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The 30 Best American Performance and Muscle Cars From the 1990s

Vukasin HerbezJuly 20, 2018

In the history of muscle cars, the 1990s were an important decade. The decade brought many legendary models. But, it also marked the full return of American performance machines. Also, the era expanded the muscle car portfolio to other classes, not just two-door coupes and convertibles. For the first time in history, there were proper muscle car sedans, pickup trucks and even a muscle SUV.

After the painful ’70s, which saw the demise of high horsepower engines and fast, affordable models, the ’80s brought hope to muscle car aficionados. The power levels slowly started to rise and the cars looked better and were faster. However, the U.S. market was under the fire from foreign models and hot hatches. But American manufacturers didn’t give up. They constantly produced new and improved versions.

The ’80s ended with a promise to U.S. drivers, so when the ’90s arrived, automakers fulfilled that promise. American performance returned in full force by presenting several interesting and highly influential models that gained classic car status fast.

So here are the best ’90s muscle cars and trucks to prove that the muscle car culture returned to its previous glory. The ’90s helped American car manufacturers to regain their position on American streets and in the hearts of car lovers across the globe.

  1. Chevrolet 454

After almost two decades of safety and environmental laws bringing low compression engines and slow performances, U.S. car manufacturers finally started to produce faster, more powerful models. The wave of new-found performance was so overwhelming, every pickup brand had its fast model, special version 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. They used the muscle car philosophy in truck form. That’s why Chevrolet’s engineers took the ordinary 1990 Chevy 1500 pickup truck with the short bed option and added a massive 454 V8 engine. The enormous 7.2-liter V8 delivered just 230 to 255 HP, but it also had 385 lb-ft of torque, which made it fly down the road.

Chevy borrowed the big block engine from their heavy-duty truck lineup. This made the 454 SS a durable, yet thirsty machine. On the outside, the 454 SS was low key without any wild graphics or color choices. Although there was a model designation on the back of the bed, the only difference was a blackout front grille.

Despite the big torque numbers, the 454 SS wasn’t that fast. For example, it couldn’t beat sports cars like the GMC Syclone did. Still, it was one of the fastest trucks around as well as a cool looking vehicle.

  1. 1995 Ford Mustang Cobra R

Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) 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 of them, only selling them to drivers with a racing license or private race teams.

Under the hood was a tuned 5.8-liter V8 engine that delivered 300 HP and 356 lb-ft of torque. Even though this kind of power is not impressive today, it was a hefty number for 1995. Since the Cobra R was a light car, the performance was good. The 0 to 60 mph time took 5.2 seconds, making it the fastest accelerating American production model at the time.

But The Cobra R was available only in white. However, this model launched the SVT that turned ordinary Mustangs into land rockets.

  1. GMC Syclone

Back in the 1980s, GM has experimented with turbocharged engines, which was in sync with industry trends at the moment. The most famous of all was the Buick Grand National or Buick GNX. It featured 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engines with fewer than five-second 0 to 60 mph times. With that kind of firepower, those black Buicks were terrorizing the drag strips and stop lights.

But by the early ’90s, the Buicks were gone, and GM’s engineers needed a place to install that turbo hardware. So they decided to make a crazy sports truck out of a plebian Chevrolet S10. It was a compact pickup with diminutive four-cylinder power. And this is how the GMC Syclone was born.

GM took an ordinary S10 body shell and installed a 4.3-liter V6 with a turbocharger for 280 HP. They added a special four-speed automatic from a Corvette and performance-based all-wheel drive. The power figures may not sound like much these days, but the Syclone could sprint to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. This made it faster than contemporary Ferraris.

The key was the light weight, small dimensions and lots of torque from that turbocharged engine. Of course, the price was significantly higher than the regular model. So, they built less than 3,000, with almost all of them in the signature black color. The Syclone wasn’t the first performance truck.

However, it was the first turbocharged compact pickup GM designed to win stoplight races, making it unusual and unique. Today, the GMC Syclone is a collector vehicle and a highly-sought after model. Also, it’s still quite fast, so it can hold its own against much younger, more powerful cars.

  1. Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

The Camaro returned in 1993 as the Z/28. Chevrolet used the improved, slightly modified F-Body platform, retaining the live rear axle setup. The fourth generation Camaro was a modern looking, capable muscle car in two body styles, the coupe and convertible.

The engine lineup consisted of V6 and V8 units. But in the Z/28 version, the Camaro got Chevrolet’s LT1 engine with 275 HP. It doesn’t sound exceptional today, but for the early 90’s, it was an impressive number, bringing a lively performance. The Z/28 package also got updated brakes and a six-speed manual transmission.

  1. GMC Typhoon

Out of all SUVs they produced in the early ’90s, the most interesting, fastest was the GMC Typhoon. What the Ford Bronco Boss didn’t achieve, the Typhoon did. It was a limited production of small SUVs with high price tags for the day. The Typhoon delivered an unbelievable performance, setting 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? First, it’s the engine. Typhoons came with a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler. The power output was 280 HP and 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, and special colors and wheel choices. In just three years of production, from 1991 to 1993, they only made 4,697 of them.

Since then, this model has achieved collector car status is worth more than the original sticker price of $29,000. Although the performance figures are not that impressive today, the Typhoon could outrun a Ferrari 348 back in its day. Today, performance SUVs are relatively common, but they come with high price tags and big weights without the performance and speed.

That is why the market needs a new Typhoon. It was a model that could reintroduce pure performance in a compact SUV class. It could even be capable of defeating those modern sports cars in stoplight drag races.

  1. Ford F-150 Lightning

The ’60s were the high watermark for American performance, and not only in terms of horsepower and torque ratings. They offered many interesting looks and style, as well as the availability of fast models. After the early ’70s tight emission and safety laws, the power went embarrassingly down. It looked like the glory days of octane madness were gone. Fortunately, in the 90’s, American manufacturers started investing in performance and delivering faster, more powerful cars.

One of those pure performance machines was the crazy, cool F-150 Lightning. Conceived in the early ’90s with only 280 HP, the Lightning was a performance truck with great driving dynamics. But, in 1999 with the new, totally redesigned generation of F-150 trucks came the new Lightning. This time it was much meaner looking, aggressive and packed much more firepower.

Ford installed its 5.4-liter V8 with a supercharger, delivering 360 HP at first and 380 HP later. This was much more than the previous model and much more than any truck on the market. The performance numbers were sublime because the Lightning could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds, topping 140 mph.

Those figures were more suited to a Porsche 911 of the period than to a regular pickup truck that could tow and carry just like other F-150s. The second-generation Lightning was quite popular, so it stayed in production for five years, up to 2004. During that period, Ford’s SVT department produced over 30,000 Lightning trucks, which are fantastic numbers. This also means the SVT Lighting is relatively affordable and plentiful, so now it is the time to by one.

  1. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

The fourth generation of the GM F-Body platform debuted in 1993 with the brand 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 sleek and aerodynamic styling with coupe and convertible versions, attracting more buyers.

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 HP less. But some crafty owners realized their Trans Ams had a few hidden HPs, so installing the Corvette intake became a popular modification.

  1. Chevrolet Impala SS

The Impala SS is one of the most legendary names in Chevrolet’s performance history. They produced the original Impalas SS cars from 1961 to 1969. In fact, Chevy presented full-size muscle cars that could beat many other performance cars on the stoplight drags. With big-block engines and close-ratio four-speed transmission units, 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. Since the early 90’s 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. They also added a heavy-duty suspension and updated components to create this modern-day muscle legend.

For two years, Chevrolet produced almost 70,000 Impala SS models in several colors, with dark purple being the most popular hue. The engine delivered 260 HP and propelled this big sedan to 0 to 60 mph time of 7 seconds. Not exactly spectacular numbers, but for the mid-90’s, those were impressive results.

  1. Oldsmobile Achieva SCX W41

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

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 heavily on the previous model. So, it featured the same 190 HP, a 2.3-liter engine, which revved to 7,200 rpm.

They improved the design as well as interior equipment. Also, Oldsmobile made some changes to the suspension and brakes. But the biggest improvement was the five-speed manual gearbox Olds 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. In fact, Olds only sold 1,600 of them.

  1. Pontiac SLP Formula Firehawk

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

The SLP Formula Firehawk had a 5.7-liter V8 engine with 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 because it included numerous upgrades, like the Ram Air hood.

  1. Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

Although the Corvette is not a true muscle car, but rather a capable, two-seater sports car, the ZR-1 version was an important model. When Chevrolet introduced the ZR-1, it brought back the confidence in American performance cars. The Chevrolet engineers knew the C4 chassis had enormous potential, so they were looking for ways to improve its power and performance.

Finally, they got the green light from management to introduce the best Corvette model in years to show the sports car world what the Corvette could achieve. So, in 1990, they presented the mighty ZR-1 with 400 HP and a performance that could beat any Ferrari at that time. Chevy called it the “King of the Hill,” and the Corvette ZR-1 was exactly that. It was the king of all Corvettes in 1990 when they introduced the ZR1. Immediately it was obvious that Chevrolet hit a home run.

Under the hood, there was the LT4, a Lotus-engineered V8 engine with 375 HP and later 400 HP, quad cam heads and 32 valves. The engine was an engineering marvel and performed 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. These numbers made it one of the fastest cars of the era and a true modern classic today.

  1. 1993 Ford Mustang Cobra

For the last year of the venerable Fox-bodied generation of Mustangs, Ford prepared a special Cobra R version, which they sold in 1993 only. The car was a step up from the regular Cobra SVT model and featured a host of upgrades and “go-faster” options.

It was a limited production model of just over 1,300. The 1993 Cobra featured no luxury options, but it had bigger brakes and a stiffer suspension. Ford tuned the 5.0-liter V8 to deliver around 250 HP. Due to the lightweight body and power, the Cobra R provided a convincing performance.

  1. 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.

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.

  1. 1999 Ford Lightning

In 1999 with the redesigned generation of F-150 trucks came the new Lightning. This time it was much meaner looking, aggressive and had more firepower. Ford equipped 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 and any truck on the market at that moment.

The performance numbers were sublime. The Lightning could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds and top 140 mph. Those figures were more suited to the Porsche 911 than to a regular pickup truck that could tow cargo just like other F-150s.

  1. 1999 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

The horsepower wars were raging in Detroit as the ’90s came to the end. And one of the biggest winners was the 1999 Firebird Trans Am. With a new restyle, updated options and upgraded 5.7-liter engine, this was the model to beat in 1999.

The power output was 305 HP. They equipped it with a six-speed manual transmission, making the Trans Am one of the fastest American production cars at that time.

  1. 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.

Plymouth conceived the car to serve as the follow up to the Viper. And the Prowler was a hit on the show circuit, so Chrysler wanted to capitalize on that. Despite its initial success, the Prowler proved to be a failure due because customers expected V8, not V6 power. Even so, the Prowler delivered a decent performance with its 3.8-liter, 250 HP engine.

  1. 1992 Dodge Viper RT

Chrysler wanted to build a modern-day Cobra, but with more power, refinement and performance. Their goal was to show that the concept of a light, but immensely powerful roadster was still attractive.

So, in 1992 they presented the Viper with an 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 with 400 HP and 465 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers were unheard of at the time, securing Viper`s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market.

  1. 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.

However, the 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.

  1. Ford Taurus SHO

Ford had already made history with first generation Taurus and Taurus Super High Output, or SHO in the late ’80s. But for 1992, FoMoCo prepared a new generation by upgrading the SHO version. It featured a Yamaha-designed 3.3-liter V6 engine delivering 220 HP.

It may not sound like much today, but 26 years ago, this was respectable power. In fact, it helped propel this big sedan into muscle car territory.

  1. Dodge Neon ACR

Everybody knows about the awesome, turbocharged Neon SRT4 from the early 2000s. However, that car wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fantastic yet forgotten Neon ACR or American Club Racer. In fact, they only produced it for two years, in 1996 and 1997. Back in the ’90s, the Neon was one of the best compact cars in America.

But the Dodge engineers realized the chassis had the potential to be something more than just a grocery go-getter. The Neon ACR was basically a race-prepared Neon with a twin cam engine. It also came with four-wheel disc brakes, a different speedometer, a stiffer suspension and radio delete. Soon, the Neon ACR was the favorite car of amateur racers on track weekends.

21. Dodge Viper GTS

In 1993, Dodge presented the Viper Coupe concept and after extremely good reactions, the company decided to turn the concept into a regular production model in 1996 when the Viper GTS was released.The GTS was much more than just a coupe Viper and more than 90% of components were new or improved over the regular RT/10 model. The car had better aerodynamics due to fixed roof and rear spoiler. Also, the power was upgraded and the GTS delivered 450 HP which was 35 HP more than the 1995 roadster version.

22. Guldstrand Corvette GS 90

Dick Guldstrand was a household name to all Corvette fans as one of the best known Corvette racers and tuners. In the early `90s, Chevrolet introduced the mighty ZR1 Vette but Guldstrand felt it wasn’t enough. So, his shop presented the Guldstrand GS 90 with 475 HP and a host of other upgrades. The GS 90 production was very limited with some sources stating that only about 25 cars were made. However, they are easily recognizable due to custom bodywork and paintjob.

23. Roush Mustang 1999

Today, Roush Mustangs are common but in late `90s, Jack Roush was just starting to build custom performance machines based on then current S197 generation. Available in Stage 1, 2 or 3, Roush Mustangs included not only significant power increase over stock 260 HP from 4.6-liter V8 but also host of other modifications like body panels, trim, brakes, suspension and so on. The success of those early packages really paved the way for Roush Mustangs of today.

24. Steeda Mustang Cobra R 1995

Just like Roush, Steeda wasn’t a big name on the streets in the `90s but it was a well respected name on the tracks, mostly due to their 1995 Cobra R which beat all Vipers, Porsches and Corvettes in SCCA championship. The Steeda engineers took stock Cobra R and transformed it into a racing beast with numerous small tweaks and modifications. The success of the package inspired the company to offer its products for the street, and this is how Steeda story started becoming relevant to street racing guys.

25. Saleen Mustang SC 1993

Steve Saleen was called Carroll Shelby of the `80s due 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. 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.

26. Ford Contour SVT

The Contour SVT is interesting although a bit forgotten performance sedan. Introduced in late `90s it was kind a younger brother of the Taurus SHO. Ford installed the 2.5 V6 with 200 HP along with many performance upgrades, stiffer suspension, special tires etc. The result was a pretty competent sleeper sedan with 0 to 60 mph time of just over 7 seconds, pretty good for late 20th century.

27. Dodge Spirit R/T

The Spirit was Dodge`s economy model introduced in late `80s but then Dodge presented the R/T version and things got very interesting. The base 2.2-liter four cylinder which developed only 90 hp got a turbo upgrade and it has now put out pretty impressive 224 hp and 218 lb-ft of torque. For 1991 model year this was a hefty power level from an economy car. The new found power raised performance to a whole new level and Spirit R/T could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds which was Corvette territory in 1991!

28. Chevrolet Lumina Z34

An interesting performance car from Chevrolet was introduced in 1991 in form of Lumina Z/34. The Lumina was an economy compact but with Z/34, it was a true muscle car. Powered by a 3.4-liter V6 it delivered 210 HP, a pretty big number for early `90s. The 0 to 60 mph acceleration figures were around 7 seconds which is as fast as some of V8 powered muscle cars of the period.

 

29. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA (1991)

The Trans AM GTA was one of the best Firebirds made in the `80s. But its swan song came in the early `90s in form of 1991 Trans Am GTA. The essence of the GTA package was to install Corvette-sourced L89 engine into F-Body chassis and create the ultimate performer. By 1991, the GTA package matured into a great driving and handling model which had restyled front and rear and cool looking body kit. The 5.7-liter now delivered healthy 245 HP and produced vivid performance.

30. Ford Taurus SHO 1999

Despite criticism about the design of the late `90s Taurus, the SHO version was a true gem. Under the hood was a high-revving 3.4-liter V8 engine developed by Yamaha which delivered 235 HP and brutal soundtrack. Equipped with V8 engine, Taurus SHO could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 7 seconds which put it in class of European performance sedans.

These are the best American muscle cars from the 1990s. They were fast, powerful and attractive, so if you can grab one today, consider yourself lucky.

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