Sports Cars of the 1990s

The 1990s ushered in a "A New World Order" for sports cars beset by intractable old problems. Ominously, the decade began with war. In August 1990, Iraqi forces occupied neighboring Kuwait, gateway to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia so vital to Western economies. President George Bush led formation of an international military coalition to liberate tiny Kuwait, accomplished in early 1991 with a 100-hour blitzkrieg, "Operation Desert Storm." It was an impressive show of military might and political cooperation, but it left Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to fight another day.

Featured Sports Cars of the 1990s

By mid-decade, though, America was into a record-long run of prosperity in a "service economy" fueled by new technology and a huge upsurge of investment in the stock market and promising "start-up" ventures. Consumer spending, corporate profits, and the Dow Jones Average rose in lockstep, and to unheard-of heights. Millions of people were soon earning trillions of dollars -- at least on paper. With all this, car and truck sales grew steadily except for dips in 1991 and '98. To the delight of manufacturers, high-margin luxury models outstripped other segments in sales growth.

Another key 1990s trend was the strong public shift from passenger cars to light trucks -- minivans, traditional pickups, and especially sport-utility vehicles. Big or small, pricey or cheap, SUVs sold like crazy, and manufacturers raced to get them onto dealer lots. By 1999, light trucks as a whole were pulling in almost as many sales as passenger cars -- 8.2 million to 8.75 million -- and were poised to take the lead.

So sports cars were history, right? Far from it. Rising affluence stoked demand for sporty rides, and manufacturers were learning how to produce "niche" models that could make money with relatively modest sales. As a result, the Nineties produced an unusual number of new sports cars, most every one an enthusiast's delight.

The most commercially important -- arguably the most charming -- was the Mazda Miata. A 1990 debut, it picked up where the British had left off as a small, affordable roadster of the beloved traditional stripe. The Miata reminded some of the early Lotus Elan. Collectible AutomobileĀ® magazine more aptly termed it "a Triumph Spitfire that works." And in fact, Mazda used a Spitfire to help gauge the market. Pert, agile, and fast enough, the Miata offered workmanship and reliability no British two-seater ever knew and was priced right. Though filling such an obvious market gap might seem a no-brainer now, the Miata was a brave decision at the time, because no one knew for sure whether it would sell. But sell it did, year after year, helped by steady technical improvements and a stream of "limited edition" specials.

At the opposite end the 1990 market was another Japanese newcomer, the NSX. Sleek and low, this midengine coupe was a technological showcase for Honda and a flagship for the company's new upscale U.S. Acura line. A pioneering lightweight aluminum structure and a high-tech twincam V6 made for vivid acceleration and decent fuel economy. The NSX could sound like a Formula One car and almost handled like one, yet could easily double as a daily driver -- a truly "practical exotic." Though always rare and very costly, the NSX carved out a solid niche to last over 10 years without basic change.

MCLaren F1
The McLaren F1 was the king of the British sports cars, and was widely regarded as the greatest sports car ever.

After a decade of drift and bloat, the Nissan Z returned to its spiritual roots for 1990 with a new 300ZX. It was all business from striking exterior to taut chassis to strong V6, and the high-power Turbo version delivered Corvette-like go. Sun-worshippers cheered the '93 addition of the first factory-built Z convertible. Unfortunately, a weakening dollar/yen exchange would price the Z out of its market by 1996, and Nissan ended U.S. exports to ponder next steps. The same fate awaited two other Japanese gems, the Toyota MR2 and Mazda RX-7. And more's the pity. A 1991 redesign made "Mister Two" look like a sort of baby Ferrari, while the rotary-powered RX-7 became a turbocharged canyon-carver in a 1993 makeover with the same "back to basics" emphasis as the latest Nissan Z.

"Basic" certainly described the Dodge Viper RT/10. So did "fearsome." New for '92, the Viper was conceived as a modern Shelby Cobra, and Chrysler wisely called on 'Ol Shel to make sure it was done right. It was. Raw and visceral, the Viper was short on comforts but long on thrills, packing a massive V10 that could wrinkle asphalt. A coupe version added for '97 quickly proved a winner in international racing. Interestingly, Shelby went off to do his own "new Cobra," but the car business had changed a lot since the Sixties, and his Olds V8-powered Series I was dogged by problems on its 1999 launch.

Old reliable Porsche suffered a near-death experience in the early Nineties as sales plunged along with world economies. But it came back strong late in the decade after shedding front-engine models and betting the farm on a new mid-engine roadster, the Boxster, which proved an immediate success. Soon afterward came another new 911. This one was completely redesigned from road to roof, yet had all the expected character intact. Ferrari twice updated its smaller cars in the Nineties but revived the grand spirit of the front-V12 Daytona for rapid, rakish new senior models, the 456GT and 550 Maranello. Lamborghini returned to the U.S. market with the Diablo, an even more wicked Countach that would run the full 10 years.

Last but not least, the Chevrolet Corvette. Bracketed by the high-power "King of the Hill" ZR-1 and an all-new "C5" generation, the 1990s were vintage 'Vette years. Other sports cars might be faster down the road or through a curve, but none could match the Corvette's enduring charisma and all-American persona. To quote an old ad for a very different car, the 'Vette was still "unique in all the world," and rightly so.

All in all, sports-car life was livelier in 1990s America than it had been in quite some time. And the party was just beginning.