The best car innovations of the 1990s

16th August 2022
Simon Ostler

The 1990s feel like a scarily long time ago now. A lot has changed since that most colourful of decades, including the size, shape and safety of our cars. In the space of 10 years, we went from angular boxes to a smoother and more rounded aesthetic by the turn of the century. But while many ‘90s cars are beginning to leap into the realm of modern (or not so modern) classics, some of the technology introduced in that period has remained integral to modern car design all these years later.


Xenon Headlights (1991)

Cars have had headlights since the 1880s, and back then they were essentially oil lamps bolted onto the car itself. It wasn’t long before manufacturers began to reap the benefits of electricity, with the first electric headlamps as we know them today being implemented by Cadillac in 1912. The next progression was halogen lamps in 1962 which were brighter and far more efficient than anything before. Surely the headlamp had gone as far as it could?

It took a while, but almost 30 years later the halogen headlamp was cast aside by BMW in 1991, as it introduced futuristically-named xenon headlights (also called high-intensity discharge lights) on its updated E32 7 Series. The science behind them is far too complicated for us to even attempt to explain, but it suffices to stay these new lights were brighter and more efficient than halogen bulbs, and they also lasted far longer before you had to change them.


On-board diagnostics (OBDII) (1994)

This is an interesting one. The idea of on-board diagnostics was to create a means by which vehicle emission controls could be policed by monitoring the performance of a car and its various mechanical components. The first implementation of this idea came in 1980, introduced by General Motors. Each year the car would be subjected to an emissions test, whereby certain parameters would need to be met for the car to remain road legal. The idea was to coerce drivers in to buying a more efficient car rather than risk being left without one.

That first system was referred to as OBD-I, but it was flawed in many respects, not least that manufacturers could use their own diagnostic devices to measure, and probably doctor its figures… dieselgate anyone? So, in 1994, the State of California decided that a new, improved and standardised system be put in place whereby emissions figures could be accurately read and monitored to a much more thorough degree. This became mandatory in the US in 1996, with the likes of the Buick Regal, Toyota Camry and Ford Mustang among the early adopters, before Europe caught on five years later. Aside from emissions, various other systems checks can be carried out to ensure the car is running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.


Stability control (1995)

Another entry on the long list of driver assistance tech, manufacturers were introducing increasingly clever systems to aid drivers and limit the chance of mistakes and mishaps that could lead to accidents. One such system was electronic stability control (ESC), which was essentially designed to stop people from losing control of their cars. It relies on computers which monitor the grip/slip levels of the wheels and manage any potential loss of traction while accelerating or cornering. In essence, it’s a more complex and dynamic version of traction control.

If, for example, you began to slide in your rear-wheel-drive car, the ESC would kick in and limit the power delivered to the sliding wheels, or in an extreme case apply the brakes to try and stabilise the car. ESC was first introduced in 1995 on the unrelated Mercedes S 600 Coupe and Toyota Crown Majesta.


Connected cars (1996)

Now this could well be the most important automotive innovations of all time. The first connected cars were introduced in 1996 when General Motors with a feature called OnStar in several Cadillac models. It was a monthly subscription service and remains popular to this day. It was a joint venture with Motorola, and the idea was that a near enough instantaneous phone call from a mobile could be sent to the emergency services (via a call centre) in the event of an accident. But this was only the start. It wasn’t long before GPS data could be shared with the call centre in the event of airbag deployment, which removed the need for the driver to speak.

Connected cars haven’t just proved useful in the event of an accident though, this technology has paved the way for in-car sat-navs, in-car phone integration – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – Wi-Fi Hotspots and over-the-air updates. If ever an innovation had genuinely changed the game in terms of how we think of cars, this might be it.


SmartKey (1998)

Here’s an innovation based solely around convenience. Remember when we used to have unlock car doors with a key? How ever did we manage. Fortunately, the brains at Siemens decided keys were for losers… and anyone who lives in a house. In 1995 the company came up with the SmartKey, a fob that could unlock car doors as if by magic. The way it worked was quite simple. The key fob would be detected by radio signals emitted by the car which would trigger the doors to unlock and grant you access to the car or the boot without having to turn the key in the lock.

Mercedes liked the idea, and duly implemented SmartKey tech in the 1998 W220 S-Class under the ‘Keyless-Go’ moniker. The SmartKey fob itself could also be used to start the car by placing it into the ignition switch and turning it much like a regular key. Initially you’d have to touch or press a button to unlock the door, but more recent systems unlock the doors as soon as you walk within a certain distance of the car.


Hybrid powertrain (1997)

Much like electric cars, hybrid cars have been around far longer than you might think. The Lohner-Porsche, for example was a hybrid car built in 1901, but the first production car that was globally available to the public was the Toyota Prius, first launched in Japan in 1997.

The XW10 model undercut the rest of the market by two years, with the likes of Honda bringing its Insight Hybrid to the market in 1999, so it was a pretty substantial flex by Toyota, and it has maintained its superiority in the hybrid sector pretty much ever since. The first-generation Prius was powered by a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine coupled with a 200-volt electric motor. The engine produced 58PS (43kW) while the motor was good for 40PS (30kW), making for a total power output of 98PS (73kW). OK so it wasn’t great, but everything has to start somewhere, and the hybrid powertrain has become an integral part of the modern automotive industry. We’ve seen plenty of far more exciting hybrid cars since, from the Honda NSX to the McLaren P1, not to mention current Formula 1 cars.

  • List

  • Innovations

  • BMW

  • 7 Series

  • Mercedes

  • S-Class

  • Cadillac

  • De Ville

  • Toyota

  • Prius

  • Ford

  • Mustang

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