Like the 1980s, the 1990s brought with it some interesting sleds. There were diamond-in-the-rough sports coupes that, with some slight modification, got past those pesky restrictive intake and exhaust systems. There were rare performance models, and unreliable German cooling and electric systems in some of the most expensive cars, and awkward body styling that seemed to be clinging to simpler, wilder 1980s boxy tropes.
In the end, here’s our pick of some of the most iconic cars from the 1990s:
Classified as a grand touring luxury coupe, the Lincoln Mark VIII was a proper sleeper. Unassuming from just looking at its simple and sleek body style, there was not a lot of flair mucking up the Mark VIII’s appearance. Under the hood, however, rumbled the ferocity of a police car engine, the 4.6-liter Ford Modular V8.
It was like the Mustang engine, except it was all-aluminum, had dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, coming together to make 290 horsepower, sent to the rear wheels. Never losing its identity as a luxury grand touring coupe, the Lincoln Mark VIII only came with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
Luxury cars are built to be, above all things, comfortable and packed with amenities. By all accounts the Lincoln Mark VIII accomplished this in spades. The interior is cozy and quiet, with adjustable leather seats and soft instrument lighting for driving home at night after a cocktail party.
It’s engine accelerated the car smoothly, and packed enough power to send the Mark VIII to 60 MPH in 7.5 seconds, and a quarter mile time of just under 16 seconds. Admittedly this isn’t terribly quick, but, fitted with a manual transmission you can bet a Mark VIII would improve. Then again, that’s not really the point of a luxury car.
Just barely making the cut is the 1999 Mercedes E55 AMG. This was a sedan with a big 5.4-liter V8 producing 350 horsepower, and from a dig could shred multiple layers of tire tread. Extremely controllable even in the wet, the E55 AMG boasted comfortable, electronic, adjustable and heated leather seats, wood trim and automatic climate control. It could have a 5-speed automatic transmission, a brake assist system and electronic stability control.
Despite its performance figures the E55 AMG is first and foremost a luxury sedan, and thus it behaves like one but with a little extra kick. The E55 will swing it’s tail out around a corner with proper right-foot motivation, however its open-slip differential will promptly straighten out the car, even without traction control on. That said it’s extraordinarily smooth, performs well in the rain, and even with worn tires holds traction.
There were better, more interesting sport coupes that came out of the 1990s, but not all were as exciting as Mitsubishi’s Eclipse GSX. If you’re about to go out and buy one of these, pay close attention to those last three letters. After all, there were multiple model variants, all vastly different. The Eclipse RS was the base model, and came with a 140 horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four engine and was front wheel drive, the GS-T was a turbocharged version of the RS producing 210 horsepower, and the GSX is the AWD version of the GS-T.
The GSX seemed big to drive, but weighed very little (around 3,200 pounds), and although it was a bit rough around the corners it felt planted and controlled. The GSX could come with a manual transmission, which was eventually plagued with grinding gear changes. Running the engine hard could warrant the turbo manifold to glow bright red. Certainly an exciting car for any sports coupe enthusiast.
Possibly the most interesting car on this list is, surprisingly, a Volvo. The 850R featured a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-five which produced about 250 horsepower. In the US market the car could only come with an automatic transmission, but that didn’t stop it from reaching 60 MPH in less than seven seconds. Packed with safety features like side impact protection and traction control, the 850R continues Volvo’s long safety-clad tradition of making cars able to withstand severe beatings.
The 850 R handled well for its size and was about as practical as can be, with more than ample rear passenger leg room and more than 60 cubic feet of cargo space. Interior design suffered some horrible deformities including brightly colored wood trim and a contrasting black and tan steering wheel. For all its simplicity and family-oriented practicality, the 850 R provides some driver-centric entertainment, especially carving mountain passes after the rest of the family has fallen asleep.
The 1990s also introduced the first Honda Odyssey to North America. Since its debut, it’s hailed as one of the best minivans of all time. There are plenty of reasons for this as well. It makes decent power, gas mileage and has fields of space available for families and their camping gear.
Dating back to its modest upbringing, at the end of its first generation the Odyssey was pushing 150 horsepower with a VTEC engine. However, when the 1998 model year rolled around it got a brand new 3.5-liter V6 engine producing more than 200 horsepower. The Odyssey had more than 50 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down. In other words, plenty of room even by today’s standards.
For a truck that’s just a truck and nothing else, it’s hard to beat the Ford F-250 from the mid-1990s. Equipped with a 7.3-liter V8 Power Stroke Turbodiesel engine the F-250 could haul not just your house but the plot of land it sits on. Its engine produced more than 200 horsepower, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it also made over 400 lb-ft of torque. Gas mileage was awful, and you needed a ladder to climb into one, but once you sat behind the wheel there was no mistaking its self-awareness as an omnipresent beast.
1990s cars were almost tamer, but at the same time better than their 1980s ancestors. In the 1990s there was a huge change from OBD1 computers to OBD2, where it was a more comprehensive system that could more accurately diagnose engine problems and behaviors. With that came a more complex emissions system, so the trade-off makes the mid-late 1990s harder to smog, and the older cars harder to justify. The 1990s could be categorized as a transitional period for cars, but there were a few that made the most of it.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.