30 Coolest Cars of the 1980s That Are Awesome to the Max (2023)

30 Coolest Cars of the 1980s That Are Awesome to the Max (1)

The 1980s were marked by corny television, the beginning of the end for the Soviet bloc, "Morning in America," and the arrival of the Japanese car as a mainstream choice instead of a quirky alternative. The decade saw the beginning of a muscle revival, thanks to Buick’s turbocharged V-6s and Ford’s V-8–powered Fox-body Mustangs. And then there were the white-painted hatchbacks and fully realized performance cars spilling out of Europe like the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari Testarossa, and Volkswagen GTI.

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If the automobiles of the decade weren't universally great, they were at least often interesting, as the industry discovered how to make emissions-friendly power, experimented heavily with turbocharging, and began serious work on the all-wheel-drive systems we take for granted today. If the sad-sack 1970s marked the end of the postwar performance boom, the '80s signaled a fresh wave of original thinking. So, cue up some New Wave, crack open a Bartles & Jaymes, and scroll through this gathering of 1980s metal, compiled by the Car and Driver editorial staff and hashed out via cage matches held in our office garage.

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Acura Integra (1986–1989)

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The first-generation Integra isn't the most celebrated to wear the badge—that would be the 1994–2001 cars, which include the only Type R to be sold in the States—but that doesn't diminish its coolness. Landing on our 10Best Cars lists for 1987 and 1988, the original 'Teg offered tons of fun in affordable three- and five-door packages, with the MSRPs of the earliest cars sliding in under $10,000. (The 1987 base price of $9859 converts to less than $21K today.) The standard 16-valve 1.6-liter four-cylinder—a rarity for its time—was a pure joy, offering plenty of performance despite spinning out a maximum of 118 horsepower. A curb weight below 2500 pounds certainly helped.


Acura Integra (1986–1989)

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And then there's the clean, righteously '80s styling, which evokes memories of Trapper Keepers, The Search for Animal Chin, and pegged pants—and still looks great today. That's no easy feat. Another reason the Integra was so cool is that it was among the first cars to establish Honda as a legitimate purveyor of performance, coming online when Big H was starting to kick out tasty jams like the Prelude Si, Civic Si, and CRX Si. Moreover, the Integra was in the first wave of front-wheel-drive sporty coupes that would become the go-to machines for an entire generation of enthusiasts. —Erik Johnson

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AMC Eagle (1980–1987)

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If you're a fan of today's Subaru Outback, be careful handing it credit for the legion of cladded, all-wheel-drive station wagons flooding the market, from Buick's Regal TourX to Audi's Allroad and more. That's because those cars supposedly inspired by the Subaru are all—Outback included—derived, in format, at least, from the AMC Eagle. Initially introduced as a wagon, the Eagle 4x4 later spawned sedan and coupe variants, all of which sat on lifted suspensions and could be had with wood-grain siding. These odd, ugly things were built in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and looked it.—Alexander Stoklosa


AMG Hammer (1986–1988)

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In the '80s, Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach had not yet taken its place as Daimler's version of BMW's M division. Instead, AMG was an independent tuning and accessories shop that had established a reputation in the 1970s with its race-prepped 300SEL 6.3. The 6.3 itself, as envisioned by Mercedes, was a riff on John DeLorean's brief for the Pontiac GTO: Take a large-car engine (in this case, the overhead-cam monster built to motivate the massive 600 series beloved by dictators and other potentates) and drop it into a smaller automobile.

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AMG Hammer (1986–1988)

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AMG repeated the formula with the Hammer, taking the 300E, a mild-mannered luxury sedan on the Mercedes W124 E-class platform, yanked out the fine straight-six, and plonked in a 5.5-liter V-8 engine from the S-class. But AMG didn't stop there, swapping the SOHC heads for a pair of twin-cam units they'd cobbled together themselves and gaining 60 horsepower in the process, for a total of 355. As we pointed out in 1986, "That's 125 more than America's hoo-boy Corvette." We then proceeded to hit 178 mph in it.


AMG Hammer (1986–1988)

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Deciding that wasn't enough, AMG punched out the engine to 6.0 liters, with AMG claiming 365 horsepower in smog-choked U.S. trim. The firm also said that a Euro-spec car could hit 187 mph. If you were 11 years old in 1987, a monochrome Benz sedan that went almost 190 was about as mind-bending as receiving a classroom valentine from Kathy Ireland. Sure, your Charger Hellcat has Mercedes underpinnings and does 200 mph—and it still costs half of what a Hammer would run you in 1986, as the as-tested price of the car we drove was $137,000. While the Hellcat is surely the stuff of today's teenage dreams, for those of us hovering around 40, well, it's not a damn Hammer. —Davey G. Johnson

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Audi Quattro (1983–1985)

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A blocky, blister-fendered hatchback in its most basic iteration—and a winged, widened 591-hp rally sled in its most extreme S1 form—the Audi Quattro proved that world-beating performance needn't be packaged in something flat enough to drive under a semi. Nor, for that matter, did it require eight- or 12-cylinder power. Just five turbocharged cylinders mated to an all-wheel-drive system that gave the car its name proved good enough to make it a dominant force on the early 1980s World Rally scene in the deft hands of greats such as Michèle Mouton, Stig Blomqvist, Hannu Mikkola, and Walter Röhrl.


Audi Quattro (1983–1985)

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The Quattro is a rare beast, though one that was sold in the U.S. only from 1983 until 1985 and in very low numbers (less than 700 total). Sadly, we didn't get the wild variants sold in other countries for the purposes of racing homologation; with just 160 horsepower and cushy leather seats, most U.S. cars were positively neutered compared to their Euro counterparts. But the fact remains that the technologically advanced, contrarian-thinking Quattro gave Audi its swagger in the 1980s, and as such, this is the godfather of the cars that give Audi its swagger today. —Steve Siler

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BMW M3 (1988–1991)

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Like many great, rare, and collectible cars, the first BMW M3 exists because of racing. In the 1980s, the FIA required Group A race cars to have a street-legal counterpart. According to the rules, BMW had to build 5000 M3s in a 12-month period to qualify for racing. The M3 debuted at the Frankfurt auto show in 1985, BMW built the cars, and the M3 became a European Touring Car champion.

Radically different from the regular E30 3-series of the day, the M3 came with its own flared fenders, body kit, and large rear spoiler. The windshield and rear window were flush mounted, and the rear window was installed at a more rakish angle. The drag coefficient fell from a claimed 0.37 to 0.33.


BMW M3 (1988–1991)

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To power the M3, BMW's Motorsport group selected a naturally aspirated version of BMW's turbocharged Grand Prix engine. Dubbed the S14, the four was a technically advanced engine in 1988. The 2.3-liter sported four valves per cylinder, dual overhead cams, and a throttle for each cylinder. The U.S. version made 192 horsepower at 6750 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4750. That same year, the 2.5-liter inline-six in the 325i made 168 horsepower. In 1988, no other naturally aspirated piston engine for sale in the U.S. made more horsepower per liter.

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BMW M3 (1988–1991)

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The M3's acceleration isn't quick by today's standards. In our November 1988 test, the M3 took 6.9 seconds to hit 60 mph with the quarter-mile passing in 15.2 seconds at 92 mph. Here's food for thought: BMW's electric i3 is quicker to 60 (6.5 seconds) and hits the quarter in 15.3 seconds at 86 mph.


BMW M3 (1988–1991)

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Concentrating on the drag strip ignores the greatness of the M3 experience, though. New springs dropped the suspension an inch and beefed up anti-roll bars kept body motions in check. BMW chose Pirelli P600 tires for the M3, but we're not sure why the automaker went with that tire when Pirelli had the much grippier P700 available in 1988. So blame the tires for the lackluster 0.81 g of skidpad grip and the 179-foot stops from 70 mph. But that once again proves that this isn't a numbers car—it's the M3's playfulness and willingness at the limit, as well as its visceral control feel, that make it so desirable to this day. While not considered light in 1988, the 2857-pound curb weight seems positively svelte today for a four-seat coupe.

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BMW M3 (1988–1991)

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Here we are 27 years later, and the first M3's steering is still a revelation. This car is a total experience. More powerful and radical versions were eventually built, but the U.S. wouldn't get them. From 1988 until 1991, America received 5115 2.3-liter-powered M3s. In 1988, the M3 cost $34,810, the equivalent of $70,220, or about what a new M3 costs today. —Tony Quiroga


Buick Grand National GNX (1987)

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Question: What do you call a neon-hued, poodle-haired, pabulum-spewing, horsepower-indifferent monster in your closet? The answer: 1987. OK, that's a little harsh. Wrestling pants aside, there were some bright spots that year: The Simpsons first poked their faces into the nation's living rooms as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, Taco Bell began its $0.49 "Taco Sunday" promotion, and Buick dropped the GNX on an otherwise unsuspecting public.

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Buick Grand National GNX (1987)

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Buick's Grand National was a surprise hit when it debuted in 1982, and after taking 1983 off, it returned the following year packing fuel injection and an intercooler, continuing its reign of V-6–powered terror. But with the clock ticking on the entire rear-wheel-drive Regal lineup, Buick figured an even higher-performance version of the GN would be a fitting tribute for its 1987-model-year swan song. Enter the Buick Regal Grand National GNX. With production initially capped at 500 units (547 examples ultimately were built), the formula for creating the GNX was reportedly hatched at the 1985 Indianapolis 500 during a bull session between Buick and McLaren.


Buick Grand National GNX (1987)

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While in the able hands of McLaren Performance Technologies (founded by Bruce McLaren but since completely severed from the British concern), which was then owned by Michigan-based American Sunroof Corporation, the heads for the Buick 3.8-liter V-6 were ported, the engine mapping reworked, a different Garrett AiResearch turbo fitted, and the automatic transmission beefed up for GNX duty. Available only in black, GNXs sported fender flares and 16-inch wheels; the interiors received a numbered dash plaque and a full complement of Stewart-Warner gauges. Already potent in Grand National trim—by 1980s standards anyway—the GNX was officially rated at 276 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque, although most independent sources quoted output closer to 300 horsepower.

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Buick Grand National GNX (1987)

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At the track, C/D extracted a 4.7-second zero-to-60-mph time from the GNX, proving that while the Grand National was menacing, the GNX was absolutely sinister. The privilege of wielding that power didn't come cheap, however, the GNX commanding an $11,000 premium over the base price of a Grand National. Price, performance, and evil aesthetics aside, the GNX ultimately stood for something that was in seriously short supply in 1987: a domestic car brand kicking ass simply because it could. —Andrew Wendler


Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z (1985–1990)

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The third-generation Chevrolet Camaro is a wheeled embodiment of the 1980s, the angular styling the perfect complement to that red-leather Michael Jackson jacket in the closet, the removable T-tops ideal for blow-drying that 'do on the go. But while lesser Camaros of the period fail to inspire the same sentimentality as do Fox-body Mustangs, the IROC-Z carved out a rabid following that carries forward to today.

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Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z (1985–1990)

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The high-output Camaro came with the Corvette's 5.7-liter V-8 (slightly detuned to 220 horsepower) and was introduced with the goal of knocking Ford's pony car off its pedestal. While that didn't exactly happen, with the Camaro IROC-Z losing its first Car and Driver comparison test against the Mustang 5.0, this Chevy still has a permanent place in our '80s-lovin' hearts. —Alexander Stoklosa


Datsun 280ZX 10th Anniversary Edition (1980)

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Not just any 280ZX could make this list. The 10th Anniversary Edition that was released in 1980 does. Nicknamed "Black Gold" because of its color scheme inside and out, this special edition was completely over the top. Only 3000 were built, and all were so lavishly appointed that there were virtually no options. Of course, the real reason you're reading about the Black Gold ZX here is, well, because of the absolutely spectacular ad that Datsun ran to promote it. It's all bright gold lights and smoke machines, big hair and mustaches, an earworm of a theme song, and sexually suggestive imagery. —Daniel Golson

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