The 1990's Were The Weirdest Time To Be A Car Enthusiast In The US
Ah the 1990's, Nintendo was a household name, SUV's began their assault upon the roadways while Japanese sports cars grew stronger and faster than ever before. Computers started becoming more important than wrenches every manufacturer was suddenly more interested in their pasts than their futures.
So let's turn back time and find out why the 90's were such a weird time to be a car enthusiast.
1990: New Kids On The Block
The 1990 model year is interesting because it saw the introduction of two different V8 powered rear-wheel-drive sedans from Japan, the Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45. The aging versions of the Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac Brougham were the American competitors in the big car market.
While the LS400 and Q45 did battle in the big car market, a cute little roadster called the MX-5 was making its way slowly but surely into the hearts of convertible lovers and car enthusiasts alike. 1990 was also the first model year for the Geo Storm and Geo Prizm. The Geo Metro, Spectrum, and Tracker had already been on sale, but Geo as a whole finally had a proper lineup to sell their budget friendly vehicles to the masses.
Chevrolet had its hands full with Geo, but it still had the time to give us the Corvette ZR-1, complete with a 5.7-liter, 32 valve V8 making 375 horsepower and 370 lb-ft. The C4 Corvette had been blessed with a bevy of upgrades thanks to GM purchasing Lotus back in 1986, but this lead to the ZR-1's success.
1991: Enter The SVX
While the Nissan 300ZX, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Toyota Supra MK3, Mazda RX-7 and the mighty R32 Skyline dominated the world's racetracks and backroads, Subaru was cooking up a car to cash in on the hype, the SVX. The SVX delivered all of the quirkiness of a Subaru and none of the lasting reliability. While that is a bold statement to make in the same paragraph as the apex-blowing RX-7, the SVX had several major weaknesses in the form of lackluster electronics and a heavy automatic transmission that was woefully unreliable. The head gaskets on the SVX's 3.3-liter V6 were also known to blow which would prove to be costly.
The American sports coupes were just as fast, but were pushing the envelope in terms of styling, but Dodge had a trick up its sleeve and it was waiting for the right moment to strike.
Meanwhile Bugatti was enjoying the launch of its EB110 to commemorate the 110th birthday of Ettore Bugatti, hence EB110. The performance version of the EB110, the EB110SS would launch in 1992 with an impressive 603 horsepower and a top speed of 221 miles per hour.
1992: Dodge's Big Red Snake
Dodge had unveiled the Viper concept in 1989. Approval for the Viper came from Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, and the first prototypes were finished in 1991, but the Viper wouldn't be released to the public until 1992. The Viper RT10 was powered by an 8.0-liter V10 developed by Lamborghini, even though it was based on the Chrysler LA V8. Power from this 711-pound chunk of aluminum and 'Murica was rated at 400 horses and 465 lb-ft of torque.
In the same year, Jaguar launched its long awaited supercar, the XJ220. Although the final result was nothing like the V12 powered, four-wheel-drive prototype that buyers were promised, the twin-turbo V6 still made 542 horsepower and 475 lb-ft, and could reach a top speed of 210.5 miles per hour as tested by Road and Track.
1993: Ford plays copycat with a snake of its own while GM plays catch up
Ford's Fox-Body Mustang entered its last model rocking two high performance versions in the form of the Cobra and Cobra R. The Cobra was powered by Ford's 302 V8 producing 235 horsepower and 280 lb-ft, while the Cobra R used the same engine, but had several options removed for a weight savings of roughly 450 pounds, think of it like an American GT3RS.
GM also unveiled its new F-Body cars for 1993 which meant new versions of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Both of these American icons came with more aerodynamic styling and upgraded V8 power courtesy of GM's LT1 5.7-liter V8 making 275 horsepower and 325 lb-ft. This engine was coupled to an optional six-speed Borg-Warner gearbox at no additional cost.
GM also had a new aluminum DOHC V8, the Cadillac Northstar. This 32-valve beauty was unveiled in the 1993 Cadillac Allante and it spread like wildfire across the Cadillac lineup.
1994: Chevrolet Resurrects the Impala SS
While the Impala name had been gone since 1985, the Caprice had soldiered on as Chevy's big car for the populous, but in 1994, Chevy decided that the Caprice needed a tuneup, so they blacked out everything and threw the parts bin at it and what remained when the smoke cleared was the 1994 Impala SS.
This absolutely massive car used GM's LT1 V8 just like the Camaro and FIrebird except this time it was stuck with the four-speed automatic instead of the Borg-Warner six-speed manual. The engine was also re-tuned to produce 260 horsepower and 330 lb-ft. The performance differences come from using cast iron heads instead of the aluminum ones on the Camaro and Corvette, but also a camshaft that was designed for low-end torque. So while GM was patting itself on the back for engineering this muscle car renaissance, all they really did was rebadge the Caprice and give it the engine from the Camaro.
To be fair to the Impala SS, a lot of it had to do with the redesigned Panther bodies becoming the cop car of choice, and GM having too many 9C1 cop packages for the lack of Caprice cop cars.
1995: Chrysler Launches A Crapton of New Cars
1995 was an exciting year for the average buyer, with a bunch of new sedans and coupes being launched by Chrysler in the form of the Dodge/Plymouth/Chrysler Neon, the Plymouth Breeze, Dodge Stratus, Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring. The Sebring would acquire a convertible top and an entirely different body style in 1996, while the coupe maintained a similar look to the Avenger.
On the larger end of the market, Chevrolet renamed the K5 Blazer as the Tahoe and introduced a four-door version alongside the traditional two-door SUV. Ford also updated the Explorer and Explorer Sport SUVs for 1995 to do battle with the second generation S-10 Blazer which was new for 1995 as well.
1996: Twister Helps Chrysler's Resurgence
Twister is a great movie that features Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as professional storm chasers. The tornadoes play second fiddle to the impressive fleet of Chrysler products that are featured throughout the film, such as Bill Harding's Dodge Ram 3500 V10 Club Cab. Helen Hunt's character also drove a 1982 Jeep J-10 Honcho, so there's that. The corporate ties go even further than that, because Bill mentions that his rival in the film acquired corporate sponsors, all of which were GM vehicles, with the exception of a handful of new 1996 Dodge Caravans. That's the icing on the corporate cake right there.
Although Chrysler did all of this showboating in 1995 and 1996, the best selling car for 1996 was the new third-generation Ford Taurus.
1997: LS's....LS's Everywhere
While the Kyle Ferlita was officially unveiled for the 1997 model year, the LS1 was also launched, attached to the new fifth-generation Corvette. Yes, I wrote that correctly. While the C5 Corvette is beautiful and the 345 horsepower is incredible, it would be absolutely hiliarious to not acknowledge the origin's of America's finest family of V8's. GM wanted to make sure everyone knew about the wonders of the LS1, so they put in the Camaro and Firebird in 1998.
Plymouth also kicked off the retro hot rod craze with the 1997 Prowler. While the 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic were hardly the tire-squealing kind of powerplant you'd expect from the Deuce Coupe-esque look, it was the first to a retro-themed party that would include the PT Cruiser, Chevy SSR and HHR and even the Ford Thunderbird, more on that later though.
1998: Airbags became mandated
Cars tend to crash a lot, and because of this, airbags were made a standard feature across all US passenger cars after it was mandated on September 1st, 1998. This was a replacement to the rule that a passive restraint system (those auto-positioning seatbelts) could be used to bypass the need of a driver's side airbag. This affected a lot of steering control placements, and in several cases, removed steering wheel controls entirely. While several manufacturers had already been including driver's side airbags, passenger side airbags were often placed right into the dashboard without much thought.
Obviously this is a great thing, because it made cars a lot safer, and it's not every model year that the consumer gets a new safety feature as standard.
1999: Ford, Lincoln and Jaguar show off their new friendship
1999 was a huge year for Ford. With the new millennium right around the corner, the brand launched a new generation of the Taurus, unveiled the Thunderbird concept (which looks exactly like the eleventh generation), and launched the Excursion, an absolutely massive SUV. At Lincoln, the LS sedan was launched. With absolutely no relation to GM's LS V8, the LS featured a 3.9-liter DOHC V8 built specfically for Ford and Lincoln by Jaguar. This quad-cam V8 gave the T-Bird concept an impressive 280 horsepower and 286 lb-ft.
A lot of stuff happened in the 1990's, and as I wrote year to year, more and more things came up, and if I crammed all of it into this post, it would be twice as long as it now. From the boxy luxury sedans of 1990 to the sleek retro lines of the 1999 T-Bird concept, the auto industry was never the same again after the 90's, and with the downsizing that occurred in the mid 2000's, there's even less to love about American cars nowadays. It's a shame, because although we have models like the Demon and Hellcats, we don't have a HEMI Cuda to go with it, in the same sense that we don't have a Trans Am to gawk at alongside the Camaro.
Did I miss your favorite 90's memory? Comment them below!