Used cars are hot right now, having peaked in 2020 when low-interest rates were cued in response to the dwindling economy thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. While it remains so and you have cash in your hands, why not splurge on a sports car that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself?
The inconspicuous contraptions below make the list as sleepers that don’t rocket to classic car stardom such as the Acura NSX and Toyota Supra A80 that dominated the Nineties. The incoming cars make the list for different reasons. Some are budget-friendly, others deserving more attention. All are rightfully available with manual transmissions because this is the Nineties, i.e. the prime era for sports cars.
Let’s tackle 10 sports cars that should be on your radar, regardless of their market value.
10 Mazda MX-5 Miata NA
We’re kicking things off with an obvious JDM choice. The small Japanese roadster makes the list because it carries two common perspectives. First, it’s heralded as one of the best driving cars known to any gearhead in the world. Second, it’s heralded as one of the most feminine cars in the world by people who have never driven one. We advocate the first option.
Debuting for the first time in 1989, it was a great transition into the new decade thanks to modernizing the principle of affordable fun in a minimal package. Some three decades later, NA-gen Miatas are going for ridiculously low prices to provide smiles for miles. Those who don’t give in to toxic social norms should give the Miata a chance for a high return of emotional investment.
9 Honda Civic Si
Unless you have a keen eye for detail, you might miss this mundane looking Civic Si for any other Honda on the road. Maybe that’s why they’re so rare and prices are going up for clean examples.
From 1999 to 2000, the EM1-gen Civic Si coupe provided potent power infused with trademark VTEC variable valve timing technology to result in a high-revving engine that was capable of stellar fuel economy at low revs and stellar track performance at high ones.
8 Porsche Boxster 986
If there was a social platform where people could spout opinions in 1996, the first-ever Porsche Boxster would fit the brief of how to break the Internet. It’s the type of car that would go viral, prompting the audience to choose sides: the haters that will say that’s not a “traditional Porsche;” and the backers that will say who cares? Owners will tell you that the Boxster is brilliant to drive regardless of engine size.
Beyond the bubble-esque styling, the most controversial aspect of the car surrounded the IMS bearing that played the role of deciding which engines live and which ones die. The shaft component offered no predictability beyond commanding you to spin the engine faster in order to reduce wear. In other words, the Boxster demanded you to drive it harder which doesn’t have to be a curse but a blessing instead. With ways to prevent IMS failure today, there is little reason not to pick up a 986 Boxster today while market value remains low.
7 BMW Z3/M Coupe
The Z3 Coupe was a fun experiment that was met with market success. Engineer Burkhard Göschel was given the green light to develop the car so long as it was cost-efficient. That’s why the front half of the car stayed the same as the roadster while modifications were made in the back to improve structural integrity. The result was a funky-looking car that showed BMW’s fun side.
Widely known as the Clown Shoe, especially in Imola Red, the Z3 reached peak hotness when BMW’s Motorsports division shoehorned a 3.2-liter straight-six that routed power aplenty to the rear wheels. Z3 coupes never sold in high numbers and M-powered cars have appreciated in recent years. So the next time you see one on the road, take a moment to appreciate a car that didn’t have to exist.
6 Mazda RX-7 FD
To some people, this is maybe a surprise entry on this list. The Mazda RX-7 is held in very high regard by those who know how capable it is as a sports car. But what you may not know is that this generation RX-7 was only sold in the US from 1993 to 1995, whereas global sales continued to 2002. Prior to the Nineties, the RX-7 enjoyed two generations of rotary-engined goodness able to compete with contemporary rivals. In hindsight, the FD’s fate was short-lived.
There’s a bright side if you missed out on owning an FD RX-7 newer than 1995. Under current import laws, you can ship the famed sports car from the JDM market. If the used car market is popular here, it is booming in Japan for reasons pertaining to export desirability. That means you can enjoy Wankel-powered performance so long as you’re good with the steering wheel on the right side.
5 Porsche 911 996
In 1998, if there was a cesspool of humility that sought to decimate humanity in the early days of the Internet, the Porsche 911 996 would bore the heaviest brunt of any car that existed in the Nineties. Several changes were made to the 911 in order to modernize it for production purposes that resulted in a backlash by consumers. Today, the bubble-tastic coupe still gets a lot of flack for not being a ‘proper 911.’ The thing is, we will testify that it totally is a proper 911 and then some.
It carried much of the same issues as the Boxster that debuted in the same era. IMS bearing failures and odd styling that didn’t meet the expectations of what people envisaged a Porsche to look like. But whereas the Boxster was new and looked to the future, the 911 was sacrilegious. Now, with time having passed, the 996 has come to gain appreciation from people who realize that it’s not all that bad. It knowingly remains to be a hoot to drive, and with IMS fixes available to minimize the risk of failure, prospective customers can rest easy knowing they’ll get a killer deal on an under-appreciated 911 that is repairable, let alone enjoyable.
4 Honda Del Sol
We wouldn’t hold it against ya if you’ve never seen one of these before. That’s why it’s on a list filled with underrated sports cars! This was a mini NSX that was affordable to those looking for an alternative to the Mazda MX-5. Unfortunately, it never captured quite the same stardom as the Hiroshima-based roadster that has gone on to sell for three decades now.
For one, it was a front-wheel-drive compact with a targa roof setup. The base engine produced too little horsepower to keep up with the Miata while it came with unattractive hubcaps as seen above. The go-to del Sol was the Si variant which made power jump up to 127 hp. If you were really lucky, you may be able to find one equipped with the VTEC engine that produced 160 hp and capable of revving up to 8,200 RPM, performing like a genuine mini NSX. But the del Sol remains rare as it is which is why it ranks high on this list.
3 BMW 850 CSi
For a time, you could own a luxury coupe that was propelled by 12 cylinders, bolted to a six-speed manual transmission, and seated four adults in airy leathery comfort surrounded by pillarless windows—all available simultaneously. The 850CSi was the epitome of grand touring performance that should’ve received greater appreciation at the time it was sold new.
Perhaps that’s why only 1,500 cars were produced globally before production ceased to stricter regulations on emissions. In the US, value hasn’t exactly ballooned compared to other cars of similar exclusivity. Beyond its rarity, the 850CSi is a type of car we’ll likely never see again. Given where cars are headed (i.e. electric), we will probably never see such a combo of massive power, manual transmissions, lavish appointments, and squared-edged design ever again while the ice caps continue to melt. Should another car like this exist, it will be in the form of some high-end exotic and not a BMW with giant nostrils.
2 Lotus Esprit Series 4
Unlike the Porsche 911, which saw beneficial changes in order to provide an enriching modern experience toward the future, the Lotus Esprit is the very definition of longevity. It had retained the very principles embodied at launch in 1976 right up to production’s end in 2004. The Esprit of the Nineties was truly groundbreaking, with the Series 4 encapsulating the spirit of bubble design mixed with contemporary engineering.
Consisting of a number of updates that included power steering and allow wheels, the S4 Esprit was the first to receive a V-8 engine, and the 3.5-liter motor was bolted to two turbochargers that helped propel the Esprit to a 175-mph top speed. While valuable, these cars are a rare sight in the US.
1 Porsche 968
If you have never seen, or heard, of the Porsche 968, nobody can blame you. After all, roughly 4,000 cars made it to the US over a four-year period from 1991 to 1995. In the early Nineties, Porsche was in financial trouble, struggling to stay afloat until the aforementioned Boxster and 996 came along. But before the sharp transition to water-cooled conviction, there was this.
Porsche aficionados will tell you this is the replacement for the 944, the esteemed front-engine sports car of the Eighties. It carried over much of the same engine and interior components while exterior styling adopted more cues from the contemporary 928. High-revving 4-cylinder engines remained the norm, increasing engine size to three liters and offering the option of a turbocharger. With the 968 largely sharing parts with its predecessor, it’s possible that consumers flocked to the 944 for the lower cost, which sold in droves at the height of its popularity. All of which makes the successor a rare bird that was largely forgotten when the Boxster debuted.
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