These are the cars that shoved the Indian automobile industry into top gear after the market opened up post 1991. Till then India only had a steady diet of about five car brands such as the Hindustan Ambassador and Contessa, Premier Padmini, Standard Herald and 2000, the Maruti 800, Omni and Gypsy, and a range of Mahindra Jeeps.
However, once liberalisation set in 1991, it opened the floodgates to many new brands and models. These are the cars that changed the automotive landscape in India. Also read: 10 timeless cars we want back in India
Here’s a look at the cars that prevailed in India in the 1990s, from 1990 – 1999.
Maruti 1000 (1990) and Maruti Esteem (1993)
The Maruti 1000 was the first sedan of the 1990s. After being used to three box cars such as the Ambassador, Padmini and Contessa, this was a refreshing change. The Maruti 1000 was a sedan version of the Suzuki Swift / Cultus, and a design that caught the fancy of upwardly mobile India. It was powered by a 1-litre, 4 cylinder petrol engine that put out a mere 45 bhp of power – very underpowered. That changed in 1993, with the launch of the Maruti Esteem 1.3, powered by a 1.3 litre petrol engine that put out 60 bhp of power (in carburetted form).
Maruti Zen (1993)
The Maruti Zen was the first “hot” hatchback when it came out. The jellybean shape and the more powerful 993 cc four-cylinder engine (compared to the three-cylinder 800), that put out 50 bhp of power and had a five-speed manual transmission. The car was quick, being really light and a treat to drive. This was the car for the young generation of the 1990s. Everybody wanted one.
Daewoo Cielo (1995)
While most Indians were buying Maruti Esteems due to the lack of choice, the Daewoo Cielo, when launched in 1995, came as a breath of fresh air. Priced at just about the same levels as the Maruti Esteem, it offered far more car for your money. Spacious interiors and luxurious features made this car quite popular with buyers looking for a luxurious “status” symbol. The Cielo had a 1.5 litre engine that put out 75 bhp of power, making it one of the most powerful sedans of its time. (The Cielo was an old Opel Kadett design, the newer version of which was the Opel Astra).
Daewoo Matiz (1999)
The Daewoo Matiz was the second offering from Daewoo that came out in 1999. It was lauded for its “cute” looks and also for the engine. It put out 52PS of power from a three-cylinder, 800 cc engine with a five-speed manual transmission. The car had very nicely appointed interiors and a powerful air-conditioner. It was a refreshing change from its arch rival that had launched a year before it.
Hyundai Santro (1998)
The Hyundai Santro is probably the longest surviving hatchback after the Maruti 800. Launched in 1998, the Santro was the original “tall boy” design. It was a hit due to the extra space and comfort it offered compared to the other hatchbacks in the market then. It was powered by a 997 cc, four-cylinder petrol engine that put out 55 bhp of power – more power than the Maruti Zen of the time. This made it sporty and practical as well.
Hyundai Accent (1999)
Hyundai’s first sedan in India was the Accent, a car that has been extremely popular and survived even longer in the Indian market than the Maruti Esteem. The Accent came with power steering and air-conditioning as standard on all variants. The first Accent was powered by a 1.5 litre petrol engine that put out a whopping (for that time) 92 bhp of power – much more than the Maruti Esteem. Again the car was bought for its sportiness and ride comfort, being more spacious than the Esteem.
Ford Escort (1996)
Ford entered India in a tie-up with Mahindra. The joint-venture led to the launch of its first car, a large sedan, in the form of the Ford Escort. The Escort was a pretty spacious car with a large boot and comfortable rear seat. It came with all the creature comforts – powered mirrors, power steering, music system, air conditioning, but only front power windows! The car got off to a slow start as by then there was a fairly good choice of cars in the Indian market. The first Escort came with a 1.3 litre push-rod petrol engine that was not too powerful. The diesel 1.8 litre was the car of choice.
Mitsubishi Lancer (1997)
Mitsubishi had a good start in the Indian market, but its tie-up with Hindustan Motors has proved to be its undoing. The first car that the HM-Mitsubishi joint venture launched in India was the Lancer. This car came with all its sporting history intact, which helped it get out of showrooms faster. It was powered by a 1.5 litre petrol engine (the diesel came later) that pumped out 86 bhp of power and offered excellent ride and handling. For enthusiasts, this was the car of choice.
Opel Astra (1996)
Those who wanted a bit of snob value, picked up the Opel Astra, General Motors’ debut car in the Indian market. The Astra, when launched in 1996, came with a 1.6 petrol engine and single-point fuel injection (the Cielo was offering multi-point fuel injection at the time). The car put out a modest 76 bhp of power, which was later upgraded in 1997. It had well-done interiors and an airy cabin. Power mirrors, windows, power steering, central locking were all standard features.
Mahindra Classic (1996)
Mahindra had already been producing a line of Jeeps in the Indian market. But what really gave it a sporting image was the launch of the Mahindra Classic (with the engine from the MM540). The Classic came with a 2,112 cc Peugeot diesel engine, four-speed manual transmission and four-wheel drive (single lever). The styling is what made it appealing – wire wheels, open top with a short canopy and short-wheelbase body. It was totally macho.
Mahindra Armada (1993)
The Mahindra Armada was probably one of the first proper “family” SUVs from Mahindra. Based on the extended MM540 (CJ5) chassis, the Armada had a full steel body with five doors, a radically designed front and new dashboard with blower (and AC option). It came with five seats and an option to fit two jump seats in the boot as well. This was the predecessor the Bolero. It was powered by a 2.5 litre diesel engine (72 bhp) and five-speed manual transmission.
Tata Sierra (1991)
Tata has to be credited for creating some of the first really desirable SUVs. The Tata Sierra, based on the Tata 207 / Tata Mobile platform, was a butch looking SUV with only three doors, but comfortable seating for five. While the design looked really cool, with large bay windows at the rear, some found it a bit impractical – especially getting into the rear seat. It was powered by a 1998 cc, four-cylinder diesel engine that put out 68 bhp of power and a five-speed manual transmission. Later in its life, it got a turbocharged engine and a four-wheel drive option as well.
Tata Estate (1992)
Tata quickly followed up the Sierra SUV, with a station-wagon, arguably Tata’s first passenger car, the Tata Estate. The Tata Estate was also based on the Tata 207 platform. It had five doors, airconditioning, power steering, power windows and central locking. It looked a lot like a Mercedes Benz station wagon. It was also powered by the 1998 cc diesel engine from the Sierra. However, fit and finish was not that great.
Tata Indica (1998)
The Tata Indica was Tata’s attempt at the next big people’s car. After the Maruti 800, there really wasn’t any car that could move the masses. The other big draw for the car besides the space, was that the Indica also came with a diesel engine – a 1.4 litre engine that put out about 55 bhp of power. It also had a 1.4 litre petrol engine that had close to 70PS of power. The first car was a four-speed manual, which was quickly replaced with a five-speed in the V2 a year later.
Tata Sumo (1994)
The Tata Sumo was a huge hit in semi-urban and rural India when it launched in 1994, in answer to Mahindra’s Armada. It came with the same 2 litre diesel engine as the Tata Sierra and Estate, but had incredibly spacious interiors that could fit in up to 9 people in comfort. The flat panels and squared off body was reminiscent of Mercedes G-Wagon styling. The Sumo is still on sale in a more updated form – the Sumo Gold.
Tata Safari (1998)
India’s first real affordable luxury SUV came from Tata in 1998, in the form of the Tata Safari. It took the shortcomings of the Sierra and translated it into a whole new product. The Safari was built ground’s up on a new platform with comfortable seating for five and two additional jump seats in the boot. The design of the body shell has not changed since – even the Storme is the same. The first Safari came with a 1998 cc diesel engine with a turbocharger, putting out 90PS of power and a five-speed manual transmission with a four-wheel drive option.
Fiat Uno (1996)
Fiat first tied up with PAL and launched the Fiat Uno in 1996. The car had the potential to be a hit, but poor marketing limited its sales. It relaunched a year later with Tata Motors, but did not find much traction. It was a spacious car, with a 1.1 litre petrol engine and later a 1.7 litre diesel engine. Build quality was good and it had good ride quality. However, by the late 1990s the boxy styling was seen as dated.