The late 1990s may be past the peak of what we consider the decade’s best, but it wasn’t a period without its hits. There were plenty of them in 1997, a year that as of 2022 will be 25 years behind us, clearing another year of cars for importation to the United States. Some of them are widely beloved classics that some people have been counting down the days for, while others are oddities yearned for only by small niches. Most, unavoidably, are Japanese, showing that even as the decade wound down, the Land of the Rising Sun still didn’t miss.
And in its honor, we’ll kick off with one of its greatest hits.
Honda Civic Type R (EK9)
Having debuted the Type R badge on the NSX, then honored the Integra with a Type R of its own, the Civic finally joined the club in 1997. It did so in style, arriving with a stiffer, seam-welded chassis, double-wishbone suspension, reduced sound deadening to cut weight, and of course, a higher-strung powertrain. Its VTEC-equipped, 1.6-liter B-series four-cylinder engine generated 185 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque, which a five-speed manual sent through a helical limited-slip differential to the front wheels. Only some 16,000 EK9 Type Rs were made, and the ones that are left are largely in the hands of owners who covet them for what they are: A sport compact and tuning culture icon.
1997 Honda Civic Type R
Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution
1997 marked Mitsubishi’s return to the top of the podium at the Dakar Rally, and that in turn meant the introduction of everyone’s favorite SUV: A homologation Pajero. Debuting as a gloriously ’90s widebody two-door SUV, the Pajero Evolution ripped across rough terrain under the power of a 3.5-liter twin-cam V6 making 276 horsepower and 257 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual (or automatic) and two-speed transfer case distributed this power to all four wheels, which suspended the body on double-wishbone front and long-travel multilink rear suspension. As a symbol of Mitsubishi’s best decade, it’ll be a hot commodity, and one only made hotter by its approximately 2,500-unit production run.
1998 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution
Holden Commodore SS (VT)
GM’s now-defunct Australian division Holden (rest its V8 Colorado-building soul) redesigned its flagship full-size sedan for ’97, and that brought improvements to its performance trim, the SS. Up front was a 5.0-liter V8, which Cars Guide reports spun 261 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque through a four-speed automatic or a five- or six-speed manual to the independently sprung, LSD-equipped rear axle. Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) also offered a broadly similar, more luxurious, though more limited version called the Clubsport, either of which will probably be as close to a four-door Pontiac GTO as you’ll get.
1998 Holden Commodore SS (VT)
Nissan Laurel (C35)
First glances won’t make apparent why the Nissan Laurel belongs on this list—it’s an unassuming midsize sedan, and it was only sold with a four-speed automatic. That auto, though, could be headed by Nissan’s 2.5-liter turbocharged inline six, the RB25DET; the same engine seen in the Skyline GTS-T and the baby brother of the GT-R’s RB26DETT. It may be the lesser of the two, but it still has a tolerance for boost, and as it drives the rear axle, it makes the Laurel one sleepy Nissan.
1997 Nissan Laurel
Toyota Century V12
A Toyota Century is what the well-to-do in Japan buy when they consider a top-of-the-line Lexus LS too ostentatious. Its old-school styling belies a world-class luxury sedan with wool upholstery of bewildering quality, air suspension, and a front passenger seat with a fold-down panel so backseat occupants can stretch their legs. Only the smoothest of engines is worthy of hauling it around, and for the redesigned 1997-onward Century that meant Toyota’s only production V12; a 5.0-liter unit producing 276 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. Here’s to hoping these miraculous engines make their way stateside in the cars they were built for—even though I can’t fault you for working one into your Subaru WRX.
1998 Toyota Century
LTI TX1 London Taxi
As long as we’re on the subject of neoclassics, let’s also have one from Britain; the London Taxis International TX1. As its name suggests, it was designed to supplant the ancient Austin FX4 as London’s preferred taxi. The TX1 did so in a body that paid homage to its forebear, and with sturdy, if not exactly high-performance mechanicals. Its 2.7-liter Nissan diesel makes only 80 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque, which apparently turned the rear wheels through either a four-speed auto or
an apparent five-speed manual. Say it with me: Diesel manual wagon.
LTI TX1 in Singapore
Honda Accord SiR (CF4)
While everyone trips over each other fighting for a Civic Type R, cleverer Honda fans may seek out this lesser-known sports sedan from the same year. It’s not a full Type R, but with a 2.0-liter Honda F-series under the hood, it still has 197 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. Automatics seem to be a common transmission choice, but five-speed manuals exist. And if the love ’90s Accord owners have for their cars is any indication, this is one classic Honda not to pass up.
1998 Honda Accord SiR
Toyota Caldina GT-T
This JDM wagon may not be one of Toyota’s prettiest designs, but it’s what’s under the hood that counts, right? There lies an improved version of the 2.0-liter turbo engine used in the Celica and MR2, producing 256 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. It could be paired with both a manual and all-wheel drive, allowing it to scoot from zero to 60 in the low sixes, and making it something of an offbeat alternative to a WRX. It’ll only get more offbeat as time goes on, too, as owners of the aforementioned sports cars like to pilfer Caldinas’ 3S-GTE engines—odds are there won’t be many Caldina GT-Ts left soon.
1997 Toyota Caldina Active Sports GT-T
This relic of Ford’s New Edge design era was more or less a stylized Fiesta coupe, which should tell you everything you need to know about how it handles. It’s light enough to not overburden its 1.7-liter engine, which generates 124 horsepower and 116 pound-feet of torque for its five-speed manual to forward to the front wheels. It’s not going to win any drag races, but Radwood awards? That’s another story.
1997 Ford Puma
Last but not least, we have a van—a delightful JDM one at that. Up front, it looks sort of like someone hugged a second-gen Dodge Caravan too tightly, while out back is a glass greenhouse that we for some reason never saw often enough on vans in the States. That alone makes it an airbrushed mural, a velour headliner, and some air suspension away from being a worthy show van.
Under the hood, the two most alluring engines have to be the 3.2-liter turbodiesel (LTI TX1 swap, anyone?) or the 3.5-liter V6, the same one used in the 350Z and Infiniti G35. Elgrands were auto-only, but were built with both rear- and all-wheel drive, so depending on your temperament, they can help you keep things under control on the ice or lose it entirely. Just remember not to fully uncork that VQ35DE, or people will think you’re hosting practice for a middle-school brass section.
Nissan Elgrand (E50)
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