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What the Australian new car market looked like in 1991

Ah, the days when you could buy a brand new hatchback for under $10,000.

If you’ve been watching the news of late, you’ll have noticed there’s plenty of chatter about the year 1991.

For those who haven't been following along, that was the last time Australia was officially in recession and it's been front of mind since September 3 this year, when the Reserve Bank of Australia declared Australia was once again in a recession.

While we can’t comment on the socioeconomic climate back then and how it compares to today, we can talk about the state of the world in terms we understand: Cars.

So just how far have we come? And how much has changed? To lighten the mood, we've grabbed our time capsule and transported ourselves back to the early 1990s.

So behold, the Australian new car market of 1991, in a nutshell...

Australian car sales in 1991

No surprises here – the Holden Commodore was 1991’s top-selling car, selling 54,259 units in total. For comparison’s sake, last year’s top-seller, the Toyota HiLux, shifted a total of 47,649 units.

However, 1991 was a tough year overall for new cars, with sales declining by 17 per cent year on year, according to VFACTs data published by Best Selling Cars Blog.

But ah, some things never change… the year’s big winner was Toyota, which snatched the top spot from Ford with a total 110,578 sales.

This was historic, for it marked the first time a Japanese manufacturer had ever topped the Australian sales charts. Of course, we’d soon get used to it.

While Holden dominated the ‘top-selling car’ spot for most of the’90s, come 1992 it would relinquish its crown to Ford, with the Falcon claiming top spot in 1992 and 1993 – then again in 1995.

As for luxury brands? It was BMW’s year, with the German marque outselling both Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.

These were the top five best-selling models of 1991:

  1. Holden Commodore
  2. Ford Falcon
  3. Ford Laser
  4. Toyota Camry
  5. Mitsubishi Magna

Meanwhile, overseas, the Renault Clio was named European Car of the Year.

Australian car brands and models in 1991

While we’re spoiled for choice these days, looking back at 1991 it’s possible to get a little misty-eyed about departed friends.

For starters, in the ’90s, Australians could still buy new cars from Lada, Saab, Daihatsu and Bufori – a then-Australian-made brand selling hand-made, 1930s-inspired cars that’s since relocated its operations to Malaysia.

Relatively new and exciting arrivals in 1991 included the second-gen Mitsubishi Magna, the Renault 19, the Volvo 960 and the Honda NSX.

Other old-school models still in rotation back then that are long-gone today included the Subaru Brumby, the Ford Maverick (which may be set to make a comeback), the Hyundai Excel and the Toyota Celica.

As proof everything old is new again, one of the newer additions to the Australian car market was the Mahindra Bushranger 4x4 – a dead ringer for the Mahindra Thar unveiled earlier this year.

Australian car prices in 1991

Looking back at car prices from the early ’90s, it seems affordable cars have since become more expensive, while premium cars have become better value.

For example, a Fiat Niki was $7000 in 1991, which translates to roughly $15,000 today – and that’ll get you into a manual Mitsubishi Mirage and not much else.

A Daihatsu Mira or Subaru Fiori would have cost you just under $9000, and you could have purchased a Mahindra Bushranger for just under $16,000.

At the top end of the market, the most affordable Mercedes-Benz was the manual 180E for just over $45,000, with air conditioning and a cassette player. In today’s money, that’s roughly $88,000, which can actually score you a fairly well-appointed Merc C300e.

Australian drivers in 1991

As of 1991, the average age of a passenger vehicle on Australia’s roads was 9.7 years – that number has since increased to 10.4 years.

The average annual distance travelled by cars in Australia in 1991 was 14,300 kilometres, with residents of the ACT travelling the furthest and Tasmanians the least.

Today, the average Australian travels 13,301km by car per year.

What the CarAdvice team would buy with $25,000 in 1991

While $25,000 today can barely get you a base-spec 2021 Toyota Yaris, it went a little further in 1991.

Adjusted for inflation, $25k is about $50k in today’s money, which these days could score you anything from a top-spec hybrid RAV4 (with change) to a base-spec Audi A3.

We gave the CarAdvice team $25,000 of 1991 money to play with and here’s what they chose...

Sam Purcell: While the Ashoka Chakra doesn't have the same ring as the Stars and Stripes, I'd be looking at the Mahindra Bushranger 4x4. An Indian copy of the Jeep CJ3B, the Bushranger only cost $15,990. That means I've got nearly 10-grand to spend on feeding that sweet, sweet 2.1-litre diesel, which makes 46kW at 2800rpm.

James Ward: Assuming I already own a $15,990 Niva Cabrio – I'd go for the $20,990 (plus $1,606 option of air-conditioning) Toyota Corolla GTI. With 98kW at just over 1000kg and a Bathurst class pedigree, it's a solid warm hatch for the time!

Jez Spinks: No offence, but glad I was living in the UK in 1991! But maybe I'm missing a lot of gems that were specific to Oz back then. Money no object, it would've been an NSX... but I'll stick with Honda and, as I'm a hatchback fan, plump for a Civic Si. Manual gearbox, naturally.

Rob Margeit: A 1991 Volkswagen Transporter (T3) Doppelkabine (DoKa), $24,995 when new. Manual, rear-wheel drive, rear-engined, 2.1-litre fuel-injected petrol and best of all, three doors, even if the third door was on the streetside in Australia, not kerbside. And the DoKa is quite possibly as far removed from the car I actually owned in 1991, a white with black vinyl roof, VF Valiant coupe, V8 of course. Would have made a nice paring in the garage.

Mike Stevens: With the benefit of hindsight, my choice would be the Subaru Brumby. It’s not a car I paid much attention to at all, in its day, but its absence from today’s new-car market has certainly made my heart grow fonder. But, as Subaru Australia’s Colin Christie told me in 2017, modern safety requirements mean the Brumby is unlikely to ever return in so compact and spritely a package – so that, to me, makes the old horse all the more appealing!

Kez Casey: For me it would be pretty hard to go past a Holden ute. In 1991 you could get a 5.0-litre VG S-pack manual for $24,883 with everything you could possibly want: radio cassette, power steering, tacho, painted bumpers... Uh, not much more actually, and no air-con. Great. Also, honourable mention to the Citroen AX, which was just $900 less than a VN Commodore. No wonder you never saw them.

Ben Zachariah: This is actually quite a hard one for me as I consider it a real golden era, and predictably I've owned a handful of cars from this period including a manual Toyota Camry wagon and a manual Suzuki Swift Cino, and we had a Nissan N13 Pulsar SSS in the family at one point. I currently own some BMWs and a Toyota HiLux from this period. But my own money, back then? It's got to be a Toyota AE93 Corolla GTi with that glorious 4AGE 1.6-litre twin-cam motor.

Justin Narayan: I’ll take a Mitsubishi Lancer. I bought one for $2000 many moons ago as a bit of a joke, but ended up adoring it. I'd love to experience one new, off the showroom floor.

Susannah Guthrie: I love a ’90s wagon (anything Volvo, please) so I’d pick the Toyota Camry Executive wagon in light blue. I wouldn’t be able to drive it though, because I’d be a baby. But something tells me it’d still be kicking by the time I got my L-plates.

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