On the Road Review: What a difference 20 years makes

In the mid-1990s, our cars and trucks were much different than today. It is easy to forget how much has changed in such a short time. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and keep things in perspective.

The top selling car in the mid-’90s was Ford’s Taurus sedan, followed by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Selling for around $15,500 with a 3.0-liter 140-hp V-6 engine, the Taurus shifted Ford’s identity and helped propel the brand to the top of the sales charts. Not that much different from today, except that Taurus now costs over $27,000 and features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 100 hp more than that V-6 while getting one less mile per gallon on the EPA highway cycle, 29 mpg.

One of the least expensive cars of this era was the $6,700 Geo Metro subcompact. It had a three-cylinder engine with 55 hp — less than your average ATV today — but got 55 mpg on the EPA cycle on its 12-inch wheels and vinyl seats. The Geo was 147 inches long — about the same length as the distance between the wheels on today’s crew-cab pickups.

Besides the Geo, you could opt for the tiny Honda Civic VX. The overall EPA mileage champ, the VX coupe had a 92-hp 1.5-liter engine and listed for almost $11,000. It was stick shift only — no automatic was even offered. Considering that Plymouth’s Voyager minivan also came with a stick-shift, drivers often embraced these more economical transmissions.

One of the top-selling big cars was Lincoln’s Town Car, 212 inches of traditional American luxury with a 190-hp V-8. Its base price was $34,190 — about the same number as the average new car transaction price today. A Jack Nicklaus version, with unique green paint, green leather seating and memory seats was another $1,249, while traction control was a $222 option. A landau roof was an option too. Scary. Ford’s compact C-Max hybrid comes with a 188-hp powertrain today, illustrating how much computers have allowed engineers to improve virtually everything we drive.

While Lincoln was fighting for marketshare against the new Lexus, Infiniti and Acura luxury cars from Japan (all of which outsell the Lincoln several times over today) Mercedes and BMW were becoming much larger forces in the American marketplace. In 1998, Mercedes and Lexus each introduced midsize luxury vehicles called crossovers — after the success of Toyota’s compact RAV4 in 1996. Instant hits for each respective automaker, these “cars” are now the best-selling vehicles at many brands. Porsche, Mini, Lexus, Cadillac, Jeep, Audi, Jaguar, Nissan and lots more all have SUVs/crossovers as their top selling vehicle.

Computers have improved engine-building, for greater tolerances of moving parts, while overall reliability has markedly increased. Digital controls have increased specific inputs, improving fuel economy and allowing automakers to decrease engine size (and weight) while increasing performance. Direct fuel injection, controlled by myriad sensors, help both power and economy with drive-by-wire throttles — no direct linkages for most vehicles.

Microchips and computer controls enabled automakers to satisfy consumer demand for more power — lots of power. Employing turbochargers, which are now much safer and more reliable due to sophisticated technologies governing heat and boost pressures, as well as superchargers, that have better intercooling systems to remove heat, automakers have been able to wring two and three times the power out of internal combustion engines that were once thought to have finite amounts of available power. Look at the latest 650-hp Corvette engine or the Dodge Hellcat with 707 hp — both using 6.2-liter V-8 engines. Or, better yet, 292 hp from a VW 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a turbocharger, or Ford getting 350 hp from a 2.3-liter Ecoboost four-cylinder. Incredible.

In 1996, Honda was just rolling out its first Insight electric-hybrid car in Japan — a few short years after GM had abandoned its electric car program. A year later, Toyota’s first Prius debuted in Japan, with both cars widely available in the United States by 1998. Twenty years later, hybrid-powered cars are noteworthy for what they are and for what they are not.

The Prius is the best-selling hybrid-powered car in the world, with almost 3 million sold. Despite regulatory efforts, hybrid (and electric) car sales have stalled — only 2.5 percent of the American market. Yet, the proliferation of enhanced battery technologies has helped to erase one of the cons on hybrids and electric cars — range anxiety. Chevy’s new Bolt, an all-electric car to rival Tesla’s portfolio, should prove once and for all if mainstream Americans can, and will, buy electric cars as the Nissan Leaf and others have only encouraged early-adopters to part with their money.

Yet computers and the venerable microchip have also made today’s automobiles far safer. Sensors for airbags and anti-lock brakes — which were just appearing in the mid-’90s — are now on third- and fourth-generation versions that can detect passenger size, vehicle speed and alter their own performance to meet the current conditions.

Sensors and electronic controls now automate our climate systems, can automatically lock our doors, open the hatchback, dim our lights, increase the stereo volume and remember where you want your power seat to rest. Computers provide instantaneous navigation assistance, even with weather updates. Your car can tell you what’s behind you, what’s beside you, and change your speed for what is in front of you. Cameras can provide a complete 360-degree view of your surroundings while parking and also read the road two cars ahead of you looking for hazards that you don’t see, automatically braking and accelerating your car as necessary, or requested. None of these features existed 20 years ago.

Computers improved production facilities, trucking, dealership operations and every facet of the automotive scene — including racing.

Twenty years ago, manual transmissions were installed in roughly 20 percent of new vehicles sold. Today, less than 6 percent as multi-speed computer-controlled transmissions render better fuel economy than humans shifting gears themselves — usually.

Twenty years ago, many full-size family cars had a front bench seat; try and find one so equipped today. In the mid-1990s, many cars still had plastic wheel covers, keyed locks and chrome bumpers. Keyless access dominates all builders’ offerings — many with push-button ignitions as well — while alloy wheels are better looking, save weight over steel wheels and are part of a car’s styling more than ever. Bumpers? Bumpers are also part of each car’s design, sculpted and shaped to be part of a look, often with LED lighting that defines each automakers emphasis. Two decades ago, halogen headlamps were the rage, with their limitations and restrictions. Today’s Xenon and LED headlamps bend, twist, look around corners and crystallize the slippery designs necessary to cheat the wind for elevated fuel economy requirements.

In the mid-1990s, cellular telephones were big, cumbersome units — a $706 option on the aforementioned Town Car. Some still came in a portable bag that allowed you to move your phone from car to car, along with the power unit and a big antenna. Some cars still had cassette decks, along with their CD players as power ports were used to plug in your radar detector. Today, several recent test vehicles didn’t even come with a CD slot in the stereo, and we all know what cell phones have become — a necessary evil.

We have lost other things too. Remember these lamentable cars? They included the Dodge Dynasty, Chrysler LeBaron, Buick Roadmaster, Dodge Shadow, Ford Aerostar, Honda del Sol, Isuzu Amigo, Mazda 929, Mercury Capri, Olds Achieva, Plymouth Colt, Pontiac LeMans, Subaru Justy and Toyota Paseo? These cars were “hot” 20 years ago: Nissan Maxima, Pontiac Bonneville, Dodge Viper, Eagle Talon, Taurus SHO, Nissan 240SX, and Mustang Cobra. By today’s measurements, these cars would be slow, non-contenders.

Think of who on that above list is not coming down for breakfast. Plymouth, Pontiac, Saturn, Oldsmobile, Eagle, Saab, Mercury, Suzuki and Isuzu have all slipped beneath the waves over the past 20-years. New brands in America? Fiat, Tesla and Mini are the only new kids on the block.

Tomorrow supposedly promises cars that will drive themselves. Maybe long-term, not short-term for sure, as the lawyers and insurance companies have barely weighed in on these potential hot spots. We know for sure that our cars will dramatically change. It will be interesting to see how many changes we will see in the next 20 years.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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