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Crucial Cars: Ford Ranger

Ford Ranger 1 photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, our Mechanic Next Door tackles the mighty mid-sizer, the Ford Ranger.

If you’re in the market for a brand-new 2015 Ford Ranger, your choices are limited – very limited – as in you have one choice. You can buy one by visiting a Ford dealer in another country.

If the idea of traveling outside the U.S. just to purchase a vehicle doesn’t sound convenient or economical, you can set your sights on a compact truck from another manufacturer. Reason being? Ford stopped offering the Ranger to the U.S. market after the 2011 model year. (Before you diehard Ranger fans point out my perceived error, I know Ford did produce a limited number of 2012 models exclusively for the domestic fleet market.)

If you’re a long-time Ranger owner and this is new news to you, I’m sorry. If you want to see what you’re missing in the Ford Ranger 2014 or Ford Ranger 2015 that drivers in other countries are enjoying, feast your eyes on these models. Take comfort in the fact, however, that the decision to discontinue a model that at one time owned 25 percent of the compact truck market was strictly a business one. Two numbers tell the story behind that decision – 330,125 and 55,364. The former is the number of Rangers sold in the U.S. in 2000, the latter the number sold in 2010 – a stunning sales decline of nearly 275,000 Rangers or 83 percent annually over a decade.

Clearly the writing was on the wall, and what it read was that American truck buyers were shifting away from compact trucks, like the Ford Ranger, to full-size ones, like the F-150 or Chevy Silverado. Bolstering Ford’s belief that its decision to discontinue Ranger sales in the U.S. was a sound one, were industry sales figures that showed U.S. compact pickup sales declining from 1.2 million units in 1994 to just 264,000 units in 2012.Ford Ranger photo

Ford, understandably so, believed that discontinuing the Ranger wouldn’t have a significant impact on its bottom line, in part because they figured Ranger owners would simply upgrade to newer fuel-efficient F150s with a V-6. That reasoning looked good on paper, but in reality, many Ranger owners may have simply shifted loyalties as Toyota Tacoma’s market share in the compact truck segment jumped from 38% in 2011 to 54% in 2012 – the same time the Ranger was discontinued. Coincidence? Probably not. What it may indicate instead is that compact truck owners love their COMPACT trucks, and with good reason.

Fuel efficiency, maneuverability, parking ease, and lower cost all factor into the equation as to why drivers choose a compact over a full-size truck. Their reasoning seems sound – if you’re not towing or carrying big payloads, and you don’t need a big truck to make your ego happy, why not go compact? Since 1982, when the first 1983 model year Ranger rolled off the assembly line, that’s exactly what many truck owners did – chose compact. Planning for that first Ranger began in 1976 with Ford’s intention to build a compact pickup that was somewhat similar to its full-size offering, only more economical.

Those early Rangers came with a variety of engine choices, including a four cylinder 72 hp, 2.0 liter version or an 82 hp, 2.3 liter. It would be six years before the Ford Ranger received a facelift with the 1989 model’s modern-looking dash and steering column, new front fenders, grille and hood, and flush front lights.

Ford logo pictureContinued changes with the second-generation Ford Ranger – 1992 through 1997 models – saw some new styling elements, including redesigned seats and door panels, along with the discontinuation of the 2.9-liter engine, replaced by engine choices in the 2.3, 3.0 or 4.0 liter size.

The third, and final generation Ranger (at least in the U.S.), was from 1997 through 2012, with the 1998 model debuting a longer wheelbase and cab. As part of the Ford Ranger’s evolution, the later models had engines cranking out 143 hp from a 2.3-liter four-cylinder or 207 hp from the four-liter V-6 – a far cry from that first Ranger’s measly 72 hp.

The Ford Ranger is a trendsetter in more ways than one. Long before anyone heard of a Volt, Leaf, or Tesla, there was the Ford Ranger EV – yes, an electric Ranger. Produced from 1998 to 2002, this battery-powered electric vehicle looked just like its fossil-fuel powered brethren, with the exception of a small door covering a charging port on the front grille.

The Ford Ranger, it seems, is everywhere on the road today, thanks to its strong sales over several decades and the ready availability of parts to keep them on the road for decades to come. Further proof of the Ranger’s enduring popularity – it was featured on MTV’s hit series “Pimp My Ride” when they took a 1985 Ranger – featuring a broken grille and back window and paint scheme whose dominant color was primer gray – and tricked it out for its 18-year-old owner.

With a new Ford Ranger 2015 available outside the U.S., Ranger lovers still hold out hope that Ford one day will make the Ranger available again stateside. Until they do, what’s your reason for loving the Ford Ranger?

 

Editor’s note: Until Ford makes the Ranger available in the U.S. again, visit Advance Auto Parts for the parts you need to keep your older Ranger running. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Rolex 24 at Daytona: Advance covers the event

Rolex 1 photoRead our review and check out this amazing photo essay from the recent Rolex 24 event at Daytona.

Ten years is a long time to keep a tradition going for any family these days – and yet, 2015 marks our tenth year attending the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Have you heard of it? If you watch motorsports, you’ve probably seen the 24.

This race is a yearly pilgrimage for enthusiasts around the United States, representing 24 uncut hours of everything they eagerly wait to see.

Rolex 24: 2015 coverage

This year’s Rolex 24 saw the DeltaWing Racing car set records for its own performance, the Ford Ecoboost prototype cars coming out on top, and American manufacturers taking top spots in every class.Rolex 2 picture

BMW in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class and Chevrolet Le Mans Prototypes, 1 (LMP1) were very close to winning their classes, but a questionable pit strategy and the slightest mishap in the final hours took those teams out of the top spots.

Ambiguity, unpredictability, chance, and suspense.

Those terms cover what spectators and racers love about this race. One spin, one lock-up, or one bad flywheel sensor is all it takes to pick off a team from the lineup.Rolex 3 picture

Watching from the sidelines, we all feel for the teams that make it almost all the way, through, a little more so than the teams that got knocked out early. That’s because the early teams pack up, go home, and start getting ready for Sebring. Meanwhile, the teams that make it all the way have the unique pleasure of sitting in the pits and watching their rivals cross the finish line after them.Rolex 4 pictureFrom the sidelines, though, you’d give anything to be in the race for just five minutes.

Rolex 5 picture

Congrats and a prediction

Congrats are in order for the number 02 team of Chip Ganassi Racing – definitely not an unfamiliar group of faces in the Rolex 24 victory lane. It was great to see at least half of the dynamic 01 / 02 duo back again this year.Rolex 6 picture

Maybe next year we’ll be graced with the sight of a Nissan Nismo Le Mans front-wheel-driver in the ranks. One thing, for sure: a variation of this Rolex 24-winning twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 will end up roaming the streets in the new Ford GT and that has us thinking positively for future of American horsepower.

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Editor’s note: Whether you drive a race car or a beater, visit Advance Auto Parts for the best in savings and selection. 

Stick shift cars: a dying breed – or can we save the manuals?

stick shift 1 photoIn August 2013, only 3.9 percent of new cars sold to date that year came with manual transmission. Were those the last gasping breaths of an archaic technology? Maybe. Or, maybe not.

The reality is, the death of the stick shift has been predicted for a long time, at least as far back as September 1965 when Playboy published an article with a two-page picture of a Corvette covered in cobwebs and this text: Bye-Bye Stick Shift. The prediction made by the well-respected automotive journalist Ken Purdy was that the stick shift was going to become nothing more than a “purist’s plaything.”

Nearly 50 years later, of course, the stick shift is still here, although many experts agree that it’s on its death rattle. According to the Business Insider in December 2014, manual transmission is finally on its way out (but they nevertheless offer driving tips for those who want to get in on the tail end).

Meanwhile, an article in U.S. News called stick shift fans a “dying breed,” citing that, 20 years ago, a full quarter of cars sold had manual transmission. They predict the complete demise of manual transmission in 15 to 20 years, with perhaps a few models hanging on for nostalgia purposes.

Other signs pointing to stick shift transmission going away include revolutionary new options such as TC-SST, CVT and more, described in more detail later on. Plus, as hybrid and electric cars increase in popularity, that automatically creates less of a market share for the stick since, according to an Edmunds.com expert, only one hybrid – the Honda CR-Z – comes with a shift stick option.

Cut and dried case for the end of manual transmission?

Not necessarily. In an article published in January 2013, the New York Daily News says that 6.5% of the cars in the United States sold (presumably in 2012) were manual, adding that “stick shifts are making a comeback thanks to their inherent fuel efficiency and performance advantages.”

USA Today echoes the sentiment, saying that “Americans have a growing crush on manual transmission,” with 2012 seeing the most stick shift sales since 2006.stick shift picture

So, what’s the story? Is the stick shift going the way of the dinosaur? Or will nostalgia and the demands of diehard fans keep them alive? We at Advance Auto Parts decided to take a deeper look.

Invention of the modern manual transmission

Credit is typically given to French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor who demonstrated their three-speed transmission product in 1894. These men owned a woodworking machinery business and they became intrigued with automobiles. They built their first car in 1890, those with a “pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gear box, and a front radiator.”

They were the first to move the engine to the front of the car and, in 1895, their transmission was used in their automobiles. In 1898, Louis Renault “substituted a drive shaft for the drive chain and added a differential axle for the rear wheels to improve performance of the manual transmission.”

The next change of significance was in 1928 when Cadillac introduced the synchronized system that made shifting smoother and easier. Although car manufacturers had been experimenting with automatic transmission since 1904, a clutch-less system wasn’t available until 1938 (the Hydra-Matic) and the first modern automatic transmission wasn’t available until 1948: Buick’s Dynaflow.

Advantages and disadvantages

We have gathered wisdom from numerous sources and experts:

stick shift graph
Alex Glenn suspects that fewer manual transmission drivers text and drive, because the stick shift demands your full attention. Although we’ve never seen data on that, it sure makes sense.

Meanwhile, Jalopnik believes that stick shift drivers:

  • have a better understanding of their cars (We agree.)
  • don’t have to loan their car out (Sorry! It’s stick!)
  • can become a better car thief (It’s a joke, people!)
  • can more easily escape if “chased by terrifying aliens that want to abduct and probe you” and when the only escape route is a stick shift car (Boy. That’s scary. We sure hope it’s a joke.)

 

Stick shift myths

Edmunds.com lists five myths associated with stick shifts and we’d like to focus on the first one: that cars with manual transmissions ALWAYS get better fuel economy than automatics.

In the past, that was largely true. But, it’s definitely not 100% true anymore. An example provided was the 2014 Ford Focus, where the six-speed automatic gets 31 mpg (27 city/37 highway), which can be raised to 33 mpg (28 city/40 highway) if you purchase the Super Fuel Economy option package. Meanwhile, the manual version gets 30 mpg (26 city/36 highway). Read the article for more examples where automatics are making significant inroads on fuel economy, sometimes surpassing the manual standbys.

In the article, you can also discover how manual = cheaper isn’t always true any longer. And, we’d like to highlight one advantage of stick shifts that may be true – or may be a myth. The jury is still out. And that’s whether or not stick shift cars are stolen less often. Of course, in sheer numbers, fewer are, because fewer of them exist – and fewer car thieves know how to drive them.

And, here’s what Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says. “Some thieves might be thwarted in their attempt to steal a car with a manual transmission, since many thieves possess varying levels of intellect. That very personal element is also a factor in the degree of expertise necessary to overcome some of the more sophisticated security systems. Most car thieves are just not that swift and therefore resort to stealing older, easier targets. But there are those in the car thief ranks who are quite capable of making off with anything that they intend to steal.”

Now let’s see what Consumer Reports has to say about saving money by going manual. In their testing, published in October 2014, they’ve discovered that – in some cars – manual transmission can improve gas mileage by 2 to 5 mpg and the cars themselves can be $800 to $1,200 cheaper. Plus, manual transmission can improve acceleration, a real boon for small engines.

They also acknowledge, though, that some six-speed automatics are now surpassing the manual models, such as the Chevrolet Sonic. Most importantly, here is their “Bottom line: Most manual transmissions can deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. But shift quality and fuel economy vary, so check our ratings and try before you buy.”

Finally, here are some more modern developments.

Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST)

This is the brand name of a six-speed dual clutch transmission system that first appeared in the 2007 Lancer Evolution X. TC-SST allows a driver to go through the clutch/gear shifts more quickly than what’s possible in traditional manual transmission, an automatic transmission with a torque converter or a single clutch automated manual transmission.

There is no drop off in engine power, which equals increased performance AND better fuel economy. This offers a smoother ride than automatics and the system can select two gears simultaneously, putting the odd and even gears on separate shafts both using the same clutch.

Here is what one TC-SST convert has to say about the options available with the new system, one that “feels like a manual” but can shift gears for you when you’re feeling “too lazy” to do it yourself.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

At its core, the CVT is a flexible system that has an “infinite number of effect gear ratios between maximum and minimum values.” This is in direct contract with traditional transmissions that have a fixed/limited number of gear ratios. Find more in-depth information about CVTs here.

We want to know what you think!

Are you a fan of the stick? Do you think it will ever really go away? Share your thoughts below!

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car transmission needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes. 

Top 10 Most Lust-Inducing Cars

heart car pictureOur lovestruck Gearhead lists his 10 most desirable rides, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

 

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Valentine’s Day. The cards, the candy, the overpriced roses — I’m not just over it now, I was over it decades ago. What they’ve done is taken an innocent little day on the calendar and turned it into a consumerist free-for-all. I swear, by the time you get done buying everything — and don’t forget the fancy dinner — you’re out a few hundred bucks and thinking wistfully about all the fine car parts you could have bought instead.

But if there’s one thing I can get excited about this time of year, it’s some kind of connection between Valentine’s Day and a bunch of great cars. This year, I’m going to kick off the festivities with a Top 10 list of the most lovable (get it?) cars on the road. These are the cars that I would ask to be my valentine, if I were into that sort of thing. Any time my heart goes pitter-patter, chances are it’s because one of these masterpieces just drove by.

1. Audi RS 7

2014-Audi-RS7 picture

Twin-turbo V8, 560 horsepower, zero to 60 in three-and-a-half seconds. Quattro all-wheel drive with a torque-vectoring rear differential. Need I say more? Oh yeah, it’s got gorgeous fastback styling, too. You will be mine, RS 7; you will be mine.

2. Chevrolet Corvette

Corvette C7 picture

The C7 Corvette is so seductive that it ought to be rated NC-17. It’s got curves in all the right places, and the 6.2-liter LT1 V8 purrs like no other. Don’t even get me started on the 650-horsepower Z06. Can I use the phrase “sex on wheels”? No car embodies it better.

3. Porsche Cayman GT4

cayman car photo

Folks have been grumbling for years about how Porsche knowingly neuters the perfectly balanced Cayman in order to keep the tail-heavy 911 atop the food chain. Well, now the GT4 is here, and it’s packing a 3.8-liter, 385-horsepower flat-6 borrowed from the mighty 911 Carrera S. There’s one transmission, by the way, and it’s a six-speed manual with three proper pedals. In this case, the car is basically a Valentine’s Day present to all of us.

4. BMW i8

BMW i8 picture

Another gift this year is the fact that the i8 is finally on the road. I remember when it showed up in the latest Mission: Impossible flick a few years ago, and then everyone kind of forgot about it when BMW didn’t bring it out soon thereafter. But now it’s here, and it was worth the wait. You get 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, 20 miles of electric-only driving range and some of the coolest styling this side of Lamborghini. Be still my heart.

5. Ferrari 458 Italia

Ferrari 458 Italia picture

What would a Valentine’s Day list be without a Ferrari, the brand that only looks right in red? The 458 Italia has a special place in my heart because it could be the last of the iconic midengine Ferraris with a high-revving, naturally aspirated V8. Seems like everyone’s turning to turbos these days, but the 458 soldiers on for now with one of the sweetest sounding motors ever built.

6. Ford Mustang GT

Mustang GT photo

Speaking of naturally aspirated V8s — and cars that look great in red — the latest Mustang GT’s got the most refined V8 on this side of the Atlantic, and its new independent rear suspension makes it one of the best handlers, too. Right now the headlines are all about high-performance Mustangs that cost more than the workaday GT, but the latter is plenty good enough to make your heart swell every time you lay eyes on it.

7. Ford GT

Ford GT photo

Ah, turbocharging. Here we see it rearing its head in the all-new GT supercar, which is powered by a twin-turbo “EcoBoost” V6 rather than the supercharged V8 of yore. Okay, so it won’t sound as good. But the new GT’s styling is so fantastic that I don’t even care. Hey, don’t judge; we all lust after certain things based on looks alone.

8. Dodge Viper

Dodge Viper picture

The knock on the Viper has long been that its V10 engine sounds like a UPS truck, but here’s my question: Have these armchair critics actually driven the car? The driving position is cartoonish in the best possible sense, with the windshield right in front of your face and the hood stretching out for miles in front. The clutch and shifter require more manly effort than anything on the market. The handling (now with stability control!) is astonishing. The Viper is nothing if not a hot date.

9. Mercedes-AMG GT

Mercedes-AMG GT photo

When’s the last time a Mercedes ignited your passions? For me, the new GT is my first. Benz has always been about massive, intimidating road presence, with sporting thrills a marginal concern at best. But the GT is clearly aimed at the Porsche 911, and it’s certainly got a shape that can seduce. I don’t mind the turbos in this case, incidentally — Benz’s twin-turbo V8 is a thing of beauty. Can’t get enough.

10. Bentley Mulsanne

Bentley Mulsanne photo

I can’t say that I’ve got an extra few hundred grand lying around, but if I did, my sedan of choice would be the big Bentley. What makes the Mulsanne so lovable is that it’s authentic. The platform is a rear-drive, Bentley-only item, in contrast to the Volkswagen/Audi-sourced front-wheel-drive platforms that underpin other Bentley models. The engine, too, is a genuine Bentley article — the legendary “6.75-litre” twin-turbo V8 with dump-truck torque. The interior, of course, is hand-made with the most opulent materials imaginable. Every day is Valentine’s Day if you live with one of these beauties.

What Do You Love?

Help me round out the list with some other rides that get your blood pumping.

Editor’s note: If you love working on your car, count on Advance Auto Parts for the best in selection, service and value. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

 

Are You Up for a Custom Garage?

Read on as we explore some of the most insane custom garages in existence.

Just like with man caves, pool halls and dive bars, some guys often view their garages as their “men only” room, full of empty cans, dirty floors and even dirtier language.

But some men keep their garages cleaner than their houses. And sometimes, these elaborate and civilized work spaces even cost more than the house itself.

As just one example of an extreme garage: if you love your car and live in NYC, be prepared to pay for it. The apartment units located at 200 Eleventh Ave. each come with an en-suite sky garage.

What’s an en-suite sky garage you ask? Take a look for yourself. Prices do vary, but expect to pay nearly ten million dollars for the privilege of looking at your car while you eat, sleep and dine in the sky!

Garage customization: safe bet or silly idea?

Jim Frey, president of Car Guy Garage, says that custom cabinets, storage and workbenches help his customers “change the garage from a storage shed for your car into making the garage another room in your house.”

Adding additional living/working space to your home sounds appealing, but Jim wasn’t sure that anybody really wanted to hang out in their garage more than they had to.

According to Jim, “After months of working on the web site, the first order finally came in for a garage clock, and my brother and I were dancing and jumping around we were so excited. It was an official confirmation that we weren’t the only two guys in the world who liked to hang out in garages.”

And, what’s really cool about this website: you can look at large numbers of photos of customized garages – sort of like a car garage museum.

Jim tells Advance Auto Parts that a wide range of people are customizing their garages, “from people who take apart race cars to families who store soccer balls and rain gear in them.” Although he has not noted any specific style trends, he does say that you can often tell what type of garage style someone will want based upon the car that he or she drives.

Elevating garage customization to new heights

One of the most desirable (and expensive) custom garage options is the lift.

Lifts can be used to store more than two cars in a two car garage and can allow for easy access to the underside of the vehicle for maintenance and performance upgrades.

Car lifts come in dual or four post varieties, but the single post variety (seen below) opens up tight spaces even further.

Car garage picture 1

Photo courtesy of Car Guy Garage – teamclark – Rochester, MI

Get organized with garage cabinets and floors

What good are galvanized steel hand tools when you can’t find that darned 3/8” drive ratchet?

Installing custom shelving and cabinetry in your garage makes sure that there’s a place for everything in your extreme garage.

No more cluttered workbenches and no more lost washers means your projects are as hassle-free as possible. This upgrade is both practical and visually appealing, especially if you choose stainless steel cabinets and diamond flooring as seen below.

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Photo courtesy of Car Guy Garage – Bob – Lubbock, TX

Is that a custom garage you’re building or an art museum?

Many extreme garage owners install their floors and cabinets, set up the workspaces and then say to themselves, well now what?

Roadside art collecting is trend that’s made its way into the major automobile auctions, with auctioneers such as Mecum offering hundreds of pieces of road art for sale.

What is road art you ask? Well, road signs mostly. That and vintage advertisements for gas, oil, tires and just about anything else you associate with America’s love of cars and the open road.

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Photo courtesy of Car Guy Garage – Dixon – Boulder City, NV

Museum quality garage lighting for your automotive works of art

Go out to your garage and tell me what you see. Dark corners and shadows cast by automotive junk everywhere? You are not alone.

Most of us have suffered long evenings of wrenching in the near darkness offered by the single overhead light bulb screwed into a socket above or fluorescent lights hanging from chicken wire the previous home owners’ brother-in-law installed.

Stepping up to professional lighting is a huge improvement and one that can make working in (or just hanging out in) your garage much more enjoyable.

LED lighting is a practical and energy efficient option for garage lighting that’s become much more affordable in recent years. And of course, LED accent lighting is nice touch.

Can’t decide on a color? Install multicolor LED strips and choose from hundreds of colors … or cycle through them on command.

Photo courtesy of Car Guy Garage - Gary - Granite Bay, CA

Photo courtesy of Car Guy Garage – Gary – Granite Bay, CA

If you could upgrade anything in your garage, what would it be? Please let us know in the comments below.

Editor’s note: You can spruce up your work space with garage tools and garage accessories for every budget from Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

When Japanese Sports Cars Ruled the World – Our Top 6

Take a ride down memory lane as Street Talk explores the incredible early ’90s output of Japanese sports cars and tuner contenders.

Do you remember when the best sports cars in the world came from Japan?

It’s hard to imagine if you weren’t there, because these days, the Japanese sports-car market barely exists. Okay, Nissan still makes a couple — the world-beating GT-R and the rather uncouth Nissan 370Z — and Scion and Subaru offer the affordable FR-S/BRZ twins. There’s also a new 2016 Acura NSX right around the corner. But otherwise, it’s a barren landscape in the land of the rising sun. The rest of the world has left it behind.

In the 1990s, though, Japan was showing everyone else who was boss. Let’s take a moment to appreciate what’s arguably the most compelling collection of sports cars a single country has ever produced.

 

Acura nsx car pictureAcura NSX (1990-2005)

With all due respect to the new twin-turbocharged NSX and its three hybrid motors, it can’t touch the legend that is the original NSX. Thanks to exotic styling and a mid-mounted VTEC V6 that could scream all the way to 8,000 rpm, the NSX fully lived up to its “Japanese Ferrari” nickname. Well, mostly; there’s one way in which the NSX has proved to be decidedly un-Ferrari-like, and that’s cost of ownership. Properly maintained, an NSX shouldn’t run you much more than any Honda/Acura product of its vintage. It’s that combination of exclusivity and reliability that makes the NSX a sought-after sports car to this day.

 

Mazda RX-7 carMazda RX-7 (1992-1995)

Younger driving enthusiasts will be more familiar with the recently discontinued RX-8, but the “FD” series RX-7 of the ’90s is the true king of Mazda’s hill. Boasting a lightweight, perfectly balanced chassis and a twin-turbo 1.3-liter rotary engine that cranked out roughly 250 horsepower, this RX-7 was a scalpel that could carve up the most challenging circuits with ease. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful cars ever built, and its intimate, wraparound interior was the perfect sports-car cockpit. Unlike the NSX, it’s not renowned for being unbreakable, but when an FD RX-7 is running right, it’s one of the most engaging cars you’ll ever experience.

 

Mitsubishi 3000GT pictureMitsubishi 3000GT (1991-1999)

Known as the GTO in Japan — Pontiac wouldn’t have liked it if Mitsubishi tried that one in the U.S. — the 3000GT was the tech-crazed member of this group. When the high-end VR4 model first came out, it was loaded with all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, adaptive spoilers, electronically adjustable exhaust tuning and adaptive dampers with selectable drive modes. Not all of these items made it all the way through the production run, but the 300-plus-hp twin-turbo V6 sure did, and it enabled this aggressively styled Mitsu to run with the world’s finest.

 

Nissan 300 zxNissan 300ZX (1990-1996)

The Z Car has a long and illustrious history, but if you’re looking for the Z that blended style, performance and refinement better than any other, the Z32 series from the ’90s is where it’s at. Even the base car had a creamy-smooth 3.0-liter V6 that got you to 60 in the mid-6-second range, but naturally the Twin Turbo model stole all the headlines with its 300-hp motor that reached 60 a full second sooner. The turbo Z also offered a four-wheel steering system dubbed “Super HICAS,” and both models displayed cutting-edge style, including a slippery exterior and a futuristic dashboard with a rakishly sloped center stack.

 

Toyota Supra pictureToyota Supra (1992-1998)

Many enthusiasts will tell you that the Supra was the pinnacle of Japanese sports-car performance. The Turbo model’s inline-6 engine made 320 horsepower right out of the box, but as legions of tuners have since discovered, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, Toyota engineered this motor to such exacting standards that it can easily be cranked up to 600, 700, even 800 horses without flinching. Some say there’s even more room at the top without compromising reliability overmuch. Sure, the ’90s Supra was relatively long and heavy, but the turbo-six’s reputation is second to none among those who know.

 

Toyota MR2 pictureToyota MR2 (1991-1995)

The NSX may have been the true Japanese Ferrari, but the midengine MR2 was a closer match in terms of physical resemblance, drawing heavily on the contemporaneous Ferrari 348. The ultimate “Mister Two,” of course, was the Turbo model with its blown four-cylinder that pumped out 200 horsepower. The MR2 Turbo required a firm hand in tight corners, as its mid-mounted motor made the car susceptible to Porsche 911-style lift-throttle oversteer. But with its removable roof panels, snick-snick manual gearbox and head-turning looks, this Toyota definitely deserves a place in the pantheon.

 

What a Run

We’ve limited ourselves here to American production models; otherwise, the Nissan Skyline R33 and R34 would have been at the top of the list, and Mazda’s singular Eunos Cosmo would have made the cut as well. Are we forgetting any others? What are your favorite high-performance rides from Japan’s glory days?

Editor’s note: Got a Japanese sports car or any other performance vehicles in your garage? Visit Advance Auto Parts for the best in auto parts, tools and more. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Jeep Cherokee

Jeep Cherokee XJ pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, Gearhead’s Garage turns back the clock to look at one of the most significant SUVs of all time: the Jeep Cherokee XJ.

Quick, what comes to mind when you think about classic, hardworking, never-say-die SUVs?

I guarantee you the Jeep Cherokee is at the top of the list.

No, I’m not talking about the current Cherokee that looks like a modern hatchback and shares a platform with the Dodge Dart. Honestly, I don’t ever want to talk about that thing.

And I’m not talking about the first Cherokee, either, though I gotta tell you, I had some wild times in one of those back in the ’70s with the 6.6-liter V8 under the hood.

What I’m talking about is the first unibody Cherokee, the so-called XJ series, which was built from 1984-2001. You know, the boxy one. Couldn’t improve on that styling if you tried. Everyone over 30 knows someone who drove an XJ, and there are still a ton of these things on the road today. Let’s take a look at what made this Cherokee so great.

 

Easy to Maintain, Hard to Break

With due respect to the lesser engines Jeep offered, including a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that was pretty popular, I’m going to focus on the iconic 4.0-liter inline-6 here. Whenever I see a Cherokee in the wild, I look for that “4.0” badge on the back, because that’s the one you want. It was only rated at 190 horsepower, but owners will tell you it feels stronger than that, with a nice low-end punch courtesy of 225 pound-feet of torque. The five-speed manual transmission was key for maximum performance, but the Aisin-Warner four-speed auto turned out to be a robust unit in its own right.

Either way, this powertrain is known to run for hundreds of thousands of miles without complaint — you’re more likely to encounter electrical gremlins in the power accessories. And if you’re mechanically inclined, you can do most of the required work by yourself. That’s why you see a lot of Cherokees in remote areas where the nearest mechanic is many miles away. Folks know they can count on this Jeep through thick and thin, and that’s a big part of its legend.

Unibody Visionary

Jeep Cherokee XJ 3 pictureWhen the Cherokee XJ debuted back in the mid-’80s, carlike unibody construction was all but unheard of. If you were designing an SUV, it had to be body-on-frame, just like a truck, because it just wouldn’t be tough enough otherwise.

But then the XJ came along, and the SUV landscape would never be the same.

That’s right. As unlikely as it seems, this boxy, go-anywhere Jeep is the one that got the unibody trend started. Nowadays, you have to look long and hard to find a body-on-frame SUV in dealerships, but back then, the Cherokee was an innovator. There were plenty of doubters, of course, but the Cherokee proved its mettle in countless off-road scenarios around the globe. At the same time, it provided a relatively smooth ride and agile handling, which is why practically every SUV today has a unibody platform.

Easy to ModJeep Chrokee XJ 2 picture

Although those unibody underpinnings were a revolutionary step forward, the XJ is still a simple beast at heart, and that means mods are a cinch. There’s a whole forum dedicated to various Cherokee XJ tweaks, from lift kits and lockers to winches and performance exhausts. It’s an open secret in off-roading circles that the stock XJ makes for a cheap and reliable rock-crawler with just a few alterations. You can pick one up for a song and have plenty of cash left over for building your dream XJ.

Tell Us Your Cherokee Story

The Cherokee XJ is the kind of SUV that inspires intense loyalty in its owners. I know some of you guys can speak from personal experience, so let’s hear it in the comments.

The Story of License Plates

License Plate 1

Fact or Internet myth? Read about one person’s struggle with personalized license plates, plus brush up on your knowledge of these automotive necessities.

In 1979, or so the story goes, Robert Barbour of California decided to get personalized plates. The application asked him to list three choices, just in case a desired plate wasn’t available. So, Robert writes:

  • SAILING
  • BOATING
  • NO PLATE

“SAILING” was already taken. “BOATING” was . . . already taken. So, even though Robert had meant that he had no third choice, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) sent him plates that read–you guessed it–“NO PLATE.”

This wasn’t what Robert had in mind, but he had to admit that these plates were pretty distinctive, so he put them on his car. Four weeks later, he received a notice for an overdue parking fine; then, he began receiving them from all over the state–daily.License Plate 2

Ends up that, when a California police officer ticketed a car that had no plate, they wrote on the citation: No Plate. With the magic of technology, the DMV computers sent the citations to the gentleman whose plates matched the note on the tickets. Meaning, of course, to Robert.

In a matter of months, Robert received about 2,500 notices. When he contacted the DMV, they suggested that he get different plates. Instead, he responded to each citation with a letter explaining the situation; often that worked. Sometimes, though, he had to appear in front of a judge to explain further.

License_Plate_3A couple of years later, the DMV requested that police officers write “None” rather than “No plate” when a cited vehicle had no license plate. This slowed down the number of notices Robert received to, oh, about five or six a month. That worked well for Robert and apparently nobody in California had personalized plates reading “NONE.”

But. Always a but, isn’t there? Some officers wrote down “Missing” to cite vehicles without plates–which caused the avalanche to go to Andrew Burg who (c’mon, you already know the punch line) had personalized plates that read “MISSING.”

By now, you’re assuming that this is one of those Internet tales that grows larger with each telling, much like Pinocchio’s nose. But, according to Snopes, this–and other personalized plate disasters–actually happened.

License plate laws

License_Plate_4 picturesAlthough Robert Barbour’s story shows how laws can cause problems for innocent people, these laws exist to keep order–and it just makes good sense to follow them. Otherwise, you can be fined. According to LegalMatch.com, here are the main requirements to stay in compliance; each plate must be:

  • Currently valid
  • Clearly visible:
    • Mounted in the proper place without obstruction
    • Cleaned so that it is free of debris, mud or dirt
    • Without a protective plastic cover if your state has banned them (because of the glare)

More than half of the states in the United States do NOT require front license plates. To get more information about your state’s requirements, you can use this page from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

History of license plates

california license plateHard as it is to imagine today, throughout most of history, people didn’t need to have license plates. Before there were cars, no one apparently saw a need for identifying vehicles, such as horse-drawn buggies, with numbers. And so, when cars were brand new, there was no already-established system for license plates that could be transferred from one type of vehicle–the buggy–to the next: cars. Officials quickly began to realize the importance of being able to identify cars, though, because a form of a license plate was apparently used as early as 1896 in the German state of Baden.

As far as the United States goes, New York started requiring license plates in 1901, but didn’t issue them. In other words, each individual owner was responsible for creating his own plate, using his initials as the identifying mark. (Can you imagine how many duplicate license plates would exist today if this system were used?)

“New York then began assigning numbers,” says Jeff Minard, license plate historian for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA). “That system worked for years and people created plates out of leather or painted the number on their vehicle–or used house numbers. Whatever worked. You could use whatever materials you wanted and whatever color you liked. As long as you paid a small fee and put the correct number on your car, you were good to go.” Other options included going to the local blacksmith to buy a metal plate; still other people had wooden plates.

Also in 1901, the city of Cleveland, Ohio required motorists to register with city officials and receive a license number. The owners apparently created their own tags here, too, putting the appropriate number on them; these tags did not need to have the word “Cleveland” on them. Toledo, Ohio also had a similar system.

In 1903, Massachusetts began officially issuing license plates (rather than assigning a number to a car owner and requiring him to create the plate). The first one issued simply contained the number “1” and was given to Frederick Tudor. And, in multiple places online, it states that one of his relatives still has an active registration for this plate.

So, we asked Jeff if this was true and he confirmed it as fact. “Tudor was the head of the highway department in 1903,” Jeff says, “and so he was able to secure that number. And, in Massachusetts, license plate numbers can be inherited. That’s also true in Washington, Rhode Island, Delaware and Illinois.”

We dug around for more info and found an article on the subject by Ryan Lee Price on the Chilton DIY website. In June 1903, Ryan says, Massachusetts wanted to solve a dual problem: to generate revenue so that they could improve the road systems and to identify drivers and cars involved in breaking traffic laws. So, the newly created “automobile department” required all drivers to register their cars and pay an annual fee of two dollars; drivers were given until September to fulfill the requirements. By December 31, 1903, 3,241 cars and 502 motorcycles were registered, which raised $17,684–and those drivers typically wanted to obtain the lowest numbered plates possible “as a symbol of status.”

As for Frederick Tudor, Ryan provides these facts:

• He received his license plate on September 1, 1903

• He lived in Brookline, Massachusetts

• Tudor was also the nephew of Henry Lee Higginson

Although Higginson is not especially well known today, he was a Civil War veteran, a respected businessman–and the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881. So, in other words, he had some clout.

Early Massachusetts plates were iron, covered with porcelain. The background was cobalt blue and the number was in white, along with “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” When the plates contained single digits, they were quite small. As the registration numbers got larger, so did the size of the plates, which suggests that state officials didn’t foresee the state housing large numbers of drivers.

These old license plates weren’t dated, according to Jeff (and here is a look at some of those early plates). “Some states made you pay money every year, but you kept the same plate. Some time around World War I, though, state officials began saying that the current systems of issuing license plates was chaotic and that’s when the appearance of license plates became more standardized within a state. By 1918, according to the Smithsonian Institute, all states required them.

During the early days, drivers in some locales were required to have both a city and a state plate. In Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and New Mexico, license plates were required before they were even states. Because of all the variations in laws, plates can be classified as pre-territorial, territorial, pre-state and state.

Trivia: vintage license plates

The ALPCA site lists fun trivia, much of which comes from License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History, 1903 to the Present by Jim Fox. For example, did you know that the 1916 California plate has a spot where the owner needed to scratch in his name? Or that, during World War II, some states made their plates out of a soybean-based fiberboard? And, yes. The goats did find them to be tasty.

But, for the curious-minded, it’s this mystery that sticks in the mind: from 1910 to 1913, in Kentucky, plates first contained a small letter “B,” which was then replaced by an “L,” then an “M” and then a “G.” And, of course, nobody knows why! Argh.

License plate collectors

“This hobby attracts people from all walks of life, from farmers to senators, from undertakers to entertainers.” (License Plates of the United States: A Pictorial History 1903 to the Present by James K. Fox)

When asked why he chose to collect license plates, Jeff Minard says, “Some people collect. Other people don’t. Some collect stamps and coins, or spoons or ashtrays. I liked how plates could come off of a car and then be hung in a garage, and I kept those.”

And, it simply went from there. “There are very few books about this type of collecting,” he continues, “and little knowledge about the plates. That can be a turnoff for some people, while other people like that. License plates also used to be difficult to find, but that was before eBay.” (Note: at the time of writing this post, after typing “license plates” into the eBay internal search bar, there were an astonishing 505,858 results!)

Jeff brings up an interesting point–that there is no central archival place to gather information about license plates. “Each state has its own DMV,” he says, “and if you call, someone there can tell you about the current plates, but not about historical information. In a sense, the amateur collectors are really also the historians.”

ALPCA has existed as a club for collectors for more than 60 years. Currently, according to Jeff, the club has 3,500 members; altogether, there have been more than 11,000 in the club’s existence. There are also about 1,000 people in a European club and 1,000 in an Australian club. “Plus,” he adds, “there is the guy on the street who has ten old license plates hanging in his garage, just because. Maybe because he just hasn’t thrown them away. I’ll bet that millions of men in the United States do that.”

Personalization of the plates adds a level of interest. One way to do that is to pay extra and be able to choose how your plates read (as Robert Barbour did in 1991). Another way is to choose a specialized kind of plate, an affinity plate, that “feeds into personal interests,” whether that means saving the whales, neutering pets, visiting national parks or something else entirely. “Tennessee has about 200 choices,” Jeff says, “while California has five.”

Why the difference? “California has too many cars and too much administration to be able to offer numerous choices,” Jeff explains. “But, the eastern and southern states typically have plenty of options, which makes collecting them fun. Some people will buy more than one license plate in a year and switch them out, almost like changing shoes. What you don’t want for your personal collection can be sold on eBay or at swap meets or on other websites.”

As if those weren’t enough reasons to collect, Jeff adds this: “License plates are quirky. They hang on the walls of bars, coffee shops and country restaurants. It’s just a cool thing to collect. If you haven’t traveled somewhere but would like to, you can get the license plate. You can even collect plates from around the world: from Vietnam, from Cambodia, from the Philippines. For $15 to $20, you can have the world at your fingertips.”

A look at a niche collection of vintage license plates

As Jeff mentions, different collectors have different interests–and we at Advance Auto Parts talked to a man, Charley Kulchar, who focused his collection on Ohio license plates. He started his collection “long ago” and what fascinated him enough to start his collection were the first four years of state plates in Ohio, before they became painted metal.

“In 1908 and 1909,” Charley says, “they were blue porcelain with white letters and there was a zero with an H in the center to designate Ohio.” In 1910, state officials experimented with using red porcelain “with black brushed through for a woodgrain effect”; and, in 1911, they tried white porcelain with black lettering. Switching to flat metal plates with painted lettering in 1912, letters became embossed in 1918.

After that, the state of war and peace dictated significant changes in Ohio’s plates. “Ohio license plates were issued in pairs until 1943,” Charley says. “But, because of the steel shortage during World War II, people didn’t receive new plates in 1943. Instead, they got a sticker for their windshields.” In 1944 through 1946, the steel supply apparently freed up enough for Ohio officials to issue single metal plates, returning to pairs from 1947 through 1951–when the Korean War caused more changes: a sticker in 1952 and a single plate in 1953.

During the single-plate years, some cities, including Cleveland and LaGrange, offered what was called a “booster plate” for the front of the car, the forerunner of today’s personalized plates. “It was just an accessory, a novelty,” Charley explains, “often seen with folks’ initials on them.”

Charley says that he continued to collect Ohio plates (all double-plate years, with embossing gone after 1973) until 1975, when people no longer needed to buy new plates each year. Instead, a sticker could be purchased and placed on the bottom right hand corner of the back plate to indicate current registration.

And, remember how Cleveland was the first city to require registration of cars in 1901? Charley says that “registration was required if you lived in the city or if you spent 24 hours in a row in Cleveland, so people who did business in the city often had to register, too. They were each given house numbers to use.”

Charley has spent considerable time studying the handwritten registration ledgers from 1908, when Ohio first required plates. “You needed to list your name, the type of auto you had, its horsepower, its serial number and where you lived. You were then assigned a number, starting with 1. Of course, the influential people–usually those in mining, steel or some other industry–got the low numbers with Francis Prentiss, owner of the Cleveland Twist Drill Company, getting both #2 and #4.”

It’s hard to locate single-digit plates, since there were only 9–and not all that easy to find double-digit ones, either, since there are only 90 of them. So, Charley has focused on finding triple-digit plates. “In 1930, when the Cleveland Municipal Stadium was being built,” he says, “it was placed over the city dump. Then, when it was torn down in 1996, a number of 1911 porcelain license plates were found and circulated. Many were quite deteriorated but, since they were made of porcelain, they are still legible.”

Charley owns “a couple of thousand plates,” explaining that, sometimes, he might “only want one or two plates, but needed to buy an entire collection to get them. Then, I’d trade, sell or scrap others of the plates.” His collection grew to the point that he had a plate from the entire timeline of 1908 to 1974. In recent years, he says, the hobby has changed because of the Internet. “You used to go to swap meets to buy and sell and you got to meet a lot of nice people from around the country. Now, you can just put up a plate on the Internet–or buy one that way. It’s a better way to sell but less personal, and nowadays you can become an overnight collector just by buying online.”

Editor’s note: How about you? Are any of our readers collecting old license plates? What are your thoughts? Please share in the comment below!

10 Tips on How and Why to Organize Your Trunk

Messy Car trunk picturesWhether you’re driving a sedan, SUV, pickup or wagon, chances are that its trunk or cargo area is in need of some serious organizing and TLC. For most drivers, these cargo areas get messy in a hurry and understandably so. Being out of sight and a somewhat expansive area, it’s a natural tendency for the trunk to become a catch all for items hurriedly placed in the vehicle, and then just as quickly forgotten.

There are undoubtedly some things that belong in every trunk, such as an emergency kit, and then a whole lot of other items that can probably be removed. It’s a new year and time to get organized, and even if organization isn’t one of your resolutions, just consider this top ten list of how and why to organize your trunk as a way to get a jump on spring cleaning.

1. Increase safety – when a vehicle stops short or is involved in a collision, its occupants are (hopefully) restrained thanks to safety belts. The same can’t be said for items lying loose in the vehicle. In an emergency situation, these items become airborne projectiles capable of inflicting serious injury on occupants and causing significant damage inside the vehicle, particularly if the loose items are heavy. This isn’t as much a concern when the items are contained in the trunk as compared to loose items in an SUV’s cargo area or a pickup truck bed. Loose items can also impact vehicle handling in unexpected ways. Heavy items rolling about can cause a loss of vehicle control during cornering because of the uneven weight distribution and sudden weight shift. Organizing items back there, removing unused cargo and securing what remains can greatly improve passenger safety.

2. Save money – the extra weight being carried around is having a negative impact on both fuel mileage and your wallet. Reduce the vehicle’s weight by removing unnecessary cargo and increase your fuel mileage. A better organized cargo area also helps save money because you know what you have at a glance – such as windshield washer fluid, oil, deicer or bottled water – helping prevent the purchase and unnecessary expense of purchasing duplicate items.

3. Drive (or ride) happier – most vehicle owners aren’t fond of disorder, chaos, and clutter when it comes to their vehicle’s storage area, or any aspect of their environment. Organize your vehicle and be a happier, more efficient driver.

4. Remove everything – the first step in organizing the trunk is to remove everything so you’re starting with a clean slate (after you’ve vacuumed and shampooed the carpet, that is) and you can actually see what’s been lurking back there these past several months. Next, decide what’s staying and what’s going.

5. Get an organizer – there are numerous products on the market that will help you achieve an organized trunk or cargo area. It can be as simple as a device that prevents shopping bags from tipping over or cargo from rolling about, to a multi-compartment organizer that collapses when not being used. Only you know what works best for your lifestyle and trunk. The key to organization is knowing what you have, and having a designated place for it.

6. Keep it out of the trunk – one good way to keep your trunk or cargo area better organized is to not put stuff back there in the first place. Plastic or re-useable fabric grocery bags, your purse, or pretty much any bag with handles might be better off riding up front with you. These ingenious hooks slip over the headrest, providing a convenient and secure spot to hang a bag with handles. With the bags not being in the trunk, they won’t spill over and you won’t run the risk of forgetting they’re back there.

7. Bare necessities – in keeping with point number six, above, the less that’s in your trunk means the less you have to organize. That’s not to say the trunk should be empty. At the very least, there should be an emergency kit with jumper cables or a battery booster, first aid kit, tire inflation, flashlight, snacks and water, fresh batteries, flares and/or emergency warning triangles. If it’s winter and you’re driving in colder climates, also include a small snow shovel, blanket, and traction material

8. Use protection – whether its hauling bags of potting soil, sandbox sand, or water softener salt, or just muddy or snow-covered boots, things can get pretty dirty back there. That’s ok, because the cargo area is designed for this. That doesn’t mean, however, that the carpet or other items stored in the trunk have to suffer from damaging stains or moisture. Trunk and cargo-area liners are made to fit snugly in the area they’re protecting, feature a lip around the edge to contain spills, and are made from moisture proof rubber or plastic materials that make clean up a snap.

9. Stay clean – your vehicle’s exterior probably isn’t sparkling clean 100 percent of the time. And when it’s at its salt- or dirt-covered nastiest, you can be sure that’s the day you’ll need to lean over the back bumper to retrieve something out of the trunk. When you do, you can prevent getting your clothes dirty with this trunk protector that’s always in your trunk and attached to the carpet when you need it. Simply unroll it over the bumper and you’re leaning up against a clean surface.Car trunk organizer photo

10. Contain it – loose items and trunks, beds, and cargo areas aren’t a good combination because they’re guaranteed to deliver spills, damage, frustration and potential injury. The solution is simple – no matter what you’re driving and what you’re hauling, contain the cargo. Bars, tie-down straps, and pet and cargo barriers will help better protect you, your cargo and the vehicle.

 

Editor’s note: Count on Advance Auto Parts for your trunk storage and organizational needs. Buy online, pick up in store—in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Nissan Maxima

1989 Nissan Maxima photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, Street Talk goes in-depth on perhaps the first affordable performance sedan of the modern era: the Nissan Maxima.

Do you know about the original four-door sports car?

We’re talking about the Nissan Maxima, of course — but a lot of people would have guessed something else. If you want to talk about cars that don’t get enough credit for being cool, the Maxima’s right up there at the top. This car should be a legend in its own time, yet all it is to most folks today is an overgrown Altima with a price tag to match.

But we’re not talking about the current Maxima, see, or even the previous one; we’re talking about that sweet spot back in the 1990s, when the Maxima gave you performance you couldn’t get anywhere else for the price.

So we’re going to take a minute and set the record straight. We also want to talk about some cool mods that Maxima owners are still rocking on the street.

4DSC

Wearing that simple acronym — 4 Door Sports Car — on a sticker affixed to its rear window, the 1989 Nissan Maxima started a revolution. Actually, some would argue it was the preceding Maxima (1984-’88) that commenced the true sportiness, what with its 3.0-liter V6 engine and available adaptive suspension, and you could even go back to the first two generations (1976-’84), which shared their powertrains with the iconic Z two-seater. But if you ask us, the official beginning of the Maxima’s dominance was when they slapped that “4DSC” sticker on the window. Nissan had brought together the strengths of the earlier models into a cohesive whole, and the result was the perfect antidote to the common Camry.

What made the 4DSC Maxima so great? Styling, for one thing. Even after almost three decades, this is one slick-looking sedan, with smooth lines that clearly distinguish it from its blocky, ’80s-tastic predecessor. But the real star was the SE model, which featured a 190-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 that put it in the upper echelon of performance sedans. If you wanted a quicker midsize four-door in those days, you had to go European — and even then, the Maxima SE had a fighting chance. Consider this: with the five-speed manual transmission, the Maxima SE did zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. Shoot, the Mercedes-Benz E420 with its 275-hp V8 would have had a hard time keeping up.

Naturally, this Maxima cost a fraction of what the Europeans were charging, and it also offered cool stuff like a legit sport-tuned suspension, a Bose audio system, a sunroof and attractive alloy wheels. The icing on the cake was its incredible reliability, with 200,000-mile-plus specimens becoming increasingly common as the years went on.

Check out this vintage commercial on the 1989 Nissan Maxima:

The Torsion Beam Fiasco and General Decline

To be fair, the subsequent Maxima (1995-’99) was a great car, too, even though it carried over the SE’s 190-hp V6 (now standard on all models) and didn’t really break new ground otherwise. That was still good enough to make it the enthusiast’s choice over the humdrum family sedans in its class. But some bemoaned its droopy rear-end styling, and even more shook their heads at its solid-axle torsion beam rear suspension, an explicit cost-cutting move that effectively conceded the handling crown to the previous car with its four-wheel independent setup. The “4DSC” sticker had disappeared from the rear window, and that wasn’t a coincidence.

To this Maxima’s credit, reliability remained a strong point, and many are still on the road today with insanely high miles. But it wasn’t as awesome as its predecessor, and unfortunately that was the start of a trend.

Since then, each subsequent Maxima has grown more powerful but less engaging, culminating with the current model, which comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and is indeed little more than an overgrown Altima.2014 Nissan Maxima photo

But for a decade or so, the Maxima was the best affordable performance sedan that money could buy. When you look around today at high-powered midsizers like the Accord V6 and Camry V6, you gotta give a little nod to the four-door sports car, the granddaddy of them all.

Street Mods for your Maxima

If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the Maxima community, check out the forums. They break it down by generation, and if you look at the two we highlighted — 1989-’94 and 1995-’99 — they’ve got tens of thousands more threads than the rest.

No offense if you own a different Maxima, but we weren’t kidding that those are the ones to have.

Now, supposing you want to put your personal stamp on your Maxima, there’s no end to the possibilities. Slap a turbo kit on it for more power? No problem, the powertrain’s certainly robust enough for that. Crazy subwoofers in the trunk? Been there, done that, with extensive DIYs in the forums. You’ll see a lot of the ’89-’94 models slammed to within a millimeter of their lives, and some of them look damn good, too. Ground effects, sick rims — you name it, the Maxima can rock it.

The best part is, these cars are so old that you can buy one for a song, leaving you plenty in the bank to customize to your heart’s content.

Tell Us Your Maxima Story

The Maxima is a car that engenders serious loyalty. We know a number of “Maxima families,” and all of them got started with one of the early models that never let them down. Have you had that kind of Maxima experience? Tell us about it in the comments.