The early 1990s served the import enthusiast community well. Manufacturers at the time had introduced a number of tuner-friendly models that, even without the technology and aftermarket support available today, could still be built into bad-asses. Often referred to as the "Golden Era," the '90s carried a ton of weight as enthusiasts entered a heavy transitional phase. What was once thought of as a bunch of punk kids going through a short-lived phase with hand-me-down imports began to show depth and progression and silenced a lot of critics in the process.
With over two decades separating then and now, it occurred to me that some of the greats produced in the late 1980s through early '90s aren't nearly as popular as they once were. It's a shame because some of these cars are formidable even by today's standards. Before you get worked up, there are plenty of fine examples of these cars floating around. I know that and I appreciate it, however, the numbers don't rival that of much more popular platforms from that era.
(For example, the FD RX-7 hit the market during this time and today is wildly popular, even among newcomers to the import community. The same goes for Toyota Supra, Honda Civics, and many more from that era.)
With that in mind, here are five models from the early 1990s that I think have been forgotten or overlooked for quite some time and deserve a more dignified fate.
The very idea of a mid-engine, RWD, two-seater is the stuff dreams are made of. Blessed with excellent handling, a streamlined and rather sexy profile, and for the MR2 Turbo model, a boosted 2.0-liter 3S-GTE that produced 200hp right out of the box, the second generation MR2 was a blast to drive.
Stereotype: Like almost any mid-engine configuration, repairing, replacing or upgrading typically requires more work than a front-engine vehicle and frustration is almost guaranteed for the average owner.
When import racing took place almost exclusively on the street, the Eclipse - most notably in GSX trim - was a force to be reckoned with. Armed with a 16-valve, DOHC turbocharged 2.0L 4G63, the power was put to the ground with an AWD system that found great success against traction-limited adversaries.
Stereotype: Many will cite the transmission and crank issues when asked about the car's shortcomings, as well as electrical problems and the infamous broken door handle gremlin. The truth is, like any other model, some problems are inherent and others are typically user error. First gen Eclipse engines are stout, so stout in fact that owners of second gen Eclipse reach for the older models six-bolt block and crank for reliability under increased boost.
Built with a rounder chassis than the older Z31 counterpart, the longer and wider Z32 looked the part of a supercar. Low-slung, loaded with amenities and sporting a twin-turbo, 300hp, 3.0L, DOHC VG30DE V6, the 300ZX struck a chord with consumers immediately. It even earned Motor Trend's coveted Import Car of the Year award.
Stereotype: With a larger engine than most of the sporty offerings of the early 1990s, not to mention creature comforts and in some cases T-tops, the 300ZX tipped the scales at well over 3,000 pounds. Additionally, by the end of its US run, its sticker price had ballooned well out of the grasp of most.
Heralded for its nimble handling, peppy 1.6L D16 single cam mill and ultra-lightweight chassis, the CRX landed on Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year and Car And Driver's Ten Best lists multiple times. It was Honda sweetheart, chock full of fun at a ridiculously affordable price. Often looked at as the underdog of motorsport, the CRX had a knack for pulling off the impossible with its FWD layout and fully independent, double wishbone suspension.
Stereotype: Due to the lower cost of a CRX in comparison to other cars on the list, many of them ended up in the hands of owners that simply weren't car people. Very little care was given and the ones you might find for sale these days are usually beat up.
In the spirit of open-top British sports cars, the Miata is a small, lightweight roadster using a front engine, RWD layout. The 1.6L DOHC (1.8 was offered in '94) B6ZE engine doesn't make much more than 110hp, but is more than enough to motivate a very nimble 2,000lbs. chassis. Extremely popular among the general population, heavily modded, fully built versions have always been sparse.
Stereotype: Many find the micro-sized Miata is too small or too soft in appearance to warrant a build. With aggressive flares, aero and countless engine swaps available, you can change peoples minds with a proper build.