Some things from the 90s are best forgotten, but these cars should be remembered forever.
The 90s brought us both the end of a century and the last of the truly analog driving experiences for road cars. Manual transmissions got better MPGs than their automatic counterparts and electronic driving aids were still in their infancy. In the final decade of the millennium, if a car had a turbo, it wasn't to aid fuel efficiency. The days of boxy straight edges in car design were over and aerodynamic curves were back. Most importantly for the enthusiast though, technology caught up with the aggressive emissions legislation that hamstrung performance cars through the 70s and 80s.
If you were there, the 90s were a wonderful time to be buying a new car and there's still a long list of machinery from that decade that holds up well today.
The third generation FD version has become the stuff of legends and was in production from 1992 through to 2002. Not only did the FD RX-7 feature Mazda's pioneering Wankel rotary engine, but used a sequential twin-turbocharger system. One turbo produces boost at low revs and the other activates at full-throttle and in the upper half of the rpm range. That 225 horsepower always being on tap and mixed with the exceptional handling cemented the RX-7 as a no-compromise sports car and one of the best-balanced cars of all time.
The LS 400 is the car that stamped the word Lexus on the luxury market. The first generation arrived at the end of the 80s and was received warmly as Japan's first world-class luxury car, and then the second generation debuted in November 1994 with a massive redesign that set a whole new standard. The end result was an over-engineered masterpiece that you can still find on the road with crazy high-mileage and a ride quality that embarrasses many cars you see on car dealer's lots today.
The E39 BMW M5 dropped in 1998 as a spacious luxury sedan with a 400-horsepower V8, a slick 6-speed manual transmission, and sublime handling. It wasn't the first M5, but it set the standard by which all future family sized sport sedans would be measured against. Even now, 20 years later, the E39 M5 holds up as a masterpiece of style, comfort, and handling. Plus, its 0–60 mph time of 4.8 seconds means that by today's standards it's still a quick car.
Amongst all of Ferrari's mid-engined road and track destroying monsters, it's easy to forget the Italian legend has given the world some masterfully designed and built front-engined grand tourers. Machines that are as comfortable stretching their legs and carving their way elegantly through a long and winding scenic road as they are thrashing around a purpose-built track.
The 550 holds up as a timeless Pininfarina body design and has a 5.5-liter V12 engine that will never go out of fashion. Don't be fooled by its age, as even today the 550 Maranello has a wicked turn of speed and was designed to be Ferrari's best-performing road car that wasn't the F50.
The Viper was, in essence, a concept car Dodge built and then just kept on building. Originally, Chrysler president Bob Lutz wanted to build a modern version of the Shelby Cobra - a small rear wheel drive 2-seater with a V8 shoehorned under the hood. Chrysler owned Lamborghini at the time and asked them to build a prototype engine.
The end result was a light two-seater sports car with an 8.0-liter V10 thriller under the hood, no traction control, and could pull close to one lateral g in corners. To top off that recipe for insanity, you could also option side-pipes. We would certainly drive one today, albeit carefully and only in warm and dry weather after checking the tires first.
The Supra returns by popular demand in 2019, and its legend definitely proceeds it. The 2JZ engine is well known by enthusiasts for being a bulletproof 3.0-liter iron-block straight-6 and its 2JZ-GTE version is famous for being all of that but with added twin-turbochargers. In top spec, the MKIV Supra was more than capable of embarrassing the BMW M3 of the time under acceleration. That indestructible power added to the Supra's smooth looks and very capable chassis makes for one of Japan's finest sports cars to date.
While the C4 generation Corvette languishes for the most part in the bargain bin of classified adverts, the ZR1 is a sought-after gem. At the time, American engines were suffering from emissions restrictions but Chevy understood its sports car needed real power. After toying with the idea of turbocharging the existing V8, the decision was taken to develop an overhead camshaft engine at GM's Lotus plant in the UK.
The now legendary LT5 was born with 375 hp and helped build one of GM's finest cars to date. It's not an overstatement to say the C4 Corvette ZR1 could play with Ferraris that cost double to drive off of the showroom floor.
A simple, lightweight, mid-engined and reliable sports car made by Honda was developed with the help of the Formula 1 driving legend Ayrton Senna. It sounds simple, and the concept is, but in reality the brilliance of the first generation of NSX lay in the fact it was an attainable supercar and, as a result, owners drove the hell out of them while Ferrari and Lamborghini owners protected their investments.
It would be a stretch to call the NSX the first daily driver friendly supercar, but unlike its usually high-strung Italian counterparts, very few NSX drivers have been left stranded at the side of the road wondering how many thousands of dollars it was going to cost to drive their car again.
Replacing the Countach was never going to be easy, but somehow Lamborghini managed to build a new bedroom poster worthy car in the form of the Diablo. It's exaggerated proportions and scissor doors are backed up with a V12 engine capable of propelling the Diablo, in VT spec, to 60 mph in a brutal 3.4 seconds. Lamborghini also went out of its way to make the Diablo a relatively easy to drive car compared with physically demanding Countach, while also maintaining the drama and flair of its legendary predecessor.
Toyota's second generation of the economical mid-engined sports car was quickly dubbed the "Poor Man's Ferrari." While Toyota certainly "borrowed" a few design cues from the Italian supercar manufacturer, it had more in common with Honda's NSX than any of Maranello's finest. Like Honda, Toyota obsessed over the handling of the MR2 and went to the lengths of bringing in an F1 driver to help fine-tune the chassis. The end result was a sleek, mature yet fun, driver-focused, and reliable everyman's mid-engined sports car that still brings a grin on the backroads to anyone wanting to pick up a bargain.
The F1 was McLaren's first production road car and one hell of a statement of intent. As the name suggests, McLaren utilized its Formula 1 race car knowledge to build what is arguably the greatest road car ever made. Like an F1 car of the time, the driver sits in the center of the cockpit and in front of a very angry, screaming, BMW V12.
Not only was the F1 the fastest production road car for an amazing 13 years, but was also the first production car to feature a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis and use titanium, magnesium, Kevlar, and gold in a single vehicle. If that wasn't already enough to cement the F1 as a legend, it was also used as the base for McLaren's GTR race car that went out and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in its first year of racing.
We couldn't possibly see out a list of 90s cars we would drive today without including the automotive definition of a balanced sports car. In order to build the MX-5, Mazda shamelessly looked at all the classic post-war British roadsters, and then built the perfect one.
With a close-as-damnit 50:50 front/rear weight balance and neutral handling, the NA generation MX-5 is incredibly controllable and garnered nothing but praise and awards from the automotive media. The recipe is a simple one, but Mazda refined it to the point that it built both a pure driver's car and a timeless classic in one compact and lightweight unit while making sure it was both inexpensive and reliable.