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Best Sports & Performance Cars From The 1980s

Big = Best: '80s Synth Pop, Hairstyles and Sports Cars

The 1980s: Peak Michael Jackson. MTV. The Atari 2600. Mullets, hi-top fades and big perms. Throw some epic sports cars into the mix. What a time it was to be alive.

Many enthusiasts argue that when civilization’s odometer rolled over into the ’90s, the automotive industry also began to crest over the widespread preference for analog technologies, into an era ruled by microchips and computers. Today, that movement has proliferated into one where artificial intelligence is on the cusp usurping the current status quo.

All of those things make the ’80s all the more romantic for those who have time to reminisce; and that certainly is the majority of us in recent times. Automobiles of this era typify this sentiment, regardless of whether you’re someone who lived through the period, or have had to experience it through a third-party lens. There’s a purity and down-to-earth-ness that only sports cars from the 1980s can express in this style.

While the ‘fast’ cars of the day were always respected for what they were, a good sports car was never touted solely based on its 0-60 mph times, or how much horsepower it produced. This narrow-minded measuring stick is more of a recent phenomenon – spurred on mostly by marketing departments – though thankfully, true automotive enthusiasts usually know better. It’s this demographic which typically maintains an admiration towards boxy silhouettes, pop-up headlights, laggy turbos and high-revving naturally-aspirated engines – cars with no shortage of character and charisma.

Here’s the shortlist of 15 such cars, which we have curated:

Audi Quattro

Audi Quattro

The Audi Quattro is a prominent figure in automotive history. First introduced in 1981, the Audi Quattro would revolutionize rally racing; and subsequently the trajectory of production car technology. It was the first rally car to effectively and reliably use all-wheel drive and would go on to to be a benchmark for future cars fitted with such a drivetrain.

Eventually, it would be replaced with the Audi Sport Quattro in 1984, after shortcomings of the aforementioned car – such as its relatively large weight and dimensions – became too apparent. Taking advantage of the lenient homologation requirements of the time, Audi engineers went full tilt in creating a successor to the Quattro, doing so after producing the required 200 Sport Quattro cars. It was equipped with an entirely unique 5-cylinder turbocharged powerplant which produced 302 hp @ 6,500 rpm, which was equally impressive technology for the day.

BMW M3 E30

BMW M3 E30

Based on the 1986 model year E30 3-Series, the E30 M3 used the BMW S14 engine to transform the diminutive commuter into a driver-focused, rear-wheel-drive sports car for the true enthusiast. The naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder engine produced 215 PS without a catalytic converter. Our pick is the the “Evolution” model which had produced up to 220 PS  and included thinner rear and side window glass, a lighter boot lid, a deeper front splitter and an additional rear spoiler.

Yes, the E30 is the genesis for one of the greatest sports car in the world. Because of homologation, BMW had to create a roadworthy version of the M3 racing car to compete and they did it in a spectacular fashion. BMW made mincemeat out of Mercedes in DTM and ruled British Touring Car, and many other racing series. The E30 M3 was produced out of necessity and it was a great success.

Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

Few cars were as synonymous with US culture as the Chevrolet Camaro was back in the ’80s, and the IROC-Z was the epitome of this. The car also typified the golden era of “American Muscle”, and was fitted with a 5.7L naturally-aspirated V8 engine which produced 220 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque.

With its decidedly angular silhouette which was worn over a red-leather interior – plus a removable T-top to boot – not many things could embody the American dream quite like the IROC-Z. For these reasons, the car continues to maintain a cult-following to this day.

Ford RS200

1985 Ford RS200

For years, many people were baffled when they opened up the Guinness Book of Records and discovered that the world’s fastest accelerating car was a none other than a Ford – and a curiously small, almost goofy-looking one at that.

Ford has created some phenomenal motorsport machines, but one that often gets overlooked is the RS200. Aside from the Ford GT, it has to be up there as my favorite Ford car. Built from the ground up as a Group B rally car, the RS200 was a short wheelbase, four-wheel drive missile which demanded both incredible finesse and bravery, to extract its full potential.

In order to meet homologation requirements, the FIA required that 200 road going models needed to be produced. The road car featured a 1.8-litre Cosworth tuned four-cylinder motor that produced around 250bhp. It continued to embody its rally roots with its characteristically short overhangs, large hood scoop, roof air-inlet, and eccentric rear wing. Already a lot to handle for even the best drivers, 24 of the 200 cars were upgraded to the 600 bhp Evolution spec by owners who wanted more power. After the death of Henri Toivonen in 1986, Group B cars were banned and the RS200 was retired after only two years of competition.

Honda CRX Si

Honda CRX Si
1989 Honda Civic CRX Si.

I don’t think many would argue against the idea of the Honda CRX – particularly its range-topping Si model – being one of the forefathers of the sport compact movement that would eventually hit the North American continent with the force of a tsunami. Reliable, practical, fun, sporty and affordable, the CRX was one of the first cars on the planet to successfully amalgamate each of these characteristics into a single package with unanimous appeal.

Unheard of, even in modern times, the CRX Si features a fully independent double-wishbone suspension at all four wheels. The 1.5L 4-cylinder perfectly complimented the agility of the chassis, producing a spritely 105 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque on a feather-light 2,017 lb. frame. With a 5-speed manual transmission, the Si would accelerate from 0-60 mph in around 8.5 seconds.

The Honda CRX has undoubtedly become one of the most beloved Hondas ever produced.

Mazda RX-7 Turbo II

Mazda RX-7 Turbo II

It’s not a very well kept secret that the FC3S Mazda RX-7 was generally considered – and at times, even marketed – as a poor man’s Porsche 924. The rotary-powered car was inherently unique because of how it moved, but its decidedly ’80s-era Japanese styling also contributes to its overall charm. Boxy features, pop-up headlights and a delightfully analog interior, the RX-7 depicted that era of JDM-ness to an absolute ‘T’.

The Turbo II was a cut above the other models, featuring – as its name suggests – a turbocharged power plant instead of the naturally-aspirated wankel engines seen in the rest of the line-up. The rear-driven Turbo II outputs 182 hp and 183 lb-ft of torque with the help of a single turbocharger. Mazda recently announced that it will be offering a heritage parts program for the RX-7, which will make it easier for owners to restore their cars with factory parts.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32

1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R

As one of Japan’s most celebrated performance cars, the Nissan Skyline GT-R has developed an immense racing pedigree that includes over 200 race wins, five consecutive championship wins in the all Japanese Touring Car Championships and the unofficial lap record for a production car at the world-famous Nürburgring. Every aspect of the Skyline GT-R, from the aerodynamics to body rigidity, has been fine-tuned through competitive racing.

As a road car, the R32 GT-R reached new heights of sophistication. Multi-link suspension front and rear, electronically controlled intelligent four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, a 2.6L 24-valve straight-6 powerhouse of an engine boosted to 276 hp by a pair of ceramic turbochargers – the R32 pushed forward the boundaries of supercar engineering. While the general public tends to refer to the later R34 GT-R as ‘Godzilla’, true enthusiasts know that the R32 is the real OG here.

Peugeot 205 GTi

Peugeot is the hot hatch automaker. No other automotive brand has consistently delivered small, sporty and agile cars that are so amazing to drive. From the original Peugeot 205 T16 to the sleeper Peugeot 405 Mi16, there are many fan-favorites that have come from the French company.

Many people believe the 205 GTI is the greatest small hatch of all time. Thanks to its 128 hp 1.9L engine (the original produced 113 hp from a 1.6L), it was hugely popular. Lightweight, agile and brimming with feedback, this dynamic hot hatch captivated everybody.

The thing that stands out with the 205 GTI is the way it drove. Direct steering, strong performance and a sports car chassis; it just “felt right”, engaging drivers in every part of the driving experience. Remains a benchmark for hot hatches, even today.

Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2

Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2

The Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 was introduced in 1984, effectively replacing the 911 SC. Thanks to a retuned suspension geometry, a bump in power, and a more bulletproof drivetrain, this final production run of G Series cars remain some of the most sought after 911s in the classic car market.

In 1987, Porsche launched the 3.2 Carrera Club Sport, and while it isn’t an official “RS” model, the car managed to hit a sweet spot for amateur racers who would do just as well with a more spirited version of the 911. The car is a more spartan version of the regular 911 road cars, produced with track-use in mind.

Weight reduction was a large part of the formula for the Club Sport, which had forgone luxury items seen on the regular Carreras, such as a sunroof. Depending on options, the Club Sport would shed between 50 kg to 100 kg over the aforementioned. Improved engine internals also allowed the engine to be more smooth and responsive. Only 340 were produced worldwide.

Porsche 944 Turbo

Porsche 944 Turbo

The 944 Turbo’s 217 hp 4-cylinder engine with water-cooled turbo technology not only received lots of praise, but it also chalked up several motorsport successes. Experts celebrated its debut as the fastest car in the world which was fitted with a catalytic converter, and even the cleanest automobile in the world; others simply summed it up as ‘Porsche technology at its finest’.

From the excellent weight distribution – which earned it numerous handling accolades when new – to the nostalgic traits of German build quality – evident even in the ‘soft click’ when closing a door – the 944 is a reminder of a special period in Porsche’s history. Add to that, 2+2 practicality and a spacious rear hatch, and the 944 is a classic you can use daily. The 944 Turbo differed from the basic model visually through its aerodynamically optimized front end, black door-sill trims at the sides and the color-coded rear-end diffuser.

Saab 900 TurboSaab 900 Turbo in the snow

These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who remember Saab as a brand, nor as one of the pioneers of bringing turbochargers to the mainstream. But, they were most certainly both of those things, with the company’s heyday taking place during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of this quest included fitting those aforementioned forced-induction devices into their Saab 900 Turbo, which was a hatch…which kind of also makes the 900 Turbo the pioneer of the modern-day hot hatches we see today.

With a quirky appearance which borderlines on being a caricature of itself, the 900 Turbo had that characteristic sense of solidity and Scandinavian minimalism. This made the cars undoubtedly reliable – bulletproof, some would say – and an absolute joy to drive. A hot hatch, before hot hatches were cool.

Toyota Corolla GT-S

Toyota Corolla AE86 GT-S

The AE86 Toyota Corolla is a cultural icon in Japan, and its unique JDM aura has also captivated enthusiasts from all over the world. Many attribute the global popularity of the car to its association with the original and real-life “Drift King”, Tsuchiya Keiichi, and its starring-role in the internationally-enjoyed Initial D anime series. Back in Japan, the AE86 was always popular in grassroots motorsports and was one of the first cars to make “drifting” a real thing.

Small, nimble and powered by a high-revving naturally aspirated engine, the AE86 is arguably the most sought-after in its hatchback body-style, although coupes are also a popular choice. Catching sight of a properly-kept example on the road these days seems to be a bit more rare than it should be – after all, they were solidly built cars – but when it does happen, it takes you back in time like no other car can.

Toyota MR2

Red Toyota MR2

The Toyota MR2 was the marriage of prime ’80s JDM characteristics, with the excitement of a mid-mounted engine. As a family unit, that made the MR2 reliable, sporty, affordable, and – for one of the first times in a mass-production Japanese car – exotic too. Certain crowds like to compare the car to the Pontiac Fiero, which was released one year before it, but the fact is that the MR2 was a cut above its competitor which was plagued with various malaise.

For its time, the MR2 had just about all the features you would expect in an exotic car, but scaled down a bit. Namely, a 1.6L inline-four engine mounted ahead of the rear axle, disc brakes all around, a 5-speed manual transmission and a fully-functional rear spoiler. In 1987, a supercharged variant was introduced, producing 145 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque as well as having the option to spec the car as a Targa-top with a removable glass panel.

Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon

Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon

Volvos – particularly some of the older platforms such as the 740 Turbo Wagon – have been the subject of a growing following over the years, as performance enthusiasts and grassroots circuit drivers alike have discovered the now hard-to-keep-secret that is its Redblock B230FT engine.

Built on a decidedly Scandinavian philosophy of minimalism and straight-forwardness, the Redblock engines have a reputation above all else, for being extremely bulletproof. This is the reason you see more of those old-school Volvo wagons and sedans (amicably referred to as “Turbo Bricks”) on the road today than maybe you should. Rear-wheel drive, turbocharged, and as solidly-built as a freight train, the Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon upholds the most sacred Scandinavian automotive philosophies with the utmost honor and diligence.

Volkswagen Golf Mk2 GTI

Volkswagen Golf Mk2 GTI

Yet another hot hatch on this list, the Volkswagen Golf Mk2 is the second generation of the Volkswagen Golf, and the successor to the Volkswagen Golf Mk1. It was Volkswagen’s highest volume seller during the decade and had a production run spanning from 1983 to 1992. With so much competition in this segment at the time, the Golf initially struggled to find its feet as its rivals pulled ahead.

The introduction of the range-topping GTI model in 1984 helped turn the tide, with a 1.8L inline-4 engine featuring Bosch fuel injection as the centerpiece of this riposte. Later GTI models were available with a more powerful 16-valve engine – versus an 8-valve in the earlier editions – which produced 127 hp and 124 lb-ft of torque, which was then sent to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual transmission. All GTI models sported the now-iconic distinctive red trim around the front grill, as well as the signature ‘golf ball’ shift knob – a tradition which continues on today’s GTI-badged cars.