We all have fond memories of cars that either we our parents used to own back in the 1990s. Sometimes a random smell or sound will bring back mental images of a special trip or a particular experience with a favoured car. As far as our rose-tinted memories are concerned, those two-decade-old vehicles are head and shoulders above any modern equivalent you care to mention.
Sure, advances in technology have moved the game on when it comes to safety and convenience features but when did a fancy touchscreen and automatic wipers become the yardstick by which cars are measured?
Surely the more involving and honest driving experience of a ‘90s car will outlast the fashion-conscious modern marvels? To settle the matter, we decided to match up some of the most popular family and sports cars from the 1990s with their modern equivalents. We compared them not on how many driving aids they had but rather which one we would prefer to own and drive.
Nissan Micra: then and now
While the Micra may not be everybody’s idea of a cool car, for many cash-strapped motorists it was the perfect little city runabout back in the ‘90s. Its combination of cute looks and reliable underpinnings made them very popular but has the modern equivalent improved on that winning recipe?
For starters, the contemporary Micra has moved up a category and offers features most luxury cars didn’t come with 25-years ago.
The styling has become edgier and lost some of its charm in the process but it is still fun to drive and as a package there is no doubt that the new car is the superior choice.
Winner: The New Micra
Volkswagen Golf 3 vs Volkswagen Golf 7
The Volkswagen Golf has been around since 1974, its timeless boxy design penned by Giugiaro is now on its seventh generation and each iteration claims to be better than the one that came before it.
But are they really getting better? The third generation Golf was a particular low point in the range, heavy and underpowered, even the fabled GTI was a shadow of its former self.
The latest generation Golf’s however are extremely polished performers, well-built and great to drive this one is a no contest win for the modern car.
Winner: The new Golf 7 is the ideal daily-driver
Ford Escort vs Ford Focus
The Escort was a competent family car that had been through numerous revisions by the time the ‘90s arrived.
Rallying successes and various hot RS variants had endeared them to the buying public but the sixth-generation models were getting a bit long in the tooth and were replaced by the Focus in 1998.
The Focus brought some much-needed driving enjoyment into the mix, something the original Escorts were renowned for.
Winner: Ford Focus
BMW 3 Series: then and now
BMW may be expanding its product range to cover just about every niche, but the 3 Series is still the model that represents its core values. Having practically invented the luxury sports saloon segment, each generation of 3 Series inevitably becomes the benchmark by which all competitors are judged.
Having moved from the very successful ‘80s E30 3 Series to the much larger and more grown up E36 in 1990, the small sporty saloon was finally spacious enough for a family. Early cars suffered from patchy build quality, but the later models were better nailed together and all but the base models came with smooth straight-six power.
The latest 3 Series is on the cusp of being replaced but it is still a superb drive, it is much larger than the older car, but you will have to stretch to the pricey 340i if you want that trademark six-cylinder motor, and you can’t get that one with a manual transmission.
Everything else now comes with 2-litre turbo power, more efficient but nowhere near as characterful. Having recently sampled both models back to back, it is the older car that leaves you with a bigger smile.
Winner: Old school six-cylinder fun trumps modern efficiency
Mercedes-Benz S-Class: then and now
Whereas BMW tends to regularly hit the sweet spot with its mid-sized sports saloons, Mercedes-Benz have been the flagbearers when it comes to the large luxury saloon segment.
Each new S-Class introduces a whole raft of innovations that trickle down to the rest of the motoring world and the boxy ‘90s S-Class was no different. Where it fell down was in its uncharacteristically poor build quality, a problem that afflicted most late-‘90s Mercs and it was not exactly easy on the eye.
The current S-Class continues to lead the field in technological terms, but it also offers a superior driving experience over the older car in every category.
Winner: Modern Technology and Innovation
Porsche 993 vs Porsche 991
Porsche fans have been clinging to their air-cooled models for decades, claiming that only these older cars have the true ‘911’ character.
While there is no doubt that the 1990’s 993 was a beautiful design could it really be better than the current 991-generation cars? In measurable performance terms there is no contest, interior space too is far more generous but herein lie the new models biggest failings too.
It is simply too fast to be appreciated anywhere other than a racetrack, while its larger dimensions make it less user-friendly when being used for more mundane tasks like running to the shops.
The older car may be more cramped, but it seats two occupants just fine and all the sounds and sensations that make these cars so special can be sampled at legal speeds too.
Winner: ‘90s immersiveness and useability
Ferrari 355 vs Ferrari 488
The Ferrari 355 offered cutting-edge technology back in 1995, yet its 375bhp power output and sub-5-second 0-60mph time are eclipsed by a few hot hatches let alone the 661 bhp twin-turbo 488.
Still, it is not exactly slow and is quite possibly the most beautiful mid-engined V8 Ferrari ever built. The 488 is a masterpiece of modern engineering but its impressive stats will be eclipsed one day by some mundane electric family saloon.
So, when measured on more subjective criteria, the older 355 still has what it takes to make us get up early on a Saturday morning, even if it is just to hear that searing exhaust note one more time.
Winner: ‘90s looks and that sound
McLaren F1 vs McLaren P1
The McLaren F1 needs little introduction, it marked a high point in automotive design and showed the world what could be done with a huge design budget and a handful of the most talented engineers and designers around.
The 627 bhp F1 may not be the performance king anymore but it has lost none of its raw appeal since its 1992 release, evidenced by the ridiculous prices they are fetching these days.
The P1 is a similarly groundbreaking design and was one of the very first hybrid hypercars on the planet, it uses the latest technology to devastating effect but whereas it took competitors years to try and match the F1, the P1 is just one of a number of similarly advanced hypercars on offer. For that reason the F1 wins this comparison.
Winner: The McLaren F1. There can be only one.
And The Winner is…
Having sampled a broad selection of vehicles from family hatchbacks to luxury saloons and hypercars, the results show that the 1990s produced the more immersive and interesting vehicles.
At the lower end of the scale the modern machinery has proven to be both better to drive as well as more capable and if luxury and safety are a priority then the newer the car the better.
But when it comes to more aspirational vehicles or ones that have driving pleasure at their core, then you are better off going back to the ‘90s.