Following our 2019 coverage, we wanted to see what was new in 1999.
New York is one of the greatest cities in the world. At least, that's what New Yorkers will always tell you. They have great pizza, they have Broadway, luxury hotels, fantastic architecture, a liberal dash of skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, and Central Park. Whether you want the best and most varied experiences in food, entertainment, shopping, being insulted, or getting mugged, New York has it all. Most interesting to us though, it also has the annual New York Auto Show.
This year there were 4 floors stacked full of cutting edge design, creativity, innovation, and the Mazda CX-5 diesel. We were there to catch it all but now its all over and the jet lag is gone, we started talking about what cars looked like today and how the last 20 years has seen such a crazy pace of development and shifting of tastes. Here are the standouts, good and bad, of what was showing at the 1999 New York Auto Show.
The Aurora was a big swing for the fences for Oldsmobile when it was on the verge of disappearing. At that point it was at best a middle-management brand and, at worst, just making fleet cars to stay afloat. It was a brand needing an image change, and fast. The first generation Aurora was actually a great car and sold well. It was, as the weird adverts tried to tell us, "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" and in 1995 it didn't even look like an Oldsmobile. It also had a slightly detuned Northstar V8, plenty of new technology, and a well crafted and luxurious interior.
The second generation was what showed up in New York in 1999 and its reception was tepid. Ultimately, Oldsmobile didn't do enough to keep it fresh and learned the hard way one good car isn't enough to save a brand.
Another brand we've since lost was also in New York in 1999. Saab brought along the 9-3, which was essentially a refreshed and renamed Saab 90. The Viggen version, named after the aerospace division's jet fighter, was the fastest of Saab's cars and was remarkably powerful for a turbocharged 4-cylinder car at the time. It was front wheel drive, which meant it had a tree-seeking level of torque steer to go along with all the typical Saab quirks and features.
Saturn also still existed and was exploding into its modern expansion era with a virtuoso display of mediocrity. Everything about the L-Series was average from the still new company that had promised: "Everything at Saturn is new: the car, the plant, the workforce, the dealer network and the manufacturing process." The most interesting fact we found about the L-Series is that it was based off of the same European Opel Vectra chassis as the Saab 9-3 and they also shared the same manual transmission.
BMW showed off its new E46 lineup and introduced the new coupe version of the 3-Series to America in 1999. BMW also showed off some updates to the Z3 at the show and announced the pricing for the now legendary E39 M5 that landed in the US later that year.
At a press conference during the show, Nissan announced that the Z was returning. Journalists were speculating as to whether it might have a French flavor in its styling due to the partnership that had just been struck between Nissan and Renault. There was also speculation if the new Z would actually have the retro styling of the 240Z concept shown at Detroit the previous year, and what powerplant Nissan was going to use. The answers were: No, the 350Z didn't look particularly French, it didn't feature much in the way of retro-styling, and only came with a 3.5-liter V6.
Mitsubishi was still a real player in the automotive game in 1999. The third generation Mitsubishi Eclipse showed up at the New York show on its new platform shared with the Gallant. There was hope among people covering the event that an all-wheel-drive option might be announced, but that never happened. The Eclispse did get a V6 engine to replace the 4-cylinder turbo though and, overall, received a positive reception.
Remember that time when Buick lit up the New York Auto Show in 1999 with the cleverly named Century Edition of the brands 2000 model? Of course, nobody does. It was a mediocre car about as forgettable as whatever that Saturn model was earlier in the list. According to a review at the time, the "3100 V6 provides crisp, authoritative response," so that was nice. But the headline was that the V6 also got 30 miles per gallon.
The review also goes on to say: "... the Buick Century looks backward to the sensibility expressed in earlier American large sedans, not forward to the more international vision of the fully balanced sedan of the future. For now, Buick is successfully finding car buyers whose values are rooted in the past. But if Buick is to attract new customers, then it must begin producing cars that look enthusiastically to the future."
Unfortunately, Buick never really took that advice.
The Cayenne was still a few years off, but in 1999 the ball was rolling. Fred Schwab, then president of Porsche Cars North America, revealed at the 1999 New York Auto Show that a new SUV being developed with Volkswagen would be arriving in 2002. It was reported there would be a slightly different version of the SUV with a VW badge as well. Although it was built on a Volkswagen Group platform, we're not sure the Cayenne would have been as successful had there been a direct Volkswagen brother diluting the exclusivity of the Porsche badge.
When we talk about the cars that killed Pontiac, the Aztek is number one on the list. Number two is debatable, but the Sunfire is a candidate. It went through three refreshes, and the second was shown at the New Auto Show in 1999. The ugly car got uglier as Pontiac threw it's plastic cladding at the Sunfire while maintaining it's terrible build quality, shoddy interior, and lazy paint colors. It was, at its heart, a Chevy Cavalier but somehow worse.
Infiniti was only ten years old in 1999. For the 2000 model year the luxury arm of Nissan listened to criticism that the I30 looked too much like the Nissan Maxima, and along with a restyle on its new platform, also gave it a more powerful engine. It was going head to head with the Lexus ES300 and Acura 3.2TL at the time, and the general consensus was that the I30 wasn't as comfortable as the Lexus or as sporty as the Acura.