Home Cars 30 Impressive American Performance Models From the ’90s

30 Impressive American Performance Models From the ’90s

Vukasin Herbez May 10, 2019

Ever since the ’60s, the muscle car wars have been a part of the American automotive landscape. Although the ‘70s and early ‘80s weren’t the best times for the domestic performance models, the late ‘80s brought a much-needed rise in power. And that is what rejuvenated the American muscle and performance market.

However, when the ‘90s came, Detroit was ready to greet a new decade with a host of performance, muscle, and sports cars. And those cars sparked the imagination of the car-loving public. Some even say the ‘90s were the golden years of American performance. In fact, never before or since have there been so many great cars on offer. So, keep reading to learn more about 30 of the most impressive American Performance Models from the ’90s.

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30. Chevrolet 454 SS

After almost two decades of low compression engines, safety and environmental laws, and slow performance cars, in the early ‘90s, U.S. manufacturers finally started to produce faster, more powerful models. In fact, the wave of new-found performance was so overwhelming, every pickup brand had its own fast model, a special edition, or a limited edition. However, one of the most menacing and powerful models was the mighty Chevrolet 454 SS. The basic idea behind this model was to offer the biggest available engine in the lightest full-size truck. It was basically the muscle car philosophy in truck form. And that is why the Chevrolet engineers took the ordinary 1990 Chevy 1500 pickup truck with the short bed option and added a massive 454 V8 engine.

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The enormous 7.2-liter V8 was good enough to produce 230 to 255 HP, which was a diminutive number. However, it also had 385 lb-ft of torque to make it fly down the road. They borrowed a big block engine from Chevrolet’s heavy-duty truck lineup. Although the motor was durable, it was also a thirsty machine. On the outside, the 454 SS was rather low key without any wild graphics or color choices. On the back of the bed, there was a model designation. In fact, the only difference was the blackout front grille. However, despite the big torque number, the 454 SS wasn’t all that fast and it couldn’t beat sports cars like the GMC Syclone, for example. Still, it was one of the fastest trucks around and a cool looking vehicle.

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29. Plymouth Prowler

The hot rod culture is one of the key ingredients of the American automotive landscape. However, no company ever dared to present a factory-built hot rod until 1997 when Plymouth presented the Prowler. It was a retro-futuristic roadster with a V6 engine and fantastic looks.

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They imagined the Prowler as a follow up to the Viper. And fortunately, the Prowler was a hit on the show circuit, so Chrysler wanted to capitalize on that. Despite having some initial success, the car proved to be a failure. And that was mainly since their customers expected V8 power instead of V6 power.

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28. 1995 Ford Mustang Cobra R

Ford’s Special Vehicle Team or SVT department was responsible for some of the fastest muscle cars of the last 25 years. So, in 1995 they presented another Cobra R. This time, they produced 250 Mustang Cobras, selling them only to individuals with a racing license or to private teams. Under the hood was a tuned 5.8-liter V8 engine that delivered 300 HP and 356 lb-ft of torque.

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Even though this kind of power is not impressive today, it was a hefty number for 1995. Also, since the Cobra R was a fairly light car, it performed well. The 0 to 60 mph time took just 5.2 seconds, which made it one of the fastest accelerating American production models at the time. Interestingly, the Cobra R was available only in white. However, this model was just the start of the SVT division’s habit of turning ordinary Mustangs into land rockets.

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27. GMC Syclone

Back in the 1980s, GM experimented a lot with turbocharged engines, which was in sync with the current industry trends. But the most famous of them all was the Buick Grand National or Buick GNX. It featured a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine with a fewer than five-second 0 to 60 mph time. With that kind of firepower, those black Buicks were terrorizing the drag strips and stop lights. But sadly, by the early ‘90s, the Buicks were gone, so those GM engineers were looking for a place to install that turbo hardware. Soon they made the decision was made to make a crazy sports truck out of a plebian Chevrolet S10, a compact pickup which came with diminutive four-cylinder power. This is how the GMC Syclone was born.

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GM took an ordinary S10 body shell, installed a 4.3-liter V6 with a turbocharger, good for 280 HP, special four-speed automatic sourced from a Corvette, and performance-based all-wheel drive. The power figures don’t sound much these days, but the Syclone was able to sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds which made it faster than contemporary Ferraris. The key was lightweight, with small dimensions and lots of torque from that turbocharged engine. Unfortunately, the price was significantly higher than the regular model, so they built less than 3,000, with most of them in the signature black color. The Syclone wasn’t the first performance truck, but it was the first turbocharged compact pickup they designed to win stoplight races, which made it quite unusual and unique.

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26. Ford Mustang Cobra

Although there’s been a recent rise in prices, the Fox-body Mustang Cobra flew under the radar of mainstream collectors for a while. And although most people tend to dismiss it as another Fox-Body Mustang, the Cobra is much more than that. It is a proper performance car, blurring the line between a classic muscle car and sports coupe. Ford produced it for one year only in 1993, which marked the end of the Fox-body Mustang generation. Under the hood was SVT prepared 5.0-liter HO engine with trick GT40 heads and various other upgrades.

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The 0 to 60 mph time was well under six seconds. Also, the 1993 Cobra handled perfectly thanks to the revised suspension. However, Ford made just 4,993 examples in 1993. The Fox-body Mustang generation ended production in 1993. And that was the perfect way to send it off to history.

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25. Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

The year 1993 marked the return of the Camaro and Z/28 models. Chevy put them in a new body they mated with an improved and slightly modified F-Body platform which retained the live rear axle setup. The fourth-generation Camaro was a modern-looking and capable muscle car that came in two body styles, coupe, and convertible.

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The engine lineup consisted of V6 and V8 units and in the Z/28 version, the Camaro got a Chevrolet LT1 engine producing 275 HP. It doesn’t sound like a lot today, but for the early ‘90s, it was a good number that translated to a lively performance. Also, the Z/28 package came with updated brakes and a six-speed manual transmission.

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24. GMC Typhoon

Out of all the SUVs they produced in the early ’90s, arguably the most interesting and fastest was the GMC Typhoon. What the Ford Bronco Boss didn’t get a chance to achieve, the Typhoon did. It was a limited production small SUV with a high price tag for its day. It offered unbelievable performance numbers, which set it apart from all the rest. More than 25 years since the first Typhoons saw the light of day, this vehicle is still a benchmark of performance and style. But, what makes it so interesting and desirable? Mainly, it’s the engine. Typhoons came with a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler.

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The power output was 280 HP, which is not that impressive today. But, back in 1991, it was a nice number. But the automatic transmission, performance-oriented all-wheel-drive system, and suspension helped the performance. In fact, the Typhoon could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. Even today, this is fast for an ordinary SUV. The rest of the package included special trim, luxury interior appointments, special color, and wheel choices, and limited production. In just three years of production, from 1991 to 1993, GMC built 4,697 Typhoons. Since then, this model has achieved collector car status. Today, they are worth more than the original sticker price of $29,000.

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23. Ford F-150 Lightning

One of the purest ‘90s performance machines was the crazy and cool F-150 Lightning. It wasn’t the first muscle truck, but it was one of the best. They executed it very well, making the first generation, which they sold from 1993 to 1995, a true automotive icon. The basic idea was to make a muscle truck using a regular F-150, similar to the Chevrolet 454 SS.

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However, Ford did it with more care and better engineering, giving the Lightning a lighter and smaller but equally powerful engine. Under the hood was a 5.8-liter V8 with 240 HP and 340 lb-ft of torque, which helped the classic F-150 Lightning provide respectable performance.

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22. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

The fourth generation of the GM F-Body platform debuted in 1993 with the new Camaro and Firebird. The new model brought much-needed modernization to the Firebird range, as well as improvements in power, equipment, handling, and braking. The new car featured a sleek and aerodynamic styling with coupe and convertible versions that attracted more buyers.

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Also, the Trans Am version returned with the powerful LT1 V8 engine with 5.7-liters of displacement and 285 HP. The engine was the same as in the Corvette of similar vintage. But since the Pontiac version had intake restrictors, it developed 15 horsepower less. Of course, crafty owners realized that their Trans Ams had a few hidden HPs, so installing the Corvette intake became a popular modification.

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21. Chevrolet Impala SS

The Impala SS is one of the most legendary names in the history of Chevrolet performance. They offered the original Impalas SS from 1961 to 1969, presenting full-size muscle cars that could beat many other performance cars at the stoplights. With its big-block engines and close-ratio, four-speed transmission unit, the Impala SS was a street-legal drag racer of the highest order. However, as the muscle car era came to an end, they discontinued the Impala SS, only to resurrect it in 1994 as an option on the seventh generation of this legendary model.

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Since the early 90s marked the return to performance for most American manufacturers, Chevrolet installed the famous 5.7-liter LT1 V8 engine in the full-size rear-wheel-drive sedan. Also, they equipped it with a heavy-duty suspension and components to create a modern-day muscle legend. So for two years, Chevrolet produced almost 70,000 Impala SS models in several colors. However, dark purple was the most popular and sought-after. The engine delivered 260 HP, propelling the big sedan to 0 to 60 mph time of seven seconds. While they’re not exactly spectacular numbers, for the mid-90s, those were quite good results.

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20. Oldsmobile Achieva SCX W41

Despite the limited sales of the original W41 Cutlass in 1991, Oldsmobile knew the 2.3-liter four-cylinder had the potential to be more than just a footnote in their history. Since they discontinued the Cutlass Calais for 1992 and replaced it with the all-new Achieva model, Oldsmobile decided to introduce another W41 model. The goal was to develop the concept of a compact front-wheel-drive sports car further.

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So for the 1992 and 1993 model years, Oldsmobile offered the SCX W41 model. It was the last W-named performance version Oldsmobile ever built. They based the SCX W41 on the previous model. It featured the same 190 HP, 2.3-liter engine that revved to 7,200 rpm. The design was improved as well as the interior equipment. Also, they made some changes to the suspension and brakes. But the biggest improvement was the five-speed manual gearbox they developed especially for this model. The SCX W41 was the quickest car in its segment. But despite its qualities, it still flew under the radar of most enthusiasts, so Olds only sold 1,600 of them.

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19. Pontiac SLP Formula Firehawk

The SLP Firehawks were interesting late muscle cars. The model first appeared in 1995, marking the start of a successful venture between GM and the Street Legal Performance Company of New Jersey. This was an outside firm that produced performance kits for Firebirds. However, their cars weren’t just improved base models and in fact, they were much more.

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The SLP Formula Firehawk had a 5.7-liter V8 engine delivering 300 or 315 HP, which was a lofty number for 1995. The six-speed manual version could accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds, making it one of the fastest production cars in America. The package cost $6,500 over the price of the regular Trans Am and included numerous upgrades and a Ram Air hood, but it was well worth it.

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18. Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

You probably know that the Corvette is not a true muscle car, but rather a capable, two-seater sports car. However, the ZR-1 version was an important model when Chevy presented it since it provided the confidence that American performance was truly back. The Chevrolet engineers knew the C4 chassis had enormous potential, so they always looked for ways to improve its power and performance. Finally, they got the green light from management to introduce the best Corvette model in years. The company wanted to show the sports car world what the Corvette was capable of. So, in 1990, they debuted the mighty ZR-1. It pumped out a whopping 400 HP, delivering a performance that could beat any Ferrari at the moment.

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They called it the “King of the Hill,” and the Corvette ZR1 was exactly that. They built the king of all Corvettes until 1990 when they unveiled the ZR1. Immediately it was obvious that Chevrolet had hit a home run. Under the hood, there was the LT4, a Lotus-engineered V8 engine producing 375 HP at first and later 400 HP. Also, it had quad-cam heads and 32 valves. The engine was an engineering marvel, performing exceptionally well. With the beefed-up suspension, gearbox, and a pair of extra-wide rear tires, the Corvette ZR1 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. And that made it one of the fastest cars of the era as well as a true modern classic today.

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17. Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited

Today, fast SUVs are nothing special, but in the ‘90s, they were extremely rare and obscure. However, Jeep produced one which will be a collector’s item in the near future. This is the 1998 5.9 Limited, one year, top of the line model. And best of all, Jeep equipped it with every luxury item they had to offer, as well as the 5.9-liter Magnum V8 producing 245 HP.

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Although 245 HP doesn’t sound impressive today, it was a lofty number by late ‘90s SUV standards. The Grand Cherokee 5.9 was basically a Jeep hot rod model before those modern SRT versions with their powerful Hemi engines. However, they only about 15,000, so the 5.9 Limited is a definite future classic.

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16. Ford F-150 Lightning

In 1999 with the new, totally redesigned generation of F-150 trucks came the new Lightning. This time it was much meaner and aggressive looking as well with much more firepower. Ford installed its 5.4-liter V8 with a supercharger, which was good for 360 HP at first and 380 HP later. This was much more than the previous model.

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Better still, it was much more than any truck on the market at that moment. And that made the performance numbers so sublime. In fact, the Lightning could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds and top 140 mph. Those figures were more like the Porsche 911 of the period rather than a regular pickup truck that could tow things like the other F-150s.

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15. Panoz Roadster

Younger enthusiasts don’t remember the name Panoz, but back in the ‘90s, this company was one of the best-known limited production American brands. Successful in racing, Panoz was offered many racing technologies in street-legal vehicles, and that made them a favorite with fans of performance driving.

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They presented the Roadster model in the early ‘90s as a modern-day version of the legendary Shelby Cobra. To keep the weight lower, they stripped down the open-top two-seater they built of aluminum. Panoz used several Ford Mustang components including the engine, drivetrain, and suspension. And that meant that the Roadster produced 300 HP and brutal performance numbers.

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14. Ford Taurus SHO

Ford had already made history with the first generation Taurus and Taurus SHO in the late ‘80s. However, in 1992, the FoMoCo presented a new generation with the upgraded SHO version. It featured a Yamaha designed 3.3-liter V6 engine producing 220 HP.

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While that may not sound like much today, 27 years ago, this was respectable power. In fact, it managed to propel this big sedan into muscle car territory.

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13. Shelby Series 1

After the success with the Viper, Carroll decided to return to the sports car manufacturing business, but with a new project. His idea was to introduce a retro-styled car. It would be a power roadster with sharper handling, more direct driving dynamics, and a modern drivetrain. The idea materialized in the form of the Shelby Series 1, a world-class sports convertible and the only vehicle Shelby built from the ground up. He revealed the Series 1 to the public in 1999. It featured a gorgeous roadster body, a low silhouette, and a design that went back to the mid-60s.

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However, under the body, everything was new including the Oldsmobile 4.0-liter V8 engine delivering 320 HP. Since the car was light, the performance was great. In fact, the 0 to 60 mph acceleration time was around four seconds, which was fantastic for the late ‘90s. Unfortunately, U.S. regulations regarding car manufacturing forbade Shelby from producing his Series 1 as a regular model, but only as a kit car, which he refused. So, due to the limited availability and high price, he only built approximately 250 examples until 2005.

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12. Dodge Viper RT/10

Dodge presented this legendary sports muscle car in 1992. Immediately, it became an American icon. The Viper RT/10 had a monster of a V10 engine in the front they combined with a sleek and aggressive body style. And although it had rear-wheel drive, there was not much to protect you from being killed by the sheer power and wild nature of this car. Under the hood was an 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 pumping out a neck-bending 400 HP and 465 lb-ft of torque. Since that was unheard of at the time, it secured Viper’s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market.

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The design wasn’t much different from the original prototypes with its long hood and short rear end. However, the necessary roll bar made the Viper visually dramatic and fast-looking, even when it was in park. With a price of just over $50,000 and 0 to 60 mph time of 4.6 seconds, the Viper beat many European exotic machines. And that helped it established itself as one of the best looking and fastest cars of the early ‘90s.

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11. Guldstrand Corvette C4

Dick Guldstrand was a household name to all Corvette fans as one of the most famous Corvette racers and tuners. So in the early ‘90s when Chevrolet introduced the mighty ZR1 Vette, Guldstrand felt it wasn’t enough. Soon, his shop presented the Guldstrand GS 90 that delivered 475 HP and a host of other upgrades.

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The GS 90 production was limited with some sources stating they only produced 25 cars. However, they are easily recognizable due to the custom bodywork and paint job. These are 20 of the most impressive American performance models from the ’90s. Which one caught your attention? Hopefully, it’s one of the ones that they built plenty of and not the rare, obscure models in limited production.

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10. 1991 Pontiac Trans Am GTA

The Trans AM GTA was one of the best Firebirds they made in the ’80s. But its swan song came in the early ’90s when Pontiac introduced the 1991 Trans Am GTA. The essence of the GTA package was to install a Corvette-sourced L89 engine into an F-Body chassis to create the ultimate performer.

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By 1991, the GTA package had matured into a great driving and handling model. It had a restyled front and rear, as well as a cool body kit. The 5.7-liter delivered a healthy 245 HP and produced vivid performance numbers.

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9. Panoz Esperante GT1

If you’re a ’90s kid, you probably remember the Panoz Esperante GTR-1 from racing games like Gran Turismo and Midtown Madness. This American supercar was the talk of the racing community in the late ’90s. However, despite the promising start, Panoz built only a few racing versions and one street-legal example. The technology behind the Esperante was clearly for racing purposes. They mounted the front engine towards the middle of the car for the best weight distribution.

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Even though the characteristic front of the car was aerodynamically efficient, it wasn’t all that attractive. Under the hood was a Roush-built, Ford-derived V8 with over 500 HP they mated to a sequential gearbox. Panoz successfully raced the Esperante on numerous race tracks all over the world, but only built one street version.

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8. Dodge Viper GTS-R

The resurrection of the American performance car scene in the ’90s brought many interesting road cars. It also revived manufacturer racing efforts on an international scale. One of the most successful racing models in those days was the mighty Dodge Viper GTS-R. It debuted in 1995. Soon, it became one of the best GT racing cars in the world. Nobody thought that the Viper could become a sharp and nimble sports car. Its road-going version was a burly muscle machine with an enormous V10 they stuffed in the front.

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When the racecar engineers developed the GTS coupe into a sharp GTS-R racing car, it could beat anything coming from Italy, Germany, or England. In its long racing career lasting over 10 years, the Dodge Viper GTS-R had over 160 victories in numerous international championships. This included several class victories on Le Mans.

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7. Dodge Spirit R/T

The Spirit was a compact, front-wheel-drive model Dodge introduced in 1989. In its base form, it was popular with consumers since it had a modern design. It was also of good quality and had up to date features at an affordable price. However, the R/T version was far more interesting. It is a shame most people have forgotten about it, except for the most dedicated Dodge fans. Since the performance and power output of the base Spirit was nothing to write home about, Dodge decided to introduce a hot rod version. They called it the R/T to resurrect the famous moniker they used in the muscle car era.

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The base 2.2-liter four-cylinder motor only produced 90 HP, so they gave it a turbo upgrade. After that, it produced an impressive 224 HP and 218 lb-ft of torque. For the 1991 model year, this was a hefty power level from an economy car. This newfound power raised performance to a whole new level. In fact, the Spirit R/T could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, which made it enter Corvette territory in 1991. At over $17,000 it was expensive, but it offered fantastic driving dynamics and sublime performance for an economy sedan. Unfortunately, the market didn’t understand this car, so Dodge made less than 1,500 in the two years the Spirit R/T was available. Today, most people have forgotten those hot little cars. But if you find one for sale, you may want to buy it. It is an interesting cool piece of Dodge’s performance history.

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6. Dodge Stealth

The Dodge Stealth is another ’90s legend most mainstream sports car enthusiasts have forgotten, which is a shame. With its pop-up headlights, rear panorama glass, and big spoiler, the Stealth screams early-’90s car design. But there is much more about this car than contemporary nostalgia, as it is one serious driving machine.

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Under the hood is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 producing 300 HP that sends its power to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system. To be honest, the Dodge Stealth is basically the twin brother to the Mitsubishi 3000 GT. In fact, apart from the exterior design, the two cars are identical. They even produced them on the same assembly line in Japan and then imported them to the states.

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5. Plymouth Neon ACR

Everybody knows about the awesome, turbocharged Neon SRT4 from the early 2000s. However, that car wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the fantastic yet forgotten Neon ACR Plymouth produced for just two years in 1996 and 1997. Back in the ’90s, the Neon was one of the best compact cars America produced. Soon, the engineers at Dodge realized the chassis had the potential to be something more than just a grocery getter.

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The Neon ACR was basically a race-prepared Neon with a twin-cam engine and four-wheel disc brakes. It also came with a different speedometer, a stiffer suspension, and a radio delete option. Plymouth derived the name, “ACR,” from the American Club Racer and soon, the Neon ACR was the favorite car for amateur racers on track weekends

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4. Callaway Super Speedster LM

Callaway had much success in the ‘80s with their version of the Corvette C4. They gave it a heavily turbocharged engine to deliver ridiculous performance numbers. However, Reeves Callaway wanted to go racing, so in the early ’90s, they unveiled the Super Speedster LM. It was the ultimate version of a race-prepared Corvette C4 with a turbocharged LT5 V8 engine with 766 HP on tap. However, this was much more than just a highly-tuned Corvette.

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Best of all, the Super Speedster LM had numerous body modifications, a totally revised suspension, race brakes, and much more. These are the fast and fantastic but forgotten supercars of the ’90s. Most are obscure and rare machines you probably will never see on the street. However, if you’re lucky, you may see one of these beauties in a museum or at a car show. Limited in their numbers, these cars have quickly been forgotten.

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3. Buick Roadmaster LT1

The legendary Roadmaster name returned to the Buick lineup in 1991. After a 33-year-long hiatus, they presented a freshly styled luxurious sedan and station wagon model. The car was basically the same as other offerings from General Motors in the same class.

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However, Buick engineers installed a Corvette LT1 5.7-liter V8 engine into the Roadmaster’s engine bay. The LT1 produced 300 HP in the Corvette, but in the Buick, it delivered 260 HP. That was more than enough to turn this heavy car into a proper hot rod.

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2. 1999 Ford Mustang GT

The fourth-generation Mustang got its first restyling in 1999 featuring numerous upgrades in design and technology. The GT model was again one of the best muscle cars money could buy thanks to the 4.6-liter V8 engine with 260 HP.

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They offered the 1999 Mustang GT with a special 35th-anniversary package. Also, it was available as a coupe or a convertible with an automatic or manual transmission.

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1. Saleen Mustang SC 1993

Steve Saleen was called the Carroll Shelby of the ’80s due to his connection with the Ford Mustang, racing success, and a string of tuned Mustangs released to buyers. In 1993, he presented one of the best Fox-body cars in form of the Saleen Mustang SC.

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The 5.0-liter V8 was given a supercharger and delivered mighty 325 HP. Of course, Saleen Mustang SC was equipped with bigger brakes, beefed-up transmission, new suspension, special wheels, and rubber along with characteristic body kit and exterior trim.

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