Some of you won’t remember, but many of you will: The nineties were a pretty great time. Music was shifting from the new wave sounds of the previous decade, giving way to the intense grunge and alternative genres rock brought from Seattle by bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. ‘Forrest Gump’ with Tom Hanks came out in theaters and became a modern-day classic almost overnight. And automobiles were getting better than ever, with supercars and high-end sporty numbers cruising the streets. Teenagers coveted such rides, and often one of them would be lucky enough to get their parents to buy them one, if they had the money. Times were pretty good then, so many people did have the money to indulge their son or daughter’s yen for the cool sports car.
Yes, the cars were definitely great. Many of the popular ones underwent drastic body changes by the time that decade rolled around, like the Ford Mustang, but die-hard fans stayed true to their favorite models, regardless of the modern-looking face lifts. And the engines and other mechanical equipment made the wheels fly faster than ever. It seemed that every city in every state featured a soundtrack of squealing tires and rumbling engines, playing loudly and boldly as all of us lived out the movie of our lives. But the manual transmissions with the cool shifters? Those seemed to tie everything together, making you feel like you had all the power in the world in your own two hands. When you think about it, you can almost smell the burnt rubber, and you find yourself squinting as the smoke clears.
The cars! They definitely helped make the nineties ‘The Nineties’, if you know what I mean. While reminiscing about them, we had a collective thought. Let’s cover some of those cars in one of our lists! Ideas got thrown around, fuses got lit, and soon, the list below was finished and in existence. So, for your approval, we submit our picks for the best manual transmission sports cars of the nineties…twenty of them in all. Most of the vehicles listed came with an automatic transmission option, but ALL of them had manual standard. We’ve listed them from #20 to #1, from the best to the greatest of the best, so you don’t have to dart around with your eyes. Dive in head first and enjoy what we’ve put together for you.
The 20 Best Manual Transmission Cars of the 1990s:
20. Mazda RX7 (FD)
Referred to by Autotrader.com as the ‘most beautiful car ever manufactured’, the Mazda RX7 (FD) was a twin-turbo auto that had the more sex appeal than Marilyn Monroe at the height of her fame. The ‘FD’ code represented the version made for the American market; other versions included the ‘FC’ and the ‘FB’. The car had a curb weight of 2,800, which was in directly comparable to the other popular sports cars of its time, and it did that in spades. The RX7 handled well, had exciting driver seat positioning, and was a blast to drive, but it didn’t hold a candle to the others when it came to performance. It seemingly was never meant to be as fast as it was meant to make you feel like it was. That it did…that it did.
19. Honda SNX/Acura SNX
The Honda SNX was known more familiarly in the United States as the Acura SNX, but as we both know, this car was manufactured by Honda. From the outside, this looked like the real deal: It gave the appearance of speed, and its sleek, sexy body drew sports car enthusiasts like proverbial flies. The first generation was in production from 1990 through 2005, but the earlier models were the best sellers. It had a 5-speed manual transmission paired with a 2,977cc engine that got approximately 270 hp. Not bad for a 2-seater bearing one of Honda’s names.
18. Ford Mustang Cobra SVT
From 1993 to 2004 the Ford Mustang Cobra SVT was in production. The car was popularly known as a muscle car, or ‘pony car’, and it was built by Ford’s ‘Special Vehicle Team’ division, which brought about the ‘SVT’ tag on the end of its model name. In 1993 it came only as a 3-door hatchback, but in subsequent years Ford added the 2-door convertible and 2-door coupe. The hatchback style came with a 4.9 liter, small block V8 and a modified 5-speed manual tranny; there was also the Cobra R, which was the same except for having a 5.0 small block V8. The ’95 came with a 5.8 liter Windsor V8 or 4.6 liter modular V8 with 305 hp. In the following years, the engines remained consistent, except in the Terminator version, which was supercharged and put out 290 hp. The tranny varied, as Ford used a 6-speed in the 2000 Cobra R, as well as the two years following. It was a very popular, sexy ride that still carries tons of appeal today.
17. Nissan Skyline GT-R R33
Making its debut in 1995, the Nissan Skyline GT-R R33 sports car, but it wasn’t completely new on the scene; the Skyline itself actually came out in 1957. But the 90s version was first presented in ’93 at the Tokyo Motor Show, and it was finally released to the public in ’95. It had a 6-cylinder inline engine and a five-speed manual transmission. The car was another popular model, both in Japan and in the States. Preceded by the Prince Skyline Sport and followed by the Nissan GT-R, the Skyline is no longer in production under that model name, but it makes the books for being one of the best, for sure.
16. Toyota Supra
Here’s one many should remember, as it was certainly the cause of much rubbernecking during that particular decade. The sleek little Supra by Toyota had already been released by the time 1990 rolled around, and that year’s model looked the same as the Supra of years prior. In ’90 buyers had two choices when it came to engines: A turbocharged 230 hp engine or a 2.8 liter that put out 200 horses. The sports car version (it also came as a Grand Tourer) was a three-door hatchback that came with a five-speed manual transmission, and the body style literally rocked (at least it did for the times). The Supra of the 90s was discontinued in 2002, but it was picked up again last year, and continues into 2020. But the new ones simply won’t be able to make up for the nostalgia of those of that decade, and that’s why the Supra made our list.
15. Ferrari F50
This mid-engine sports car was so hot in the 90s that it was on fire from 1995 to 1997. It had a 4.7 liter V12, which was piggybacked off of an engine in one of Ferrari’s Formula One models, and a six-speed manual tranny. It put out around 512 horses, which made it popular, but its look drew fans like flies, particularly due to its unique targa top (sort of a half-convertible with a removable roof section). This car was used in the Ferrari 333 SP in 1994, which was actually for the American IMSA GT Championship, which made it eligible to make the World Sports Car category. Very cool, it was almost literally the very picture of the 1990s decade.
14. Jaguar XJ220
The Jaguar XJ220 is yet another sports car that seems to exemplify the 90s, from the aesthetic to its inner workings. Only 271 units of the XJ220 were made in 1994, making that year’s model one of the rarest of all, but regardless, to own any model year would be worth shouting about. They were actually made from 1992 to 1994, and featured a 3.5 liter biturbo V6, 5-speed manual tranny, and featured all-wheel drive. Performance-wise, the car was capable of putting out 540 horsepower, and was considered the fastest car on the planet before the release of the McLaren F1. For these reasons, and so many more, the Jaguar XJ220 from ’92 to ’94 made our list easily.
13. BMW M-Series Coupe
The M-Series coupe by BMW was actually something of a latecomer to the ‘90s, as it was first released in 1998, but that didn’t stop it from garnering its share of attention that year. The problem was the fact that sales weren’t as good as the company hoped for. With that being said, we think it is one of the finest from its time. This 2-door, rear-wheel drive sports car had a BMW S52 engine that put out 316 hp, and it also had a ZF Type-Z 5-speed manual transmission. While some considered it’s outer design a bit different (it was nicknamed ‘clown car’ and ‘the hearse’), it had power and it wore the BMW brand name, which made it pretty hot in the day…so it makes our list.
12. Ferrari 355
It possibly could have been attributed to the cool body style, or maybe the Ferrari name, but this company put out some very popular rides during the 90s, including the 355 model. This was the last model to feature the targa roof, and it had a 3.5 liter V8 engine that had 5-valve cylinder head with titanium internals, which was considered something of a breakthrough for the company. Put that together with a six-speed manual transmission, and you find a car that people were lining up to buy, though most of them could only dream about owning it. This is why it earned its spot at number twelve.
11. Porsche 911 GT3
This rear-engine Porsche belonged to the 911 family, and actually was started in 1973, though the model we are referring to here was introduced in 1999…another latecomer. With its 3.6 liter Flat-6 and 6-speed manual tranny the car managed to take it to participate in the Porsche Carrera Cup and the GT3 Cup Challenge, not to mention the Porsche Super-Cup. All of these factors made this one of the most popular Porsche models of the day, and this is why the 911 GT3 comes in at #11.
10. Lotus Esprit V8
Owner’s of the Lotus Esprit V8 of the 1990s enjoyed 300-400 horses raging from the car’s 3.5 liter, twin-turbocharged V8, and the 5-speed manual transmission made driving this space-age-looking supercar more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Only around 1200 units were manufactured (between all model versions and trims), and the MSRP at the time was about $79,000, so if someone was fortunate enough to own one of these babies, they were doing well. The Lotus Esprit V8 comes in at number ten due to the simple fact that it was one of the very best, and everyone knew it.
9. Saab 900 Turbo
In 1990, the Saab 900 was a sports car that looked like most others of its time, but its looks shouldn’t fool anyone. The fact is that this particular manual transmission vehicle was a shade better than most. The 5-speed manual transmission-equipped model with a 2.0 liter 4-cylinder turbo engine, which was excellent on gas, and it only got about 128 horses, so this car wasn’t so much about performance as it was quality, and it had it in spades. It looked awesome, was extremely comfortable, and served as a status symbol for the owner. As the nineties progressed, the engine on this car got bigger, and as a result it put out more oomph, which made it even more powerful. While it did have a few problems it seemed prone to, it was a popular choice back then; so popular that it was able to slip into the #9 spot with ease.
8. Dodge Viper GTS
The Dodge Viper is one of our nineties models that is still made today. Though far different than it used to be, its endurance says something about it, for sure. The GTS version began production in 1992, with the second generation starting in ’96, so this car saw its way through a majority of the decade gracefully. 400 horsepower was produced by a V10 engine, which worked together with a six-speed manual transmission, and it was all tied up inside of one of the most memorable and coolest body styles of the nineties. Enough said…this is one car that begs us to travel back in time when we gaze upon it.
7. Maserati 3200 GT
The 3200 GT was actually boasted for its 4-seat capacity, which just happened to be found inside of one very nice sports car body style. Only 4,795 of them were manufactured between 1998 and 2002, meaning that this model only enjoyed two years of our chosen decade. Classed as a Grand Tourer, meaning it was a 2-door, 2/back-2/front style, rear-wheel drive and front engine placement. Engine-wise, a 3.2 liter AM 565 twin-turbocharged V8 could be found under the hood, and it was accompanied by a six-speed manual tranny (though a four-speed automatic was also available); 330 hp was the total power, with each vehicle getting around 114 hp per liter. Those are nice numbers from a very nice automobile.
6. Chevy Corvette ZR1 (1990)
The 1990 version stands out from the others in the decade for being one of the first European-embraced, American-made sports cars to ever be introduced. Touted as a rival to the Ferrari Testarosa and Lamborghini Countach, the 1990 ZR1 was nicknamed ‘The King of the Hill’ due to all of its amazing attributes (for that era, anyway). It is also said that this model was just a race car ‘masquerading’ as a sports vehicle for the road, as it had a median of around 180 mph; this car was one of the fastest models on the planet at the time, and it came the coveted Corvette body style to boot . It had a newly-implemented LT5 engine, which consisted of an aluminum 5.7 liter V8 with 32 valves, and that was power was propelled by the six-speed manual transmission. With that being said, the best part was the price, when compared with the cars it was up against: A mere $50,000. Sure, it was a high price in 1990, but the fact remains that the ‘Vette ZR1 that year allowed sports car enthusiasts to own big and pay little.
5. Lamborghini Diablo
Looking a lot like it just came shooting directly out of the flames of Hell, the Diablo was a fixed-head coupe that sat only two while flying down the road at its top speed of 203 mph. It came with a 5.7 liter, 12-cylinder engine that went from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds, and also featured a 5-speed manual transmission, which was the desired method of gear shifting when it came to cars like this (and still is, mostly). A down point? Believe it or not, this car only got 11 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway, but owners could likely afford it. The price was steep, but this was an incredible vehicle that owners considered well-worth it: It sold for $239,000.
4. BMW E36 M3
We’ll admit that, compared to most of the other cars on this list, the BMW E36 M3 looked fairly plain and unassuming. But it was a better seller than most, likely because of the fact that it was a sports car that was affordable and had a high-end brand name. That gave owners the best of both worlds, and the result worked. It had an inline six with multiple injection in its 24 valves, and a six-speed manual transmission that complimented it well while making this one fun car to drive. Fuel economy could have been better, however. The sport version of this car only got around 11 mpg, which is almost miserably low. But the fact is that due to this car going ove so w3ell at the time, and the lower-than-average price for a car in its classification, the BMW E36 M3 has earned its spot at number four.
3. Porsche Boxster 986
The Boxster by Porsche is nothing less than a renowned, iconic sports car that is still loved and cherished to this very day, even in the midst of new model upgrades that are mind-blowing. This particular model managed to single-handedly rescue Porsche from an impending takeover in the late nineties, aiding them to live to fight another day. It had a 2.5 liter engine until ’99, when it grew to 2.7 liters; the latter is considered a go-to version by most enthusiasts. It has a six-speed manual tranny that qualifies it for this list, but it should be noted that the gears tended to jump out of second, and repairs run high for this issue. Other than that, our choice to put it at number three is self-explanatory, in our opinion. The 90’s Boxster was one hell of a car.
2. Lotus Elise
Looking like a cross between a Lamborghini and a dune buggy, the Lotus Elise of the ‘90s grabbed, and kept, a lot of attention back in the day; to speak truthfully, it still does. This sexy little number was hot, with a six-speed manual transmission and a 1.8 liter supercharged 4-cylinder, it managed to put out 264 horses and go from 0 to 60 mph in only 4.8 seconds. But the best part was the price, which didn’t cut buyers to the bone, even back then. The Lotus Elise sold for a base price of $84,990…for a Lotus, that was nothing short of great.
1. McLaren F1
A top speed of 240 mph put this car in the ‘Fastest Car in the World’ position, which it stole from the Jaguar XJ220 mentioned previously. 627 hp was something to boast about, especially since it was clocked going from 0 to 60 in only 3.2 seconds. The naturally-aspirated 6.1 liter V12 and 6-speed manual transmission were wrapped in a futuristic body with gullwing doors and a look that was totally nasty in nature. Considered one of the ‘most iconic supercars of the nineties’, the McLaren F1 ran buyers around $815,000…and that was back in 1992. Price aside, there are just too many reasons to list when it comes to why this car gets #1…we think it speaks for itself.
Twenty in all, that’s what you get. Twenty of the best manual transmission sports cars available during the 1990s. It was a decade hooked on both the look and feel of speed, and these vehicles were favored for giving them exactly what they wanted. So, now you have much to day dream about; envisioning yourself behind the wheel of one of these babies are exactly what fantasies are made of. Hope you enjoyed it, and we hope that you stay safe while behind the wheel of your own car, fantasy-vehicle or otherwise; here’s to a long life on the road in the driver’s seat of a car you love.
Written by Benjamin Smith
Read more posts by Benjamin Smith