Top 10: The Class of ’89
There was no shortage of new-car launches thirty years ago, with many of those models now highly revered as modern classics in their own right – while others are still largely overlooked by enthusiasts. We take a look at ten of those debuts of 1989.
One of the most significant new-model launches of 1989 was the MX-5, initially on sale in the USA – badged as the Miata – before finally reaching the UK the following year. The MX-5 brought the moribund two-seater sports car sector back to life, uniquely combining traditional open-top, rear-drive thrills with the kind of build quality and reliability that Japanese car fans had come to expect. Sales of the first-gen MX-5 exceeded all expectations during its eight-year career, endowing Mazda with the World’s Best-Selling Sports Car crown. And these days, of course, it remains one of the most popular classic sports cars of all time.
Finally replacing the long-running 6-Series in 1989 was the new 8-Series, bringing the concept of a BMW coupe bang up to date thanks to its dramatic styling and impressive spec. The 8-Series was available over the years with an interesting choice of engines, ranging from a 4.0-litre V8 to a 5.4-litre V12 – any of which could take this stylish newcomer to an artificially limited top speed of 155mph, aided by impressive handling provided via five-link independent rear suspension. Any 8-Series makes a tempting choice now, particularly given the value for money offered by most versions.
FORD FIESTA MkIII
With the MkII Fiesta being little more than a heavily revamped MkI (a model that had first gone on sale in 1976), Ford desperately needed a brand new version of its big-selling supermini by the end of the ’80s – which explains the much-heralded launch of the third-gen model in 1989. To ensure it could compete with models like the 205 and Uno, the new Fiesta was usefully larger than its forebears. And being a Ford, it inevitably came with a wide choice of spec and trim levels, from the lowliest 1.1-litre (55bhp) shopping trolley to the sportiest 1.6-litre (110bhp) XR2i hot hatch.
Replacing the long-running Citroen CX in 1989 was the new XM, a large five-door hatchback featuring dramatic styling by Bertone, with an ultra-spacious estate version joining the range two years later. The XM made use of Citroen’s latest Hydractive suspension, a brilliant system that ensured either the smoothest ride or the firmest handling depending on your driving style at the time. There was an impressive choice of engines, with the petrol line-up ranging from a 2.0-litre four-pot to a 3.0-litre V6, while diesel buyers had a choice of 2.1-litre (110bhp) and 2.5-litre (130bhp) versions. The XM was finally discontinued in 2000.
One of the most overlooked new models of 1989 (certainly in the UK) was the Tempra, Fiat’s Regata-replacing four-door saloon based around the Tipo hatchback of the time. Unveiled towards the end of ’89, the Tempra saloon would be joined by a spacious five-door estate derivative early the following year, with both versions being available with a choice of 1.4- to 1.8-litre petrol engines as well as a 1.9-litre turbo-diesel. Although popular in its native Italy, the perfectly capable Tempra wasn’t as huge seller in the UK, despite the popularity of Fiat’s smaller models at that time.
Lotus had a history of creating high-performance saloons thanks to models like the Cortina of the ’60s and Sunbeam of the ’70s. But it was the link-up with Vauxhall and the unveiling of the Lotus-Carlton in late 1989 that saw the Norfolk firm perfecting the art thanks to its 3615cc twin-turbo straight-six, producing a mighty 377bhp. With a top speed of 177mph and 0-60 in just five seconds, no other four-door saloon was quicker. But with a price tag of £48,000 by the time it went on sale in 1990, the Lotus was expensive – and in the end just 950 were built.
MERCEDES-BENZ ‘R129’ SL
With the‘R107’ becoming a classic in its own lifetime, the new ‘R129’ Mercedes SL series couldn’t afford to be anything less than brilliant. Fortunately, the newcomer’s styling was fresh, its specification was generous, its performance was well up to the mark, and its role as one of the most desirable grand tourers of its era was assured. The ‘R129’ really came into its own once the range-topping SL600 arrived in 1993, boasting Mercedes’ 5987cc V12 in a 389bhp state of tune – although on today’s modern-classic scene, it’s inevitably the lowlier models (like the SL280 or SL320) that represent the best value for money.
ROVER ‘R8’ 200
Launched at the end of 1989 and in production for six years, the 200-series hatchback was a huge success in its day, with a quality feel that set it apart from the best-selling Escort. It was the first model from Rover Group to feature the K-series engine (in 1.4-litre guise), and was highly praised by the motoring press of the time. More interesting variations arrived later, including the 200 Coupe, Cabriolet and Tourer. These days, any ‘R8’ hatchback offers particularly good value for money, giving cost-conscious buyers a refined and likeable choice capable of providing useful daily transport.
TOYOTA MR2 MkII
After the popularity of the sharp-lined, wedge-shaped original MR2 of 1984, its curvaceous successor caused a stir when it was unveiled five years later. The second-gen MR2 went on to be another success, however, available in a choice of hardtop or targa-top T-bar body styles. UK-spec models came with a 2.0-litre normally-aspirated engine (mid-mounted, of course), which meant decent performance and an entertaining driving experience. While values of the original MR2 have increased substantially, the MkII continues to offer relatively good value – but for how much longer?
The MX-5 wasn’t the only two-seater roadster launched in 1989, although the all-new Elan’s front-wheel drive layout caused some consternation among enthusiasts. Fortunately, the new Elan’s fantastic chassis design brought superb handling, while the turbocharged 1.6-litre ex-Isuzu engine fitted to most examples led to terrific performance. A top speed of 136mph and a 0-60mph time of just 6.5 seconds was thrilling stuff – and still is now, making the M100-generation Elan a tempting modern-classic choice. Intriguingly, once production of the Elan ceased in 1995, Lotus sold all production rights to Kia – with the Korean firm launching it as the Asia-only Kia Elan shortly after.