It’s not often a car’s styling stands the test of time quite as well as the RX7’s has. Just imagine how it must have felt to first lay eyes upon this gorgeous, curvaceous machine in the early 90s. More than 25 years after it was first revealed, it still looks fantastic, and not in a ‘because retro is, like, so in right now’ kind of way, either.
But, it’s not just a pretty shape that the Mazda RX7 is famed for. The 1.3-litre twin-rotor engine is a unique little thing and has won over many fans, both for the way it revs to the stratosphere as well as sounding like nothing else. Couple that engine to a car that has 50/50 front/rear weight balance, a low centre of gravity, and a lightweight construction, and it’s no surprise it’s won awards for being one of the best driver’s cars ever made.
When you think of Japanese performance cars, you tend to think of fairly low budget cars, but the Honda NSX is the glittering exception to that rule. It was designed to show the likes of Ferrari that you could have supercar performance and great looks, at a lower price point and with actual reliability. It succeeded and went down as a legend.
For the A80 model, the Toyota Supra was completely redesigned. Gone was the old boxy styling from the 80s, and in was in-ya-face curvaceous styling and a massive rear wing. It was with the twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre 2JZ engine that this car really made its name, offering 276bhp from the factory but coming with a ridiculous appetite for being tuned. It quickly became the darling of the aftermarket scene, and in 2018, not a lot has changed in that regard.
Three generations of GT-R actually spanned this decade, with the R32 running between 1989 and 1994, and the R33 seeing production between 1995 and 1998, at which point the R34 took over the GT-R reigns.
Like so many of the greatest road cars ever built, the GT-R’s resurrection in 1989 was down to Nissan’s desire to dominate motorsport. The R32 was designed to win Group A racing, and the now-iconic 2.6-litre RB26DETT was a result of its determination to use regulations of the time to its advantage. The R33 then came along, updating the styling and improving on a few areas of the previous generation, such as the all-wheel-drive system.
With the R34, the styling changed much more radically and became the symbol of the PlayStation generation thanks to its in-depth onboard analysis systems. As the culmination of a decade’s worth of motor racing knowledge, it was the ultimate incarnation of Nissan’s racing project, moving the game on significantly from the R33 and firmly cementing its place in motoring history.
The 90s saw the introduction of a car that would go on to become a rally legend. The Subaru Impreza WRX burst onto the scene in 1992, using technology designed for success in the World Rally Championship, with all-wheel drive, uprated suspension, and those famous boxer engines.
In typical Japanese style, there are seemingly millions of variations of WRX Impreza's; aside from a few limited edition runs, the most sought-after cars were the Subaru Tecnica International (STI) models that were first introduced in 1994. The STI took the WRX one step further thanks to more performance-tuned engines, transmission, and suspension, and you’ll still see these cars pounding rally stages across the world today.
Being a rally fan in the 90s must have been pretty sweet, as not only was it the start of the Impreza’s production run, it also saw the introduction of what would quickly become its arch-rival. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution managed to cram six generations into just 10 years, so instead of trying to summarise the whole lot, we’ll just focus on the Evo VI, which saw out the end of the decade.
The VI had the same 2.0-litre turbocharged 4G63T that you’ll find in 1992s Evo I, but many revisions meant it was now more powerful and stronger than ever. The sixth-gen also spawned perhaps the most iconic Evo of all time in the Tommi Makinen Edition, named after the Finnish rally legend after he won four WRC drivers’ championships for Mitsubishi. It came with 17-inch Enkei wheels, a faster-spooling titanium turbine, lower ride height and quicker steering ratio.
The Integra Type R is widely considered to be one of the greatest front-wheel-drive cars ever created. Forget your prejudices about front-wheel-drive cars, this car can really handle.
It was a massive upgrade on the sportier trimmed Integra's in the range, making around 200bhp – it was slightly different for each market – and screaming its way to a VTEC-assisted 8500rpm+ red-line.
Honda went to great lengths to ensure this car was a proper performance machine; as well as completely overhauling the engine, it strengthened the chassis in multiple places, reduced weight where possible, and fitted a helical limited-slip differential.
Nissan’s S-chassis cars are possibly the most iconic drift cars of all time. The S13 underwent a few upgrades after being first introduced in 1989, but when the S14 arrived in 1995 it was lower, wider and longer – perfect for easy drifting. It also got a more powerful version of the SR20DET engine, thanks to Nissan’s variable cam timing and a new turbocharger.
The cars were hugely popular in Japan, but sales struggled elsewhere in the world, meaning that this was the end of the S-chassis for most of us. Still, that gave it cult-like status, living on in the hearts and minds of drifters everywhere.
Now, it’s easy to hate on the Honda Civic, but let’s be honest, that stereotype was born from the people who drive these cars, not the actual cars themselves. If any car epitomised why we should have more time for this little hatchback, it’s the EK9 Type R.
To ensure the Civic could be as hot as Honda deemed acceptable, it underwent a similar process as the Integra. That meant the removal of sound-deadening, a hand-ported engine and a helical limited-slip differential. The 1.6-litre engine made 182bhp, which was a hell of a lot for a car that weighed next to nothing. The Civic Type R might have lost some of that focused spirit with later models, but the EK9 was a serious bit of kit.
If you’re in the market for a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car, you’ll have to look hard to find something more affordable than the Toyota MR2. Famous for being rather tricky at the limit, it nevertheless gained a hero’s following, and was a much more attractive prospect once a few issues were ironed out in the early days.
Journalists complained of ‘snap oversteer’, so Toyota implemented new suspension geometry, a wider track, and power steering. Hardcore drivers might have complained that this dulled the car’s responses, but Toyota countered saying the changes were “for drivers whose reflexes were not those of Formula One drivers.” So, if you like your cars a bit on the wild side, get yourself an early second-generation MR2…
If you’re looking for a pure driver’s car, look no further than the Honda S2000. Its 2.0-litre engine was renowned for needing to be well up in the revs to ensure VTEC was kicking in, meaning that to get the most from the car you had to be really going for it. It rewarded the bold and punished the overconfident.
It’s only just a 90s car, since the first bunch rolled off the production line in 1999, but it’s such a weapon it would have been rude not to include it in this list. The engine was mounted behind the front axle to achieve a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution and, like the MR2, it was known for its ability to punish those who took liberties with it. It’s a raw performance car that laughs in the face of those who believe convertibles are only for posers.