The 1990s, in many ways, represent the light at the end of the tunnel. Automotive engineers spent the 1970s reacting to new safety and emissions regulations, along with higher fuel prices. They spent the 1980s devising ways to overcome these realities; and in the 1990s, their work began to bear fruit. Turbocharging, more efficient induction and exhaust strategies, lighter components, and more aerodynamic styling; essentially all of the strategies we see as commonplace today were actually first put into play in the 1990s. The decade was the beginning of the second golden age of automotive performance, the one we’re still enjoying to this day.
Throwback Thursdays: Cool Cars From The 1990s
1990 Acura NSX
The first Japanese mid-engined exotic car featured an aluminum body, suspension system and engine. The rear drive two seater also employed ABS, titanium connecting rods, and variable valve timing. Its 3.0-liter V6 boasted an 8,000-rpm redline with which it made 270 horsepower and 210 ft-lbs of torque to propel a curb weight of 3,010 pounds. A true exotic sports car, the F-16 fighter jet inspired the Acura’s low-slung styling. Introduced in 1990 in Japan as a Honda product, the car came to North America in 1991 as an Acura.
Photo Credit: Steven N. Severinghaus
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
A double overhead cam 5.7-liter 32-valve V8 good for 380 horsepower and 370 ft-lbs of torque was a really big deal back in 1990 when the “King of The Hill” Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 debuted. Frankly, 380 horsepower is still quite respectable to this day. This was the first Corvette to employ double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and tuned length intake runners. Anyone with any knowledge of Corvettes knows prior to the 1990 ZR-1 the ‘Vette always used two-valve pushrod V8s. Chevrolet’s engineers worked with Lotus Engineering to develop the engine, which was then built by Mercury Marine.
1990 Infiniti Q45
The shot that should have been heard all around the world was muffled by one of the most bungled advertising campaigns in automotive history. The 1990 Infiniti Q45 used a 278-horsepower 4.5-liter V8 with 292 ft-lbs of torque. The engine was both extremely smooth and exceptionally powerful for the time. The Q45 also boasted one of the most luxurious interiors ever seen in a popularly priced luxury automobile. Its ride and handling were sublime as well, thanks to a limited slip differential and a multi-link suspension system. Sadly, the car was marketed so poorly they didn’t even show it in the ads.
1990 Lexus LS 400
And so, the 1990 Lexus LS 400 became the shot heard around the world. Where the Infiniti was revolutionary and performance oriented, the Lexus was more conformist and luxury oriented. However, the people behind promoting the Lexus actually featured the car in its ads. As a result, the Lexus LS became the first full-size Japanese luxury car to take on the established German hierarchy on its own terms and successfully compete on equal footing. In fact, the Lexus was so successful Mercedes was forced to move the S-Class farther upmarket because the LS 400 was eating its lunch.
1990 Mazda Miata
The world’s favorite two-seat roadster was an instant hit when it was introduced in back 1989, as a 1990 model. Bringing to bear all of the most coveted attributes of the affordable English sports cars America had come to hate to love — without the mechanical problems those cars continually posed — the Miata was the answer to the question people didn’t even realize they were asking. Cute styling made it a darling with the fashion conscious, while outstanding driving dynamics made it a ht with auto enthusiasts everywhere.
1990 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
Over the ensuing years following its introduction, Nissan’s (originally Datsun’s) 240Z had become bloated. By the end of the 1980s, the only thing left of the original concept (which everyone adored) was the basic shape of the car. In 1990, Nissan stunned everyone with a svelte new body design and a new twin-turbocharged V6 engine. These changes propelled Nissan’s Z-car into the high performance Grand Touring category, and made the car exciting once again.
Photo Credit: Milkmandan
1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo
The second generation Toyota MR2 was blessed with graceful styling reminiscent of an Italian exotic, along with a mid-mounted twin-cam, 16-valve 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. With a curb weight of but 2,800 pounds, performance was exemplary too. Zero to 60 was clocked at 6.1 seconds and top speed was 145 miles per hour. The mid-engine layout also helped the two-seat Toyota deliver outstanding handling as well as a comfortable ride.
Photo Credit: dave_7
1991 GMC Syclone/1992 GMC Typhoon
In 1991, GMC introduced the best performing pickup truck the automotive world had ever seen. It also spawned a sport utility version—long before BMW ever dreamed of the X5. For model years 1992 and 1993, GMC offered the Typhoon two-door SUV with a 4.3-liter turbocharged V6, a self-leveling air suspension system, and all-wheel drive. The Typhoon’s pickup truck counterpart was known as the Syclone. Both were rated at 280 horsepower and 360 ft-lbs of torque. The Typhoon was clocked at 5.3 seconds from 0 to 60 and 14.1 seconds in the quarter mile.
Photo Credit: Valder137
1992 Dodge Viper
Originally conceived of as a contemporary example of the 1960s Shelby Cobra, the Dodge Viper was developed with but one overriding goal; out-and-out performance. At the time, Chrysler owned Lamborghini, so engineers from that company developed the V10 engine. Producing 400 horsepower and 465 ft-lbs of torque, but weighing only 3,284 pounds, the original Viper ran to 60 in 4.5 seconds. It did the quarter in just over 12.5 seconds, had a top speed in excess of 150 miles per hour, and was capable of pulling a full G on the skidpad.
1992 Mazda RX-7
The final iteration of Mazda’s RX-7 sports car (to date) was a sequentially twin-turbocharged 1.3-liter rotary-powered wonder with a redline set at 6,500 rpm. The little beer-keg sized engine made 255 horsepower and 217 ft-lbs of torque. While this sounds mild by today’s standards, bear in mind the car only weighed 2,800 pounds. Top speed was a claimed 156 miles per hour. Further, the car was graced with styling that still looks good to this day. Without question, the last RX-7 was the best RX-7 Mazda ever produced.
1992 McLaren F1
In 1998, a McLaren F1 hit 243 miles per hour, which made it the fastest car in the world by a large margin, until the Bugatti Veyron eventually eclipsed it—some seven years later. The McLaren F1 was the first production car to use a carbon fiber monococque. Other exotic materials employed included titanium, gold, kevlar, and magnesium. The F1 featured seating for three, with the driver in a central position and two passenger seats positioned slightly behind and to either side. A 6.1-liter BMW V12 making 627 horsepower and 480 ft-lbs of torque propelled the McLaren’s 2,500 pounds of curb weight.
1992 Toyota Supra Turbo
The final iteration of Toyota’s Supra (to date) was produced between 1992 and 2002. Its 3.0-liter sequentially twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine made 320 horsepower and 315 ft-lbs of torque in North American tune. While not exactly one of the loveliest cars of its era, the 3,450-lb rear drive grand tourer was easily one of the fastest with a zero to 60 of 4.6 seconds.
Photo Credit: InSapphoWeTrust
1996 Ferrari 550 Maranello
Marking the return of the front-engine V12 powertrain to Ferrari, the 550 Maranello was the first Ferrari since the 1970s 365 GTB4 “Daytona” to employ such a layout. It also presaged the Ferrari lineup we see today, where the majority of the cars are front engine/rear drive. The esteemed brand has turned away from the primarily mid-engine portfolio it offered during the 1980s and 1990s. The flagship Ferrari of its day, the 550 Maranello used a 5.5-liter V12 good for 485 horsepower and 419 ft-lbs of torque. Its tubular steel frame chassis was covered with aluminum bodywork.
1997 Porsche Boxster
Acclaimed by many as the sports car responsible for saving Porsche, production of the Boxster entailed a host of new more efficient techniques for the legendary Stuttgart-based manufacturer. The CEO of Porsche at the time, Wendelin Wiedeking, hired retired executives from Toyota to help introduce new lean production methods in an effort to bring production costs down to enable Porsche to price its products more competitively. The mid-engine roadster doubled Porsche’s sales in its first year of production, opening the door for the eventual development and production of Cayenne and Panamera.
Photo Credit: skinnylawyer
These are but a sampling of the amazing cars introduced during the 1990s. Ironically, while the decade was a period of outstanding innovation, it was also the decade during which high-performance models from Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan sang their swan songs. The disparity between the Dollar and the Yen (Japan's economy was especially strong back then) made them exceedingly expensive. So even while those cars were more extraordinary than ever before—they sold rather poorly. As the 90s transitioned into the 2000s, the RX-7, 300ZX Twin Turbo, and Supra Turbo were on their way out.