In the echo of the '80s, amongst the clamor of neon colors, shoulder pads, and pop anthems, a fleet of four-wheeled wonders emerged—automotive icons that shaped an era, each bearing tales of speed, and style.
While some cars of the time have claimed their spots in the halls of nostalgia, there are a few forgotten legends that have been overshadowed by their more prominent counterparts.
From speed demons that ignited adrenaline to tech-savvy pioneers that hinted at the future, these cars embody the spirit of '80s.
Nissan Pulsar NX (1987–1990)
The 1987 Pulsar NX was a front-wheel-drive compact car that epitomized the quirky ingenuity of '80s Japanese cars. The Pulsar NX featured pop-up headlights, sharp-edged styling, and a configurable rear end. The Pulsar NX also offered a convertible hatchback option by removing its T-top roof panels or, you could convert it into a sort-of pickup truck by removing the hatch altogether.
Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v (1988-1991)
The Vauxhall Astra GTE set off on the right foot, leading as the UK's first car to feature body-colored wheel arch extensions, spoilers, and alloy wheels. Its second-generation 1984 model introduced a teardrop shape and an intriguing addition: a digital dashboard.
Initially equipped with a 1.8-liter engine from the Cavalier SRi, its performance left room for improvement. Swiftly, Vauxhall introduced a 2.0-liter engine, the ‘Red Top,' catapulting the Astra GTE to speeds exceeding 135mph—a clear winner in the hot-hatch performance segment.
Mitsubishi Starion (1983–1989)
Mitsubishi's push into the U.S. market in the '80s included the Starion, a car that gained a cult following among enthusiasts. While other countries enjoyed the 4G63 engine, the U.S. version housed a 2.6-liter turbocharged Astron engine.
With styling reminiscent of the Renault Alpine A310 and the innovation of Porsche-licensed “Silent Shaft” balance-shaft technology, the Starion made its mark in the era, marketed as the Conquest under Chrysler's various brands.
Ford Escort XR3 (1980-1986)
Amidst the rising competition from the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford launched its Escort XR3 with an innovative twist. Unlike its rear-wheel-drive predecessor, the Mk2 Escort, the XR3 embraced the trend toward front-wheel drive.
Debuting in 1980, it boasted a 1.6-liter CVH engine, an eye-catching tailgate spoiler, lowered suspension, and distinctive ‘four-ring' alloy wheels.
Toyota Corolla GT AE86 (1983-1987)
In a daring move, Toyota offered both the front-wheel-drive Corolla GT 16v and the rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla GT (AE86) during the '80s. While the former had its appeal, the rear-wheel-drive variant secured an enduring legacy worldwide.
Boasting a spirited 130HP 1.6-liter engine upfront, the AE86 was renowned for its exciting and occasionally tricky handling. This model played a pivotal role in popularizing drifting in Japan and continues to excel in club racing circuits globally.
Toyota MR2 (1984-1989)
In the mid-1980's, Toyota unveiled the MR2—a mid-engined two-seater that seemed exotically affordable for the everyday consumer. Featuring a delightful 1.6-liter engine and renowned for its smooth gearshift, the MR2 sported handling crafted by Lotus engineers. Later editions, known as T-Bar models, offered lift-out roof panels for an enhanced open-air experience.
Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 (1987-1998)
As part of a collaborative platform involving Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia, and Saab, the Alfa Romeo 164 stands out among its peers for its distinct look. It sports an angular yet elegant exterior and an interior decked out with a plethora of '80s buttons on a large central stack.
The 164's engine options ranged from practicality to performance, including a mundane 2.5-liter diesel, a 2.0-liter Twin Spark gasoline, and the 3.0-liter V6. Despite its limitations in grip and ride quality, the allure of its V6 powerplant, both in sound and performance, could make all the driving qualms fade away with a swift push of the accelerator.
DMC De Lorean (1981-1982)
The DMC De Lorean experienced a mixed reception upon its release, facing criticism for its reported poor build quality while earning praise for its ride and handling. Powered by a 2.8-liter V6, this vehicle surprisingly boasted good fuel economy.
However, its ascent to stardom came with a notable role in a blockbuster movie franchise, transforming the De Lorean into a symbol of coolness. Despite being viewed primarily as a GT car, its performance figures, clocking 0-60mph in 8.8 seconds and reaching a top speed of 109mph, didn't match its cinematic time-traveling reputation.
Audi 100 (1982-1991)
The Audi 100, introduced in 1982, projected a futuristic appearance with its sleek curves, smooth wheel trims, and flush-fitting glass—an aesthetic far removed from the boxier design language of the Audi 80 and quattro coupe.
Promoted as the most aerodynamic production car globally, its efficiency and high-speed capabilities were emphasized, making it a standout choice in terms of design and performance, especially in its home country of Germany.
Buick Grand National GNX (1987)
The Buick Grand National series gained popularity, and the 1987 Grand National GNX emerged as the poster child of V-6-powered performance. Evolving from the Grand National with fuel injection and an intercooler, the GNX was a high-performance variant limited to just 547 units.
Developed in collaboration with McLaren Performance Technologies, it boasted ported heads, recalibrated engine mapping, and a different turbo and was officially rated at 276 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque.
Datsun 280ZX 10th Anniversary Edition (1980)
The 10th Anniversary Edition of the Datsun 280ZX, nicknamed “Black Gold,” stood out among its peers. Produced in 1980, only 3000 units were built, each boasting an extravagant black and gold color scheme and opulent features.
This edition was practically devoid of additional options. The car gained notoriety primarily due to the spectacular ad campaign Datsun ran to promote it, featuring bright gold lights, smoke machines, flashy imagery, and an infectious theme song.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk2 (1983-1992)
Volkswagen, known for pioneering hot-hatch cars like the original Golf GTI, continued its legacy with the sleeker Mk2. This model embodied the GTI's charm, blending top-notch build quality with nimble performance.
In 1986, the power competition intensified, leading to the launch of the Golf GTI 16v boasting a strong 139HP engine for thrilling performance. The same potent engine also powered the Jetta GTI 16v, turning it into a surprisingly powerful sleeper car.
AMG Hammer (1986–1988)
The AMG Hammer, born from Mercedes-Benz's original design, retains practicality, comfort, and space for four adults with luggage. AMG's touch transforms it into a bold powerhouse.
With a vigorous V-8 replacing the standard in-line engine, AMG meticulously refines the 5.5-liter powerplant, enhancing it with twin-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder heads. Resulting in 355 horsepower and 388 pound-feet of torque, the Hammer remains remarkably smooth despite its ferocious potency.
BMW M5 (E28) (1984-1988)
The BMW M5 changed the game for sporty sedans. It used a powerful 286HP 3.5-liter straight-six engine from the M1 supercar, tweaking the 535i sedan's suspension, steering, and brakes. The outcome? An amazing sedan that became the fastest in the world, zooming up to 153mph and sprinting from 0 to 60mph in just 6.5 seconds. They only made 2191 of these M5s, making it a special treasure in car history and a dream come true for collectors.
Ferrari 288GTO (1984-1987)
In the fast-paced world of Group B rallying, Ferrari joined the race with the 288GTO. This car, born from the 308 sports car, packed a mighty punch: a wild 400HP twin-turbo 2.8-liter V8 engine, all wrapped in a seriously beefed-up fiberglass body.
To enter the racing scene, Ferrari needed 200 road cars. They went above and beyond, making 272. But just as things revved up, Group B racing took a sudden turn. The FIA changed the rules, ending the thrilling prospects for this remarkable machine.
Acura Integra (1986–1989)
The first Acura Integra, though not as famous as later versions, left an impression. It earned spots on the 10 Best Cars lists in 1987 and 1988 for Car and Driver, offering affordable enjoyment in its three- and five-door models.
Costing less than $10,000, it boasted a rare 16-valve 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, quite powerful for its era with up to 118 horsepower. Weighing less than 2500 pounds, its agility made it even more appealing.
BMW M3 (1988–1991)
The first BMW M3 was made to meet racing rules, needing 5000 M3s within a year for racing. Debuted at the 1985 Frankfurt Auto Show, it stood out from the E30 3-series with flared fenders, a body kit, and a big rear spoiler.
Its S14 engine, a 2.3-liter four-cylinder with four valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams, offered 192 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, setting new standards for naturally aspirated engines in the U.S. then.
Dodge Omni Shelby GLH/GLHS (1984–1986)
Carroll Shelby’s magic turned the Dodge Omni from plain to powerhouse. Enter the GLH (Goes Like Hell) and the hotter GLHS (Goes Like Hell Some-more). The GLHS, with a 175-hp 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, outpaced rivals in the hot-hatch world, cementing Shelby's return to making factory-backed high-performance cars.
Ford Mustang GT 5.0 (1987–1993)
In the realm of Fox-platform Mustangs, the Mustang GT 5.0 stands tall, marked by subtle details like the red gumball atop or its dual-tone paint. Amidst the '80s roads filled with Mustangs, a unique variant stood out: the Special Service Package model, an unexpected choice for law enforcement.
Sporting a Taurus-inspired aero look post its 1987 facelift and wielding a potent 225-hp 4.9-liter V-8 engine, it commanded both fear and respect, etching an enduring legacy from that era.
Jeep Cherokee (1984–2001)
The 1984 Jeep Cherokee marked a significant revelation—an off-road-capable yet refined vehicle that catered to both adventurous spirits and family needs. Its compact dimensions, sturdy construction, and versatile styling made it a beloved choice for buyers seeking 4×4 capability without the compromises associated with larger, heavier trucks. Enduring until 2001, the Cherokee cemented its place as a versatile and enduring SUV.
Ford Sierra Cosworth (1986-1992)
Ford, seeking a resurgence in the global competition scene, collaborated with Cosworth to infuse a high-performance engine into the Sierra. The resultant Sierra ‘Cossie' wielded a potent 204HP, an impressive feat in the lightweight '80s era, clocking 149mph and sprinting from 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds.
This racing-derived road car restored Ford's prominence across various racing circuits, propelling them back into the limelight.
Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z (1985–1990)
The third-generation Chevrolet Camaro, particularly the IROC-Z variant, epitomizes the spirit of the '80s. Featuring angular styling and powered by a Corvette-derived 5.7-liter V-8 engine producing 220 horsepower, the IROC-Z aimed to challenge Ford's Mustang. Despite losing its first comparison test against the Mustang 5.0, its unique design and performance cultivated a devoted following that endures to this day.
Ferrari Testarossa (1984–1991)
Despite being criticized for its '80s-style aesthetics, including the distinctive side strakes, the Ferrari Testarossa remains an iconic emblem of that era. Powered by a mid-mounted flat-12 engine producing an impressive 380 horsepower, it soared to nearly 180 mph, securing its title as the fastest car available in the U.S. in 1986. While its styling may have reflected the era's “Greed Decade,” the Testarossa's performance and exotic allure endure.
Honda CRX Si (1985–1987)
Honda's CRX epitomized the brand's excellence in crafting affordable yet fun and high-quality cars in the '80s. The small two-seater coupe, whether designed for high efficiency or as an affordable sports car, featured exceptional build quality, an engaging chassis, and an engine that stood out for its performance and reliability, making it an enduring favorite.
Lamborghini Countach (1974–1990)
The Lamborghini Countach is an '80s icon that adorned countless bedroom walls, epitomizing coolness. Its distinctive scissor doors and a powerful V-12 engine, ranging from 370 to 445 horsepower, made it a beast of a car. Whether the earlier, simpler models or the later 5000QV versions with flamboyant styling, the Countach's legacy as an icon of coolness persists, solidifying its status as a collector's dream.
Mazda 323 GTX (1988–1989)
Before cars like Ford's Focus RS and Subaru's WRX dominated, Mazda introduced the 323 GTX, a small, rally-inspired, all-wheel-drive hatchback. This sprightly member of Mazda's Familia lineup boasted a 132-horsepower DOHC 16-valve turbo-four engine, powering all four wheels via a lockable center diff. Recognizable by its discreet badges, removable stickers, and dual spoilers on the hatch, the GTX combined performance, practicality, and a dash of '80s flair.
Mazda RX-7 Turbo II (1987–1991)
The second-generation Mazda RX-7 was the affordable alternative for those interested in Porsche-like performance without the hefty price tag. The introduction of a turbocharged variant in 1987 elevated the RX-7's status, earning it a spot on the 10Best list. Boasting 182 horses from a twin-scroll turbo, complex rear suspension, and European-inspired styling, the RX-7 Turbo II epitomized the high-tech, spirited driving characteristic of '80s Japanese sports cars.
Merkur XR4Ti (1985–1989)
The Merkur XR4Ti, named to Car and Driver's 10Best list in 1985, was a misunderstood European-inspired offering from Ford. Based on the European Ford Sierra XR4i, the XR4Ti arrived in the U.S. with rear-wheel drive, independent suspension, a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and a striking appearance reminiscent of rally cars. Despite initial praise, the XR4Ti faced challenges, including a name clash with GMC's trucks and increased costs for federalization, leading to its eventual demise.
Research journalist, Freelance writer, Managing Editor
- Expertise: automotive content, trending topics.
- Education: LeTourneau University, Bachelors of Science in Business Administration.
- Over 400 articles and short news pieces published across the web.
Experience: Madison Cates is a journalist located in the great state of Texas. She began writing over eight years ago. Her first major research piece was published by the Journal of Business and Economics in 2018. After growing up in a household of eight brothers and a dad who was always restoring old Camaros, she naturally pivoted her freelance career into the automotive industry. There, she found her passion.
Her experience paved the way for her to work with multiple large corporations in automotive news and trending topics. Now, she now finds her home at Wealth of Geeks where she proudly serves as Managing Editor of Autos. Madison is always down to geek out over the latest beautiful cars on the market, and she enjoys providing her readers with tips to make car ownership easier and more enjoyable.