December 10, 2010

Confession #15: The '90s did, in fact, rock

I stole this from a recent Twitter trend, I admit. But someone stole it from me, because I’ve been saying it for years. Almost 10 in fact.

The 1990s was a great decade. Admittedly, I’ve only lived through two decades and that’s often embarrassing to tell people.

No, I was born after the Berlin Wall fell down, Reagan was out of office at this point, and greed was no longer good. I grew up smack in the middle of the era of the Trophy Kids, where we were awarded for showing up. Seriously, I have the participation trophies to prove this.

But lately, I’ve been on a kick to find cars from my childhood. Late-night searches on eBay and other classifieds have me filtering through an interesting selection of motors that graced the pages of auto magazines from my childhood.

Here’s a sample of what I’m on the lookout for:

1999 Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG
(DaimlerChrysler photo)
Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG (1998-2000)
A lunatic V8 small Mercedes seemed like a crazy idea in 1998, and in the C43 it was. When others this size were still in turbo fours and sixes, Mercedes-Benz shoehorned a big engine and made something hugely expensive and wild. But remember, this is when Mercedes was still over-engineering their cars. So today, it’s a remarkably solid sport sedan.

1997 BMW M3 Sedan
(BMW AG photo)
BMW M3 Sedan (1997-1998)
The E36 3-series (’92-’99) is perhaps my favorite 3-series of all of them. The M3 of this era made do without much of the technology and electronic interference of subsequent editions. But the best of all for me was the 4-door. It’s more practical than the coupe, just as good looking and so discreet you won’t be immediately targeted by the police for speeding. The school superintendent in my elementary school days even had one, with her son's booster seat in place if I recall. If that's not unassuming, I don't know what is.

1995 BMW 850CSi (BMW photo)

BMW 850CSi (1994-1996)
OK, so the 8-series was a bridge too far for BMW. It was too expensive when it was new and not fast enough. But today they’re quite cheap and this, the fastest of all, looks fantastic today. I’ve loved the car since I was 4 years old, when all I wanted for Christmas was a 1/18 scale model of one. It’s not a great car but it’s certainly an interesting one.

1995 Jaguar XJR (Jaguar Cars photo)
Jaguar XJR (1995-1997)
Similar situation as the 8-series. The first XJR debuted in the revised 1995 XJ line, the first revision of the big Jag since Ford took the company over. Arguably the biggest goal of the X300 project was to make the electrics work. They were somewhat successful, but in the process the designers did their part to make it the best-looking Jag until the 2007 XK. And the engineers in charge of power decided to supercharge the 4.0-liter straight six, with 333 horsepower. Sure, it does 12 MPG, but since it won’t start every day you won’t be going very far anyway.

1997 Land Rover Defender 90
(Land Rover North America photo)
Land Rover Defender 90 (1994-1995, 1997)
Think of the Defender as a Jeep Wrangler for Europhiles. It has the same mission as the Jeep, being a relentless off-road bruiser that bruises you if you drive it on-road. There really isn’t an ounce of refinement in the basic Land Rover, as even the seats are vinyl. But of the couple thousand Defender 90 3-doors built for the US, all have V8s out of the Range Rover, which is why even the Brits lust after these specific models. The best bets are the 1997 models, when the V8 was upped from 3.9 to 4.0 liters and came with an automatic.

1993 Volkswagen Corrado SLC VR6
(Volkswagen photo)
Volkswagen Corrado SLC, Golf GTI VR6 and Jetta GLX VR6 (1993-1994, 1995-1999)
My father road tested the Corrado when it first came out in 1990 and hated it. The simple mention of the car drove shivers down his spine, and lots of unflattering words from his mouth. That’s because Volkswagen decided to put a nasty supercharged four-cylinder that wasn’t really fast enough. But Wolfsburg wised up in 1993 with the addition of the VR6, a V6 the size of a four-cylinder squeezed into the tiny engine bay. The result was a fantastic looking coupe with a fantastically smooth engine. Even so, the Corrado didn’t sell, so VW took the engine and put it into the Golf GTI and Jetta GLX in 1995 with similar effects. Thus began the first of the “Grown-up” hot VWs.

1999 Honda Civic Si
(American Honda photo)
Honda Civic Si (1999-2000)
Normally I’d approach a Civic the same enthusiasm as I devote to doing laundry. But then this is when Honda was still making the Civic right, with sophisticated suspension and eager VTEC engines. The best of all was the late-model Si coupe. It came only with a 160-horspower four-cylinder mated to a five-speed manual. It also weighed practically nothing and came with no electronic interference. Finding an example that hasn’t been rolled, tracked or used as a prop in a “Fast and the Furious” iteration is a tough but worthy find.

1991 Alfa Romeo 164 S
Alfa Romeo 164 (1991-1995)
This one’s a crazy idea. I really know nothing about Alfas, partly because they sold a tiny number of cars in the US before they pulled out of the market when I was five. But I do know the 164 shared a number of under-the-floor bits with the Saab 9000, a car I am familiar with. I also know the Pininfarina body is seriously attractive and that you can pick one up for pretty cheap. What I don’t know is a good Alfa mechanic. Still, a good find if a Saab is just too common.

Of course, this is the short list, or at least what I can remember without rummaging through the magazines from the ’90s. There’s just a great simplicity to these cars but all of them could be considered modern somehow (with exception to the Defender, which is just cool). And I think it’s cool to drive all of these cars again, especially if they haven’t fared too badly during the last decade. Though I’m not sure how many more ’90s trends need to come back into fashion. We’re still reliving the ’80s apparently.