The output figures of Japanese domestic market (JDM) engines are often different than the engines found in the same car when it is released in other markets. Despite the difference in output, many JDM engines are known for their extreme reliability, high endurance and power. Reliability is not the only thing these engines have going for them. Many are surprisingly powerful and torquey (is that even a real word?). Add to that how lightweight these engines are and you have the beginnings of a fast sleeper car.
The sneaky power and a huge aftermarket for performance parts have made JDM motors fan favorites around the world. Many of these engines have a near cult following. Read on for a list of the ten best JDM engines…and then to make things interesting, we’ll take a look at the worst Japanese engines out there too!
Ranking The Top 10 JDM Engines!
You can’t build a list of the best JDM engines without including the Honda B-series family. The B-series included SOHC and DOHC inline four poppers. The SOHC versions were put into economy cars, while the DOHC were equipped as a performance option. The B-series was also the first time Honda used its SOHC VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) system.
There are four engines in the B-series: the B16, B17, B18, B20. Of the four, the B16 and B18 are by far the best JDM motors of the group (though the JDM B20B is pretty good). These engines can produce between 126 and 190 hp without modification. In addition to great power, the B16 has a redline in excess of 8,500 rpm.
The Honda B16B was specially manufactured for the JDM Honda Civic EK9 Type R; despite the engine’s small volume of 1595 cc, it delivers 186 hp! This engine is capable of reaching as much as 8900 RPM and when fitted into the chassis of the Civic EK9 Type R, it was the right weapon. In addition to its excellent performance, the engine was very durable because it contained pistons that had less friction in the cylinder, a fully balanced crankshaft, lighter inlet valves, a dual-layered inlet and exhaust valve springs and, most importantly, a different short block.
The Subaru EJ20 is a tough and durable powerplant. This JDM engine was used in the Subaru Legacy, Subaru Impreza WRX STI, and Subaru Forester for years. The EJ20 can be naturally aspirated or have a turbo attached to it. Of the two, the turbocharged EJ20 is by far the more popular.
Many fans of JDM motors refer to the turbo EJ20 as the EJ20T. Sounds reasonable, but Subaru designated the turbo engine JDM as the EJ20G. These engines made their way into the top performance packages of several cars, but the Subaru WRX STI maybe the most notable of the group. The Subaru STI motor has been a WRC rally circuit standout and is known for being ready to handle anything you are willing to tackle. The EJ20G has a power range from 220 hp at 6400 RPM to 275 hp at 6500 RPM. Because of its high endurance, this unit is used for rally racing and, thanks to this engine, Subaru often finds itself in pole positions at rally events. Highly regarded as one of the best JDM Subaru motors in history.
Nissan’s VR-series of engines is a group of DOHC twin-turbocharged V6s. The group has powered GT-Rs and Jukes alike. The Nissan VR38DETT is the best among these V6 stallions. The VR38DETT is a 3.8L, 24 valve beauty that weighs a scant 600 lbs. It is equipped with variable valve timing and a feedback control system to change the fuel/air mix based on engine load. Nissan offers this beastie in the Nissan GT-R and the rare JDM Nissan Juke R – it was also used in the Nissan Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge prototype from 2014 too. Buyers can opt for 480, 550, or 600 hp if they opt for the top tier twin turbo engines. That is more than enough to meet any need! This is the most powerful option on our list of top quality JDM engines for sale.
Mazda has been toying with Wankel rotary engines since the late 1950s. The first mass produced version was the L8A found in the Mazda Cosmo that debuted at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show. The13 B is the Wankel engine that Mazda has produced the most of The 13B enjoyed a 30 year production run that ended in 2002. It has been in so many Mazda offerings that it has almost become synonymous with the automaker.
Perhaps the best version of the 13B is the 13B-REW. The 13B-REW is small, even as JDM motors go. Coming in at just 1.3L, its power is boosted by twin Hitachi HT-12 turbochargers. The primary turbo provides boost up to 4,500 rpm then the secondary turbo comes online. The use of this system marked the first time a sequential twin turbocharger engine. The engines produced during the 2002 model year are capable of 280 hp; great output for a 1.3L. Mazda’s cars that come equipped with these top quality JDM engines and transmissions are an absolute blast to drive.
The Mitsubishi 4G63 is a 2.0L version of the Mitsubishi Sirius engine. These JDM motors were placed in the Galant, Eclipse, Lancer, and several Mitsubishi pickup trucks. The naturally-aspirated versions were well known for their fuel sipping ways and long-term durability. They were NEVER known for their exciting acceleration or top-end performance. That is where the 4G63T comes in.
The Mitsubishi 4G63T is the turbocharged version of the 4G63. The 4G63T has powered Mitsubishi’s entries in the World Rally Championships for years. Great cars imported from Japan like WRC versions of the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, Lancer Evolution, Carisma GT, and Lancer WRC04 were powered by variants of this engine. It powered the Lancer Evolution Tommi Mäkinen drove on his way to winning four consecutive WRC titles. Even stock, the 4G63T is beefy. In a 2003 Lancer Evolution, the output from a stock 4G63T is 271 hp at 6500rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.
The Toyota A series of JDM motors is a family of inline-fours with displacements between 1.3L and 1.8L. Toyota began developing the series in the late 1970s with the goal of creating a line of engines that could strike a balance between fuel economy and performance. The A-series includes the first mass-produced DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder engine, the 4A-GE. A mainstay in the JDM engine depot, this engine has been developed over a long time; Toyota wanted to build a small volume unit that would be powerful while still being very economical and reliable.
The Toyota 4A-GE was built over five generations. The first were called the Blue Tops for the blue lettering used on the valve covers. These JDM engines had an output of 112 hp and 97 lb-ft of torque. The Red and Black Top second gen versions were capable of 115 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque. The third gen Red Top version of these JDM Japanese engines had output of 123 hp and 110 lb-ft of torque. The Silver Top fourth gen was capable of 157 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. In the end, the fifth gen Black Top version of the Toyota 4A-GE was capable of 162 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. This version of the 4A-GE is highly sought after by tuners and has quite a parts aftermarket.
This is one of the more respected JDM engines transmissions combinations ever produced. The Nissan SR20DET is a 2.0L DOHC turbocharged inline four with electronic fuel injection. The SR20DET was used in several cars in the JDM and power varied by use. In its most fuel efficient variation, it was capable 202 hp and 202 lb-ft of torque. When given more power as in the Nissan S15 Silvia, it was capable of 250 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. This 16 valve powerplant is very popular in among tuners.
The Honda K20 is one of the most reliable JDM Honda engines on our list. It was built to have a long life and keep soccer moms running their kids to sports in the family Honda Stream. The base K20 was a sensible engine for a sensible purpose.
That sensibility got a little twisted with the Honda K20A that was used in the Civic Type R and Honda Accord on more than one occasion. When used in the Civic Type R the VTEC engine, output has ranged between 212 hp and 221 hp with torque ranging from 150 to160 lb-ft. It’s also available in certain Honda Acura models too, with JDM exclusive front clips.
The Nissan RB line of JDM engines is a group of straight-6 cylinder powerplants built between 1985 and 2004. Displacement ranged between 2 and 3L. The RB family was used almost exclusively in the Skyline family of compact cars, sports cars, and compact executive cars.
One of the most exciting members of the RB family is the RB26DETT. These are the 2.6L JDM engines used in the 1989-2002 Nissan Skyline GT-R. The 24 valve Nissan RB26DETT uses six individual throttle bodies and a parallel twin-turbo system using T25-type ceramic turbochargers. The first version of this engine was rated at 276 hp at 6800 rpm and 260 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. By 2002, output had been increased to 276 hp at 6800 rpm and 289 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. These numbers may seem low, but the RB26DETT is very modification friendly. Tuners have found ways to coax 500 hp or more out of an RB26DETT.
With JDM engines as powerful as the Nissan RB26DETT and the Honda K20A on the market, Toyota was forced to respond in kind. That response was the 2JZ-GTE. The 2JZ-GTE is a DOHC straight-6. Sequential twin turbochargers with an air-intercooler set the engine off.
The Toyota 2JZ-GTE was first placed in the Toyota Aristo V for the 1991 model year – and the Toyota Lexus GS300 – but quickly moved to the Toyota Supra RZ. For the Supra, the 2JZ-GTE used recessed piston tops for a lower compression ratio and a cylinder head with redesigned ports, cams, and valves. Like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Supra with JDM engines had an advertised output of 276 hp; however, the Supra had 320 lb-ft of torque. When Toyota added VVT-i, torque jumped to 333b-ft. In other markets output was 321 hp and 320 lb-ft.
There are at least a dozen other JDM engines that could have made our list – but while many lists focus on celebrating the best examples of a particular thing, we’re going to dedicate the second half of this article to the worst Japanese engines out there too!
Nine Japanese Engines with the Worst Engineering Failures
Most of the time everyone wants to talk about the GOATs (Greatest of All Time) and debate which engine they’d swap into their favorite ride if money was no object. Would it be a Nissan RB-series from the famed Skyline GT-R? What about the Toyota 2JZ from the iconic Supra? Both are probably on everyone’s top engines list, but the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about are the engines that couldn’t dream of showing up on a GOAT list. These are the engines that are debated as the worst Japanese engines of all time because of poor engineering.
Honda D-Series (single cam with VTEC, 1.6L)
The buzz initially started with the JDM dual cam VTEC engine which was accompanied by the hope that it would make its way across the pond to the US market. Sadly, it never made it with the dual camshaft formula.
The Honda Civic EX and Si arrived with a single camshaft VTEC engine when it started selling in the US market. It was definitely a step up from the DX and LX trims with the non-VTEC engine, but it seemed to be stuck living in the shadow of the DOHC VTEC of the Japanese domestic market. As many tried to make the single camshaft engine a real performer, they instead found every weak link in the engine. Those links included the connecting rods and smaller bores in the block, and anything standing in the way needed to be upgraded if you wanted to get significant power from the engine.
The aftermarket did give everything it could to make the engine scream, but as most found out the hard way, it was almost necessary to simply swap the engine with a better model if you wanted to have a shot at making more power.
Mazda 13B Renesis
The Mazda RX7 had a huge fan base which was deeply saddened when the RX7 left US shores in 1995. Nine years later, that fan club waived the banner that a new RX platform was coming in the form of the Mazda RX8 with the 13B Renesis naturally aspirated engine. The cheers didn’t last long, though, as the Renesis turned out to be a real dud. The engine touted a reduction in power to aid in miles per gallon, but even that started to sour as owners screamed foul on the MPG ratings. It turned into an all-out uproar and Mazda went so far as to buy back some RX8 models to satisfy their consumers. The aftermarket did put together some forced induction options, but the cost was hard to justify as the performance couldn’t really compete with any modified import in the same class. The Engine Management System seemed to fight against the changes anyway, and most RX8 owners chose to abandon ship to another chassis with some leftover heartburn.
Nissan KA24E (2.4L, single overhead cam)
The Japanese market 180SX and S13 Silvia were a huge hit in Japan and sparked a wave of attention from US consumers when the US version 240SX made its way across the pond. Fans of the car were sadly disappointed when they learned that the turbocharged engine in the Japanese models had been replaced with the single camshaft engine common with the Nissan Hardbody truck. The engine did provide significant torque, but couldn’t muster the power of its cousin from Japan. The iron block would hold significant power with forced induction, but the single camshaft just wouldn’t cooperate as much. Fans of the 240SX chassis were happy after two years of dull performance when the dual camshaft KA24DE replaced the single camshaft E engine. The E and DE engine are still referred to as a “truck engine” 30 years later, a stigma that will probably never go away. This engine suffered from too much hype and anticipation over marketing and couldn’t deliver on the promises.
Toyota 4A-GE (non VVT head version)
The Toyota Corolla AE86 had a great Japanese professional driver in the 1980s and subsequently started a legion of new fans of the 4A-GE and Corolla when the anime series Initial D started in the early 2000s. Fans flocked to pick up the chassis and build capable drift cars as seen in Initial D, but most were disappointed in the 4A-GE engine once they realized how wimpy it was in real life. Thankfully, the AE101 chassis introduced a variable valve timing (VVT) head atop the iron block, but the new chassis had no RWD option to match the new potential with. The aftermarket began to upgrade to individual throttle bodies, replace the throttle bodies with carburetors, or swap the new VVT engines into the older AE86 chassis to combine the new promising engine with a RWD option. Others left the engine as it was and went the forced induction route unless they moved on to another chassis and abandoned the AE altogether.
The Toyota 1MZ-FE engine started with a lot of promise. It was used in a wide range of vehicles from the 1990s through the mid-2000s, and even had a supercharger kit available from Toyota Racing Development. The aluminum block contained steel sleeves and was topped with a variable valve timing head (VVT) that showed it had a lot of potential. In 1996, the engine even made Ward’s top-10 best engines list.
As many owners found out the hard way, though, not keeping a steady eye on maintenance and oil changes proved costly, as engine sludge build up sent a number of these Japanese engines to an early grave. If engine sludge didn’t affect the engine, another killer proved to be head gasket failures with cracks in the aluminum heads that caused overheating issues.
Consumers eventually started a class action lawsuit because of the engine sludge and overheating issues. The engineers didn’t take into account their consumer wasn’t going to keep to a strict plan of oil changes, and that mistake cost the engine its place on the best list and sent it to the worst list.
The Toyota 7M-GTE engine was brought out with the 1986 Toyota Supra and carried into the 1992 release. The inline six-cylinder was a later variant of the 5M and 6M series engines, and the ‘T’ in ‘GTE’ stood for Turbo. The 7M showed an increase in displacement up to 3.0 liters and was meant to really put the Supra up against other factory supercars from JDM automakers. The 7M-GTE started to show reliability issues with failed head gaskets and knocking connecting rods when boost was dialed up on the factory engine, which would later be phased out come the introduction of the 1JZ in the 1993 Supra.
The Nissan QR-series engine was the replacement for the beloved SR and the mediocre KA engines. It ranged in size from a 2.0L to a 2.5L, and was used extensively in Nissan’s global lineup. One of the variations was the Sentra SE-R Spec-V in the US market which showed a sign of weakness in its peak of popularity. The Sentra SE-R used the 2.5L variation common with the Altima 4-door sedan and featured an integrated catalytic converter that suffered from poor ECU tuning on Sentra models.
The Altima didn’t suffer the same issue, but it did have an issue with piston rings over the course of its life that didn’t translate back to the Sentra. Sentra issues also showed up as higher oil and water consumption for consumers, as well as loose screws on the intake plenum that would find their way into the engine combustion chamber for a meeting with the pistons and valves. The piston ring issue on the Altima did spur a recall campaign, but the Sentra didn’t see similar action.
Subaru EE20 (Boxer Diesel)
The Subaru EE20 Diesel was supposed to be a complete innovation of the famed Boxer engine that Subaru fans already loved. This diesel engine was released in the Forester and Outback models and was advertised with lower emissions (38% fewer hydrocarbons and 60% lower carbon monoxide) over the competitive gasoline engine on the same models. Diesels produce significantly more soot than a similar gasoline engine, and in order to burn that soot out of the exhaust particulate filter, they needed to be run at full operating temperature for longer periods of time.
However, engineers didn’t take into account that their target market lived mostly in town and didn’t drive consistently at full operating temperature. As the mostly urban drivers found out, their catalytic converters weren’t being purged as regularly as the engineers planned, and converters soon plugged and needed replacing. The aftermarket tried to get around the problem by adding performance chips, but that opened a Pandora’s box that also caused the direct fuel injection to make holes in the engine pistons.
The Mitsubishi 4G54B had a lot of promise but failed to deliver the goods. It sounded great on paper; it featured computer-controlled fuel injection and a single turbocharger, but it was hard to tune for more power and was prone to head gasket failures. Two fuel injectors behind the throttle body provided fuel for the engine, but this positioning showed trouble with equal distribution to all cylinders.
The throttle body, intake manifold, and cylinder head couldn’t flow enough air to really make significant power. The aftermarket never embraced the 4G54 enough to build and tune past the flaws and fans started to move on to the 4G63 engine which was much more capable.
As easy as it is to quickly blame poor engineering and design for all of the noted engine failures, one of the hardest things to design for is the end customer. While some designs look great on paper, the customer is the one who proves that the design is capable of performing as it is intended.
If their behavior is not part of the Design Analysis Matrix, the end result can and will most likely suffer in the customer’s hands. Engineers are problem solvers by nature, and they learned a valuable lesson with these ill-fated Japanese engines:
It’s easier to design a mousetrap based on customer behavior than to train your customer to use the product as it was designed for in the first place.