The 1990s were full of unusual automotive happenings. Rodney King, for example, was beaten half to death early in the decade, presumably because he was caught driving a Hyundai Excel. And let’s not forget OJ Simpson, whose own murderous rampage was allegedly caused by his white Ford Bronco’s poor turning circle. Of course, this was never conclusively proven, since OJ’s defense team got the Bronco to admit on the witness stand that it was racist.
Automobilia wasn’t just difficult for celebrities. Automakers had their issues, too. Isuzu was forced to defend claims that its SUVs rolled over when a certain magazine’s test drivers entered a turn at 40 mph, pulled the handbrake, and, when that wasn’t successful, flipped the vehicles over with a forklift. And Ford responded to increasingly modern midsize Japanese sedans by launching a Taurus shaped like a globe, which was ironic since its panel gaps were the size of small countries.
Because of all the 1990s automotive struggles we endured, most of us have blocked out some of the decade’s more unusual cars. Fortunately, I’m here to remind you about some of the most interesting ‘90s cars you’ve completely forgotten.
Though it came out in the late 1980s, the 164 really hit its peak in the ‘90s. And by “its peak” what I really mean is Alfa’s death knell for the US market. Pricing was too high, build quality was shoddy, and why did the interior have that enormous center console with row after row of gray buttons? For all its faults, though, the 164 was certainly handsome. In a “did you hear about this new fad called pogs?” kind of way.
Audi V8 Quattro
Remember this? Neither does anyone at Audi. Really, ask them: they’ll cover their heads and walk the other way, like a prisoner being led from the cop car to a holding cell. That’s because the V8 Quattro wasn’t a very good car - and to drive that point home, Audi didn’t give it a very good name. Significantly, this came out in 1990 as Audi’s first entry in the full-size luxury sedan segment, which they’ve been desperately trying to claw into ever since.
Nothing screams “1990s” like Japanese luxury brands trying to find themselves. Acura had many false-starts, from the five-cylinder Vigor to the “Maybe we want to be cool” NSX. (Which was followed up by the “Nah, we don’t” SLX.) Lexus tried its hand at the world of stick-shifts, then ran away screaming. (As did buyers.) And Infiniti dreamt up four-wheel steering and this bizarre-looking monstrosity, with roly-poly lines that could’ve only been conceived during the forgiving 1990s.
Every single thing about the Isuzu Impulse was weird. It used the same engine as the Lotus Elan. It carried badges that said “Handling By Lotus.” (These are big finds at a junkyard, which is where all Impulses are now.) They did an all-wheel drive turbo version. And it was sold in Canada by a GM brand that used a fake German name, complete with an umlaut. Ladies and gentlemen, this could’ve only come from the ‘90s.
Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
The latest car to catch the attention of teenagers is the Nissan 240SX. Before that, it was the “AE86” Toyota Corolla, the Civic, and the “DSM” cars: the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser. But what the DSM crowd - and you - have totally forgotten is the four-door version of those cars. Yes, that car was the Galant VR-4, which had all-wheel drive and a turbo, like virtually everything in the ‘90s. It also had an individually-numbered dash plaque so it could be identified after the police inevitably confiscated it for a noise violation.
In addition to Japanese luxury brands trying to find themselves, nothing said “1990s” like American automakers hell-bent on reinvention. Buick had Tiger Woods; Oldsmobile had this. The Aurora heralded a new age for Oldsmobile, with new styling, new emblems and no grille, which is an all-important characteristic that says: “We mean business.” (See the 1990 Passat, which certainly meant business for the VW dealer service department.) The Aurora was a standout model until it came time for a redesign. Then it just became another GM platform share, until Oldsmobile was finally killed off.
In the late 1980s, Porsche was having trouble. The 964 was just an evolution of the ’60s 911. The 928 was a relic from the ‘70s that subscribed to the Lamborghini Countach’s “tack on more body panels to make it look newer” philosophy. So, to liven things up, the 1993 model year brought an all-new Porsche: the 968. Trouble was, it wasn’t all new. On the contrary, it was just an evolution of the 944, which was an evolution of the 924, which was about as old as OJ Simpson and just as slow. Most people have long forgotten the 968, except its owners, who consider it the finest Porsche ever made, except maybe for the Carrera GT.
Admit it: you’ve forgotten about the Justy, which was Subaru’s entry into the subcompact segment back when people walked onto dealer lots and actually said to themselves: “Hmm… Ford Festiva or Toyota Tercel?” That’s a shame, because it was a unique car in many ways. For one, it was the very last car ever sold in the US with a carburetor. But it was the first car sold with a CVT automatic. That means we can trace our hatred for those Nissans and Audis that whrrrrrr along all the way back to the Justy.
The ‘90s were a great time for Japanese sports cars. Mazda was building the RX-7. Mitsubishi, the 3000GT. Nissan had the 300ZX, Acura the NSX and Toyota the Supra. Even Subaru joined the party with the SVX. And how did Suzuki answer the call? By offering a two-door, T-Top version of its Sidekick SUV. Most were purple. None were actually sold to retail buyers, unless it had four figures in its very small trunk.
So, Jalops: what other unusual 1990s cars that have long since faded in most peoples’ minds?