To that end, we’ve put together a list of what we feel are the 10 most significant performance cars made from 1968-2018.
Now, before you grab the pitchforks and point out that we didn’t include your favorite ride, understand that fifty years is a pretty long time and that there have been a ton of awesome vehicles produced over the last few decades. Limiting it to 10 cars meant we had to make some difficult cuts.
Our selection criteria centered on a vehicle’s contribution to the performance landscape. Often times, that meant the car was the first of a trend or that it achieved a particular performance milestone. Other times, a vehicle was selected because of what it represented to automobile culture.
Nonetheless, if you disagree with our list, let us have it in the comments.
10 of the Most Significant Performance Cars from 1968-2018
10. 1987 Buick Grand National GNX
Gearheads around the world did a collective spit-take when Buick unleashed the Grand National—a turbocharged Buick with Corvette-besting performance. Though it was introduced as a package on the Regal in 1982, we chose the 1987 GNX edition thanks to its 275 horsepower, which was about 50 hp more than a Mustang GT that year. Though GM had experimented with turbocharging before with both the Trans Am and Corvair, the sheer performance of the GNX foreshadowed GM’s supercharged LS and LT engines of today—that’s why it’s number 10 on our list.
9. 1990 Mazda Miata
The British may have invented the sports car, but it was Mazda that brought it mainstream. Referred to internationally as the Eunos Roadster and MX-5, the plucky Miata’s recipe was right out of the sports car cookbook: lightweight and agile, with the all-important front-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. Impressive handling and reliability have made the Miata a common sight at autocross events and road courses all over the planet. Mazda has sold over a million of these little roadsters since its introduction in 1990, so it’s tough to deny it a spot on the list.
8. 1970 Plymouth Superbird
Say it with us: Homologation. That’s a delightful little rule adopted by many race sanctioning bodies that basically says a car that races has to be available for sale to the public. So when Mopar wanted to run its wing cars on NASCAR tracks, it actually had to build a road-going version first. Like its earlier stablemate the Charger Daytona, the Superbird boasted a unique aerodynamic nose and wing package. While impressive on the track, they languished on dealer lots; pristine examples today can easily fetch six-figure prices.
7. 2005 Ford GT
The original Ford GT-40 was a tire-shredding rebuttal to Ferrari’s Le Mans domination and is perhaps Ford’s most legendary performance car. To celebrate the company’s 100th birthday, Ford decided to bring the car back in 2005 with an updated GT-40 silhouette and supercharged Ford V8 making well north of 500 hp. We chose the 2005 version not only for its performance, but also because it pushed the retro-styling trend that would reverberate through the Mustang, and its pony car competitors the Challenger and Camaro.
6. 1996 Dodge Viper GTS
The Viper is perhaps the only car that legitimately challenged the Corvette as America’s sports car. In 1996, five years after its initial release, Dodge added a fixed-roof coupe, the GTS, to signal the start of the Viper’s second generation. In addition to the 450 hp V10, the GTS got airbags, air conditioning, and power windows—making the supercar far more passenger-friendly without sacrificing a sniff of performance.
5. 1999 Honda Civic Si
Though Honda applied the Si badge to earlier CRX and Civic models, it’s the 1999 Civic Si that gets the nod on the list. Why? Because it served as the unofficial flagship of the sport compact market that exploded in popularity during the late 1990s. Si stood for “Sport Injection,” and was essentially a sportier version of the standard Civic coupe, boasting a peppier engine, disc brakes all around, and performance-tuned suspension bits. Together with cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Nissan Sentra SE-R, and Subaru WRX, the Civic Si pushed import cars onto the North American automotive performance scene.
4. 1990 Chevy Corvette ZR-1
When contrasted against the horsepower numbers of the 2019 Corvette ZR1, the 1990 ZR-1’s 375 hp LT-5 seems almost quaint. But in its day, the ZR-1 was a world-fighter, boasting performance equal-or-better than exotics with names like Ferrari and Lamborghini—without the exorbitant price tag and periodic “engine-out” service intervals. With chassis and engine development assisted by Lotus, the ZR-1 “super” Corvette was America’s top-dog performance car. While there are many Corvettes that could appear on this list, the ZR-1 earns the nod due to the sheer quantum leap in performance and technological innovation it represented.
3. 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
How the heck does a humble hatchback earn a podium finish on this list? Simple, it was the first of its breed. Long before the words “Sport Compact” or “Hot Hatch” were in our collective lexicon, VW’s little passenger car was barnstorming roads across the European countryside. Lightweight and fun, the GTI was also relatively easy on the wallet and infinitely more practical than a two-seat sports car. In fact, the qualities that defined the GTI went on to set the benchmarks for the entire sport compact segment. The Golf-based GTI finally came stateside as the Rabbit GTI in 1983.
2. 1970 Chevy Chevelle LS6
It could be argued that the LS6 Chevelle is the ultimate muscle car of the 1960s-70s. And its easy to see why: a rip-snortin’ 454 cubic inch big block was trapped under the hood, capable of 450 hp and a pavement-pulling 500 lb.-ft. of torque. Magazines of the era had no trouble ripping off ETs in the low 13-second range—yep, the Chevelle LS6 was one of the few cars that would make 426 Hemi owners nervous. If you pointed to a Chevelle in a parking lot and asked any human being to identify it, you’ll hear the words “Muscle” and “Car” in their response, guaranteed. Hence, it’s number two on the list.
1. 1979 Ford Mustang
Go to a drag strip, anywhere at any time, and we ask you (nay, dare you) to not spot a Fox Body—that’s how significant the 1979-93 Ford Mustang is. Nicknamed “Fox Body” thanks to Ford’s internal Fox platform identification, Mustangs of this era are part of the bedrock of grassroots racing. Over its decade-plus production run, the Fox Body Mustang came in a wide range of flavors, from V8-powered GT convertibles, to turbocharged 4-cylinder SVO coupes. Their affordability and robust aftermarket meant that a legion of gearheads were introduced to the automotive hobby by wrenching on Fox Bodies. Thousands of quarter-mile runs and road-course laps later, we can thank the 1979 Ford Mustang for giving us the Fox Body—making it the most significant performance automobile made between the years 1968 and 2018.
Did we miss a vehicle on the list? Let us know in the comments section below.