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.
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.
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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.
Photo by Steven N. Severinghaus
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.
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.
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.
Photo by Rob King
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.
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 by Milkmandan
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.
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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.
Photo by Valder137
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.