The ’90s were an interesting time for me as an automotive enthusiast. It was in 1996 that I first developed a more-than-passing interest in cars. It was in 1998 that I got my license, and it was in 1999 that I first drove a car that I could call mine.
But the ’90s were also a formative decade for the auto industry. Gone were the old ways of the ’80s – slow, heavy, dubiously-styled cars encumbered by emissions controls that no one really understood. Yet to come were the huge technological leaps that would make cars more than just transportation, but mobile computers nearly capable of driving themselves.
It was, to my mind, a sort of golden age for cars. A time when most carmakers reached a perfect balance between technology and performance, and I was coming of age right in the middle of it. As such, I still feel a strong connection to certain car models made during that time. Honda, for instance, produced a number of cars I admired during that period, including the Civic and the Accord. GM introduced the C5 Corvette, and Ford revamped the muscle car war with its updated Mustang and helped to create the SUV craze with the Explorer.
The list of great enthusiast cars is also long and comprehensive. Everyone knows the obvious examples: the Supra and the RX-7; the Civic and Integra; the Miata. It was a decade that gave enthusiasts like me a steep learning curve. Some cars from this era, though, have not stuck with us quite as strongly as I would have liked. They lived in the shadow of the bigger names and, for whatever reason, they died out and have faded from memory. They are, however, still important to automotive history, so I would like to take a moment to talk about three of my favorite examples.
Honda Prelude, 1997 – 2001 Everyone remembers the Civic/Integra platform that started in ’88 with the Civic and ended with the 2001 Integra. And for good reason. They were and are some of the most versatile enthusiast cars ever made. The Prelude, though a showcase for Honda’s technical and performance capabilities, never caught on quite the same way. It was, in retrospect, always too heavy and too expensive to compete directly with its featherweight siblings, but for a number of reasons it was also a great car.
By the time this model was introduced in the U.S., Honda had cut the engine options to just one: the H22 2.2-liter DOHC VTEC engine, producing around 200 horsepower. At the time the H-series was considered Honda’s “big-block” 4-cylinder and it provided reliable torque and power throughout the rev range. The base model was available in either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed tiptronic automatic transmission. The SH model featured Honda’s Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS), which transfers torque to the outside wheel during hard cornering to improve high speed handling. It was only available in manual transmission form. Both are powerful, confident cars, but the addition of the ATTS system makes the SH an ideal candidate for motorsport use – that is, until you come up against its limitations. Some enthusiasts have found that increasing the engine’s horsepower past 220 or so effectively nullifies the system’s ability to operate. Potential owners, then, should note: if you want to build a high-horsepower drag or track machine, look for the base model. Otherwise, the SH will handle autocross and light track duty nicely.
The suspension is typical Honda street car fare: it is well-sorted and effortlessly soaks up almost anything the road throws at you while still making the car a blast to drive with spirit. By this time, though, the factory suspension bits should be quite worn, and the aftermarket for the Prelude is relatively strong (although not to the level of its siblings). Making a great-handling example should prove neither too difficult nor expensive.
The Prelude is also a great looking car, in my opinion. This fifth generation marked a return to the more square, conservative styling of earlier examples while still looking sleek and modern.
The Prelude, then, checks all the boxes for a great enthusiast car. It was quick, handled well, looked good and lead the way for Honda technological innovation for the next decade. To wit: the ATTS system can now be found, in variant form, in all of Acura’s superhandling (SH) AWD systems. Though it was phased out in favor of the RSX and S2000, I don’t think those ever really captured the Prelude’s essence. It remains missed.
Nissan 200SX SE-R, 1995 – 1998 In the mid-’90s, Nissan marketed the 200SX SE-R as a sports coupe for the masses – quick and fun, but easy on the wallet and with room for friends. Though the marketing message was true, the buying public never responded the way Nissan hoped. So much so that once the 200SX ceased production after 1998, Nissan also let the SE-R name lie dormant as well, until 2002 when it was resurrected for the updated Sentra.
Though the SE-R variant of the 200SX wasn’t quite the gem that the 1991 – 1994 Sentra SE-R was, it maintained a key component from its predecessor: The venerable SR20DE motor. In stock form, the twin-cam 2.0-liter produced 140 horsepower. While not a particularly notable number, the SR20 is well-known for its eagerness to accept upgrades and its friendliness to forced induction. Enthusiasts saw that number not as a representation of the car’s capabilities, but as a starting point.
The SE-R also came with a stiffened suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, alloy wheels and, for 1995 and 1996, a limited slip differential. In an apparent cost-cutting measure, the limited slip diff was left off the ’97 and ’98 models. In any case, the SE-R package made the 200SX a lot of fun to drive and a great starting point for upgrades. Though it was introduced at a low point for Nissan and it is frequently overshadowed by the earlier, more virile Sentra SE-R, the 200SX is still a great, fun to drive small car.
Volkswagen Corrado, 1988 – 1995 Though it came out of the ’80s, the Corrado is a pretty decent case study of Volkswagen in the ’90s. It represented the company’s early steps in its attempt to retain its sporting German image while also offering cars that were less minimalist and more for the masses.
The Corrado did an excellent job of this, offering competent handling, plenty of power (especially with the optional VR6 engine) and plenty of options. It was fun to look at, fun to own and fun to drive.
It was also a sales flop. Although it was a great enthusiast car, the Corrrado never appealed to VW customers the way the Golf and the Jetta of the same era did, and that is a shame since the Corrado’s essence is part of what made those cars so appealing. To make it, VW combined parts from several different models, but it was more than just the sum of those. I have only driven a handful of miles in one example, but even in that short time, I could see why enthusiasts still take to it. It had a personality all its own and it was a unique experience to drive.
In the end, the Corrado was a hodge-podge of parts from different VWs and it never really found a defined niche in the market. I can’t picture Vokswagen in the ’90s without it, though.
So there you have three cars that I am genuinely sad did not make it out of the ’90s. What cars do you think are the most underrated of this or any other era? I’m interested to hear what others think.
Next week: three cars I am glad did not survive the ’90s.