Let’s search for a few rad and forgotten cars from the 1980s and 1990s! The ridiculously cute Suzuki X-90, the completely forgotten Mitsubishi Cordia Turbo, the fun but failed Merkur XR4ti, and the outlandish Isuzu VehiCROSS.
I’m a huge fan of the cars from the ’80s and ’90s—especially the weird, forgotten, and unloved cars from the era. I’m particularly interested in cars that just didn’t sell well, or were too weird for the buying public, or suffered from bad marketing, or maybe weren’t all that well built, or were considered disposable and got junked when repair bills got too high. Vehicles that, decades later, are a rare sight to see.
Can we find any of these forgotten cars for sale, or will they all be lost to history? Let’s fire up our web browsers and see what we can uncover.
This being Oppo, I’m sure there are a few of you here that actually own one of these cars!
Remember the Mitsubishi Cordia Turbo? This boxy and slightly odd thing screams of early ’80s styling, and I love the way it looks. The Cordia is the lesser known smaller sibling to the far more expensive Starion, and was sold at a time when Mitsubishi was little known in the states. (Somehow even lesser known than they are now!)
The Cordia was one of the first Mitsubishi branded vehicles sold in the US without the assistance of Chrysler, which owned a stake in the company. This front wheel drive compact hatchback coupe went up against the likes of the Toyota AE86, the Nissan 200SX, VW Scirocco, among others.
But as you might have guessed, in the US, just about no one bought these. They sold just under 48k Cordias during the model years 83-88 in the States. Apparently they sold better in Europe and Australia—a few Cordias were even used as police pursuit cars in Australia.
Depending on the market, a number of different engines were used in the base Cordia. And the Cordia L and LS could be had with a strange 8-speed super shift dual mode manual gearbox. But the Turbo is the one that I’m interested in.
The early ’80s was a hotbed of turbocharged motors. It seems like just about every manufacturer was getting in on the forced induction trend, to boost horsepower and performance from small engines. Mitsubishi fully embraced this trend and added turbos across their lineup of cars and trucks.
In the US, the Cordia Turbo had a 1.8L turbocharged single overhead cam 4 cylinder motor, making 116hp. Back in the day, Road and Track said it was “their favorite, affordable sports coupe turbo engine.” The car was lightweight, and 0-60 occurred in just about 9 seconds, not too bad for the era. It had independent suspension front and rear, so handling wasn’t too bad.
I grew up in the ’90s and don’t ever remember seeing one of these on the road. They must have quickly disappeared from American streets by the ’90s. When was the last time you saw one?
It’s time for something adorable! And fun! And weird. It’s time for the Suzuki X-90. What is this ridiculous vehicle? The X-90 is a two door, two passenger, open roof mini-SUV. But even that isn’t a complete description. This thing, even today, defies categorization. It’s like they mated a Honda del Sol with a Suzuki Sidekick!
Designed and created in the heyday of the X Games, the whole purpose of the car seems to be an attempt to appeal to Gen X buyers—heck even X is in the name of the car. Gen Xers want to be different right? So Suzuki went all in. Is it an SUV? Is it a sports car? Is it a lifted coupe? It’s all of them!
The X-90 had good ground clearance, and was available in 4 or 2 wheel drive. The 4×4 version was actually decently capable off-road. The 1.6 liter 4 cylinder made just 95hp but the car wasn’t terribly slow, 0-60 could be achieved in about 10 seconds.
Unsurprisingly, the X-90 sold very poorly. It was a car that was impossible to categorize—and humans tend to dislike things they can’t easily slap a label on! It was also probably an example of a car that was trying to be too many things at once. It didn’t help that it was also a bit too expensive. Compared to the similarly priced RAV4 and CR-V that offered more utility, the X-90 wasn’t able to make a decent value proposition.
Jeremy Clarkson said “There are almost no occasions where the X-90 is suitable.” That might actually be true. But this is truly a car for people that didn’t care about what was suitable. They wanted something radically different, they maybe didn’t care that it didn’t fit traditional categorization. That meant only a handful were sold, lasting in the States from only 1995 to 1997.
Some thought this would actually be a popular segment! Even Car and Driver thought it would be the “Next Big Thing”. But it proved to be far too wacky for the buying public. Though I give Suzuki a lot of credit for trying something different.
Next up is a car from a dead brand. A brand that only lasted from 1985-1989. That brand is Merkur, and the car is the XR4Ti!
Back in the early ’80s, Ford executives saw the growing trend of Yuppies buying BMWs, and wanted a piece of that market. In the States, Ford didn’t have the vehicle to compete, so they looked to their European portfolio. They chose the Euro market Ford Sierra XR4i as the vehicle to import the US. Company executives didn’t think the Ford, Mercury or Lincoln brands had the cache to compete with BMW, so they chose to create an entirely new brand to break into this market—Merkur, german for Mercury.
The styling is mid-80s cool, with body cladding, bi-plane spoiler, and slightly strange recessed headlights.
The European Sierra had a 2.8L V6, but for the US market we got a 2.3L turbo 4 also found in the turbo Mustangs and Thunderbirds. The 5 speed manual cars got 170hp, and the automatics received 140hp. The car was decently quick, 0-60 was about 8 seconds for both cars. With rear wheel drive and independent suspension both front and rear, handling and ride were pretty good for the era.
Early reviews were positive. The XR4Ti received Car and Driver’s 10 best award in 1985, though they later said it was an embarrassing choice. Even though the car suffered from some early reliability problems, I don’t think Car and Driver needed to backtrack as far as they did. The XR4Ti didn’t quite have the refinement to compete with the BMWs of the day, but it was a decently fun car.
I think Ford expected Yuppies to flock to a German sounding brand name and lap it up. But they didn’t—sales never met Ford’s expectations. Not only was the name Merkur weird, and oddly similar to Mercury, it didn’t mean anything to buyers. BMW and Mercedes brand names had history and deep-rooted identities, Merkur had none of that.
Even back in the day, I wondered why the heck Ford didn’t just call this XR4Ti a Ford. Instead they went through the trouble of trying to invent a new brand identity, having to educate any potential buyer what the heck this new brand was supposed to stand for.
And pricing certainly was an issue—Lincoln Mercury dealers may not have been too excited about selling Merkurs since the margins were much thinner than their other offerings.
The XR4Ti was a decently fun car that was appreciated by some, and today has its share of fans, including myself. The XR4Ti was mostly forgotten not because it wasn’t quite as good as a BMW, but because it suffered from a series of branding, marketing, and pricing missteps. At least that’s my opinion!
Let’s now shift to a mostly forgotten SUV, but one that I would consider completely underrated. I’m talking about the Isuzu VehiCROSS. The VehiCROSS was Isuzu’s design vision of the future. This athletic, funky 2 door SUV still looks relatively modern today.
Back in the 90s, the SUV market was growing rapidly—however they were mostly all boxes on wheels. Isuzu aimed to change that and stunned the automotive industry with the futuristic VehiCROSS concept in 1993. Unlike many concept cars, not much changed from concept to production.
While the name VehiCROSS is kind of dumb, this is one fantastic, well executed car. It’s a highly capable off-roader with fun to drive on road characteristics. At the time of production it had some of the most sophisticated shocks available—made with aerospace grade aluminum. Isuzu’s torque on demand full time AWD system received high praise.
The styling certainly didn’t appeal to everyone, but the great thing about being a limited run vehicle is that it didn’t have to. I like it, but I’ve always called it the shoe car—it literally looks like a running shoe to me. Isuzu even called it “the sport ute equivalent of a cross trainer shoe.” There is a ton of body cladding, typical for the era, but it doesn’t look too bad here.
Interestingly, Isuzu planned for this unique SUV to be a limited run vehicle from the start—probably because they knew not many people would buy something this weird. Isuzu employed innovative development and manufacturing techniques to shorten the development cycle. They had created a whole new system to build limited run niche cars.
Sold in the US between 1999 and 2001, only 4153 were imported to the US and just under 6k total built.
At the time there really was no other vehicle like it. Even today there is really no other vehicle like it! Ultimately it was an experiment that paid off in some ways, and didn’t in others. They sold all of the cars they intended to build, but you’ll notice that Isuzu never made another limited production car for the US, and left the US market entirely in 2009.
Would you ever consider buying one of these forgotten cars? Which one do you think I should put on my wish list? I’m kinda thinking Suzuki X-90!