This is clear to see in the cars that arrived on the market at the start of this decade - but not all new models would go on to set any new records. They range from the great, the good, and the not-so worthy, and are listed here in alphabetical order:
The S2 was the successor to the seminal Audi Quattro coupe, so no pressure, then. In isolation, the S2 was a great car, boasting a 220bhp 2.3-litre five-cylinder engine with turbocharging to aid it. There was four-wheel drive to harness the power and 0-60mph came up in 5.7 seconds, which was a good half second faster than its illustrious predecessor.
Yet the S2 just didn’t grab the buying public’s imagination in the same way the first Quattro had. A price tag of £29,394 didn’t help matters and made the S2 the same price as a more desirable Porsche 968 Club Sport. A more affordable front-drive version did little to boost sales and the S2 was eclipsed in 1994 when Audi launched the era-defining RS2 Avant.
BMW 3 Series
BMW couldn’t have got it more spot on with the E36 third generation 3 Series. It instantly became the car to have for any aspiring junior manager or keen family driver. With prices pitched just above humdrum family saloons like the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Cavalier, it was attainable prestige and BMW sold 3 Series in huge numbers, making it the firm’s best-seller throughout the 1990s.
A canny strategy of offering a 3 Series for every need helped keep the model on top of the sales charts. After the saloon’s launch in 1990, Coupe, Touring, M3 and Compact models followed. There was also a wide spread of engines, from humble 1.6-litre four pot to lusty 2.8-litre six-cylinder petrols plus the potent M3 in 3.0- and 3.2-litre forms. BMW was also quick off the mark with diesels to keep company buyers happy, including the smooth 325tds.
Chevrolet streamlined its mid-size saloon offering with the Lumina, both by unifying several models into one range and with the Lumina’s styling. Although it was thought to be late to the party of smooth looks that were popular with others like the Ford Taurus, the Lumina quickly became a strong and steady seller.
The four-door saloon was joined by a two-door version with notchback styling for a mildly more sporting appeal. However, the front-wheel drive platform was set up for comfort and even the largest 3.4-litre V6 engine was happier when cruising. Even so, the Lumina name was used for Chevrolet’s NASCAR race cars. However, the first-generation Lumina lasted only four years, making it the shortest-lived of General Motor’s W-body models.
The Fiat Tempra shared its platform with the Alfa Romeo 155 and Lancia Dedra. Luckily, this meant the Tempra came with decent handling rather than its more flamboyant siblings having their dynamics dulled down. Fiat also blessed the Tempra with lively twin-cam 1.8- and 2.0-litre petrol engines, or you could opt for the more lumpen 1.4- and 1.6-litre units and a plodding 1.9 diesel.
Taking the fight to rivals like the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall/Opel Cavalier, the Tempra compared well on price, equipment and driving fun. However, outside of its warmer and drier southern European homeland, the Tempra gained a reputation for corroding that sealed its fate as an also-ran in the large family car market.
Ford needed an SUV to compete against the popular Jeep Cherokee and Chevrolet Blazer, and the Explorer was the result. Crisp, clean styling kept it simple and the mid-sized Explorer replaced the Bronco II with ease as buyers took to it in large numbers.
Offered with three- and five-door bodies, the Explorer used a simple 4.0-litre V6 petrol engine and there was a choice of five-speed auto or four-speed auto transmissions. You could also have it with rear- or four-wheel drive, while a rugged separate chassis made it decent off-road. There were also various trims, but Ford waited until the second-generation Explorer in 1994 before offering the model outside of the USA, Canada and South America.
The Geo Storm was an affordable sports car sold in the USA and built by Isuzu. In fact, the Storm was really only a reworked version of Isuzu’s Impulse model, only the Geo did without some of the luxury goodies to give it a lower sticker price in showrooms.
Initially only offered as an awkward-looking hatch-cum-estate in the mould of the Volvo 480ES, the Storm was also sold with a more usual three-door hatch. Choose the 1.8-litre GSi and it could see off 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and hit 125mph. However, the economic crash in Japan in 1993 ended the life of the Storm and the Geo brand was merged into General Motors in 1997.
In 1990, if you wanted a supercar to use every day, you bought a Porsche 911, but Honda delivered another choice that year with its NSX. It cost £58,000 but was £10,000 cheaper than a Ferrari 348, and it was quicker than its Porsche or Ferrari rivals yet was just as easy to live with as a Civic. It didn’t do any harm to have Ayrton Senna’s name linked to the car’s development, either.
All of this should have guaranteed Honda total dominance of the sector, but the NSX remained a resolutely slow seller. The Honda badge didn’t carry sufficient cache for many and the wonderfully ergonomic cabin was accused of being too ordinary. Those that did buy into the NSX way of thinking were treated to a rev-happy 3.0-litre V6 engine with 274bhp for 0-60mph in 5.7 seconds and a 174mph top speed.
No car has hit the headlines like the Lotus Carlton since the fabled AC Cobra coupe was rumoured to have been tested at 185mph on the M1. The Cobra is blamed for the introduction of the 70mph speed limit, while the Lotus Carlton generated questions in Parliament about whether or not such cars should be allowed on sale. This was closing the stable door long after the Carlton’s 377 horses had bolted, making the Lotus-derived saloon the world’s fastest four-door at the time.
Only 320 Lotus Carltons were made with Vauxhall badges and a further 630 as Opels. The 3.6-litre straight-six motor had twin turbochargers and drove through a six-speed manual gearbox. A chassis developed by Lotus meant it could make the most of the power in corners and also helped to justify the huge £48,000 asking price.
The Mercedes 500E could legitimately have been badged as a Porsche model such was the amount of work the sports car company put into creating this super saloon. Much of the effort centred around fitting the 5.0-litre V8 into an engine bay never designed to hold such a large unit. Porsche managed and it massaged 326bhp from the motor to give 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds and a top speed limited to 155mph.
Given the hand-built nature of the 500E, which was manufactured in a Porsche factory in Stuttgart before being finished across town by Mercedes, it notched up an impressive 10,479 sales. This was even more eye-raising given the list price of £57,200 was around £10,000 more than a contemporary Porsche 911 and the 500E was only ever offered with left-hand drive.
Mitsubishi 3000 GT
The Mitsubishi 3000 GT, or GTO in Japan and Dodge Stealth in the USA, had every conceivable bit of technology crammed into its coupe shape. As well as four-wheel drive and twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 engine with quad cams, there was four-wheel steering, active aerodynamics and electronically-controlled suspension.
The result was a car capable of impressive lap times, 0-60mph in 5.8 seconds and 153mph. The downside of all this was the GT just didn’t feel that special to drive compared to rivals such as the Mazda RX-7 and Porsche 968, which also cost less than the Mitsubishi’s £35,500. Even so, the GT lasted the whole of the 1990s and only went off sale in 2001.
Mitsuoka has a long track record of creating pastiche models based on modern platforms and, in 1990, it launched the Le Seyde. With Great Gatsby-era styling, there were full flowing wings with running board-mounted spare wheels and an operacoupe rear roof treatment. It still used the Nissan Silvia S13 generation doors of the base car, so it wasn’t the most harmonious looker.
With 131bhp from its turbocharged 1.8-litree engine and barn door aerodynamics, the Le-Seyde was not a quick car. However, if you wanted to get noticed, it was the perfect set of wheels. Mitsuoka only made 500 of this first-generation model and claimed to have sold all of them within four days of announcing it.
Nissan had enjoyed a lot of success with its larger sporting coupes, so the same thinking was applied to the smaller 100NX. Sadly, this model did not come with a great performance or rear-drive chassis. Instead, it was based on the contemporary Sunny hatchback, which did not bode well when the NX’s key rival was the pin sharp Honda CRX.
The 100NX was a decent looker with its smooth coupe styling and the twin-cam 1.6-litre engine revved willingly. Yet it just didn’t have much of a sporting feel and buyers stayed away, helped by the £15,023 list price that was higher than the CRX’s.
The Nissan Primera replaced the dull Bluebird with equally anonymous styling. However, the Primera also aped its predecessor’s unerring reliability and also came with perky engines and a fine-handling chassis. If you could see past the staid exterior, the Primera was a very good family saloon or estate.
Nissan wasn’t slow to exploit these traits and entered the Primera in the hotly contested British Touring Car Championship. It may have taken until 1998 for Nissan to win the manufacturers’ title, but the Primera was a consistent contender throughout the 1990s in the world’s toughest saloon car series.
The first-generation Renault Clio was a wholly conventional supermini, save for one thing: the marketing campaign that ran on television adverts. At a stroke, Renault introduced the world to the characters Nicole et Papa and gave its small car a personality that appealed to drivers of all ages.
While following the standard supermini recipe, the Clio did it all very capably, so you could choose between three- and five-door bodies plus a range of petrol engine. The sole diesel option was best avoided. This Clio also gave rise to the superb 16V and Williams hot hatch models, for which keen drivers will be eternally grateful.
The Rover 400 was a last hurrah for the British brand in the mainstream of small family cars. It was offered as a saloon or estate, when the market was moving decidedly towards hatches, but the 400 served up reasonable space, comfort and equipment alongside handsome, restrained looks.
Under the skin, the 400 was based on the same Honda-derived platform as the 200, while engine choice comprised Rover K Series motors and some from Honda. There were also Peugeot-sourced diesels as Rover sought to make the most of the company car market.
Saturn kicked off as a budget brand for General Motors in 1990 with the launch of the S series of compact models. There were saloon, coupe and estate models that all shared a 1.9-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, though you could choose between five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions.
Unremarkable in many ways, the Saturn S was notable for a new sales approach that championed a no-haggle method. Simply, the price was pitched very keenly, so the customer specified the car and paid the resulting amount as Saturn majored on value for money. It worked and the S sold steadily in decent numbers throughout its life until it was discontinued in 2002.
Where the Space Cruiser was very much a van with windows, the Toyota Previa was a whole new approach to the people carrier from the Japanese company. The 2.4-litre petrol engine was canted over by 75-degrees to put it low in the car to maximise interior space. Monobox styling, championed by the Renault Espace, also made full use of available passenger and luggage room.
Sliding side rear doors were another handing feature and you could slide the back seats around to suit your passenger needs. The Previa was also comfortable, well made and reliable, though it didn’t drive quite as ably as a family hatch. Even so, it became a very credible rival to the Espace.
In the same year Vauxhall and Opel unleashed the Lotus Carlton on the world, the European arm of General Motors also came up with the sleek Calibra. It was honed in the wind tunnel and boasted a drag coefficient of just 0.25, making it the most aerodynamic production car of the decade until Honda launched the Insight two months before the turn of the Millennium.
Such a slippery shape did not upset the Calibra’s looks and it sold strongly as a result to those wanting a handsome coupe. It didn’t handle quite as well as it looked, but there was no doubting the performance of the 2.5-litre V6 and turbocharged 2.0-litre models, the latter offered with four-wheel drive and 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds.
The Volvo 900 will go down in history as the last of the old school of design from the Swedish firm. It may have been styled like a box, but it was engineered and built to last. A simple front engine, rear-wheel drive layout coupled to supple suspension made it a great cruiser, while the vast passenger cabin and load space endeared it to the Volvo faithful.
However, the 900 also hid a performance secret under its bonnet if you ordered the new 3.0-litre straight-six engine that offered 204bhp. Even as the new 850 range made its mark, the 900 and later S90 and V90 models proved popular. By the time production ended in 1998, Volvo had sold 1.5 million of these robust saloons and estates.