Coupés are a cyclical phenomenon. They’re fashionable purchases, and when people want them – they really want them. And when not – you end with a dearth of them.
We concentrate on an era when just about every important manufacturer built affordable coupés – the 1990s. Because right now, many of them are absolute bargains on the secondhand market – but you can be assured that today’s bargain sub-£1000 coupés will be tomorrow’s classics.
If the 1980s were the era of the hot hatchback, the 1990s will be associated with the return of the cheap roadster and the affordable coupés. Perhaps this swing back to the more traditional sports car was a demand-inspired backlash against a market saturated by go-faster, red-pinstriped turbocharged family hacks. It could be argued that the coupé never really went away – the Toyota Celica, Isuzu Piazza, Ford Capri and Opel Manta bravely flew the flag for the format, but more often than not, they were generations behind their more mundane cousins, and as a consequence, the marginalised as the decade wore on.
But following the rebirth of the popular coupé for the 1990s, the wave of stylish two- and three-doors exploded on to the market made the most of the technology available to them – and during much of the decade, buyers lapped them up. Don’t believe us – consider that almost a quarter of a million Opel and Vauxhall Calibras were built during their eight year production run. Not bad for a niche vehicle that was sold and designed primarily for Europeans.
And here are ten of the best next-generation Capris for you to enjoy (so no tiddlers like the Vauxhall Tigra, or large cars such as the Rover 800). Take a look at the prices of these cars – it’s definitely a case of ‘now’s the time to buy’.
10: Ford Probe
The Probe is currently a bit of a forgotten player – probably because it wasn’t called Capri
Much was expected of the Ford Probe when it hit the UK market in 1992. Mainly because enthusiasts were keen to see a new Capri from Ford, especially in the wake of the Calibra’s arrival and subsequent sales success. The Probe was part Ford, mainly Mazda, built as part of a joint Venture known as AutoAlliance International near Detroit. The Probe was offered with two engine options, a 2.0-litre Mazda four-pot and 2.5-litre V6, featured interior and exterior styling by Uncle Henry, and platform, drivetrain and suspension by the Japanese company.
The mix ‘n’ match Probe didn’t sell in the UK as strongly as Ford executives had hoped, lacking the wide-range and gorgeous styling of its rival from Vauxhall. Which is interesting because now, it’s the Ford that’s gaining something of a cult following – probably not on merit, despite cool pop-up headlamps.
9: Volvo 480ES
Volvo’s Dutch built sporting three-door estate was a pretty and quirky addition
to the coupé ranks
Volvo’s first front-wheel drive car was a wonderfully retrospective thing – a sporting three-door estate launched in 1987 that recalled the 1972-’73 P1800ES, right down to its glass hatch. It would be a theme returned to with the C30. But Volvo’s Renault-powered Dutch-built 480ES was a soft-launch for its new platform that would also underpin the 440/460 range that proved so popular during the 1990s. As for the 480ES, its styling had British input from Stephen Harper, paving the way for a move away from the box-like Volvos that had dominated the company’s output since the 1966 140-range.
The 480ES was packed was technology and had a wonderful analogue/digital dashboard, but it hardly set the world on fire in terms of performance – it had a maximum power output of 108bhp, and a 0-60mph time of around 11 seconds. The 1989 Turbo added 10bhp and meant the 48oES cracked 120mph – but that wasn’t really the point. It was simply a clever car bought by clever people. And very few survive today. Why? Because it had neither the build quality or reliability of its larger Volvo cousins.
8: Peugeot 406 Coupé
The best looking car here by a country mile, and probably the least sporting to drive
unless you buy a V6
The Peugeot 406 is probably closer to the Rover 800 rather than Tomcat, and it’s a bit newer than the rest, but it’s most definitely here on merit. After all, it’s probably the last ever beautiful Peugeot, and for many it’s the embodiment of an affordable Ferrari. Today, you can pick up sorry examples for less than £500, and if you’re brave enough to buy a bargain V6 (packing up to 210bhp) for that kind of money, you’re looking at possibly the most bangs you can get for your bucks.
But in truth, if you spend a little more and buy a well-kept example, you’ll be rewarded by a civilised, fine-handling coupé that still looks a million euros. It was available in 2.0-litre petrol form and with a 2.2-litre HDI, as well, but the one to have if you love driving is the 3.0-litre V6. Especially when you know it’ll crack 150mph in the correct circumstances. Vive la France!
7: Toyota Celica
£500-2500 (excluding GT-Four)
The Toyota Celica was a coupé mainstay of the 1970s-2000s – and you’re not short
of choice now
Unlike the arrivistes among this list, Toyota enjoyed unbroken coupé production with its long-lived and highly successful Celica line. Some were bad, but most were good – and since 1986 and the switch to front-wheel drive, the Celica was an excellent driver’s car with plenty of performance, tidy road manners, and that all-important legendary Toyota reliability. The 1994 sixth-generation T200 Celica continued this excellence, but with smoother, less controversial styling than its immediate predecessor.
Although it was overshadowed by big-selling European rivals, the Celica continued to sell strongly in the UK, helped in no part by the GT-Four homologation special, which packed 250bhp and four-wheel drive. Standard 1.8- and 2.0-litre models were far from slow, though – and all were good to drive. Sadly, they’re too-often overlooked these days, with low values, but don’t bet against demand for them lifting significantly in coming years – it’s a precedent already set by 1970s and ’80s examples.
6: Nissan 200SX
With ample turbo power and rear-wheel drive, the 200SX was a performance bargain
It might not have had a masculine name, but the 1984 Nissan Silvia picked up a small but not insignificant slice of the UK market. It was blessed with fun rear-wheel drive handling, and plenty of turbocharged performance, and was something of an old-school player, not dissimilar to Toyota’s now legendary Corolla GT coupé. In 1989, it was replaced by the 200SX, a car known elsewhere in the world as the 180SX. Like the S12 Silvia it replaced (in the UK) it had plenty of rear-wheel drive turbocharged power (167bhp), but the 1989 car was so much quicker – now sprinting from 0-60mph in under seven seconds, and going on to a maximum speed of 140mph.
The car sold well, and lasted a mere five years in the UK before being replaced by the S14 Sylvia (also known as the 200SX in the UK). Rust was an early killer, and as a consequence, it ended up being one of the first ’90s coupés to dip below £1000. Numbers soon thinned, and so, finding a nice unmodified one today is quite difficult…
5: Fiat Coupé
Styled by Chris Bangle and powered by a range of great engines, the Fiat Coupé is
already a classic
One of the more appealing Tipo spin-offs, and proof that the Italians could build a great coupé and offer it in quantity and for the right price. Just like its principal rivals, the Fiat was front-wheel drive and powered by a very familiar range of engines, but thanks to decades of experience spinning out sporting cars from more humdrum family cars, and the fact that the engines include such gems as a straight-five 20 valve unit, and turbocharged four-pot straight out of the Lancia Delta Integrale, you know there’s only one thing it can be – brilliant.
The styling, with its trade-mark slashes down the flanks, is a love-it-or-hate it affair, just like so many of its creator’s – Chris Bangle’s – later efforts, while the interior (penned by Pininfarina, and originally planned for the Alfa Romeo GTV) is little short of a work of art. And as for the acceleration – in turbocharged form, Fiat claimed it was the fastest front-wheel drive car you could buy. And today, you can pick one up for under a grand. What’s not to like?
4: Alfa Romeo GTV
The revival of the GTV name came on the back of a brilliant new FWD Alfa coupé
The Type 916 Alfa Romeo GTV Coupé and Spider cousin followed the Fiat Coupé onto the market, establishing the Italians as the ones to beat in this market sector. Like the Fiat, it was a car underpinned by a heavily modified Tipo platform, but Alfa Romeo engineers worked extremely hard on this car to give it world-beating front-wheel drive handling. The body was super-stiff, and the steering and suspension was tuned to beat all existing coupés – rumour has it that the M100 Lotus Elan was used to benchmark prototypes. The GTV was offered with Alfa Romeo’s brilliant Twin Spark and Busso V6 in 3.0-litre form. All were quick, and fun, although the lighter 2.0-litre car possessed the most balanced handling.
Fabulous to drive and far more reliable than anyone expected, the GTV proved quite a hit – and many examples came across to the UK. Until a couple of years ago they were plentiful, but numbers are thinning rapidly, with many having been lost for good as a result of low values and high cost of repairs. 3.0-litre GTVs with the right suspension modifications are thing of real joy – but buy wisely.
3: Rover 200 Coupé
The Tomcat two-door boasted an innovative targa-top and variety of engines –
popularity was guaranteed
The Rover Tomcat was a really interesting product built and designed by a company that truly understood the benefits of platform engineering. We all know the R8 was spun into three- and five-door hatchbacks, a five-door estate, coupé and cabriolet – but it was the Tomcat that was probably the most interesting of the lot. In coupé form, it combined great styling, a practical glass T-bar roof, a wide range of engines – and in turbocharged 197bhp 2.0-litre form, electrifying performance. Handling wasn’t up there with the (much more expensive) Corrado, but it could hold its own, even if the magazines soon picked up on its torque-steer. But that didn’t exactly affect sales.
But – and there’s always a but – Rover failed to capitalise on the Tomcat’s success by replacing it. The company made the best use of its ‘soft tooling’ and kept it in production after the 1995 200 and 400 were launched, but sales soon tailed off. As you’d expect for a car purchased on style alone. Still, today they’re an absolute bargain, if you manage to find one that’s not been modified within an inch of its life and perforated by rampant corrosion.
2: Volkswagen Corrado
Of the 1990s selection, the Corrado’s easily the most sought after with enthusiasts
Originally conceived as a possible replacement for the Porsche 944 and Mk2 Scirocco, the Karmann-built Volkswagen Corrado undid much of the bland design that seemed to permeate Wolfsburg’s core during the 1980s. In its execution, the Corrado was a classic coupé – it’s underpinned by the Golf Mk2’s platform and drivetrains, and clothed in a sharply styled body that did its best to remind buyers of what they had been missing since the Giugiaro-styled Scirocco Mk1 had ceased production in 1982.
But it wasn’t a ‘people’s coupé’, like the Scirocco (which remained in production until 1992), being priced well above the older car. The electrically controlled rear spoiler was a nice touch, but in truth, the Corrado was (and is) a very conservatively designed car – but no less brilliant for being so. The price premium over the Scirocco was definitely worth it – because with 16V and supercharged four-pots, and (later) the VR6, all were usefully quick. Like the Golf GTI it was based on, the Corrado was blessed with brilliant handling – and even today, it’s considered one of the best FWD cars of its era. Volkswagen’s ‘scene tax’ means values and demand are assured.
1: Vauxhall Calibra
Vauxhall’s Calibra was the most popular coupé in the UK during the 1990s – truly the
Okay, it’s best to get a few negatives out of the way first. The Calibra doesn’t possess the greatest dynamics, and the best of the lot was probably the mid-range 2.0-litre 16-valve version. It also picked up an unfortunate reputation for attracting the ‘wrong’ type of buyer in the last decade – before disappearing rapidly from the streets, once Corsa drivers realised the Calibra’s brilliant XE ‘red top’ engine fitted under the bonnet. But that aside, it’s easy to forget just how popular the Calibra was in its day.
When it appeared on the scene, the Calibra hit the market running, riding on the back of the Cavalier’s success, and just like the Mazda MX-5, it revolutionised the market sector it competed in. The Calibra was great-looking, but it also boasted a ground-breaking drag co-efficient of 0.26 and that meant that even the weediest 115bhp model could crack 130mph on long straights. Important for its intended buyers. Later V6s proved to be a formidable cruiser, too. But the Calibra was also practical – with a hatchback and large boot, and roomy interior – and that meant it could also star on company car lists… It might not have been the best, but it was certainly the most important offering of its era.
Buy one now, while they’re in the gutter.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.