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The 1990s are now a grand 20 years in the past, and an incredible swathe of cars is up for historic plates in the next few years. From JDM wonders to kooky Swedes, cars of the ’90s represent the Goldilocks recipe to enthusiasts. They’re new enough to possess the modern technologies that ensured stout reliability and top-tier performance, but old enough to lack electronic nannies that kvetch and whine at us when we attack the twisties. So we decided to put our resident ’90s experts in a livestream for an hour and pick their 10 favorite cars.
While Brad Phillip’s official title is Hagerty’s Director of Automotive Lifestyle Business Development, you may know him as Brad the Sunbeam Tiger King. Joining him is our Marketplace Editor Colin Comer. While some cars qualify for the top 10 list through Phillip’s or Comer’s personal experience, the pair discussed others as the pinnacle of their performance genre.
From the humble Mazda Miata to the world-beating McLaren F1, there’s something for everyone in this list.
1997–2002 Acura NSX
Hagerty Price Guide #2 (Excellent) value: $101,000
When it was introduced at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, the Acura NSX was a revelation to those who thought a mid-engined supercar needed to have the temperament of a tired toddler and the leaky fluids to match. In 1997, a 3.2-liter V-6 replaced the 3.0-liter six that came in the first few model years, and a six-speed manual replaced the five-speed. Phillips and Comer both agree that these are the sweet-spot cars. The aluminum-intensive construction and factory-specific factory tires made the NSX as performance-focused as anything else on the market, but it offered the reliability of a Civic. Even today, examples with six-figure odometers drive like they’re new. Plus, who doesn’t want to drive a car with direct ties to legends like Ayrton Senna or Shigeru Uehara?
1995–2003 BMW 540i
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: N/A
While the E39 BMW M5 was considered by many to be the belle of the ball, it carried a price to match. The BMW 540i offered much of the M5’s fun without the requisite justification to your spouse for its eye-watering sticker price. The 540i pictured here used to belong to Brad, who bought it from a family friend after Brad spent years hounding him to pass off the keys. The sedan offered plenty of shove (0–60 was dispatched in the mid-5’s), had a great six-speed manual, and could settle into the background and become your best friend on long drives.
Picking up a clean 540i today will save you a few thousand versus a similar M5, which means there’s a bit extra in the piggy bank for that great road trip you’re undoubtedly planning during quarantine.
1993–98 Saab 9000
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: N/A
Phillips starts this case by admitting that he’s owned 5 Saabs in his life—spare us your Saab story jokes. Brad is fond of the front-wheel-drive Saab 9000 Turbos, particularly the loaded up CSE editions. He loves the car’s ability to swallow people and parcels aplenty, and the broad powerband that the turbocharged engine provided through the Colorado mountains. Sure, its platform cousins like the Alfa Romeo 164 might have been more desirable to some—we’re looking at you, Mr. Comer—but personal experience plays here, and Brad chooses to ride for the Saab. We’ll allow it.
1990–97 Mazda Miata
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $16,300
No surprise here. The Mazda MX-5 Miata grabbed the automotive world by the heartstrings at the start of the decade and hasn’t let go since. Dubbed the NA, the first-generation Miata was referred to as “the best British roadster that Japan ever made.” The mid-60s Lotus Elan was the benchmark for the Miata; Mazda engineers even studied the exhaust notes of the Elan and adjust the Miata’s exhaust to mimic it as best they could. The unpretentious character of the first-gen Miata is still winning fans over today. Decent ones can be had for four-figure prices, and once you have the keys, the possibilities are endless: spec racing series, vintage racing (gulp), stock cruiser, you name it. They’re incredibly reliable as-is, but any and every bug has been studied, fixed, and covered extensively by a thriving aftermarket.
1993 Ford Mustang Cobra R
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $86,000
1993 was the final year for the Fox-body Mustang, and Ford sent off the hatch with a bang. As Comer explains, the ’93 Cobra R was actually a race car for the road: To buy one, you had to have a current SCCA competition license. It was as hard-core as any Fox-body came, with zero sound-deadening material, no underbody coating, an no rear seats, and carpet that wasn’t glued down for ease of removal. The Cobra R cribbed the interior from the lightweight base 2.3-liter model, because Ford knew racers would yank most of it out the first time they prepped for the track. Similarly, every Cobra R came with an envelope from Ford detailing what needed prepping before the car was fully track-ready—alignment specs, tire pressures, and more. Unsurprisingly, of the mere 107 that were sold, Comer reckons that the remaining examples today are either thrashed from hard use or still in bubble wrap somewhere.
1996–2002 Dodge Viper GTS
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $53,600
There’s a bit of irony in describing the 1996 Dodge Viper GTS as more refined than its predecessor, but when we’re talking about finally adding real windows and a roof to the car, the label plays. As Comer explains, if the first-gen 1992–95 Viper RT10 was seen as the second coming of the Cobra 427—Carroll Shelby involvement and all—then the second-gen 1996 Viper GTS would be the Daytona Coupe. The GTS was the fixed-roof coupe variant, sporting a “double-bubble” roofline for a modicum of added headroom in a car that didn’t have much to begin with. The massive 8.0-liter V-10 was cranked up to 450 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque. During the stream, Colin shares a story about his friend praising the raw pace of the Viper GTS while they were out for a drive—to which Comer replied, “You should try starting out in first!”
Further proof of our endorsement: The ’96 Viper GTS made our 2020 Bull Market List.
1993–2002 Mazda RX-7
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $44,000
You didn’t think we’d leave rotary power off the list, did you? The FD RX-7 was the first mass-produced car to offer sequential turbocharging, which helped juice output of the tiny, 1.3-liter 13B-REW rotary engine to a whopping 252 hp. The complex turbo setup meant there was never any lag in the driving experience—the smaller turbo handled boost duty until 4000 rpm, at which point the larger turbo took over and kicked your lower spine into next week. Comer’s particularly fond of the R1 competition package for the FD, which brought upgraded springs, Bilstein shocks, an additional engine oil cooler, and more. Although the car is known for poor paint integrity and suspect interior switches, Comer says that the lightweight driving manner and timeless shape of the FD RX-7 is enough to win you over. That is, if you can find a clean one. Sadly, FDs got cheap enough for long enough that many were scooped up and heavily modified—or even wrecked by drivers unfamiliar with the car’s notorious non-linear acceleration.
1997–2004 Porsche Boxster
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $15,500
The 986-generation Porsche Boxster debuted in late 1996, three years after the original Boxster Concept broke cover at the Detroit auto show. It was an homage to the original 550 Spyder, and it’s credited with helping turn the tide for Porsche’s dwindling market fortunes in the early ’90s. With mid-engine dynamics, a tidy interior, and drop-top appeal, the Boxster immediately leap-frogged the 911 and became Porsche’s biggest volume seller, a role it held until Porsche waded into the SUV game with the Cayenne in 2003. Their balanced handling and timeless design helped the first-generation Boxster and Boxster S enjoy desirability well into the new millennium; We loved it so much it earned a spot in our 2019 Bull Market List. The well-known IMS bearing issue has been sorted in the aftermarket, and there’s great club support for these cars all over the world. Decent ones can still be had for less than $20,000.
1996–2001 Ferrari 550 Maranello
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $132,000
Gated manual, front-mounted V-12, and rear-wheel drive is a winning combination in any decade, and the 1996–2001 Ferrari 550 Maranello might be the peak of this formula. Boasting nearly 480 hp, the 5.5-liter V-12 was a tour de force in aural excellence, with the raw performance to boot. From a standstill, the 550 dispatched 60 mph in the mid-4s on its way to nearly 200 mph. Like the other cars from this decade, this GT is reliable during grand adventures but not insulated to the point of feeling boring—like a gated manual could ever feel boring! They’re not quite as wallet-friendly as some of the other entrants on the list, but if you have the means, there’s no better way to enjoy this desirable mix.
1992–98 McLaren F1
HPG #2 (Excellent) value: $18,000,000
Somewhere in the ether, there’s an 11th commandment that mandates inclusion of the McLaren F1 into every “great cars” story. It’s widely considered to be the greatest automotive achievement in history, and between the bespoke BMW V-12, futuristic carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, and extensive use of rare metals like titanium, gold, and magnesium, we’re inclined to agree. In 1992, the F1 boasted a then-otherworldly top-speed of 240.1 mph, and could rip off 0–60 in three seconds. Some 20 years on, its performance is still remarkable. The F1 is truly a world-changing piece of machinery, and if you have ability to acquire one, consider these words your moment of clarity: Go forth and acquire greatness.
Did Brad and Colin neglect to mention your favorite car from the ’90s? Let us know your candidate below.