for the Viper.
You've gotta have some inhuman nerve to really wring one of these out. Once you dump the throttle, wrangle the snake or die a coward's death.
#4) Corvette C7
People have known and loved the Corvette since the first generation. They're the consistent anchor of American sports/super car performance (malaise C4 notwithstanding). Ask any American, and they recognize that. You buy a Corvette, you know exactly what you're getting. Solid build quality, refined handling, and organ-bursting torque. All of this at a price point that average Retirement Joe may actually be able to swing.
But I often feel that our European counterparts don't share the same reverence for the Corvette Performance Bargain. Unlike most American muscle that's at home shredding eardrums on the 1/4 mile, the Corvette is not averse to corners. It can rip legendary circuits like the Nurburgring with the best of the Europeans, at a fraction of the cost.
#3) Second Generation Dodge Dakota & First Generation Durango
I love these things. The second generation Dakota and first generation Durango are bulletproof. If you weren't aware, the Durango is based on the Dakota, and they're mechanically identical from the driver's door handle forward (the Dakota's front doors were shortened slightly when the Durango was designed to accommodate larger rear doors).
Say what you will about these Dodge twins, but they're damn reliable. The 4.7L SOHC V8 at the heart of these beasts will never fail you, so long as you keep it supplied with enough oil. See, AMC (original parent company of Jeep) was designing the 4.7 as a successor to the legendary 4.0L I6 as a new rock-solid torque-behemoth. Chrysler acquired these designs with their acquisition of Jeep, and saw fit to produce the engine for use in Jeeps as well as other light trucks across the Chrysler line (make no mistake, the Durango is a truck).
Torsion bar suspension is antiquated, yet proven reliably indestructible. All around, there's only one pervasive problem that these Dodge twins face. Rust. The rust-proofing on these trucks has some bare spots from the factory. Be prepared to replace or patch the following: front bumper (both), passenger side rocker panel (Durango), muffler (both), and leaf spring shackles (Dakota). These problems are unavoidable, yet predictable and with a number of solutions to boot. I myself own a '00 Durango and fixed the rocker panel, bumper, and muffler, plus new ball joints and sway bar bushings myself for about $500 in parts. That engine and transmission have never let me down. Not once, even after just under 200,000 miles.
Examples of these workhorses still regularly roam the streets of my hometown. They're cheap and just won't quit. Perfect if you need a 4WD, work truck, or medium-light duty tow vehicle.
#2) First Generation Chevrolet Silverado
When I think about terms like "backbone of America" or "bleeds red, white, and blue", or really anything that sounds like anti-communism propaganda, I think about the First Generation Chevrolet Silverado. This machine is built to do one thing as well as scientifically possible: move stuff. It doesn't move stuff quickly, quietly, or efficiently. But it will move things. Any things.
The Vortec engines found at the heart of these trucks were carved from the foundation of the assembly plant, forged with only the finest concrete GM had to offer. They're basic, and they have a basic task. Pull. For as many miles as possible: pull. And they do. The Vortec will propel the kids at school in the morning. It will get you to work in several inches of snow. It will haul more lumber than recommended all the way to your brother's garage in the rain.
These came at a transitional time in the history of American trucks. Until the 90's, pickups had only the necessary features to accomplish work tasks. They were tools, not passenger cars. Around this time, the Big Three were realizing the value in making pickups accessible to everyone, letting them function as daily drivers during the week. This was the gateway drug to our current generation of enormous luxury-starship "pickup trucks" now marketed by every brand.
Constantly, I still see these roaming Pennsylvania. Maybe it's because we have a particular need for 4WD in the winter and ground clearance the rest of the year since our road infrastructure crumbles like forgotten Christmas cookies in March. Maybe it's just because they won't die. Like the cockroach, the Silverado refuses to be stomped by nature.
#1) First Generation Dodge/Plymouth/Chrysler Neon
Maybe you don't like the Neon. And that fine. A lot of people don't. Now they're associated with an image of the less desirable echelons of society. But they are good at what they do, and you can't convince me otherwise.
Here's the Neon formula: cheap and light. That's all there really is to it. Chrysler kept it simple, and the Neon payed off. They were incredibly cheap and got people where they needed to go. And, as a by-product of their lightness, they're no slouch either. Despite falling in the low end of the 100's for horsepower, they're reasonably quick thanks to the 90's blanket "plastic everything" policy.
If you find yourself in possession of a sportier model, like the R/T, ACR, or the infamous SRT-4, you may catch those who aren't in the know by surprise around a road course. Something setting the Neon apart from other FWD economy competitors was it's independent rear suspension. This gave Dodge's turnpike warrior respectable cornering ability beyond what most would expect.
The one caveat I give when discussing the 1st generation Neon is the transmission. An automatic 1st generation Neon is one of the worst cars you could buy at the time, where the manual is in my opinion one of the best. There's a difference of two gears between the automatic and manual. While the manual nets you 5 speeds on the floor, an automatic has three gears- none of which are overdrive! It's the antiquated TorqueFlite design used in the Omni/Horizon from as early as 1978. This means an automatic Neon has to scream well into the 4k+ RPM range to accelerate in highway traffic. Or even cruise, really. It hurts economy, and engine life. And your ears. So, when I say Neons are good, I'm talking about the 5-speed. And besides, you should be rowing your own gears anyway.
If you ask someone about the Dodge Neon, you never know what you're going to get. Some claim they're unreliable. Other swear by them to the grave. Here's what I know: there's been three of these little champions in my family at one time or another. None of them have ever quit. There's the odd band-aid and repair needed to keep it on the road through the harsh Pennsylvania winters laden with road salt, but this applies with any vehicle north of the Mason-Dixon Line. My father's '96 ACR 2-door 5-speed logged over 250k miles as his commuter car before he replaced it after 18 years of loyal service.