Car Lust: A Look Back at Automobile Magazine’s 1994 All-Stars
The other day I happened to be leafing through the All-Stars story in Automobile Magazine’s Feb. 1994 issue. While doing so it struck me that I’d rather have a pristine example of many of the chosen vehicles than those models' new replacements. This has to do with my impression that today’s cars have become little more than complex collections of electronic gadgetry enclosed in a structure that, when pressed, can be made to move from place to place. With that in mind, here’s my take on each all-star, presented in the order they appeared back in ’94. When researching current value in each case I used kbb.com’s “suggested retail value” for an excellent 100,000 mile example.
In 1994 the 325is coupe deserved its “ultimate driving machine” appellation. Its sublime 2.5-liter inline six delivered a modest (by today’s standards) 189 horsepower, but its variable valve timing spread that power over a broad rpm range. Electronic nannies didn’t get between the driver and the steering and suspension, and the result was a car that responded predictably and rewarded skillful driving. It was a wonderful car for $35K. It’s an even more wonderful car today, when pristine examples change hands in the $5K range. The usual caveats apply when looking at a 15-year-old car, but you’d be hard-pressed to get more bang for the buck for your five grand.
Eagle Vision TSi
The sporting version of Chrysler’s first-generation LH car made the cut based on what it offered in terms of value for money. For $25K (sticker, well equipped) you got a large, roomy, and reasonably powerful sedan that didn’t wallow the way Detroit’s other large, roomy, and reasonably powerful sedans did. The benefits of hindsight reveal that those first-generation LH cars were put together with baling wire, duct tapes, and high hopes. Folks who leased them did well, being able to walk away when the warranty expired. Subsequent owners were not so lucky. Today, Kelly Blue Book suggests that an excellent example will set you back $1,650. Too much, I think, since even an excellent example is likely to slide into the “what was I thinking” column in pretty short order.
Ford Probe GT
Setting aside the unfortunate name for a car that was, believe it or not, intended as a replacement for the Mustang, the second-generation Probe was an excellent front-drive sports/touring coupe. At $20K, fully equipped, it was a more sophisticated alternative to the six-cylinder versions of the Mustang and Camaro, providing similar dynamics (despite front drive) without the social stigma often attached to those pony cars. Probes have held their value pretty well, and you could do far worse for the $3,000 an excellent Probe GT will set you back.
Geo Prizm LSi
GM’s Geo Prism was built alongside the near-identical Toyota Corolla in the California plant set up as a joint venture between those parent companies. At the time, the Prizm undercut the Corolla’s price by a good ten percent, which made a good case for choosing the Geo. Of course, bearing a GM nameplate the Geo it depreciated more quickly, but for those intending to keep the car for many years, the choice was simple.
In 1994 the Prizm LSi was one of the best deals in a compact sedan, and I can’t imagine that anyone who bought a new one was disappointed. Fifteen years later, you'll still save a few bucks by choosing the Prizm over an equivalent Toyota, with an excellent Geo booking at $2600. Given its Toyota underpinnings, you could probably expect to keep one running for quite a while longer, assuming it doesn’t rust out from under you.
A case can be made for placing the SC300, along with its V-8-powered SC400 stablemate, on the short list of the very best cars ever made by anyone. Everything about it is as perfect as could be achieved at the time, which makes it considerably more perfect than most of what’s been achieved today. The feature compliment doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, which makes it ideal by my standards. Frivolities such as adaptive cruise control, lane minder, and built-in (and soon to be outdated) navigation leave me cold. Give me the first-generation SC’s drop-dead gorgeous styling, comfy chairs, fine sound system, and responsive air conditioning, and I’m a happy guy.
When new, the 1994 SC was fast, quick, smooth, and quiet. It was designed to last for years and years, and built with bank-vault solidity that allows it to be fast, quick, smooth, and quiet 15 years and 200,000 miles down the road. Find an excellent five-speed with 100K on the clock, buy it for eight grand, and it should still be turning heads in 2019. Compare an SC300/400 with today’s decidedly odd-looking SC430 and you’d be hard-pressed to justify buying the new one.
From the outset, the Miata was the quintessential mid-sixties British roadster brought into the modern era by a company capable of retaining the best of that genre, and jettisoning all that was awful. The Miata always started and ran; didn’t drop important bits on the road; kept its vital fluids inside the components that needed them; and kept its occupants dry in the rain. Sybarites could order air conditioning and a fine sound system, and four-season drivers could specify a removable hard top. And fun? The Miata was so responsive to the driver’s wishes that the steering wheel felt almost redundant. By 1994 the first-generation Mazda had undergone a slew of under-the-skin improvements, including some much-needed structural stiffening. It can be argued that today’s Miata (now called MX-5) cleaves closely to the mandate of the original. Still, with the cost of a new one pushing $30K, a pristine ’94 for under five grand is an appealing prospect.
It’s been said, sometimes by me, that the W124 E-Class was the last Mercedes-Benz built to a standard, rather than a price. After a good look at the first-generation C-Class I’m inclined to include that model in the mix. Intended as a replacement for the all-wrong 190 class (introduced in 1984), the C-Class exhibited the carved-from-billet solidity that characterized all Mercedes-Benz automobiles until the company’s engineering and marketing departments reversed roles. Subsequent generations of the C-Class were more lavishly equipped, but they lost the built-to-last solidity and steamroller-on-steroids aplomb that had characterized the marque for most of its existence. Add to that the extended teething problems associated with various electronic gimmicks fitted to later models, and the Ur-C becomes even more attractive. Buy one (again, with 100K on the clock) for about five grand, budget half that for first-year freshening, and you’ll be king of the road for years to come.
Nissan Sentra SE-R
Given what the Sentra has become, it’s hard to believe that in 1994 the SE-R was considered to be the spiritual successor to BMW’s genre-defining 2002 sport sedan. By 1994 the SE-R had been on the market for five years, and had proven itself to be a serious player in that niche. Based on the plain-jane Sentra, the SE-R was fitted with a 140-horsepower in-line four that was good for zero-to-sixty in 7.6 seconds. With four-wheel disc brakes and a viscous limited slip differential, it was an exceptionally well-balanced car and a serious contender on both autocross and road-racing tracks. And then, when the racing was over, it would take the driver and his family home in comfort. An early favorite of the tuner crowd, many SE-Rs were modified for the track. Finding one that has been used but not abused might be an adventure, but at the end of the road you should be able to get on the road with an SE-R for about three grand.
Nissan 300ZX Turbo
The date: March 29, 1990. The place: Nassau Coliseum, just after the Grateful Dead (with Branford Marsalis sitting in) tore up the joint. The goal: to reach the parking lot exit without getting caught in an hour-long nightmare. The car: a brand-new Nissan 300ZX Turbo.
To this day, I don’t know how it happened, but when I slid behind the wheel of that four-wheel stealth fighter and fired up its 24-valve, 300-horsepower V-6, I became (and remain to this day, ask anyone) a Parking Lot God. As I guided the ZX towards the exit, cars, VW Microbuses, dogs, hackey-sacking hippies, and assorted lawn furniture and charcoal grills parted like the Red Sea, clearing my path. It wasn’t fear on the part of those who yielded, for I wasn’t moving fast enough to inspire that emotion. Nor was the ZX large and imposing enough to intimidate to those in its path. No, something else was going on that evening, and whatever it was got me onto Hempstead Turnpike in what has to be record time. To duplicate that feat today, in an excellent ’94 Twin Turbo, would cost me nearly nine grand. Truth to tell, though, I’d probably opt for a naturally-aspirated example, saving $1,500 at the outset, and quite a bit more in maintenance. And, of course, the likelihood of finding a turbo that hasn’t been well and soundly wailed upon is pretty slim.
Volkswagen Corrado SLC
To get a feel for the Corrado’s place in the VW firmament it helps to remember the Karmann Ghia, and then triple the power of that little cutie’s engine. The Corrado was based, in great measure, on the Golf, but it was a Golf that never forgot to take its vitamins. Its narrow-angle V6 delivered 178 horsepower, but did so over a very broad power range. Truth to tell, the Corrado SLC is the only one of the ’94 All-Stars I’ve never spent serious time driving, so it helps if I think of it as a faster, quicker, and tighter GTI. Unfortunately, I can’t help also thinking of it as a VW whose powertrain is out of VW’s mainstream, which means that ongoing maintenance could be more of a nightmare than I’d care to endure. But I’ve been wrong before.
The Bottom Line As a big fan of used cars in general, and moderately interesting cars in particular, I can look at Automobile’s 1994 All Stars and find five models that I’d be absolutely delighted to own, and a couple more that I could live with without complaining. It’s fashionable, even borderline necessary in a web-centric world, to dump on the automotive print media and to question its relevance. But 15 years ago the good people at Automobile Magazine pretty much nailed it.
BMW: madattheinternet (via Flickr)
Eagle: splattergraphics (via Flickr)
Probe: splattergraphics (via Flickr)
Prism: annetics (via Flickr)
Lexus: Mhofmann (via Flickr)
Miata: Frits van den Dop (via Flickr)
Sentra: warehouse motors