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The Greatest General Motors Cars Of The 1980s and ’90s

Cameron EittreimDecember 28, 2022

General Motors was one of the most iconic automakers during the muscle car era of the 1960s and ’70s. But by the 1980s and 90s, drivers saw General Motors as a far different company. Sales of General Motors cars were slipping and consumer tastes were shifting more toward imports. The company had to adapt quickly, but many of its efforts were short-lived failures like the Pontiac Fiero.

There were a few notable GM cars that came out in the 1980s and ’90s, however, and many were forward-thinking concepts. For example, the Typhoon and Syclone are still considered two of the fastest vehicles ever made. The 1995 Impala SS was also an iconic car that’s still a part of pop culture today. You could also say the C5 Corvette was one of the most iconic Corvette models ever made. So we looked back at the greatest GM creations of the 1980s and ‘90s. Take a trip down memory lane with some of your favorite General Motors cars of decades past here.

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1981 Corvette C3

The 1981 Corvette C3 is one of the most controversial Corvette models. Because of the tightening emissions laws at the time, the C3 was only available with a single-engine option. The L81 engine only had a measly 190 horsepower but the rest of the car was flawless. The lines on the C3 Corvette were some of the most beautiful in Corvette history (via Bring a Trailer).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

The interior was also a vast improvement over the previous generations as the car was a lot more livable for the driver. The Corvette C3 was a sports car that suffered from the political climate at the time but its design wasn’t that bad.

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Buick GNX

Buick and performance weren’t generally two words that went together, but the GNX changed all that. The intimidating black two-door car shared a platform with the Monte Carlo SS and the Cutlass, but it’s what was under the hood that was different. The turbocharged engine was one of the fastest production engines ever used in a car (via Jalopnik).

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The fact that it was a Buick only added to the distinct styling and performance that the car offered. The GNX, also known as the Grand National, has ballooned in value over the past couple of years as more enthusiasts have begun to enjoy the car.

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1981 Chevrolet Yenko Turbo Z

Although most of the muscle cars in the ’80s were hampered by new emissions laws, there were a few exceptions. The 1981 Chevrolet Yenko Turbo Z was developed in partnership with Yenko Automotive, the company that spurred the production of the original Yenko Camaro. This car was complete with a unique appearance package and a lot of performance (via Hagerty).

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The 1981 Chevrolet Yenko Turbo Z was a special order product and there were very few that were put into production. This was also the last year of the Don Yenko models in the Camaro line, so it’s quite rare to this day.

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1988 Chevrolet Corvette 35th Anniversary

The 1988 Corvette 35th Anniversary was a car that addressed a lot of the issues that consumers had with the model. This particular Corvette model came with the L98 350 cu. in. V8 engine offering 345HP. The dashboard was also improved over previous models with all the kinks ironed out (via Corvette Story).

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The interior had special stitching and leather that made it stand out from the other Corvette models. There were also a few other body styles that were available such as the T-Top and the Targa top cars.

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Buick Riviera T-Type Convertible

The Buick brand didn’t have many unique cars during the 1980s but the few that there were stood out from the crowd. The 1985 Riviera T-Type Convertible was a unique car that looked a lot more expensive than it was. The unique thing about this car was that there wasn’t a V8 engine offered (via St Louis Car Museum).

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Instead, the car utilized a turbocharged V6 engine, which was one of the first that GM ever offered. The long wheelbase and cushy suspension made the Riviera T-Type handle a lot better than other convertible models at the time.

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1987 Oldsmobile 442

The Quad 442 was a unique compact car released in the 1990s, but there was also the full-size 442. This car was based on the GM G-Body and the Cutlass was the best-selling car in America at the time. The 307 cu. in. V8 engine was unique to this car and it offered some of the most exhilarating performance at the time (via Hemmings).

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The Oldsmobile 442 was only produced for a single model year and there aren’t a lot of them on the road. The styling was unique for this model and it offered Oldsmobile enthusiasts a true muscle car from this period.

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Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2

The Pontiac brand was heavily involved in NASCAR in the 1980s and the Grand Prix 2+2 was the production version of the NASCAR model. The unique aerodynamic design was far different than any of the other GM G-Body cars. The performance was also vastly improved and the interior was different with the 2+2 seating configuration (via Hot Cars).

 

Photo Credit: Edmunds

The Grand Prix 2+2 was a great car that offered a different design than consumers were used to. The car wasn’t a big seller for GM but it was more of a marketing piece because it brought people to the showrooms.

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Pontiac Turbo Trans Am

The Turbo Trans Am was one of the most unique cars GM ever built. It utilized a 4.9-liter V8 with a turbocharger. This was something that no other automaker had attempted before. It gave the Trans Am a lot of performance over the other muscle car models on the market at the time (via Hot Cars).

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GM found a way to get around a lot of the emissions regulations and this was a very popular version of the Trans Am. This was very similar to the car that was featured in ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and helped to further the Trans Am line.

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Buick Reatta

There were a lot of interesting cars that GM built in the 1980s and the Reatta was one of the rarest. This compact Buick sports car was only sold for a few years and it had a host of new technology. The dashboard was completely digital and the car had a lot of new technology that improved the way the car drove (via Hemmings).

Convertible - Toyota Wish
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Its performance was also excellent considering the size of the car and its handling was praised by the automotive press. Unfortunately, the car wasn’t a great selling product for GM and it was discontinued shortly after hitting the market.

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Cadillac Allante

The ’80s Cadillac models weren’t the most well-known vehicles around, but there was one that caught the attention of the automotive press. The Allante was the most expensive Cadillac model on the market at the time and was geared toward performance-oriented enthusiasts. This top-dollar sports car was designed to compete with the best that Mercedes had to offer (via Edmunds).

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The Allante was a very high-quality product, the interior used high-quality leather and the wood was also top-notch. Even today the Allante is still a highly regarded car when it comes to classic cars from the ’80s.

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Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

The IROC-Z Camaro is almost synonymous with the 1980s from its iconic styling to its performance. The Camaro of the 1980s was a completely different beast than anything that had come before it. The styling was modern, and the car was drastically downsized to conform with new CAFE standards (via Hot Cars).

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But even with all of its shortcomings, the IROC-Z was a force to reckon with. The high-output 5.0 was a great V8 engine, but it was the 5.7L V8 engine that was even better. The Camaro had a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds.

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Chevrolet Corvette C4

The values for the C4 are almost nonexistent and the car was weighed down by smog and emissions regulations at the time. But the C4 had some special editions that cannot be ignored. The car also introduced the digital dashboard and the bulletproof LT1 engine (via Autolist).

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The C4 Corvette was one of the most underrated and best cars GM ever built. Sure, the styling was a bit ugly and the build quality was underwhelming, but the fact that it’s a Corvette should satisfy many GM fans.

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1986 Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car

There is something great about a classic GM pace car and the company has offered them multiple times. The 1986 Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car was offered as an exclusive vehicle at select dealerships. GM has always maintained a strong presence in the Indy 500, so the Corvette was a fitting model (via Corvette Report).

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The bright yellow paint job and specialty stitched seats made this Corvette a unique offering. The C4 was going through many advanced changes over the previous generation. While most drivers aren’t too fond of the C4, you can’t go wrong with this pace car.

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Chevrolet C10 Truck

The Chevrolet C10 truck of the 1980s was an iconic pickup for a few reasons. It was one of the first trucks that offered a heavy-duty model with a full four-door cab. It was also one of the first pickup trucks that started to offer a lot of luxury features in the interior. The reliability of this pickup truck was also at the top of the list (via Hot Cars).

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The pickup truck market has evolved a lot over the past few decades and the C10 was at the forefront. GM was working on evolving the pickup truck segment from the utilitarian work-focused segment that it had been for decades.

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Pontiac Fiero

While most drivers wouldn’t consider the Fiero one of the best GM cars ever built, it was in many ways. The Fiero was one of the first mid-engined sports cars ever sold on the domestic market. The Fiero also had an advanced suspension that made it handle better than almost anything else on the road (via Hot Cars).

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Although early Fiero models were prone to engine fires and a lot of issues overall, the last models were nearly perfect. The modern design which came at the end of the cars life was very attractive and these are the Fiero models that collectors seek the most.

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1987 Sprint Turbo

General Motors had a few storied partnerships with Japanese automakers and their Suzuki partnership was their most fruitful. The two companies even opened a joint venture in Canada called Cami Automotive. The Sprint Turbo was one of the first General Motors cars developed jointly and proved to be a success (via Hagerty).

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The Sprint Turbo’s performance was better than many cars that were far more expensive. While hatchbacks like the Honda CRX get all the glory, the Sprint Turbo was also one of the first “hot hatches” sold on the market.

1991 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer
Photo Credit: GM

Chevrolet S-10/GMC S-15

You might not consider the lowly S-10/S-15 one of the greatest GM cars ever, but it was. These were the first mainstream compact pickup trucks released by GM that didn’t share an existing Isuzu platform. The S-10 also brought the Blazer to the market, which became a competitor for the Jeep Cherokee (via Car Gurus).

1991 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer
Photo Credit: GM

These trucks and the accompanied SUV were the birth of the modern sport utility era that we have today. The S-10 was one of the longest-running vehicles in production at General Motors, and it ushered in a new era for the automaker.

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1980 Chevrolet EL Camino

The ’80s were a transformative time for GM, but there was one nameplate with a decent final run. The 1980 El Camino was a downsized version of the car/truck hybrid sold since the 1960s. The familiar H/O 305 V8 engine was under the hood of the El Camino and the car shared components with other 1980s GM vehicles (via Coyote Classics).

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The SS model was discontinued, and there were no special editions. Interestingly enough, there was also a GMC variant of the El Camino called the Caballero. The 1980s were a troubling time for many domestic automakers, but GM managed to come out okay with cars like the El Camino.

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1983 Monte Carlo SS

The GM G-Body cars were the best-selling cars in America in the 1980s, particularly the Oldsmobile Cutlass. But it was Monte Carlo that got the special sports edition, the SS (Super Sport). The Monte Carlo SS utilized a high-output 305 motor and a completely different appearance package from the regular car (via Coyote Classics).

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The performance of the Monte Carlo SS was jaw-dropping, especially for this class of car. The Monte Carlo SS was an iconic piece of the 1980s fixture. Cars were becoming more advanced and offers more features and performance than ever before.

Photo Credit: Classic Cars

Oldsmobile Cutlass

Did you know that the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in America? The brand experienced a tough fall from grace after the height of success in the 1980s. The Cutlass was a car that shared its platform with many other GM vehicles and it did everything right for the right price (via Cars for Sale).

Photo Credit: Classic Cars

The Cutlass was also a performance powerhouse, and it had a rear-wheel drive design. Consumers were pleased with the design of the Cutlass and that’s why the sales numbers were so high.

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Buick Century

The Century was an important car for the Buick brand and General Motors. The compact design and affordable price tag brought all kinds of new consumers to the brand. The Century wasn’t a large land yacht like the models that came before it. There were no leather seats as standard equipment and the car was fairly basic (via Hemmings).

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But it provided a comfortable ride for the price and Buick quality that consumers expected. There is no denying the Century was one of the most important cars in the history of Buick because it kept the brand relevant.

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Oldsmobile Delta 88

The Delta 88 was another important Oldsmobile model in the 1980s. It was the car that showed the diversity that the brand offered at the time. The Delta 88 wasn’t the most luxurious car and it wasn’t a stripped-down model either. It was sort of the go-between, which resonated with consumers who wanted something affordable (via Hot Cars).

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The Delta 88 fused luxury and family-friendly design into a single car. Although the Oldsmobile brand didn’t make it into the modern era, it was cars like the Delta 88 that carried the brand through several rough patches.

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Oldsmobile Toronado

The Toronado was an example of what new technology can do for an automotive brand. This was by far one of the most instrumental cars ever built. It was the first production vehicle in the world with a driver-side airbag. It was also the first car that incorporated shoulder belts as standard safety equipment (via Hot Cars).

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The Toronado was highly regarded in the automotive world because of the advances that came with it. Its top-of-the-line engineering and attention to detail made the car stand out from the crowd in an evolving marketplace.

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Oldsmobile Cutlass Quad 442

One of the most highly coveted Oldsmobiles of the 1990s was a car that you’d never expect. It was the Cutlass Quad 442, and it was based on a fairly basic design. But GM went the extra mile and designed an engine specifically for this model. The Quad 442 was successful in the racing circuit, which is what the car was designed for (via Hot Cars).

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The performance of the turbocharged four-cylinder engine rivaled the fastest sports cars of the time. There were only 241 of these cars built so you’ll seldom see one on the road anymore. But the engineering that went under the hood of this car was leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

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1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

What we have right here was the first modern Corvette model. The 1990 ZR-1 was one of the first Corvettes to use fuel injection. That switch to fuel injection made the Corvette a much smoother-running car and increased performance dramatically. The ZR-1 was a true road car in every sense of the word (via Car & Driver).

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The ZR-1 was a pleasant mix of road manners and performance. Although the body of the car was still outdated, the new technology under the hood made a difference. The automotive press often downplayed the C4 Corvette, but the ZR-1 completely changed the game.

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Oldsmobile Aurora

The Aurora was initially introduced as a concept car to the public in the early 1990s. The response of the public was so positive that the car was put into production for the 1995 model year. The Aurora was everything you’d expect a high-performance sports sedan to be. The power plant was the same Northstar V8 found in the STS model (via Cars).

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The Aurora was the last ditch effort to try and invigorate the Oldsmobile brand, and unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. The first generation of the car was one of the greatest creations GM ever built, but by the second generation, it just wasn’t unique anymore.

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Oldsmobile Bravada

The Bravada was one of the least remembered SUVs that General Motors ever built, but it was also one of the most influential. The Bravada was the first compact luxury SUV ever sold by a domestic automaker. Long before the Escalade and the Navigator, there was the Bravada (via Cars).

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It had interesting features such as the Smart-Trac traction system and a completely upscale interior. Although the Bravada was based on the utilitarian Blazer and Jimmy models, you’d never tell by the outside.

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1996 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am WS6

The Pontiac brand started to fade into obscurity in the 1990s, and part of that was because the models were carbon copies of other cars in the GM brand portfolio. The WS6 was the Pontiac variant of the Camaro SS, and it performed just as well. SLP did the modifications, which was a company that handled performance for GM (via Hagerty).

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The Firebird of the 1990s was not the same car in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a sleek modern rendition of the classic. But consumer tastes were shifting, and this was the last generation of the Firebird that we’d ever see on the road.

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1997 GM EV1

Long before Elon Musk was the talk of the town with Tesla, there was the GM EV1. The EV1 was the first mass-produced electric car consumers could lease. The look and feel of the EV1 was a mixture of Saturn models in production and new design elements. The EV1 didn’t have a very far range, but it was more advanced than anything built prior (via Car & Driver).

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Many controversies surrounded EV1 after it was discontinued. GM didn’t give consumers a chance to purchase the EV1 outright. Instead, the remaining models were sent to be crushed and never driven again.

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Chevrolet C5 Corvette

The C5 Corvette was the long-awaited replacement for the C4 model and was completely new in every sense of the word. The first thing that was different about the C5 Corvette was the sleek new body. There was nothing outdated or boxy about the beautiful new Corvette models. The C5 was also offered in a few special additions, such as the Linginfelter (via Hot Cars).

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But it wasn’t just the styling that was different; it was what was under the hood. The new LS1 V8 engine was a completely modern power plant. The performance of the C5 Corvette is still revered to this day because of its excellent engineering.

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Chevrolet Camaro Pace Car

The NASCAR circuit experienced bigger popularity than ever before in the 1990s and General Motors released several pace cars. The Camaro Pace Car didn’t have any performance improvements over the standard models, but there was a special paint job and decal treatment (via Motor Trend).

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These pace car models were limited editions when they were new and the pace car has now become a collector’s item. The pace car was built to attract NASCAR fans to Chevy showrooms and increase sales, and for the most part, it accomplished that mission.

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GMC Yukon GT

Believe it or not, there was a time when full-size V8-powered two-door SUV models were a thing and the Yukon GT was one of the most unique. Unlike the Bronco and the Ram Charger, which had removable tops, the Yukon GT was a more refined offering. The bulletproof 5.7L V8 engine was more reliable than ever (via Barn Finds).

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The Yukon GT was a step above the Blazer, which was geared more toward entry-level consumers. GM was positioning the GMC brand as a premium offering early on and the Yukon GT was evidence of that. Nowadays, you’ll seldom see a Yukon GT on the road anymore and when you do, it will fetch a pretty penny.

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1991 Chevrolet Lumina Z34

GM has experimented with various cars in the NASCAR circuit, but one that had the most luck was the Lumina Z34. The original plan with the Lumina and the Beretta was for the compact cars to replace the Camaro. Thus, GM invested heavily in many NASCAR advertising and brand sponsorships (via The Truth About Cars).

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Unfortunately, consumer tastes will change from the Camaro anytime soon. The Lumina Z34 was an excellent car, but it just wasn’t what most consumers were looking for. There were other offerings on the road that came from the factory with more performance and style for the price.

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1996 Chevrolet Impala SS

The 1996 Impala SS was probably one of the most iconic cars in the 1990s. You’ve seen this car in all kinds of movies, music videos, and more. The Impala SS was nothing more than a badge-engineered Caprice, but it had a unique personality and quite a few features exclusive to it (via Hot Cars).

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The floor-mounted shifter is obviously the most iconic part of the Impala SS, but the excellent engine under its hood deserves credit as well. The Impala SS was offered in three colors from the factory and there were only a single set of rims available.

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Chevrolet Silverado 454 SS

The Silverado 454 SS was a trendsetter because it was the first full-size V8 sport truck ever produced. There wasn’t much that was special about this truck from the outward appearance. It was just a black single-car truck with some decals, but the attention to detail and performance made it stand out (via Horse Power Memories).

Photo Credit: Hot Rod

The 454 SS was a performance powerhouse thanks to the short wheelbase and the 454 V8 engine. The reliability of the 454 SS was also bulletproof, which is why you see so many original examples still on the road. Ford followed GM’s lead with the Lightning pickup truck a few years later.

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GMC Syclone

The Syclone was another truck that GM introduced in the 1990s that changed this game. This turbo-powered compact truck was the fastest production vehicle on the road for a long time. The technology used under the hood was already tested on the Buick Grand National. The Syclone was only available in a few color choices and a single cab configuration (via Horse Power Memories).

Photo Credit: Edmunds

The price of the Syclone when it was brand-new was affordable considering the performance. The Syclone is still a popular truck these days, with the price of a used one skyrocketing. This truck introduced the world to turbocharged performance on a high-level thanks to General Motors.

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GMC Typhoon

Because the Syclone wasn’t the most practical vehicle for many consumers, GM also introduced the Typhoon. This was a two-door SUV model based on the compact Jimmy SUV. The powertrain and everything else was shared with the Syclone and its performance was amazingly fast (via Car & Driver).

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The Typhoon was the first performance-oriented SUV sold to the masses. It was also one of the fastest cars on the market for most of the 1990s. The technology and design that went into the Typhoon were lightyears ahead of other products that GM was selling.

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Cadillac Seville

In the 1990s, GM needed to give Cadillac a change of scenery, the cars were outdated, and new competition from Lexus and Infiniti was making a dent in the sales. The traditional Cadillac buyers weren’t enough to keep the brand afloat. Thus, GM designed a car that was geared toward a younger generation of car shoppers (via Edmunds).

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The Cadillac Seville was a midsize sedan with a new advanced V8 engine. The Northstar V8 engine was one of the best-performing engines GM ever sold. The Seville was much more popular than the offerings that came before it. The model continued well into the early 2000s, albeit with a few redesigns.

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Cadillac STS

Sold alongside the Seville, the STS was another offering that GM sold to consumers. But the STS had a different focus than the Seville as this was the performance-oriented Cadillac model. The STS was a lot faster and there were subtle things done to the appearance. The STS was advertised as a lot heavier than the Seville was in an attempt to attract more buyers (via Motor Trend).

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The interior of the STS was also slightly different, with performance-oriented seating and a floor-mounted shifter. The suspension was also different from the Seville, which was designed to compensate for the added performance. When it comes to hidden performance gems from the 1990s, the STS was one of them.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Cadillac Eldorado

In the 1990s, the Eldorado was probably one of the most understated luxury performance cars on the road. The car shared almost all its underpinnings with the STS, which is relatively unknown to most consumers. The suspension on the touring model was geared toward long drives with lots of twists and turns (via Hemmings).

Photo Credit: Edmunds

The Eldorado models from the 1990s were comfortable cars with great interiors and excellent performance. The Northstar V8 was a bulletproof power plant as long as you kept the oil changed on time and the maintenance up to date.

Photo Credit: Rich Mccoy

1998 Camaro Z28

When GM redesigned the Camaro and Firebird models for 1998, the redesign wasn’t considered much more than a refresh. But there was one aspect of the cars that was brand new, and that was the LS1 V8 engine under the hood. The Camaro and Firebird models both got the same engine found in the C5 Corvette (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Auto WP

Consumers immediately gravitated toward these two cars, because you got Corvette-level performance for a fraction of the price. The LS1 was considered one of the best motors that GM ever built, and it was reliable. The 1998 Camaro models were some of the most highly coveted used cars on the road for a long time.

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GMC Denali

The Denali was the first glimpse into the GMC brand going in an upmarket direction. From the stitching on the seats to the way the exterior looked, everything about the SUV was remarkably upmarket. The Denali was built in response to the success Lincoln had with the Navigator. GM hadn’t designed a luxury SUV, so the automaker had to respond quickly (via Edmunds).

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The Denali was brought to market, and it had many great features. The luxury-appointed interior was only the first stop, as this thing was decked out. Consumers flocked to the SUV and it was flying off the dealership showroom floors.

Photo Credit: Net Car Show

Cadillac Escalade

Released a year after the Denali, the Escalade utilized almost the same exterior and interior. But there were a few special touches that GM added to the Escalade to make it unique. One of the most obvious options was the hidden third-row seat it came with. This was not an option available on the Tahoe which shared its platform with the Escalade (via Edmunds).

Photo Credit: Net Car Show

The new OnStar system that offered roadside assistance was also heavily pushed on this generation of the Escalade. The 1999 Escalade was also the first SUV that GM offered with the new Lo Jack tracking service.

Photo Credit: GM

Saturn SC

You might not remember the Saturn SC but it was a trend-setting little car. The SC Coupe was the first three-door compact car offered on the market. And when we say three doors, we don’t mean a hatchback. The SC Coupe offered a swinging third door for passengers to get in and out of (via My Car Specs).

Photo Credit: GM

For consumers who wanted a compact car with some versatility, this was a great option. Not to mention the fact that the SC Coupe offered stellar reliability. The body panels were also shock absorbing, which helped in the instance of a collision.

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