Automotive nostalgia for the Nineties is having a moment. (Call it the Radwood effect.) After all, fawning over rad Japanese tuner cars from those days is more fun than reconciling ourselves with the fact that it’s been 25 years since Weezer’s self-titled blue album came out.
But all this enthusiasm for the 1990s had us wondering: Could the 2000s be next? Prices for cars from that era are still reasonable. And the defining features of many fun cars of the era — manual transmissions, naturally aspirated engines, not being crossovers — should age well moving forward.
Here, then, are 10 future classics for your consideration (and potential investment in).
BMW M3 (2000-2006)
There are the uber-purists who believe BMW lost its way in the early 1990s. For everyone else, the early 2000s were the halcyon days for BMW, with that era’s cars being a perfect fusion of modern engineering, classic BMW driving dynamics, and somewhat-conservative styling.
The E46-generation M3 may be, simply, the best car BMW has ever built. It packed the S54 3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline-six engine, with 338 horsepower and an 8,000 rpm redline. Whether it would come with a six-speed manual was a question one need not bother asking.
What we like: As mentioned above, this is the BMW that stole all the headlines in the early 2000s. The E46 M3 was a pure sports car and nothing else. It was finely balanced, agile and put down the perfect amount of power. It was, and in some cases continues to be, the benchmark to which all sports cars are measured.
From the seller: This final-year E46 coupe remains unmodified and optioned with the premium package, rear park distance control, dynamic stability control, a power glass roof, Xenon headlights, a navigation system and a Harmon Kardon sound system with a 6-CD changer
Location: Springfield, Missouri
BID NOW: $13,500
Honda S2000 (1999-2009)
The Honda S2000 may be the ultimate purists’ roadster. The original version had a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter VTEC putting out 247 hp — an impressive 123 hp per liter. It (only) had a six-speed manual, 50/50 weight distribution, and rear-wheel drive. With a 9,000 rpm redline and a power curve that topped out right near that limit, it was built to be driven hard. It’s also not bad to look at, whether it’s from before or after the 2004 facelift.
Price When New: $34,995-$37,995
Expect to Pay: ~$15,000-$30,000
Model Years: 1999-2009
Powertrain: 2.0-Liter / 2.2-Liter inline-four; six-speed manual; rear-wheel-drive
Weight: 2,809 lbs
Audi TT (1998-2006)
The Audi TT was one of the most stunning, innovative concept cars ever — and it made it to production with its sleek Bauhaus look intact. The TT Mk1 was far more of a cruiser than a track car; the first models had to be recalled for dangerous handling at high speed. But a 225-hp engine, a smooth Audi six-speed stick, and baseball-stitched leather made it a fun car for most drivers. The best testament to the TT may be how many owners have pushed them past 150,000 miles.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the subject car also delivers better-than-average gratification in the fun-to-drive department. That word-“fun”-popped up regularly in the TT’s logbook, and we think it has as much to do with stylin’ around town as it does with how this little Audi performs at the limits of adhesion. Although the TT pulled a respectable 0.85 g on the skidpad and stopped in an impressive 163 feet from 70 mph in its initial track test, it required 7.6 seconds to hit 60 mph-not really slow, but well short of face distorting. We attribute this relatively languid forward progress to the coupe’s substantial curb weight-3252 pounds, which is pretty chunky for a car this size, all-wheel drive notwithstanding. The acceleration numbers did, however, improve appreciably as the engine loosened up with mileage, as our final test numbers reflect. With 40,198 miles showing on the clock, the TT clipped to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 88 mph, which was 0.2 second and 2 mph faster than the green TT.
But let’s start at the beginning. Like many lovers of automotive art, we lusted after the TT from the moment we first beheld it as a prototype at the Frankfurt auto show in 1995. So when production versions finally appeared in 1999, we were among the first in line. Even so, we had to wait while Audi made some factory fixes to early TTs to correct a high-speed rear-end lift problem that had precipitated several crashes on the German autobahns, although the phenomenon didn’t show up in North America. Audi altered the rear-suspension geometry and installed a small spoiler on the decklid. The latter didn’t exactly enhance the TT’s Bauhaus bolide profile-“the best thing about the wing,” observed one logbook chronicler, “is that you can’t see it from the driver’s seat”-but it did reduce lift.
Dodge Viper (1996-2002)
The Dodge Viper was the proud antithesis of the modern sports car. It had a stupidly large engine, a manual transmission, and no driving aids whatsoever. (Look out for trees.) The second-generation SR II had an 8.0-liter V10 putting out 450 hp and a six-speed manual. It kept the distinctive styling and stripped-down feel of the original, but in addition to a power upgrade, the later model added features like airbags, standard AC, and anti-lock brakes — things any sane driver would want.
With the gauntlet dropped, we charged into the curves and set up shop on the tail of the biker. Through miles of tree-lined hairpin turns, tight esses, and moderate drops and rises, we ran in tandem. When we came up on another car, the motorcyclist zipped past, then slowed down on the other side and waited for us to get by before setting off again. Finally, when the thrill ride came to an end, both of us pulled over to the side of the road. He took off his helmet, smiled, and nodded toward the Viper. “That goes pretty well,” he confided, “for a car.”
The ’96 Vipers will be easy to pick out thanks to three bold new color schemes, all guaranteed to crank heads wherever they go: white with blue striping (the inverse of the ’94 Viper GTS Coupe show car), black with silver striping, and the familiar solid-red body, now coupled with bright yellow wheels.
The changes, however, go deeper than cosmetics. With the goals of shaving excess weight and improving high-speed control, the Viper team was able to trim about 200 pounds from the car while improving the frame’s torsional rigidity by about 25 percent. New aluminum suspension components are coupled with firmer springs and fine-tuned shock valving.In addition, new Michelin Pilot SX tires (offering reduced road noise, improved wet traction, and stiffer sidewalls) replace the previous XGT Zs, still sized at 275/40ZR17 in the front and a massive 335/35ZR17 in the rear. Chrysler estimates that with this rubber, the new Viper is capable of skidpad numbers over 1.0 g. This higher level of performance is coupled with an upgraded brake system designed for improved pedal feel and shorter stopping distances; however, the humongous four-wheel discs still lack ABS.
Ford Mustang (2005-2014)
With the S197 — better known as the fifth-generation model — Ford decided the Mustang should look like the Mustang again. The company emulated the boxier style of the first generation and produced its best-looking Mustang since the original. It was not a mind-blowing performance upgrade over the fourth-gen, but it held true to Ford’s initial vision for a car that looked awesome, made a lot of noise and came at a price nearly everyone could afford. Indeed, it may have been too affordable: Ford opted to axe an independent rear suspension that would have improved the ride significantly but made it much more expensive.
Although all new from the tires up, the current car is unmistakably a Mustang, adopting design elements, silhouette, and spirit from 40 years of legendary predecessors. True to form, the car comes in two body styles, coupe and convertible. There are two series, the six-cylinder base model and the V-8-powered GT, each offered in Deluxe and Premium trim levels. While the real magic lies in the GT, the more affordable base car regularly outsells that car. Changes are minor for 2006, with special-edition “Bullitt” and Mach 1 variants looming on the horizon.
There’s no mistaking the Mustang for any other car, with its long-hood/short-deck layout, 1967-inspired front clip, galloping-horse badge, ’60s-style side scoops, and three-element taillamps. The car has an aggressive stance, made stronger by wheels pushed to the corners in a six-inch wheelbase increase over the previous model’s. The GT has a bit more exterior eye candy, but buyers of the base car who check the right option boxes can get most of those same items–and they can even get one the GT doesn’t offer: a stripe along the lower body with “Mustang” spelled out in it, just like on the 1960s cars.
Jaguar XK (2007-2014)
The Jaguar XK was Jaguar’s 2+2 grand tourer. Famed designer Ian Callum penned the second generation, and it was one of the cars that helped reestablish Jaguar as a sporty, sexy car manufacturer. There was no manual option, only a six-speed ZF automatic, but the XK makes up for it by offering three variants: naturally aspirated V8, supercharged V8, and even beefier supercharged V8. This wasn’t a Bond car, but it’s a car that can make you feel like James Bond on a budget: Even well-kept performance XKR versions with low mileage gavel for less than $30,000 on Bring a Trailer.
Car guys dream of acquiring their own personal track monster. Some are bare bones beasts, as comfortable as a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone; others bear witness to modern sport-luxury. The Jaguar XKR-S GT clearly falls into the latter category, and the automotive world is a better place for it. Taking the performance throne from the wickedly fast XKR-S, the GT is all about an enhanced track experience with all the Jaguar bespoke-ness inside that your butt has hopefully come to know. Only 25 will be made this coming summer, and they’re all likely already spoken for, you poor sucker. Check out the nifty bits that $174,000 buys the fortunate in our breakdown of this masterful vehicle.
Volkswagen Golf R32 (2004)
The R32 is among the standouts from the Volkswagen Golf line. It was VW’s halo Golf for the Mk4 generation, and only sold in the U.S. for the 2004 model year. The R32 had every option and a massive (for a hot hatch) 3.2-liter VR6 engine putting out 238 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. It also came with two excellent transmission options, a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual clutch transmission — the first to appear in a production car.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: The Volkswagen R32 is not as fast as the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Nor does it have the grip of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. But you know what? Who cares. This car isn’t about scorching test numbers. It isn’t about wings and scoops and Ricky-racer attitude. It’s about being the best Golf ever, a hot little hatch that cleverly combines speed, poise and every day livability with the likable, unassuming personality of a Volkswagen.
This story originally appeared in the June, 2004 issue of Road & Track – Ed.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why people are inclined to group the R32 with these rally-bred dynamos. It’s priced in the same $30K neighborhood, has all-wheel drive, a 240-bhp V-6 and 6-speed manual transmission. It’s aimed at the enthusiast market and designed to deliver license-threatening performance. But while the STI and Evo sacrifice a measure of refinement to achieve their class-dominating speed and handling, the R32 strikes a welcome balance between all-out performance and real-world civility.
Saab 9-5 Aero (2000-2009)
Saabs were quirky, comfortable and Swedish — before the fallout of the GM bankruptcy made the brand all but defunct in the early 2010s. The 9-5 Aero was a performance version of the 9-5 executive sedan. It was a Saab that could haul ass — to a degree. The torque-heavy 2.3-liter turbo four’s output figures of 250 hp and 258 lb-ft were reportedly significantly understated. It could also be fitted with a five-speed manual.
Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG (2003-2006)
The second-generation Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG was the precursor to the E63 AMG. It came as both a sedan and a wagon, and its supercharged 5.4-liter V8 produced 469 hp and 516 lb-ft. When new, it was the fastest four-door vehicle in the world: It accelerated from 0-100 mph in less than 10 seconds, more than a second quicker than the Audi RS6 and faster than a Corvette Z06. It only offered a five-speed automatic, because Mercedes’ seven-speed at that time could not handle the torque.
For power brokers who work hard, play harder, and carry a carbon-fiber briefcase, the mechanical alchemists at AMG have transformed the truly impressive E500 luxury sedan into a dual-purpose, high-performance machine that resets the benchmark for automotive potential.
The all-new E-Class impresses with its robust powerplants, rich amenities, sophisticated electronics, smart safety systems, and rewarding driving experience. The E500, in particular, stands strong in a competitive field with its lively performance and balanced dynamics. The E is the rare car that has even jaded journos questioning how much further traditional cars can evolve. Mercedes’ high-performance arm AMG has provided the answer: the E55.
The previous E55 stood as AMG’s most successful model to date, putting pressure on the Affalterback, Germany, based division to create an even more dynamic machine to face increasing competition from Audi, BMW, and even Cadillac with its V-Series. The approach stuck with the established tradition of cosmetic understatement, agile road manners, and a potent powerplant.
Pontiac Solstice GXP (2007-2009)
GM gave the Pontiac brand the boot during its restructuring — sadly, just as it was producing fun, intriguing cars. The Solstice was a classic two-seater, available as a coupe or a convertible. The GXP version had a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four putting out 260 hp and 260 lb-ft (though it could be tuned beyond that at the dealer) and an available five-speed manual. It weighed less than 3,000 pounds, and accelerated from 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds. The car’s production also included some period-perfect GM cost-cutting measures, but we won’t hold that against it.
Two Pontiac’s on Gear Patrol. GM is definitely doing something right. For you guys who are roadster and coupe fans the 2009-2010 (exact model year tbd) Pontiac Solstice Targa Top Coupe will pique your interest. Powered by either a 170 horsepower 2.4-liter Ecotec 4 cylinder or 2.0-liter turbocharged 260 horsepower engine in GXP form. Using a targa top, the choice of hard or soft panel over the driver and passenger will be removable with storage in the trunk available for the soft top. The Pontiac Solstice may be produced in a limited run of 10,000 annually.
Images of the rear and interior after the jump.