What Are The Best 1990s Cars?
Here are our choices for the ten best cars from the 1990s. We tried to pick a good representation of what Americans were driving during that decade, not just the coolest cars.
1994 Chevy Impala SS
Have you ever wished that you could drive a finely tuned police cruiser? Well, Chevrolet gave their customers that chance in 1994. When the Impala SS model came out, the production model was heavily based on the Caprice law enforcement package, and buyers snatched up the car during its three-year run, primarily for its muscle car capabilities.
A 5.7L small block V8 delivered 260 hp (the LT1 was also used in the Corvette and Camaro). The Impala developed a reputation for being bullet-proof, as a daily driver that was sneakingly fast. The car could move down the strip at a blistering 7 seconds. With its spacious interiors, a firm grasp on the road, and exceptional power under the hood, this seventh-generation Impala SS was the king of the road for the mid-90s.
While only 6k units were sold the first year, once the word got out, Impala sold more than 21k the next year. While GM discontinued the B-body line to free up assembly space for more profitable SUVs, there was a rumor that law enforcement agencies asked them to kill the Impala because they knew their cruisers would be evenly matched.
- The ‘94 Impala SS proved that the muscle car era was not dead.
- The four-door sedan was based on the Caprice Police Interceptor package.
1996 Chrysler Town and Country
When Chrysler brought the third-generation mini-van in 1995, the market segment was flooded with competitors. The Dodge Caravan, Mercury Villager, Ford Aerostar, and Chevy Lumina APV, were just a few of the models competing for family dollars.
The 1996 Town and Country would help reestablish their dominance in the minivan market. The van was completely redesigned, with a driver’s side sliding door, new easy-to-remove roller seats, and two competent V6 engines.
What makes the Town and Country special is the amenities that they offer. Leather seating surfaces, programable driver's seat, mirror, upgraded Infinity sound, and the choice of sizes (long-wheelbase or a shorter version). While motoring your family style and comfort was more expensive than other competitors, the $27,818 MSRP didn’t dissuade customers from purchasing it.
- The 1996 Town and Country was a best-selling minivan that combined luxury with functionality.
1997 Chevrolet Corvette
When Chevrolet finally brought out the new generation C5 Corvette in 1997 after a series of delays, Corvette lovers rejoiced. The new sportscar was a radical shift from the previous generation with a new hydroformed body that improved its structural stability, a relocated transmission providing better weight distribution, and a new LS1 V8 engine. The result was instant. Customers started flocking to the Corvette, snatching up all the 9,732 units the first year and over 30k every year the C5 was in production.
The LS1 V8 was a small block engine, but it was no slouch. The motor produced 345 hp combined with the Borg Warner T-56 six-speed manual transmission. The Corvette motored along at 175 mph top speed, which put it in Porsche Boxster or Dodge Viper territory.
The interior featured electronic dash instrumentation, with aircraft cockpit high backed seats, tilt steering wheel, and center console standard, while leather seats, air conditioning, and the Delco-Bose audio system with wrap-around sound were available options.
Chevrolet offered the ‘97 Corvette for a mere $38,365, which was fairly hefty, but the sportscar was well-received and thrilled Chevrolet Corvette owners to no end.
- The 97 Chevy Corvette was one of the iconic cars of the 1990s.
- The Corvette C5 was the ultimate high-performance sports car.
1993 Mazda Miata M-5
When Mazda produced the M=5 in 1989, they knew that they had an exciting little sports car on their hands. In 1993, the Miata acquired a 1.8L four-cylinder engine with 116 horsepower. The base model didn’t have power steering or power brakes. Regardless of the lack of amenities, Mazda sold nearly 21k units in the US market in 1993.
The Mazda Miata M-5 was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic as an option, and the interior was sparse similar to many European sports cars. The basic formula of a low-riding sports car was a blast to drive, and the MSRP of $15k made it an attractive option for many American buyers. The car won numerous awards during its first generation production, including Car of the Year (Automobile Magazine) and the top ten list from 1990 - 92 from Car and Driver.
- The ‘93 Miata is the poor man’s sports car, and it was fun to drive with a reliable engine that was impossible to kill.
- The first-generation Miata is a peppy little sports car that could rival faster cars.
1996 Toyota Rav 4
The Rav 4 debuted in the US at the beginning of 1996. Toyota recognized the growing number of customers who wanted the benefits of an SUV with the maneuverability of a small compact. They built the RAV4 on the Corolla platform, borrowed the engine from the Camry, and used the transmission from the Celica. While the RAV4 might have been an assortment of other cars, it was considered the first-ever compact SUV. Owners were thrilled when the small SUV got great fuel economy while providing customers with some cargo space for small projects on the weekends. The car proved an excellent city driver, and nearly 57k units were sold in the first year.
The Rav4 was named the Automobile of the Year in 1997. Powered with a 2.0L four-cylinder engine, the motor was capable for most situations. The small “Recreational Activity Vehicle” proved enough to motivate suburbanites to drive to work and on weekend trips through the mountains or at the beach. The RAV4 had a choice of 2WD or 4WD options, and to combat complaints about cargo space, the company issued a four-door version shortly after the initial launch.
Safety features were among the most beautiful things about the RAV4 (other than it was the first compact SUV made) were safety features. The small RAV4 had standard anti-lock brakes and vehicle stability control (one of the first vehicles to install it as standard equipment).
- The 1996 Toyota RAV4 is the first compact SUV made
1992 Ford Taurus
While the Taurus was released in the late eighties, it wasn’t until the early nineties that it reached its dominance as the best-selling car in America for five straight years (1992 - ‘96). In 1992, the Taurus entered its second generation, with a new body style, increased wheelbase, and a new V6 engine as the only option. While Ford offered a passenger airbag option for ‘92, the company made it a standard feature the next year.
The V6 engine came in two sizes, the 3.0L and 3.8 SHO. The standard engine was the 3.0L produced 140 hp and was more than enough to satisfy most owners. The V6 produced decent fuel economy averaging over 27 mpg on the highway.
The Taurus sold more than 1.4 million units. Unfortunately, Ford completely changed the look of the Taurus in 1996, and customers hated the new design. Ford was relegated to palming off almost 51% of sales to fleet markets to hold on to its top ranking. It wasn’t long before the Toyota Camry dethroned the Taurus.
- The second-generation Taurus sold over 1.4 million units and was the best-selling car in the early nineties.
1990 Honda Accord
The nineties were the decade that Americans flocked to imports more than they ever had before. The reliability of Japanese models like Honda, Toyota, and Nissan began to gobble up the marketplace and, more importantly, consumer dollars. If you’re looking for a car that started the import flood, a great example is the fourth-generation Honda Accord.
Honda redesigned the Accord for the ‘90 model year, making the car much larger than previous generations. The car took on a more international look, increasing the interior volume for both the driver and passengers and helping it become the ultimate road car. The windshield offered greater visibility, and new anti-corrosion compounds helped protect the exterior. The trim level was streamlined to 3 easy models, a base DX, mid-LX, and an EX model with the most bells and whistles.
The US market model featured a new aluminum 2.2L F22A electronically injected inline four-cylinder, which produced 125 hp. Unlike the ‘89 model, the 2.2L was angled slightly toward the rear to balance the car better. Paired with a standard 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic, the car motored down American highways capturing the attention of growing families as it did. The real attraction of the Accord was that American families were purchasing a capable, well-sized vehicle that could also save money at the pump (26 mpg hwy). For many, it was a perfect automotive trifecta.
While the base model didn’t have things like cruise or air, the top two trims did. Power brakes, power windows, powered shoulder safety belts, and power locks were also standard on the LX and EX trims. Other dealer-installed options were a CD player or six-CD changer (instead of the standard cassette), an equalizer, and a security system.
The Accord sold 417k units in 1990 the US market alone, not counting international sales.
- The 1990 Honda Accord debuted as the fourth generation of Accord, having debuted in the US in 1976.
- The 90 Accord was larger with more interior volume changing it from a compact car to a mid-sized sedan.
1993 Dodge Viper
When the Viper debuted in 1992, there was only one goal - speed. The 8.0L V10 engine was more than a beast, producing 400 hp and 465 lb/ft of torque, clocking a 0-60 mph time in 4.6 seconds. The Viper had a top speed of 165 mph, which made it one of the best dream cars, but it quickly developed a reputation for being hard to handle at high speeds. Over the years, the Viper became one of the most dangerous sports cars ever. Never before had such a car earned this kind of distinction.
Part of the reason the car developed the reputation for crashing might have been its lack of safety features that were standard equipment in most other cars. The Viper had no exterior door locks, Antilock brakes, stability control, airbags, or electronics or comforts like air conditioning (weight issue). The exterior of the Viper was a simple tubular frame with fiberglass composite panels attached. While using these materials helped lighten the car's weight, it provided no barrier in an accident. (As a production car, the Dodge Viper was rushed off the assembly line, and compromises were made for speed).
To help ease the effect that a no-frills sports car might have on an American car enthusiast, Dodge put lumbar support in the driver’s seat, a clock, AM/FM radio, and wall-to-wall carpeting. This ensured drivers could at least be comfortable listening to their favorite song when they lost control of their car.
In the first year (1992), only 287 Vipers were delivered, but sales increased in subsequent years, with 1,043 units in ‘93 and over 3k in ‘94. The Viper would go through several generations and continue to be made by Dodge until its retirement in 2017. Many collectors of performance cars are partial to the first generation of Dodge Viper as the most valuable.
- The Gen 1 Viper is considered one of the most dangerous cars ever produced.
1993 Lincoln Mark VIII
Known for making quality luxury vehicles for decades, Lincoln had an identity crisis in the early 90s. They sought to compete with other international luxury brands like BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes and needed a fresh offering to attract the attention of affluent buyers. The Mark VIII was the answer to whether American car companies could compete in the segment, and with its solid engine, rear-wheel drive, and luxurious features attracted nearly 30k units a year.
The Mark VIII featured several safety features, including dual-side airbags, crumple zones, and anti-lock brakes for each wheel. The active suspension system adjusted the ride height as the vehicle’s speed increased so that the car’s aerodynamics improved. The vehicle had an all-aluminum V8 (the first car to carry this engine for Ford) that produced 280 hp, required premium fuel, and came with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
With an MSRP of $37k, the car was surprisingly affordable. Considering that the average price for a Mercedes was nearly double that amount, Americans turned to Lincoln as a way of having a luxury sedan without having to bust the bank.
- The 93 Mark VIII was larger than the previous Mark VII.
1996 Ford Explorer
While Ford enjoyed success with the first generation Explorer released in 1991, most felt that the SUV didn’t separate itself from the Ranger pickup far enough. The second generation debuted in 1995 and sought to correct the deficiencies with a new exterior look and a new powerplant (1996). Ford understood that the compact SUV was quickly becoming the vehicle of choice for many modern families, and they wanted to keep the Explorer rolling.
Following competitors' lead who offered larger V8 engines, Ford inserted the 5.0L V8 as an option for the ‘96 XLT model. While the engine could muster a respectable 210 horsepower, it wasn’t as powerful as their V8 truck engines, and some customers found it lacking. (One of the concerns of early Explorers was roll-over issues due to the SUV’s top-heavy construction). Just to help the public’s perspective, Ford installed dual airbags, the first mass-produced SUV to do so.
Ford offered several trim levels, including the XLT, Eddie Bauer, Limited, and Sport. The Explorer sold over 400k units during the 1996 model year, which kept it firmly entrenched as the best-selling SUV.