Put on your jean jacket, freshen up that mullet, and pull your favorite He-Man action figure out of cold storage, because we’re going back to the 80s for this one!
To most, the 80s are always going to be defined by hair metal, gigantic perms, and that weird invention called “video games” (or “Nintendo”, since they seemed to be synonymous to the older folks). For us car people though, the 80s were filled with some golden examples of what manufacturers can achieve. From the rebirth of American muscle to the rise of Japanese sport in the US, we’re gonna take a look at some examples of iconic 80s performance.
1 – Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z (1985-1990)
There’s no other way to start this list than with the most iconic muscle car of the era. Yea, today it might conjure up images of a rundown trailer park, but this was the “must have” muscle car of the 1980s.
This wasn’t your daddy’s Camaro SS with 400 horsepower. The days of the horsepower wars were over and reborn with American manufacturers focusing on power and control. The IROC-Z was almost the epitome of that ideology.
The IROC-Z pushed out all of 245hp and 345 lb-ft of torque in its final year of 1990, but it also had a plethora of other goodies to keep the sporting consumer interested. With the IROC-Z, you’d be getting improved sport suspension, a lowered ride height, performance summer tires, an optional tuned port injection system from the C4 Corvette, and all the IROC-Z decals to show that you don’t own just any Camaro.
2 – Ford Mustang SVO (1984-1986)
If I’m gonna have a Camaro on this list, it is only natural that I have the Mustang right beside it. I have to be honest though; as much as I love the Mustang (which is a helluva lot), I’m not really a fan of the Fox body Mustangs. So, I figured I’d at least pick the Fox body that I find the most interesting.
For most interesting Mustang, that trophy definitely has to go to the SVO. This was a Mustang that was powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder before that meant it was the boring base model. This car was actually something special.
The SVO’s little 2.3L cranked out only around 200hp in its final year of production in 1986, but it was still very much in the spirit of the Mustang. It was the low slung coupe with performance roots, and visuals that made it stand out from the rest of the herd. Not only would you be getting a pretty unique turbo car, but the addition of the SVO exclusive hood scoop and spoiler made it stand out as something different than the LX, GT, and the better left forgotten GT Turbo.
3 – Nissan 300ZX Turbo (1983-1989)
While it wasn’t the first of Nissan’s Z cars to roll into the 80’s, the 300ZX absolutely thrived there. The 280ZX was a fantastically fun coupe, and the 300ZX firmly grasped and ran with the torch passed on by its predecessor. While it didn’t advance a helluva lot in the Z family game, it does have the prestigious title of being one of the most 80s cars you’ll ever see in your life.
The Z31 (first gen) 300ZX turbo changed up the game in the Z cars a bit by ditching the turbocharged inline six-cylinder engines for the first time, and throwing in a turbocharged V6 instead. That new turbocharged V6 was putting out 205 horsepower for the cars in the US/Canadian market, while in they got a more aggressively tuned version putting out 240hp, because f@#k us Yanks I guess.
The big advancements to the Z family to coupes came in the 1990’s with the Z32 generation of the 300ZX Turbo (because that’s when we got twin-f@#kin’-turbos), but the Z31 is an important car in the Z family lineage. If not for anything else, we can say it is important because it is the only Z car with pop-up headlights, which are always extremely cool!
4 – Toyota Corolla Sprinter/ AE86 (1983-1987)
On a list of cars from the 80s, how was I not going to include the original little drift missile? Yea, I know it’s the go-to favorite cars of weebs like me who watched Initial D growing up, but the AE86 is actually really cool.
The AE86 Corolla is powered by Toyota’s SOHC 4A-C engine in the DX and SR 5 trims, while the (damn near legendary) DOHC 4A-GE engine powered the GT-S. These engines were putting out a whopping total of 74hp and 112hp respectively, but that engine power is more than enough when your car weighs about as much as a coffee table, has a live rear axle, and is rolling on really skinny tires. The combination of these three factors not only made drifting in this car possible, but damn near inevitable.
It isn’t a fast car by any stretch of the imagination, and would definitely be smoked by the three previous mentions, but it was memorable for being great fun for little money. The spiritual successor to the AE86, the Toyota 86/ Subaru BRZ, follows the same formula for the same reason. It’s a cheap car that can be fun at any speed and sometimes that’s all you need.
5 – Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk2 16V (1987-1992)
Yea, I know that we had the Mk1 GTI here in the states for a little bit, but I’m not gonna include that one. Yes, it is the original hot hatch, but the one we got here wasn’t really that good and we got it for a grand total of one year before the Mk2 GTI was available. So, since I’m sure that nobody wants to read three paragraphs of me moaning about the USDM Rabbit GTI, we’re just gonna go with the Mk2. Now you just get two sentences of me complaining about the Rabbit GTI. See how much better that is?
The Mk2 GTI was a pretty natural shift from the Mk1. It had a modest increase in power, with continued emphasis on keeping the fun, go-kart like handling that had become associated with the badge. Pretty standard fare when going from one gen to another. The big shift came in 1987 though, with the launch of the GTI 16V. The GTI 16V greatly improved the engine output from Volkswagen’s 1.8L I4 engine, cranking the power up from 110hp to 137hp, while also keeping the lively handling of the car in tact.
Interestingly enough, this superior GTI trim was the only GTI available in the US from 1987 to 1989, since Volkswagen introduced the mostly boring five-door Golf GT to take the place of our three-door GTI (with the exception of the 16V). So, if you wanted a GTI in the late 80s, looks like you would have been stuck with the best trim. Oh darn…
That’s gonna be it for our first part of our exploration into the 80s, but be sure to check back again for part two. I already have five more lined up for that, but I am always open to suggestions. If you have anything you’d like to see on the next list or on a “commenters edition”, be sure to give us your recommendation in the comments on the site page or on Facebook.