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Unfortunate Car Realities Drivers Dealt With In The 1990s

Cameron EittreimOctober 11, 2021

The 1990s were a time of both advancement and disappointment for the automotive industry. There were many new car models that were making their way onto dealership lots. The SUV boom rose to prominence, and two-door sports cars faded away into the abyss. Drivers in the ’90s faced choice after choice when it came to buying a new car. These choices were different, and cars were moving into the future.

Whether it was the Firestone debacle with Ford Motor Company or the birth of the luxury SUV. The 1990s were packed with all kinds of new realities in the automotive industry. Consumers were caught at a crossroads between new technology and old comfort. Many of these realities are things that are still here today. As the car industry continues to advance, we looked back at the ’90s and the unfortunate realities of that decade.

Photo Credit: GM

20: Gas Guzzlers

If you were a kid in the ’90s, you probably remember the SUV craze. It seemed every family had either a Chevy Suburban or Tahoe in the driveway. These things sold like hotcakes and caused automakers to create an entirely new segment. Ford followed suit with the Expedition, and from there on it was a race to the top (via Auto Wise).

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Drivers faced some of the worst fuel economy numbers ever. But the fact that the economy was prosperous helped these vehicles sell. Unfortunately, at the turn of the millennium, the damage had already been done. These gas-guzzling rides would haunt domestic automakers in a major way.

Photo Credit: Ford

19: Ford Firestone Debacle

There’s no denying that the Ford Explorer became a massive success. But there was also controversy that drivers dealt with in the 1990s. The rollover incidents of that decade caused many deaths related to the Explorer. Part of the trouble was with the Firestone Tires on these vehicles. The entire situation became a billion-dollar problem for Ford (via WSJ).

Photo Credit: Ford

Not to mention the adverse publicity centered around the popular Explorer. In many ways, the brand never truly recovered from the Firestone debacle. When all was said and done, Ford spent almost a billion dollars paying out settlements to the victims. The Explorer survived into the new millennium, albeit with a now-tarnished reputation.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

18: Badge Engineering

Badge-engineered vehicles were the norm in the 1990s. This may have been fine if there was at least an effort to hide it. But most badge-engineered cars looked like the other vehicle. The 1999 Cadillac Escalade, for instance, was a carbon copy of your run-of-the-mill Chevy Tahoe. The only difference was a front fascia and some Cadillac decals. Other than that, the Escalade was exactly the same vehicle sold at a premium.

Photo Credit: GM

Drivers faced this across the board with many automotive brands. Eagle sold a Mitsubishi Eclipse, Geo sold the Suzuki Swift based Metro, and there were others. Badge engineering became so common that the automakers didn’t even attempt to hide it. This wouldn’t change until well into the 2000s when automakers decided to bring something unique to the table.

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17: Iconic Brand Letdowns

The latter part of the ’90s brought us some iconic nameplates that were just plain disappointing. The Mercury Cougar was redesigned in 1999. Likewise, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo became a V6 grocery getter. These cars were once the pinnacle of V8 performance and became mere shadows of their former selves. 1990s drivers had to deal with this unfortunate reality, as automakers found more ways to cost cut (via Curbside Classic).

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Had Ford given the Cougar a proper sendoff, the Mercury brand might still be with us today. There were so many mistakes automakers made when it came to iconic branding. GM discontinued the Impala SS, which was a massive success. Enthusiasts were eager for these iconic nameplates to make a splash again.

Photo Credit: Hagerty

16: Flood of Japanese Luxury Cars

There was a time when domestic and European automakers ruled the luxury car market. Then Japan got in on the action and all of a sudden, Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti were all thrown into the mix. Drivers in the 1990s had to wade through some superb cars and some other not-so-impressive cars. The Lexus vehicles were engineered to perfection, whereas Infiniti not so much. Then you had surprise hits like the Acura Integra, which is still popular to this day (via Car Gurus).

Photo Credit: Club Lexus

Japanese luxury wasn’t a bad thing, but it was still fairly new at the time. The fact that these automakers rushed a lot of these vehicles to the market is low. Take the Infiniti G20 and J30 for instance, both had potential but were poorly positioned. Lexus, on the other hand, played their cards right and the LS400 and SC400 became smash hits.

Photo Credit: Hagerty

15: The Pickup Became Luxury

The pickup truck used to be a tool that farmers and skilled tradesmen used. Somewhere along the line in the 1990s, the soccer mom took the pickup truck over. Starting in the mid-1990s, you saw the pickup truck become much more luxurious. Ford turned up the heat in 1997 with the redesigned F-150. The new F-150 was modern and comfortable in every way (via Core 77).

Pickup truck - 1999 Ford F-150
Photo Credit: Hot Rod

Pretty soon, GM would follow suit, and the Silverado became a hot commodity. Dodge even introduced a more modern Dakota. Pickup trucks were now an everyday car, and this fad would last well into today. Pickups are now more expensive than the best luxury sedan used to be a few decades ago.

Photo Credit: ESPN

14: NASCAR Lost Itself

The ’90s marked the wild ride in popularity for NASCAR. During the decade, the sport transitioned from its Southern roots. This was not a welcomed departure for traditionalists who believed the sport lost its way. NASCAR was at one point one of the staples of the South. Now that the motorsport had gone mainstream, there were a whole new generation of fans enjoying it (via NASCAR).

Photo Credit: NASCAR

The new breed of NASCAR was different from the traditional stock car racing of the past. New technology was creeping in, and the cars were becoming a lot different. 1990s drivers and enthusiasts had to deal with this reality. The sport they had followed for a decade began to change altogether.

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13: Questionable Models

Many questionable car models became the norm in this decade. The Honda Del Sol and the Suzuki X-90 were both cars that looked and felt different. It’s no secret that the 1990s were a defining decade for design. But these two cars just pushed the limit when it came to styling and functionality of a car (via Cars.com).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Then you had groundbreaking cars like the Oldsmobile Aurora that took style even further. The extremities of the 1990s when it came to automotive style were apparent. Automakers didn’t know what was in or out, so they went for whatever. GM experimented with far more cars than the other automakers.

Photo Credit: GM

12: Rise Of The Dustbuster

Speaking of questionable design choices, there were the Dustbuster-style vans that came out of GM in the early 1990s. The design was about as questionable as possible. GM supposedly dumped billions of dollars into the design of these Dustbuster vans. The end result was a product that consumers were confused about, to say the least (via Jalopnik).

Photo Credit: GM

The performance of the Dustbuster vans wasn’t terrible, but the design completely took away from it. GM released a few versions of the Dustbuster van, including an Oldsmobile luxury version. The sales were not what the automaker expected and the Dustbuster vans were quietly discontinued.

Photo Credit: GM

11: Lackluster Reliability

Anybody who went car shopping in the 1990s remembers the distinct lack of reliability. Most domestic cars were notoriously deficient. Their build quality was shoddy at best, not a good look when you promote quality. Domestic cars routinely broke down around 100,000 miles, and transmission failure was not uncommon (via Jalopnik).

Photo Credit: GM

Whereas their Japanese rivals developed a reputation for quality that has lasted to this day, the lack of reliability has stuck with domestic automakers. Consumers are pre-programmed to understand that Toyota and Honda cars last, whereas GM and Ford will always have a more seedy rep in terms of reliability.

Photo Credit: Mecum

10: Leaking T-Tops

If you were around in the ’80s or early ’90s, you know about T-Tops. These were the removable glass panes that went on-top of the vehicle. The concept of a T-Top is fine, as you can look out at the stars. You can also remove the T-Tops and have a convertible-like appearance without losing the stability of the vehicle. The T-Top concept is admirable, but the reality is far less fruitful (via Sportscar Digest).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

T-Tops defined the look and feel of muscle cars and sports cars back then. But the maintenance for this upgrade was more than most owners wanted to deal with. A leaking T-Top could damage the interior of your vehicle. No one wants to smell mildew and other rotting elements inside their ride.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

9: Hubcaps

There was a time not too long ago when stylized alloy wheels were considered a luxury item, which meant most cars had plastic hubcaps on them. The problem with hubcaps is they’d fly off cars and get damaged. You’d never match all four hubcaps correctly. There are some benefits to hubcaps, especially on a cheaper model car (via Motor Biscuit).

Geo Metro Convertible
Photo Credit: Car Domain

In recent years, hubcaps have still been available on certain vehicles. The Toyota Yaris is one such car that comes to mind for still offering a pair of hubcaps. But the newest car makers have gotten rid of hubcaps altogether. The wheels are an option that’s expensive to replace and simply doesn’t appear all that impressive anymore.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

8: Body Cladding

Body cladding is one of those things that most drivers don’t like. It decreases the value of a vehicle tremendously. Plastic body cladding loses its color after years of washing and parking in the sun. Replacing body cladding on a vehicle can be pricey, and on a ’90s car is downright impossible.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Likewise, many cars with body cladding have become relics of the past. The cheap plastic body paneling is not something that most drivers want to forget. The 1990s were an evolving state of design for the auto industry. Body cladding was just another way that automakers could rebadge an existing car.

Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport
Photo Credit: Car Domain

7: Euro Effects

The “Euro” trend also hit the automotive industry on all cylinders in the 1990s with cars like the Chevy Celebrity Euro. The trend for making these cars appear sportier was another sales attempt by domestic automakers. Euro styling never fully caught on, although there were a few rare cars with it (via Autoblog).

BMW M3
Photo Credit: Euro Driver

The Dodge Spirit also attempted this with the R/T model. The Euro treatment is a unique aspect of ’90s car design, but forgettable to say the least. No one wants a car that looks as dated as a Euro model. It is that quintessential 1990s treatment of the past that we know and remember.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

6: Wagons

Wagons were the last of the bygone era for many drivers. The wagons of the ’90s were peculiar-looking cars. But the wagons were nothing in the way of unique. The Ford Escort wagon is one that comes to mind. The cheap little wagon didn’t do much to boost confidence in the station wagon as a whole (via Driving Line).

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There was also the Buick Roadmaster, which was the last V8-powered wagon at the time. Then there were unique models such as the Audi Quattro. Whether you were into family transport or rally racing, the wagon was a unique option. The Buick Roadmaster is just the most well known of the 1990s wagons, there were quite a few worth noting.

Photo Credit: Hot Rod

5: Souped-Up Pickup Trucks

The 1990s birthed the riced-out racing truck trend. There were a few models that come to mind right off the top of his head. First and foremost was the Chevrolet 454 SS pickup. The 454 SS was the precursor to the Impala SS, which arrived in 1995. There were also the Dodge Dakota Shelby and the Ford F-150 Lightning (via Classic Truck).

Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions

The Ford Lightning was the most popular of all these truck models. The Dodge Ram SS/T was also a rare sport truck. The unique racing stripes and paint job separated the Ram from the other trucks on the market. The rise of the street racing-inspired truck infused a whole new generation of buyers into the pickup truck segment.

Photo Credit: GM

4: Cheap Interior Quality

It’s no secret that 90s cars had a subpar interior quality. The main problem with car interiors in the 1990s was cheap plastics. Cracking was a huge problem, which is why dashboard covers were such a normal thing. Aside from that, the enormous amount of plastic used in the seating was also questionable (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Do you remember the valve seating from the early ’80s Chrysler cars? The materials also made their way into the 1990s. You’d often find seat rips and more when the car was still fairly new. These types of issues caused drivers to lodge complaints with automakers. Now the interior materials used in vehicles are much different.

Photo Credit: Pastore Automotive

3: Eccentric Decals

Remember the Ford Ranger Splash? Its over-the-top decals from the factory were the norm in the 1990s. The eccentric decals are synonymous with the late ’80s and early ’90s. Whether it was the Chevy Baretta with the pace car decals or a Ford Festiva with stripes down the side (via Indy Auto Blog).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

These decals are synonymous with the ’90s automotive designs. The unfortunate part is the decals didn’t do anything to boost performance. When the turn of the new millennium came, there were no decals used on automotive designs anymore. Still, the decals were a unique piece of automotive history during the ’90s.

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2: Rear Window Louvers

Whether it was a Chrysler Laser or a Chevrolet Camaro, you’ve probably noticed rear window louvers. The Louvers were geared toward sports cars from that era. They didn’t do anything particular for the performance; instead, it was more of an exterior aesthetic. Nevertheless, there were plenty of drivers who had to have rear window louvers (via LS1 GTO).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Nowadays, you’ll see them every so often on a vehicle. For that real 1990s style, you can get an old sports car that still has them. The worst thing about rear window louvers is they impede vision. Creating a blind spot right in the rear-view mirror isn’t the smartest thing to do.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

1: Four Door Minivans?

In the ’90s, the Chrysler trio of minivans was hotter than ever. But that created an issue for other automakers that wanted to replicate the magic. Honda and Mazda are two automakers that come to mind. The original Odyssey was a far cry from the polished van we observe these days. There wasn’t a lot that made the two vans similar, but the Mazda also had an awkward design (via Curbside Classic).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

At a time when the Chrysler vans were dominating, it was strange to see these models. Honda miscalculated the traditional minivan shopper, and the sales were abysmal. The same can be said for the Mazda MPV, which was redesigned later on. The 1990s were a strange time for the brand new minivan industry.

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