Mar 142012
 

The last time I wrote, I chose to take a bit of a nostalgic track, discussing three cars that, if I had my druthers, would not have died off in the ’90s. Evidently, I am not the only one who misses cars like the Honda Prelude either, since this month’s Automobile magazine features a bit on cars they want back. Right smack in the middle of the list was the Prelude. The hit counts also indicate that I may have hit a chord when focusing on that particular decade. Since I seem to be on a roll, I decided to milk this for a while.

For as great as the ’90s were as a transitional decade, successful transitions don’t happen without some… hiccups. The decade that gave us the Supra, the RX-7 and the 300ZX at their zenith, for instance, also gave us the dawn of the SUV craze. And for every Honda Civic or Nissan Maxima there seemed a spectral opposite from Ford or Chevy. Don’t get me wrong, though. Import manufacturers weren’t immune to making silly, ineffective or cheap cars either.

I guess the general gist I’m going for here is that though the ’90s were great in many ways, they also stunk in several others, automotively speaking. As a result, many names never made it to the next millennium. Here are three of the most egregious examples.

Ford Probe/Mazda MX-6 (Last produced in 1997) Ford initially planned for the Probe to replace the Mustang as the brand’s premier sports car in the late 1980s. They were apparently unprepared for the enthusiast response to the idea of replacing a rear wheel drive, V8-powered muscle car (even ineffective as it was in the ’80s) with a front wheel drive four-cylinder. Suffice it to say, we still have a thriving Mustang model  today. Thus, even the Probe’s debut was dubious.

Still, Ford proved it could yet salvage and remarket the concept when the 1993 model debuted with sporty, futuristic styling. Sadly, however, they forgot to make the car any good underneath. The Probe, along with its cross-platform cousin, the Mazda MX-6, never really lived up to its sporting image. The engines were uninspired and did not respond well to tuning. The suspension was mediocre at best and, again, did not really take to modification.

Worst of all, it proved incredibly unreliable, especially as age set in. The newly developing message board community even had a special term for the litany of issues that Probe owners could look forward to dealing with over the course of the vehicle’s life: “Probelems”.

Although the Probe’s evolution gave us the slick Mercury Cougar in 1999, Ford wisely let the Probe name die off.

Suzuki X-90 (Last produced in 1998) I’m not sure much effort is necessary to describe what made this car awful. A simple glance will do that just fine. It is, I think, hideous.

But many cars have been catastrophically ugly, both before and after this. What made the X-90 so awful was its uselessness. It was a two-seat, full-frame, T-Top 4×4. Of those phrases, only “4×4′ and “full-frame” should ever be used together on one car. Suzuki’s attempt to make a cute SUV actually succeeded in creating a vehicle that was good at absolutely nothing.

It was so small that, even with full-time 4-wheel-drive, going anywhere off road was out of the question. Nevermind that, though, because its cutesy t-top and little girl styling made certain that no one who was looking for a 4×4 would even consider it anyway. And speaking of girls, who wants to drive a car in which you can only bring one friend to the mall? Seriously.

I have to give Suzuki credit for attempting something that no one else had before. Equal credit is due, as well, for knowing when to tie its feet to a cement block and pretend it never happened.

Hyundai Excel (Last produced in 1994) Hyundai may be in the middle of an impressive growth spurt now, but 15 years ago things were not so rosy. The image that it is seeking to change (that of a Korean company that wants to be Japanese but just can’t do it) came about through cars like the Excel.

On paper the Excel wasn’t a bad idea. It was inexpensive, styled similarly to other imports of the period and mechanically similar as well. As was typical of Hyundais of the time, though, none of those disparate parts ever seemed to work together quite right.

It looked like an import, but it didn’t feel like one. It was inexpensive to buy, but reliability was, shall we say, suspect.

In the end, the Excel was a car that Hyundai needed to build. The company needed to put a foot in the door and it provided a solid effort in that respect. Like Ford, though, Hyundai knew when it was time to let the name die to benefit image. The brand we have now is better for it.

These were but a few epically crappy cars to come out of my favorite automotive decade. If you had to make the same list, what would yours include?

  4 Responses to “Three Cars I am Glad Did Not Survive the ’90s”

  1. My buddy’s Dad worked as a Sales Manager at a local Ford dealership. When we were kids, I remember he told us about Ford’s idea to phase out the Mustang for the Probe in the late 80′s. It’s the ‘New Coke’ of automobiles, whether the sales were down or not. The stang is THE classic American muscle car. Nice article!

    • Thanks. Yeah, not really sure what Ford was thinking with that one. I guess the idea was, since they jump-started the muscle car era with the Mustang, they could have an equal effect in transforming the industry with the Probe. The Mustang, though, was a true original. The formula for the Probe (small displacement, efficiency, front-wheel-drive) was already in play and being done well by import automakers. That the Probe wasn’t even as good as those made it instantly irrelevant.

  2. I own a 1994 Mazda 626, with the same 2.5L V6 that was in the Probe GT. In fact the chassis and anti-roll bars are the same. It handles well, except for some front end plow. But the engine is superb. A 7k redline and 170hp. 0-60times says it’s deep in the 15 second range, with 0-60 of 7.8 (Car & Driver). On par with the other sportscars and sedans (SHO, Spirit R/T) of the time.

    • I assume you meant “1/4-mile time deep in the 15s.” Most of my comments on the Probe pertain primarily to the 4-cylinder. Neither engine, though, responded to tuning or upgrades (I think it was Sport Compact Car that had a 6-cylinder Probe in their garage and could never get it to produce more power). Was it an OK car for its time? Probably. But as I said, it really didn’t do anything especially well when compared to a Celica, Integra or GTI of similar vintage, and the numbers you reference support that. Honda’s Prelude, for instance, bested each of them with a 4-cylinder. Comparing the Probe favorably to a Spirit R/T, on the other hand, is a bit like comparing a peanut butter sandwich to a moldy lump of cheese and saying that proves the sandwich is great. It just proves the sandwich wasn’t gross and worthless. The Probe was a mediocre effort at a sports coupe, at best, and it ended up exactly where it belonged.

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