The 1980s was a transitional decade for American sports cars.
The classic muscle car was no longer the dominant performance car hoarding floor space in American manufacturer showrooms. Hot hatchbacks, sports sedans and even mid-engine coupes were now sold alongside ground-pounding quarter-mile terrors.
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Although many consider the 1980s a low-point in American performance cars, there were a few diamonds in the rough that were worthy competitors to the best Europe and Asia had to offer. In fact, pairing this list down to just the top 10 meant leaving out memorable cars like the Delorean DMC-12, Dodge Shelby Dakota, Pontiac Grand Prix McLaren Turbo, Chrysler Conquest and the ill-fated Merkur XR4Ti.
So what did make the list? Read on to find out the top 10 best American sports cars of the ‘80s.
10. 1989 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe
For 1989, the Thunderbird entered into its 10th generation, receiving more aerodynamic bodywork and a longer wheelbase. The previous generations Turbo Coupe was replaced by a new performance model called the Super Coupe.
As the name implies, the Super Coupe was powered by a 3.8-liter supercharged V6 engine that made an impressive 210 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque. More than just a powerful engine, the Super Coupe also came equipped with a limited-slip rear-differential, anti-lock brakes, skirt package, stiffer suspension and optional five-speed manual transmission.
9. 1987 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z
The compact Dodge Daytona hatchback was introduced in 1984. Always available with a turbocharged engine option, things were taken to the next level in 1987. Called the Daytona Shelby Z, power from the 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder was bumped up to 174 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque.
For a lightweight three-door hatchback, the Daytona Shelby was quite the performer and included an upgraded suspension to match the vehicle’s straight-line performance.
8. 1989 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z
The 1980s weren’t a great decade for the Chevrolet Camaro. Power levels were down and the larger, more powerful 5.7-liter V8 was straddled to an automatic transmission.
But by 1989, the IROC-Z had turned into quite the performer, as the 5.0-liter V8 engine now made upwards of 230 hp when paired to the five-speed manual transmission. Also available with this combination was a higher-performance rear axle and race-ready 1LE option code that turned the Camaro into a track-ready warrior.
7. 1989 Ford Taurus SHO
A family sedan may seem out of place on this list, but the 1989 Ford Taurus SHO was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Under the hood resided a 3.0-liter V6 that made max power at a lofty 7,000 rpm. That allowed the modestly displaced six-cylinder engine to unleash 220 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque.
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The only transmission available was a five-speed manual and the SHO was distinguishable form regular Taurus models thanks to its more aggressive lower bodywork. Many consider the 1989 SHO the equal to European sports sedans of the same era.
6. 1986 Dodge Shelby Omni GLHS
Like the Dodge Daytona, Carroll Shelby got his hands on the subcompact Omni in the 1980s. The result was one incredible hot hatch that could shame many more powerful and more expensive sports cars.
Power for the Shelby Omni GLHS came from a 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that made 175 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque in 1986. In a car that weighed around 2,200 lbs, that was a lot of power and the GLHS truly was a pocket rocket.
5. 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT
Although this would be the final year for the Fiero, Pontiac sent it out with a bang. All Fieros this year would receive a heavily revised suspension setup that improved both handling and driveability. Brakes and steering were also upgraded, as were the engines.
Even if the Fiero GT still only made 140 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque from its 2.8-liter V6 engine, having it mid-mounted in a car that weighed less than 2,800 lbs and finally having it fitted with the suspension it deserved meant the 1988 Fiero was a blast to drive.
4. 1989 Chevrolet Corvette
Much like the Camaro, the Corvette suffered through a lot of dark years in the 1980s. Despite this, it was one of the best performance vehicles carrying the red, white and blue banner through that decade.
In 1989, it received a proper six-speed manual transmission, replacing the aging 4+3 manual. The new tranny got the most out of the 5.7-liter V8’s modest 245 hp and 345 lb-ft of torque. It gave the Corvette improved straight-line performance, better matching its great handling capabilities.
3. 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am
It may be hard to believe, but in 1989 the fastest American Sports car was a Trans Am, not the Corvette. Called the Turbo Trans Am, the high-performance Pontiac came equipped with a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine borrowed from Buick. Power figures were officially listed at 250 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque, but many consider these figures grossly underrated.
Available as a coupe or T-top, the only downside to the Turbo Trans Am is the fact it came exclusively equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission. A killjoy for driving pleasure, the automatic did make for one quick car at the drag strip.
2. 1987 Ford Mustang GT
The fox body Ford Mustang is quite possibly the poster child for American performance in the 1980s. It seems everyone either had one of these cars or knew someone who did. Offered with a variety of engines over the years, many people point to the turbocharged four-cylinder SVO as the greatest 1980s Ford Mustang.
A Ford Mustang needs a V8 engine and we favor the 1987-1989 Mustang as the greatest 1980s-era fox bodies. 1987 was the year that the Mustang received the ‘aero’ face-lift and the
5.0-liter 4.9-liter V8 engine was upgraded to now make 225 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Those figures don’t quite match up to that of the Turbo Trans Am, but unlike that special edition Pontiac, the V8 Mustang could be had with a manual transmission.
1. 1987 Buick GNX
It may not be the fastest, sexiest or best handling American car of the 1980s, but the Buick GNX is easily the most badass and arguably the most iconic. Blacked out, debadged and looking like a vehicular super villain, the GNX stood in stark contrast to Buick’s otherwise sedate image.
Under the hood lurked a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine that was rated at 276 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. Like the Pontiac Turbo Trans Am that used the same engine, these figures seemed underrated for the amount of straight line performance the GNX was capable of.
Far from a nimble, well-balanced handling machine, Buick’s engineers did their best to make the GNX negotiate corners and get the power to the ground. Sadly, like the Turbo Trans Am, the GNX only came equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission.