The 1990s were an interesting era. Sport compacts were hitting their stride. Fuel injection and engine-control computers were maturing to the point that engines were both reliable and powerful. Companies were making all sorts of wild bets on what would entice car buyers. We’ve assembled some cars from this “throw some stuff against the wall and see what sticks” era, and as you can see, none of these stuck. Some in retrospect maybe should have, and some, well, we’re not sorry they’re gone. But it’s fun to look and see what car companies were trying back then.
1991-1993 Nissan NX2000
Think of the NX2000 as the sportier sibling to the legendary Sentra SE-R. They shared a lot of the good bits that made them SCCA legends and low- to mid-grade collectibles now. But the NX2000’s short production run and odd styling led it to fall off the radar for most import enthusiasts. Here’s why it deserves to be remembered again: Its 2.0-liter SR20DE engine pushed power to the front wheels through a factory limited-slip differential, it had better brakes than the Sentra SE-R, and its light weight enabled world-beating handling. Super ’90s T-tops were a happy bonus, but the slick-topped cars are lighter and harder to find now.
1993-1998 Lincoln Mark VIII
To be honest, even when it was knew, you might have forgotten the Lincoln Mark VIII. Its name was a holdover from the dark days of Lincoln, when indifferently constructed, aircraft-carrier-sized personal luxury barges were carting owners to the disco. Its styling was intended to look modern, but really just looked like a smoothed-over version of the status quo, with a deeply uncool trunk hump that recalled a Continental kit. Based on the Thunderbird, it was a rear-drive, front-engined luxury car with a 4.6-liter V-8—the first application of the so-called Modular Engine Family. While clean examples are certainly out there, be wary of its standard air suspension, likely to be tired (or worse) unless it’s been serviced.
1993-1997 Infiniti J30
Nissan’s luxury brand launched with the stunning Q45 flagship (and the more forgettable M30), while its second wave of products included the less-promising compact G20 and a four-door called the J30. The J30 was based on the Japanese-market Nissan Leopard, just like the M30 before it, but its odd proportions and soap-bar styling limited its appeal. So too did its ample weight, a V-6 with mediocre power output, and most importantly its incredibly small interior. It was downright cramped, a dealbreaker for American buyers. A few decades on, the J30 is an oddball but could be the right modern classic for a Nissan collector.
1999-2002 Mercury Cougar
In the early 1990s, Ford ambitiously (but maybe foolishly) attempted another “world car” experiment, creating a midsize sedan destined for Europe and America. The Contour was master of no trades, with bottom of its class interior volume given its price. It spawned a “sporty” coupe, the Mercury Cougar, a successor to the Ford Probe in the company’s broader lineup. Back in the day, we liked its handling and braking, as well as its fresh “New Edge” styling. But the discontinuation of the Contour meant that no matter how pleasant the Cougar was, its days were numbered. It only lasted three model years, with manual and V-6 variants in the mix.
1996-1998 Suzuki X-90
It’s not that the Suzuki had a terrible idea, on paper. Take a small, capable off-roader and turn it into something sportier. The Suzuki X-90‘s body looked like a homely sports car on stilts, but it couldn’t deliver anything like a sporty driving experience with just 95 horsepower on tap. And with its coupe silhouette, it didn’t have the utility of the wildly successful Samurai. More important, it didn’t have the Samurai’s tough-but-cute aura. It was just bloblike, awkward, and trying to be both sporty and rugged while accomplishing neither. It didn’t accomplish much for Suzuki, either, lasting only three model years. Later interpretations of this idea were much more successful, if still odd—the Isuzu VehiCross comes to mind.
1999-2002 Qvale Mangusta
The Mangusta has a backstory that’s as strange and confusing as its controversial styling. The project was initially started as the De Tomaso Bigua, but when an agreement between that company and financial backer Kjell Qvale went sour, Qvale went it alone, calling it the Mangusta. To save some dough, the powertrain and much of the interior is lifted from the Ford Mustang SVT Cobra, but the chassis is unique with double wishbones all around. The peaky 4.6-liter V-8 is good for 320 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. But even a fancy roof mechanism—a targa panel ahead of a rotating rear window, giving three different top configurations—couldn’t fix the Mangusta’s price and attractiveness problems. It lingered for a few years and then vanished, but in the process did birth another terribly obscure car, the MG XPower SV coupe.
1991-1992 Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
The Japanese, flush with cash from a mighty economic boom, went nuts in the late 1980s designing technologically advanced cars that made auto-industry stalwarts sweat bullets. The Acura NSX, for example, shook complacent Ferrari to the core. The Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 did not have a similar effect, but it did bring some rally-bred excitement to America years before the Subaru Impreza WRX. Under the hood was the legendary 4G63T engine, an absolute unit that eventually found its way into the Lancer Evolutions sold here. Basically, this is the Evo’s granddaddy. It had 195 horsepower—a big number for the time in a midsize sedan—and the company’s very first performance all-wheel-drive system with a viscous center differential. Then the Japanese economy burst and the VR-4 went away.
1989-1995 Lotus Elan M100
It’s the early 1990s. You’re a mid-career person with some money to burn who loves performance cars. How does a front-wheel-drive, Isuzu-powered, British convertible sound? Not good? Well, you were in fine company, as that combo didn’t inspire many of your ’90s contemporaries to pony up the substantial asking price for a Lotus Elan M100. For one, it was a front-wheel-drive car from a company famous for creating delightfully balanced rear-drive vehicles, a departure from tradition for a firm that mainly appealed to enthusiasts devoted to tradition. All who’ve wheeled one agree the M100 drove exceptionally well, with delightful steering and incredible balance, but the front-drive image issue was one the M100 couldn’t overcome—especially given the debut of the Mazda MX-5 Miata at around the same time, a better Lotus Elan at a fraction of the price. The unsexy Isuzu running gear hurt as well, which even in 162-hp turbocharged form tarnished the Lotus mystique. Lotus eventually sold the M100 to Kia, which produced its own version with an in-house engine until 1999.
1991-1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais Quad 442
This is a very strange one. GM combined a large, naturally aspirated I-4 engine, a classic muscle-car name, and a milquetoast compact Oldsmobile platform into a wannabe performance car. Total output was competitive for the time, with 180 horsepower on tap (and 190 in a later, even-rarer version), but the Quad 4 itself is a troubled, noisy engine that didn’t make a ton of torque. That makes its connection to the classic Olds 442 models, which in 1970 had the mammoth 455 engine, a 7.5-liter beast making 500 lb-ft of torque. The Cutlass Calais Quad 442 was no successor to that monster, despite GM’s attempt to draw a link between them. The Cutlass Calais Quad 442 was directly replaced by the Acheiva SCX, another low-volume model using the same W41 version of the Quad 4 engine, with more modern (yet equally uninspired) styling.
1993-1997 Honda Civic del Sol
Successor to the sporty CRX hatchback, the Honda Civic Del Sol is a strange duck. Its most notable feature, a removable targa panel that stowed in the trunk, didn’t make it nearly as performance-oriented as its predecessor. And competitors were more focused: The Mazda MX-5 Miata‘s top went all the way down, and it was rear-wheel-drive and highly entertaining. Quality issues and a lack of a well-defined audience meant the Del Sol never took off, and its relative heft compared to Civics with similar power meant the racing/tuning crowd never warmed up to it. On the plus side, Del Sols are cheap and fun enough with the 160-hp, VTEC-equipped B16 engine.
1992-1995 Acura Vigor
Was anyone asking for a front-wheel-drive sport sedan with a five-cylinder engine in the early 1990s? Definitely not, but that’s what Acura cooked up. The idea was to put this engine longitudinally in the car, like in a typical rear-drive car, but to send power forward to the front wheels. This helped with weight balance, and a limited-slip differential helped with grip. But power from the 2.5-liter engine was modest at 176 horsepower, and the engine featured neither dual-overhead cams nor Honda’s excellent VTEC setup. A few more reasons it faded into obscurity rather than becoming a Legend (ha!): Terminally boring, Accord-esque styling; a cramped interior; and a stiffer ride than you’d expect for a contemporary vehicle in its class. Intended to put a dent in BMW sales, the Vigor certainly didn’t.
1991-1992 Isuzu Impulse RS
Isuzu Impulse…maybe a neuron fires and you recall the stunning Giugiaro Asso di Fiori (Ace of Spades) concept that made it to production as the Impulse. Well, this ain’t that. The second generation was penned internally by owner GM, an unusual design emerged on a global front-wheel-drive platform. One variant was popular for a time, the Geo Storm, but the second-generation Isuzu Impulse barely registered in enthusiasts’ consciousnesses.
A front-drive version with 130 horsepower struggled to raise pulses, and the very strange “Wagonback” variant wasn’t as sleek as the hatchback, but the RS trim packs 160 horses from a turbocharged 1.6 and an impressive all-wheel-drive system. It has passive rear-wheel steering for exceptional handling, and Lotus (another GM-owned company) consulted on handling in return for the right to use an Isuzu powertrain in the Lotus M100, another obscure car on this list. Just 800 RSs made it to North America. Good luck finding one now.
1991-1994 Mercury Capri
The Australian-built, Mazda-based Mercury Capri never stood a chance. A shoddy, quick-and-dirty design to give Mercury something sporty to sell in America, it has awkward proportions and uninspired dynamics. On the other hand, the Capri is a 2+2, with very small rear seats for kiddos or pets, and even a small trunk passthrough to allow for extra gear to be stowed inside with the top up. But practicality isn’t as strong a sales driver as styling, and while Ghia theoretically penned the Capri, it doesn’t look Italian and seems especially dowdy with top raised. Speaking of, the roof was complicated to put in place and leaked when up besides. A turbocharged variant couldn’t move the needle with just 134 horsepower on tap, and the three-speed automatic available only with the non-turbos is a punishment rather than a convenience. Perhaps the Capri is best forgotten.
1992-1996 Mazda MX-3 V6
If you’re sensing a theme here—lots of small, sporty Japanese cars with weird and expensive to develop features, you’re right. Another product of the bustling Japanese economy, the Mazda MX-3 is related to the 323/Protégé, but with a sportier character and something special underhood. The optional K8-DE engine is a 1.8-liter V-6, one of the smallest production six-cylinders ever and a unique feature in its class at the time. Making 130 horsepower and 115 lb-ft of torque, it isn’t as much of a powerhouse as you’d expect with its cylinder advantage. And like many other oddballs of this era, it hit American shores as a recession decimated car sales, making it an obscure footnote rather than the beginning of a tiny V-6 sports coupe dynasty.
1990-1992 Volkswagen Corrado G60
Volkswagen wasn’t doing so hot in the U.S. at the end of the 1980s, and the VW Corrado G60 was an attempt to liven things up. It replaced the aging and uncompetitive Scirocco, which looked pretty cool in 1981 but very dated by the end of the decade. The Corrado had an appealing and very European silhouette, with a bulldog stance and a fascinating engine underhood—the G60. “G” stood for G-Lader, a supercharger design that used two spirals, one which rotates eccentrically inside the other. Yeah, it’s complicated, and the G60 engine turned out to be unreliable in practice. By 1992, VW realized the G60 engine was a dead end and plopped the now familiar (but mechanically interesting) VR6 inside. The Corrado also has active aerodynamics, with a rear spoiler that deployed at 45 mph—not so special now, but one of the earliest uses of the tech in the U.S. The cheaper and more practical Golf GTI ultimately undercut the Corrado’s appeal, and it faded into the background of enthusiasts’ consciousnesses.