For some, the 1990s seem like a lifetime ago, and for the youngest adults among us, it was a time that they never even experienced. For those boomers, Gen-Xers and members of Gen-Y who remember the 1990s well, there’s a lot of nostalgia associated with this interesting decade. It was a time of huge change, of course, particularly with the explosive growth of the Internet and personal digital devices like cell phones. It was also a great time for the automotive industry, giving us many iconic vehicles.
In today’s blog, we’re taking a look at cars from the 1990s and analyzing their place in our even more modernized society in 2021. Do any cars from that distant decade really still have a place in our uber-digital and smartphone-driven current timeframe? The answers might surprise you. To look at the cars from the 1990s, we will be dividing them into three main groups:
- 1990s cars that are still worth driving now
- 1990s cars that are worth investing in as collector cars
- 1990s cars that changed our automotive world
Let’s kick things off with some interesting facts about cars in the 1990s.
Background: 1990s Cars
What was the best-selling vehicle of the 1990s?
In the US, according to hotcars.com, the top 6 most popular cars were the Ford Bronco, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Camaro Z28, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Ford F-Series truck, and the Chevrolet Impala SS.
Caranddriver.com also did a rundown with the top-selling cars in each year. Did you graduate in any of the following 90s years? If so, you probably remember someone you know having one of these cars:
- 1990, 1991: Honda Accord – 816,476 units sold
- 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996: Ford Taurus – 1,934,551 units sold
- 1997, 1998, 1999 Toyota Camry – 1,274,893 units sold
What were the biggest and best-known brands during the 1990s?
As you can see from the best-sellers list above, the top brands were certainly Honda, Ford and Toyota, as well as other American brands like Chevrolet, and other Japanese brands like Mazda.
Japanese brands were really coming to the forefront as challengers to western favorites like Ford and Chevy. The Japanese-brand cars weren’t always as powerful or as “muscly” as their American counterparts, but that wasn’t what the Japanese valued as much. A growing market of Americans started to favor Japanese brands for their more executive styles and, of course, their superior reliability.
What world-first innovations arrived in our cars during the 1990s?
Like the decades before it, the 1990s brought a number of innovations to the automotive world. These included things like the quad turbo, a car that boasted an astonishing four turbochargers, something that had previously not been thought possible for street-legal cars.
Other innovations included the backup camera, diesel engines that used common rail direct fuel injection systems, autonomous cruise control, LED lamps, the remote keyless system, and even the world’s very first hybrid car. It was certainly an exciting decade of technology, and the first glimmer of hope that we had at making a huge difference in car emissions and fuel consumption.
Which OEM brands disappeared in the 1990s?
One brand to disappear in the 1990s was Eagle brand connected to Chrysler Jeep. It unfortunately only enjoyed a short lifespan from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, but in that time did deliver cars like the Eagle Talon and the Eagle Summit.
Eagle wasn’t the only slightly unusual brand to meet its end during the 1990s, there was also General Motors’ brand Geo, Mazda’s Eunos and Xedos, and South Korea’s Daewoo.
Right at the tail-end of the 1990s, in fact it was in the spring 2000, long-running British marque Rover was split into Land Rover, which was acquired by Ford, and MG Rover Group which operated by itself until 2005 until it too was sold to BMW, SAIC and Tata Motors.
Part 1: 1990s Cars That Are Still Worth Driving Now
Below are examples of cars from the 1990s that some are still driving around now in our world of digital instrument clusters and semi-autonomous self-driving cars. Take a look and reflect on whether or not you’ve seen any in your community. What we’ve done is mixed some that may be in their 1990s form with some that are marques/models that have stood the test of time:
1. Toyota 4Runner (1990-1995; 1996-2002)
The Toyota 4Runner actually first arrived back in the 1980s, but its second and third generation were created in the 1990s and helped to really put it on the map. The second generation came with 8 different engine options, 4 gasoline and 4 diesel ranging from 2.0L all the way up to 3.0L. All were inline-4 engines except for the one 3.0L gasoline V6 that was available.
The second generation was a bit boxy, but was rounded out and made much more stylish in the mid-1990s by the time the third generation emerged. The third-gen really captured the form a lot better by the 1996 model year, and engines were 2.7L or 3.4L gasoline or a 3.0L diesel. The powertrain was paired with either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic.
Many consider the Toyota 4Runner as one of the pioneering SUV crossover vehicles that is an “ancestor” of the modern compact crossover that is the best-selling car category in the entire world.
2. Honda Civic (1991, 1995)
Honda was one of the “big 3” Japanese brands that helped to show the world that cars did not have to break down all the time, nor did they have to consume gas as though they were drinking it through a straw. The Honda Civic was one of the best-selling units in the 1990s (not quite as big as the Accord, though)
The real triumph of the Civic wasn’t just in being a great, popular and even iconic Japanese car from the 1990s, but a still highly sought-after car in 2021. The Civic comes in various forms, including its sporty Type R with 2.0L turbocharged engine that sells for more than $37,000. Actually, to be fair, the Civic actually goes back way before the 1990s, but its fifth and sixth generations released in the 1990s were still among its most well received, having received a big facelift in both 1991 and 1995.
The hatchback had been mostly thought to be a non-American style until people clapped their eyes on the Honda Civic and opened up a whole new wing of small, city-friendly, efficient cars that would go on and on.
3. Ford F-150 (1997)
Just as the Honda Civic wasn’t “born” in the 1990s, neither was the Ford F-150, but we to include it in this list, not just for its eighth, ninth and tenth generations, which were all around in the 1990s, but for the fact that this truck not only survived and thrived in a turbulent international automotive decade like the 1990s, but also lived on to remain America’s absolute favorite pickup truck series in 2021.
The 1990s are notable for the time when the F-150 front end started to “soften” somewhat and it became more rounded. The previous generations had always been very square and boxy. The tenth generation (1997-2004) was powered by a 4.2L V6, a 4.6L V8 and a 5.4L V8. The end of the millennium also saw the arrival of the Ford F-Series Super Duty in 1999, which featured an all-new chassis, powertrain and body designed for heavy-duty work. It was more like a covered van.
4. Honda Accord (1991)
As you can see from further above, the Honda Accord was Honda’s real huge smash hit of the 1990s. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Accord was marketed as a compact car, but then in 1989 and through the 1990s it was moved up into the mid-size sedan range and everything took off from there. A total of 13 years as a compact are now viewed as a mistake as Accord celebrates 32 years as a sedan classic.
It was among the best-selling cars of the early 1990s, lauded by millions for its affordability, style, simple exteriors and surprisingly sporty performance. It didn’t look much of a sports car per se, but fans of the Japanese drifting motorsport may gain a flicker of recognition for the form that is so similar to the style of many 80s and 90s drifter cars, but just somewhat more “de-sportified.”
5. Chevrolet Corvette (1996, 1997)
The Chevy Corvette is another example not born in the 1990s, but welcoming many of its most iconic generations during that time. The C4 was released in 1984 but continued until 1996 before being replaced with the C5 in 1997. These two generations delivered some of the most distinctive looks ever seen since the original releases, especially the C3. The 1996 C4 Grand Sport in particular with its dropping front end was a major change. The C5 coupe was the same.
The Corvette enjoys true “icon” status among American cars. It’s one of those cars that has become a single word “Corvette” without worrying about the brand. It’s a world-beating brand with powerful 5.7L V8 engines, unique looks, and appearance as the pace car at the Indy 500 and other big sporting events.
6. Jeep Wrangler (1997)
The Jeep Wrangler of the 1990s was the TJ model. The YJ model had started in the mid-1980s and lived through the early 1990s, too. The TJ was powered by the AMC 242, an impressive 4.0L inline 6 engine. What’s interesting is that Wrangler in 2021 is not only still going, but it’s even more capable than ever, even though the engines have been reduced to a 2.0L and a 3.6L (that’s the JL model).
Wrangler is a true icon of off-roading and its continued run into the 21st century and continuing popularity in its latest JL generation (2018) proves that Jeep was right in the 1990s to continue developing this excellent SUV. It’s literally built for adventure.
7. BMW M Series
The 1990s delivered a number of great BMW M series cars, specially the M8 E31, the M3 E36, the M Roadster and M Coupe E36/7/8, and the M5 E39. The decade got off to a real storm when the M8 E31 launched onto the scene with its 6.0L V12 engine. Unfortunately, it never made it past the prototype stage.
The most popular 1990s M Series model was the M3 E36, powered by its either 3.0L or 3.2L Inline-6 engine and delivering 239hp and 316hp respectively. The M3 E36 from 1992 to 1999 enjoyed a production run of more than 70,000 models, making it one of the most successful M Series cars of all time. The sales record of this 1990s classic BMW has never been surpassed. It’s no wonder people still love to drive them now.
Part 2: 1990s Cars That Are Worth Investment
Below are examples of cars from the 1990s that are still currently quite affordable to purchase, but that experts believe are the ones with the potential to appreciate in value given more time. If you’re in the market for a longer-term car investment, then consider the following models and snap one up:
1. Saab 900 Turbo Convertible (1991-1993)
Estimated Price: $5,000
You could pick up one of these classic Swedish models for a song at just $5,000. They were popular in northern Europe and parts of America and Canada back in the day because they were engineered to thrive in the harshest winters imaginable.
Particular variants you might look out for include the more “classic” 900 convertible from 1991, which was the first one to receive a fuel-injected 2.1L naturally aspirated engine. You should then explore the variants from the early 1990s before the Saab was converted into the Saab 900 NG in 1994. The NG had design influences from GM to help give it more “mass appeal” but many see this generation as the end of the “true” Saab, which was much more driven by technology.
2. Mazda MX-5 (1991)
Estimated Price: $4,000
Undoubtedly one of the cutest and most iconic convertible cars ever made, inspired by the British roadsters of the 1960s. The first MX-5s arrived in 1989, but by the early 1990s they were much more established. They featured a 1.6L four-cylinder engine and outputted around 110hp altogether.
The MX-5 is light, nimble and fun to drive. The 1990s models were much more rounded and less “edgy’ than their modern counterparts. An MX-5 from that early generation would represent an excellent investment opportunity for anyone, especially with a starting price of just $4,000.
3. Toyota Land Cruiser (1994)
Estimated Price: $6,000
One of Japan’s most iconic — if not THE most iconic — SUVs ever made. The 1990s Land Cruisers were made well into the “Comfort” era of Land Cruiser, well after it had exited the hard off-road arena where it used to compete with the likes of the Wrangler and the Land Rover Defender.
The 1990s models include the J80, which was released in 1990, and the J100, which was released in 1998. The best one is the 1994 model, which is particularly memorable for the introduction of a special edition model known as “Blue Marlin.” They were initially for the Australian market, so you might struggle to find a left-hand wheel version. It was powered by a 4.5L straight-6 gasoline DOHC engine. It outputted 212hp.
Blue Marlin was an Aussie adventure ideal, but it was still primarily a comfort model, complete with disc brakes, leather gear shifter and steering wheel, central locking, leather interiors, chrome handles, CD player, ABS and much more.
4. BMW E30 325i Convertible (1990)
Estimated Price: $5,500
If you’ve seen modern BMWs, you’ll notice that the iconic kidney grille on the front of the car is getting ever larger. It’s increasingly as though the “kidneys” are being swollen with water to find kidney stones. The older 1990 E30 3 Series 325i convertible is a steal at $5,500 (estimated). It runs a 2.5L straight-six engine under the hood, which many consider to be one of the best engines that BMW have ever made.
The one tricky thing about picking up a 1990 E30 is that there are probably more poorly kept and poorly maintained vehicles than there are good ones. If you fancy a classic that you can fix up yourself, then it makes a good project. It won’t be cheap, though. To finish up with one of the most iconic BMWs in great working order however could prove a good investment in the long term.
5. Jaguar XJS Convertible (1994)
Estimated Price: $6,500
When people think of “classic” Jaguars they may think of the E-Type, but when you’re in the 1990s, the 1994 XJS was shamed by some for never being able to live up to the name of the E-Type. There was a time when the estimated price we wrote on this entry went as low as $1,000.
As with many things, however, there has been a shift in fashion. One generation’s trash is another’s cool, retro must-have automotive machine. Prices have already started rising, so if you’re going to get the most of an investment in the XJS convertible, now is the time to snap one up.
Part 3: 1990s Cars That Changed Our Automotive World
Next, we’re looking at cars first released during the 1990s that have helped to shape the market in some interesting or significant way. It could be due to technological firsts, or through some element of their design or function:
1. Toyota Prius (1997)
The Prius sits atop this list despite being among the newest of the innovations. Why? Despite the extraordinary amount of derision the car has received from the likes of British “Top Gear” icon host Jeremy Clarkson and his minions over the years, as well as the mockery it received for being so adopted by Hollywood celebrities in an effort to “look green,” the Prius as a game changer cannot be denied.
The hybrid technology that Toyota introduced in the Prius spawned an entirely new category of cars that now many other companies are trying to offer. As we gradually shift to electric cars, many OEMs are just in recent years starting to introduce hybrid models and BEVs. Toyota was first on the hybrid train.
2. Bugatti EB110 (1991)
Further above we mentioned new technology that emerged during the 1990s. One of them was the quad-turbo, which was first adopted into the 1991 Bugatti EB110. This Bugatti proved that you could have a street-legal car with four turbochargers inside. The question is, will we get to six turbochargers next as a street-legal standard? Perhaps we don’t need to.
3. Toyota Soarer (1991)
This humble-looking sedan car from Toyota may not look very special on the surface. It may look like just another 1990s sedan like the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry. But the Soarer was harboring a fantastic on-board secret, which was the fact that it was the first vehicle ever to integrate a backup camera.
That such a seemingly modern standard feature of a car in 2021 can trace its origins 30 years back to 1991 may surprise some, though fewer would be surprised to learn the innovation came from Japanese Toyota.
4. Alfa Romeo 156 2.4 JTD (1997)
What was so special about an Alfa Romeo? The brand has been dogged with quality issues for years now. Back in the late 1990s, however, the Alfa Romeo 156 revealed a diesel model, the 2.4 JTD, which was the first car ever to make use of a rail direct fuel-injection system. It was this system that was dubbed “the modern diesel” that proved you could have a diesel engine that was efficient and even economical.
5. Mercedes-Benz W220 (1998)
Over its many decades in development, the eclectic range of Mercedes-Benz sedans and other cars have delivered many innovations. Two of them were found in the 1998 W220, namely autonomous cruise control, which you could even argue is a predecessor to Tesla’s now iconic Autopilot technology.
A second innovation was a remote keyless system, a brand-new never-before-seen concept that would set in motion a technology that would gleefully free up hands across the world as it was more widely implemented across other brands. In 2021, keyless technology has already reached dizzying heights, of course.
Conclusion: The Go-Go ‘90s Were a Great Automotive Decade
Whichever way you look at it, the 1990s were simply a great decade of achievement for the automotive industry. With so many technological firsts, and the arrival of so many iconic marques which went on to become so formative and influential in forming the market in 2021, it’s hard for any generation to deny its power and meaning.
If you’re an aspiring collector, don’t simply look to those seemingly more romantic distant decades like the 1960s and 1970s. There are indeed cars from that period that have gained great value and are stunning to behold, but those too were once “new and/or recent” cars. They’ve had their time to appreciate, and so it’s time to look to more recent decades for new potential investments. The 1990s is best-placed to deliver great-value investments.
Play your cards right and one day in the not-too-distant future you might find yourself with a very valuable automotive asset sitting in your garage. If you’re not an investor, hopefully today’s blog has been a nostalgic walk down memory lane.