Home > Car Culture >  

5 Coolest Japanese Cars of Each Decade Since 1960s

The Most Iconic Cars Ever to Come Out of Japan

Datsun 240Z is one of the best Japanese cars ever made

The car industry in Japan was established in 1907 when the first company Hatsudoki Seizo Co., Ltd. open its assembly lines. The venerable company has been defunct since 1951 but is survived by the Daihatsu brand.

Fast forward a century or so, and the Japanese car industry reigns supreme as their cars aren’t only the best-selling models across the globe, but also known to be affordable, practical, and above all reliable. The fact that four Japanese companies (Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Suzuki) find themselves in the top 10 largest car manufacturers in the world speaks in that favor. Combined, the quartet have sold around 24 million vehicles during 2018 which is roughly one quarter of the entire global car and commercial vehicle production for the year (around 91.5 million).

But let’s not delve any further into this rather complex issue. We’re here to appreciate some of the most iconic Japanese cars of each decade since 1960s when people all over the world generally started noticing the Japanese imports.

Over the decades, they’ve produced a plethora of both some of the coolest and some of the worst cars in the world. Some have remained in production since the sixties and reached immortality like the Toyota Corolla which is officially the best-sold car in history with way over 40 million units sold since 1966. Others, however, have disappeared into obscurity which is a natural order of things in a way.

Of those forgotten ones, some have been rather cool. These forgotten JDM models you probably never knew existed are a prime example. Speaking of JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) cars – there’s a whole global culture dedicated to them and it’s just the tip of the iceberg when the Japanese-made cars are concerned.

One of the reasons behind the Japanese car industry’s success are their capable and reliable engines which have powered some of the most iconic cars in history over the decades. Needless to say, there’s a vast selection of Japanese internal combustion engines that – like the JDM cars – have never left the island(s).

But enough with superlatives about the Japanese cars. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of their craftsmanship over the recent decades. Here are some of the best cars (or at least most interesting ones) ever to come from the “Land of the Rising Sun.” And, remember: there was only enough room for five models per decade which forced me into making some extremely difficult choices.


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1960s


The Japanese car industry’s export expansion began in the sixties when their export totals increased almost two hundred-fold. Some of the coolest small-bore cars from the sixties never made it from Japan to the U.S., however. In some cases, there was a limited supply of high-performance engines and a concern that Americans wouldn’t pay a premium for what was then thought of as cheap little cars.

Also by the mid-60s, manufacturers needed to alter their vehicles to meet new U.S. safety and emissions standards, and there was a concern whether the company would be able to sell enough of that model to recoup their investment. In any case, you can find examples of each of these cars at various car shows as enthusiasts have decided to take matter into their own hands and have cleverly imported the cars themselves.

05. Toyota 2000GT

The Toyota 2000GT was first displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1965 and helped revolutionize the public’s view of Japanese cars, then viewed as inexpensive, practical vehicles. As a sleek, two-seat  grand tourer, the 2000GT demonstrated Japan’s auto makers could produce premium vehicles as well.

The 2000GT was manufactured under contract by Yamaha between 1967 and 1970. The engine was an inline 2.0L six-cylinder with the block from a Toyota Crown sedan topped by a Yamaha double overhead camshaft head and three two-barrel Mikuni-Solex carbs. It produced 150 hp.

A five-speed manual transmission, and both a limited slip differential and four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes – a first for a Japanese car – were standard. Only 351 regular production units of the 2000GT were manufactured, 62 imported to the US and sold for about $6,800 (around $50,000 in today’s money).

Toyota 2000GT is a f...ing icon

04. Mazda Cosmo Series II

The Mazda Cosmo was introduced in 1967, but it wasn’t until the Series II was released a year later that it really made an impact. It had a more-powerful 128 horsepower two-rotor engine, power brakes, 15-inch wheels, and a 5-speed manual transmission.

Structurally, the wheelbase had been extended by 15 inches to improve interior space and ride quality ride. The front independent suspension on the Mazda sports car was by unequal-length A-arm with an anti-roll bar, while the rear utilized a De Dion tube, trailing arms and semi-elliptic leaf springs.

10-inch disc brakes were mounted in front with 7.9 inch drum brakes in the rear. There was no power assist. Of the 1,176 made, perhaps six Series II models were initially imported into the United States. Far too few for a sports car of such beauty, if you ask me.

Mazda Cosmo Series II

03. Honda S800

Honda was just moving into manufacturing cars and used the S series as an image vehicle to demonstrate their capabilities. Introduced in 1966 to replace the successful S600, the S800 was available as a coupe or a roadster. Honda demonstrated its technical prowess with small displacement engines by powering the S800 with a 791 cc inline four-cylinder that produced 70 hp.

Early examples continued to use the clever chain drive and independent suspension of the earlier Honda 600 in the rear. Soon after that, Honda switched to a solid axle rear end with four radius rods by using a Panhard rod. Part way through production, the front drum brakes were replaced with discs.

In February 1968, the S800M was introduced with flush mounted interior door handles, side marker lights outside, dual-circuit brakes, safety glass, and an engine equipped with a lean burn carburetor. These changes were made for the planned importation of the S800 to the U.S. market, but the program was cancelled. There wouldn’t be another Honda S car until the now-iconic S2000.

Honda S800 is one of the most famous Japanese cars of the sixties

02. Datsun Sports 2000 (Fairlady)

The Datsun Fairlady (called the Datsun 2000 in the U.S.) was the final example of a series of roadsters produced by Nissan in the 1960s which competed with the Alfa Romeo Spider, Fiat 1500 & 124, MGB, and Triumph Spitfire & TR6 sports cars.

The line began with the 1959 S211 and continued through 1970 with the SP311 (Sports 1600) and SR311 (Sports 2000) line. In Japan, the SR311 featured a 2.0L SOHC four-cylinder engine breathing through twin Mikuni-Solex carbs that produced 148 hp. Given its light 2100-pound weight and 5-speed gearbox it was capable of 0-60 in the 7 second range.

The U.S. version was limited to 133 horsepower due to emissions regulations but the above-mentioned powertrain was still attainable as a Competition package. Around 14,500 units of the Sports 2000 were reportedly produced between the March of 1967 and April of 1970 – with the early 1967 (around 1,000 half year models) units built in a left-hand-drive config are the most sought-after collectibles nowadays.

Datsun Sports 2000

01. Isuzu 117 Coupe

The Isuzu 117 was one of the most openly Euro-design inspired cars of the decade. That doesn’t really come as a surprise considering the two-door fastback coupe was designed by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Unveiled in 1966 and first produced in 1968, manufacturing of the 117 didn’t cease until 1981 by which 86,192 units were produced. Most of those cars were built after 1972 when it went into mass production. Prior to that the cars were virtually hand-built at a rate of about 50 units per months.

The car came with a long list of standard equipment, including leather seats, dashboard trim made of camphor laurel wood, and headrests. The first engine available in 1968 was a 120 hp 1.6L DOHC two valve per cylinder inline-four, and in 1970, an electronic fuel injection unit from Bosch debuted, using the D-Jetronic system. The model fitted with fuel injection was named the EC (for “electronic control”). Suspension was typical for the era: front wishbones, coil springs, shocks, and an anti-roll bar and at the rear a solid axle with leaf spring and trailing arms to control axle movement.

Isuzu 117 Coupe


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1970s


The seventies provided a perfect opportunity for Japanese imports to establish a firm foothold on the U.S. market – one which they successfully guard to this day. The Oil embargo of 1973 and more strict emissions regulations forced domestic manufacturers into downsizing and that was the Japanese home ground, sort to say.

With conditions now becoming more even, the Japanese cars started to thrive. By the middle of 1970s, they’ve started exporting more than 1.8 million vehicles to the U.S. per year which is a staggering improvement compared to 1965 when only 100,000 units got shipped over the Pacific. Some of the best-known Japanese models stem from this decade.

05. Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO GSR

The designer of the Colt Galant GTO Hiroaki Kamisago had studied auto design in the U.S., and thus incorporated a number of details from American muscle cars including a long hood, short rear deck, rear spoiler, and rounded quad-headlamps. The marketing department referred to its as the “Hip-Up Coupé!”

In regards to hardware, it was much more in keeping with the Japanese trends: The base version was powered by a 1.6L SOHC, two valve per cylinder engine drawing breath through dual-carburetors and producing 110 horsepower. The extremely rare MR version, built primarily for motorsports, carried Mitsubishi’s first DOHC cylinder head and produced 125 hp.

Our pick of the bunch, the GSR (“Grand Sports and Rally”) sported a 2.0L dual-carb four-cylinder setup and yielded 125 horsepower. It was introduced in 1973. Suspension was dead simple: MacPherson struts in the front and a live axle with leaf springs in the rear. The Colt Galant remained in production until 1977.

Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO GSR

04. Datsun 240Z

Although succeeded by the 260Z in 1974 and 280Z in 1975 (both ran until 1978), the initial 240Z remains the most coveted Nissan Z car to this very day. It was produced between 1970 and 1973, and during that time, 164,616 right-hand drive units were ultimately made – 148,115 of which ended up in the U.S.

Powered by a 2.4L inline-six engine with dual Hitachi carbs, the 240Z had plenty of grunt for its time. It developed 151 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of rotational force. The U.S. models were backed by a 4-speed manual or an optional 3-speed automatic as of MY 1971. A 5-speed stick was also available with the 240Z, but not in the States.

The beauty of the iconic Fairlady – apart from the fact it featured a timeless design – is in its simplicity. Front suspension was independent with MacPherson struts, coil springs, and telescopic dampers, while the rear suspension sported of Chapman struts. It was capable of accelerating to 60 mph from a standstill in around 8 seconds.

Datsun 240Z

03. Mazda RX-3

Originally part of the Mazda Grand Familia lineup (which included both rotary and more conventional engines), the RX-3 was an import name for the Japanese market Mazda Savanna which was exclusively offered with a Wankel mill under its hood.

The engine in question for the U.S. market was the 1146-cc unit – the same as in the Mazda Capella RX-2, but detuned by 7 horsepower due to a smaller exhaust. In total, it produced 118 ponies and could have been ordered either with a 4-speed manual or a corresponding automatic gearbox.

Interestingly, the small car was available as a pillared 2-door coupe, a 4-door sedan, or a 4-door wagon with last becoming the world’s first rotary-powered wagon in history. Around 50 percent of the RX-3’s production were coupes, however.

Mazda RX-3

02. Nissan Skyline GT-R (C110)

The unlucky C110-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R arrived at the worst possible of moments for high-performance cars. Since it was introduced in September of 1972, its production cycle was cut short after only six months, in March of 1973.

Only 197 cars were produced in Japan and never exported anywhere else although shipments for the Australian market have been planned prior to the oil shock. Also, this would be the last time the GT-R badge would appear on a Nissan product until the legendary R32 arrived in 1989.

The C110 Skyline GT-R was powered by a 2.0L inline-six engine with 160 horsepower on tap which were routed to the rear via a 5-speed manual gearbox. Needless to say, the C110 was a highly capable performer thanks to, in no small part, a semi-trailing ring arm suspension. It also had disk brakes, both up front and around the back. If you think the R32, R33, and R34 are majestic JDM models, then the C110 is a real unicorn as far as the GT-R badge goes.

Nissan Skyline GT-R C110 is one of the rarest Japanese cars of the 70s

01. Toyota Celica

The first-gen Toyota Celica can probably be considered as the definitive Toyota sports car of the decade – much like the above mentioned GT2000 was their defining car of the 60s. Unlike the exclusive and expensive GT2000, the A20 Celica was affordable and, hence extremely popular with the masses. Although the Celica wasn’t intended to become a sports car, it would later give birth to the iconic Supra, but more on that later.

The initial Celica models were powered by a 1.9L inline-four engine with a two-barrel Aisin carburetor which yielded a somewhat measly 97 horsepower. However, displacement was immediately increased to 2.0L the very next year and then again to 2.2L after 1974 when the liftback model also joined the lineup. The most powerful 18R-G units with a Yamaha head were good enough for around 135 horsepower, but sadly, weren’t offered in the U.S.

Despite living in the malaise era, the Celica still managed to create for itself a lasting legacy. Something that one of its main rivals – the Ford Mustang II – can’t say for itself.

Toyota Celica A20


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1980s


By the time eighties arrived, Japanese cars felt “at home” all across the globe. They were now available in all major markets, and not only as cheap alternatives to domestic products either. They’ve earned the people’s trust and were getting ready for the next step – crushing all competition that would get in their way.

The 1980s was the period where Japanese manufacturers could bring serious performance cars to the market. This was the start of the period when Japanese home market models (JDM) and those intended for the U.S. started to diverge. With the cost of developing a motor that would meet tougher U.S. emissions standards, many Japanese manufacturers used the same engines in several vehicles and didn’t offer some of the more interesting (like high-output turbocharged, intercooled DOHC motors) to American customers. That would change in tie, but let’s look at the best that was available in the eighties.

05. Mitsubishi Starion

Arguably one of the best Mitsubishi cars ever made, the Starion made its debut in 1982 and bowed down after seven relatively successful years, in 1989. It was never as popular as other Japanese rivals, but it managed to spawn a badge-engineered version called Conquest which was marketed by both Dodge and Plymouth (1984-1986), and by Chrysler (1987-1989). All nameplates combined managed to sell around 75,000 units in the U.S. during that time.

Most of the time, Starion was powered by the company’s turbocharged 2.6L Astron inline-four which delivered between 150 and 197 horsepower depending on year. Overseas, however, the Japanese used a 2.0L Sirius turbo-four until 1987. Although smaller, it delivered similar power (albeit with less torque), but redlined higher, and felt like a better fit.

Underneath, Starion was pretty much what you’d expect from a an import sports car of the 80s, but an optional Sports Handling Package which was available towards the end of the Starion’s run (1988 and 1989), added adjustable front and rear struts and wider wheels.

Our pick would have to be the 1988-1989 Starion ESI-R (and its Chrysler twin the Conquest TSI), powered by a 188 hp 2.6 L SOHC four-cylinder with a hemi-type combustion chamber, turbocharger with intercooler, and a slick 5-speed transmission driving back to a full-independent rear suspension comprised of semi-trailing arms and Chapman struts.

Mitsubishi Starion

04. Nissan 300ZX Z31 Shiro

By now, Nissan had a problem on its hand. It had built the Z brand on the performance of the original 240Z (and its subsequent enlarged engine versions, the 260Z and 280Z). When its replacement was introduced in 1978, the original Z car fans were aghast. It had gone middle-aged: overweight and more focused on bells and whistles than on pure performance. The problem for Nissan was it sold more 280ZX than it had of the original Z-car series.

With the third generation, Nissan did its best to appeal to both sides. For the masses, there was the standard version. For enthusiasts, the “Shiro” (white) edition which was launched in early 1988.

The electronically adjustable suspension was replaced by higher-rate springs,  Koni shocks, and thicker anti-roll bars. The power leather seats were  swapped for a pair of cloth Recaros, and the digital dash was replaced by a simple 150 mph speedo and a tachometer with white numbers on black faces. The only available transmission was a five-speed manual feeding a a viscous limited-slip diff. Just 1002 were sold in the U.S., but buyers got a car capable of 153 mph – the fastest car from Japan at the time.

Nissan 300ZX Z31 Shiro

03. Mazda Miata (NA)

I’m well aware that the first-gen Miata was a mostly nineties car, but I had to include it here because the 90s section of this list will be packed as you’ll soon find out.

I have to believe that the vast majority of Miata haters have never driven a Miata – especially the first generation models. It’s not a 0-60 car and was never intended to be. But in 1989 when it was introduced (as a ’90 model), few cars carried as serious a set of underpinnings as the MX-5.

It featured a peppy DOHC four-valve per cylinder inline-four (common now but still rare then), a slick gearbox out of Mazda’s big cars from Japan (further improved by a very short throw shifter), available limited slip differential, and a beam that ran down the center of the car that connected the front suspension, engine ,and transmission to the rear differential and rear independent suspension, making for a an incredible responsive package.

As I said, this car’s not about 0-60, it’s about the huge smile on your face after you spend some quality time with it on twisty, challenging roads.

Mazda Miata NA started its journey in late 1980s

02. Toyota Corolla GT-S AE86

Take one standard (but rear-wheel drive) compact coupe and add a legendary race-bred engine (1.6L 4A-GE tuned at 112-hp) and you create a legend. The Corolla GT-S of 1984-1987 was the first real small performance car from Japan since the Datsun 510.

The engine was incredibly responsive – it would rev almost telepathically with a touch of a throttle (like a race engine, for which the motor saw much action) and the handling nicely-balanced. And at 2,200 pounds, it didn’t need much more of a motor.

The solid rear axle did easily trigger trailing-throttle oversteer, but that’s about its only vice. The real fun was driving it in the winter with four snow tires mounted up. Every trip to the grocery store became an opportunity to drive a stage on the Swedish Winter Rally.

Toyota Corolla GT-S AE86

01. Nissan Skyline DR30

One of the most distinguished of Japanese performers form the 1980s stems from the “people’s” R30 Skyline which sold more than 400,000 units between 1981 and 1990. The DR30 was anything but a conventional people’s car, however.

Initially known as the 2000RS, the DR30 Skyline made its debut in late 1981. The stripped-down lightweight racer featured the FJ20E 2.0L naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine with 148 horsepower and tipped the scales at only 2,491 pounds. Needless to say, the DR30 (which was designation for all FJ20-powered models) naturally received a turbocharged FJ20ET version of the engine in 1983. Now it produced 188 horsepower (202 hp as of 1984).

Together with additional power came beefier front brakes and a number of interior upgrades like air standard conditioning, power windows, power steering, etc. This, on the other hand, increased its weight to 2,723 pounds. Exterior was revised too, and that’s probably the most distinguishing detain of the Skyline DR30. Completely new frontal fascia nicknamed “Tekkamen” (iron mask) really did its trick in separating the performance car from the rest of the bunch.

The Nissan Skyline DR30 would go on to become one of the most famous Japanese cars of all time and probably the most-deserving one to be credited for the resurrection of the GT-R badge that succeeded it.

Nissan Skyline DR30 is one of the most iconic Japanese cars of the 80s


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1990s


The nineties were stacked with iconic Japanese cars of which it was extremely hard to pick five. Most sports cars that started their journey in earlier decades have become monstrously powerful during the 90s (I think that Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla is a fitting comparison). At the same time, a number of most popular Japanese manufacturers gave birth to their luxury divisions which would quickly become the number one luxury badges in the U.S. in terms of sales.

05. Mazda RX-7 (FD)

Although the first-generation RX-7 started out in late 1970s and second-gen models carried over through the entirety of 1980s, it wasn’t until the third-generation that the RX-7 finally got the respect it always deserved. The FD generation arrived in 1992 and remained in production for 10 years, earning the RX-7 a reputation of one of the best Japanese cars ever made, over the years.

Powered by a 1.3L twin-turbo twin-rotor Wankel mill, the FD RX-7 proved there actually was replacement for displacement. It generated as much as 276 horsepower in the most powerful models – probably more, but the “Gentlemen’s agreement” reached between the Japanese manufacturers forbade them to officially produce (read disclose ratings) engines more powerful than that. Curb weight of between 2,700 and 2,950 pounds also played a role in RX-7’s performance.

The best performers among the RX-7 models were the limited Type RS and its rare lightweight sidekick dubbed the Type RZ. These came with standard 17-inch wheels, Bilstein suspension, more efficient turbochargers with abradable compressor seals, beefier brakes, a 4.30 ratio differential, and many more upgrades.

Mazda RX-7

04. Toyota MR-2 (W20)

The MR-2 also started out in the eighties, but is now remembered as one of the ultimate 90’s sports cars out of Japan. It was a tough choice to make between a lighter, more nimble, and more driver-focused Mark 1 and the gorgeous, more powerful, but also heavier and more expensive Mark 2, but it simply had to be made.

The second-generation Toyota MR-2 first arrived in 1989 but the U.S. market only got them a year later. As it was usually a thing with the Japanese sports cars, the base version only made 130 horsepower through a naturally aspirated 2.2L inline-four. However, one might say that the real W20 MR-2 was actually the turbo version which sported a 2.0L engine capable of putting up 200 ponies.

Differences between the models weren’t just in their respective engines or power outputs. The MR-2 Turbo also came with a number of cosmetic details (fiberglass engine lid, wider wheels and tires, decals, etc.) which clearly showcased its supremacy over the base models. They also had larger brakes, a different exhaust system, and a sturdier 5-speed manual gearbox among others.

The U.S. models ran quarter-miles in high 14s and accelerated to 60 mph in around 6 seconds, while the Japanese market GT-S units ate a quarter-mile of pavement in 13 seconds, beating much more illustrious opponents in the process.

Toyota MR-2 Turbo

03. Honda/Acura NSX

The iconic first generation of the NSX was available throughout the entire 1990s. Beyond the nineties in fact, considering its production run spanned between 1990 and 2005. Built in order to take the fight to the Italian powerhouses such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, the NSX came through, and more. It wasn’t just a better performer than the Ferrari 328 and its successor the 348 (both V8-powered), but also a more affordable and reliable car.

The most important contributor to the NSX’s above mentioned success has to be its dual-overhead cam 3.0L VTEC V6 engine with 270 hp and 209 lb-ft of torque. Interestingly enough, the NSX wasn’t supposed to get this – at the time revolutionary – engine but then-president of Honda Motor Company, Tadashi Kume demanded it does. In 1997, the engine was replaced with a 3.2L unit which then generated 290 horsepower and 224 lb-ft of torque.

The Honda/Acura NSX was and experimental car in more ways than one. Aside from its name (New Sportscar eXperimental) and aforementioned use of the VTEC-equipped engine, it will be remembered as the first production car with an all-aluminium semi-monocoque frame and extruded aluminium alloy suspension components. Inside the engine, titanium connecting rods allowed the NSX to redline at 8,000 rpm, while the NSX also featured a first for Honda electronic throttle control.

Honda/Acura NSX

02. Toyota Supra (A80)

The iconic Supra badge made its debut as part of the Toyota Celica lineup in 1978 and has since spawned four generations of extremely successful performance cars with the fifth one finally beginning production as 2020-year models. The Mark 4 models produced between 1993 and 2002 (pulled from the U.S. market in 1998) are arguably the most iconic of them all.

Again, the Japanese sports car came in two forms but both used the same iconic 3.0L 2JZ inline-six engine. The base models used natural aspiration and developed 220 horsepower, while the GTE units utilized dual turbochargers for a whopping 276 ponies at first and 326 horsepower later on (after the above mentioned gentlemen’s agreement was dissolved). While the former utilized a 5-speed manual gearbox, the turbo models relied on the new 6-speed Getrag units. Both, however, were offered with an optional 4-speed auto.

The fourth-gen Supra turbo was more than capable of accelerating from a standstill to 60 mph in around 5 seconds and crossing a quarter-mile mark in mid-13s or better. It utilized aluminum in front crossmember and forged upper suspension A-arms in order to save on weight. It also used a magnesium-alloy steering wheel, and a plastic gas tank for the same purpose.

Today, you should be happy to find a pristine condition Mark 4 Supra for less than $100,000. Many of them have been used for heavy tuning which, although appealing to majority of the “Generation X” and “Millennial” car enthusiasts, wasn’t exactly the “Baby Boomers’s” cup of tea.

Toyota Supra Mark 4 is one of the most coveted Japanese cars today

01. Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32)

As mentioned above, the GT-R badge did make a comeback in 1989 after 16 years, and what a comeback it was! The R32 put the badge back on the map and more. It started the modern GT-R legacy which continued with the R33 in 1995 and R34 in 1999. In fact, the currently available Nissan GT-R itself is practically a continuation of the iconic trio, although it’s a different kind of a beast.

The R32 was produced in order to homologate the new Group A Racing car which would replace the Skyline GTS-R. Not only did the new R32 replace it, but it took the competition by storm and dominated Group A from day one until, like many unbeatable champions before it, the R32 GT-R finally got banned from competing. It was just that good.

The R32 GT-R was powered by the iconic 2.6L DOHC twin-turbo RB26DETT inline-six which generated 276 horsepower (surprise, surprise) and was backed by a 5-speed manual transmission which routed all that power to all four corners. A number of iterations were made over the years, and many were even more extreme than the road-going cars. There was the homologation special Nismo model without the ABS, or the even rarer Japanese market N1-spec which also deleted air conditioning and sound system among other things.

In total, close to 44,000 R32 GT-R’s were ultimately produced and since they’ve finally come of age (over 25 years), you can now easily import them into the States. If you can afford them, that is, since their prices are soaring. Even better, the R33’s will soon be cleared for importing as well, but they aren’t any cheaper either I’m afraid.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 2000s


By the time the millennium arrived, Japanese car manufacturers and their respective vehicles were already dominant all across the globe. They’ve gone a long way since the early “cheap-car” days, and are now as diverse as they can be. The Japanese will still sell you an econobox if that’s what you’re looking for, but their SUVs, crossovers, hybrids, luxury cars, pickup trucks, sports cars, and pretty much anything else you can think of are all among the best in their respective classes.

05. Honda S2000

One of the go-to affordable sports cars out of Japan between the late 1999 and 2009 – the Honda S2000 is sorely missed nowadays. Known for its nimbleness, high-revving, and superlative driving dynamics, the 2-seater has become one of the quickest cars in history in achieving a cult-like status. Even though things weren’t that rosy for the roadster back then.

The heart of the S2000 was its DOHC 2.0L VTEC inline-four which yielded between 237 and 247 hp depending on the market (Japanese models weer the most powerful). Incidentally, that was, at the time, the highest specific rating for any naturally aspirated production engine in history. The engine boasted a 11.0:1 compression ratio, redlined at 9,000 rpm, and enabled the roadster to hit 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

In 2004, the F Series twin-cam engine was stroked by additional 6.7 mm and displacement was increased to 2.2L. Redline had, however, dropped to 8,200 rpm, but the car got another 9 lb-ft of torque, putting the total at 162 lb-ft.

A Torsen-style limited-slip differential was standard throughout the S2000’s run, and so were the independent double wishbone suspension and the electrically assisted steering. A 6-speed manual was the only transmission available and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Honda S2000 is one of the best Japanese cars of 2000s

04. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII MR FQ-400

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution line started out in early nineties, so in order to squeeze in all of the above cool Japanese models onto the 90s list, I had to forget that generations I through VI ever existed. This means that some of the greatest Evo’s like the famous 1999 Tommi Mäkinen Edition which accelerated to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and did quarter-miles in low-13’s had to be overlooked.

The first Evo offered in the U.S. was the VIII (2003-2005), but sadly, the high-performance special editions like the MR-spec FQ300, FQ320, FQ340, and FQ400 were exclusively offered in the U.K. These left-hand drive beasts were the most powerful Lancers money could buy, with the FQ400 squeezing 405 hp and 355 lb-ft of twist out of 4G63 2.0L turbo-four mill shared with the rest of the lineup. The most powerful U.S.-spec Evo at the time had 271 horsepower, for comparison.

The MR FQ-400 also came with Bilstein shocks for improved handling and a number of other distinctive upgrades. Its tuning was courtesy of British tuning houses Rampage Tuning, Owen Developments, and Flow Race Engines. The most powerful MR-spec Evo VIII accelerated to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and did quarter-miles in 12 seconds.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII MR FQ-400

03. Subaru Impreza WRX STi S201

There is no Mitsubishi Lancer without its arch rival Subaru Impreza and vice versa. Similar with the Mitsu, I also had to omit mentioning what’s arguably the single best Impreza WRX ever built. So, with heavy heart, I’m now giving it a honorable mention – the one and only (actually, there were 474 made in total) 1998 WRX 22B STi with 276 hp and a larger 2.2L engine.

Now when this injustice has been slightly alleviated, let’s move on to what might be the best Impreza WRX of the 2000s. It was introduced as early as in 2000 and only 300 units were ever produced. Needless to say, they were never available in the U.S. Being exempt from the “Gentlemen’s agreement” rule, they boasted 296 horsepower thanks to a recalibrated ECU, more turbo boost, a higher-capacity air-to-air intercooler, and a larger, free-flowing exhaust (the engine was a 2.0L Flat-four).

The S201 was fully loaded with features and sported a unique wide-body kit with a massive tri-planar wing and a corresponding front splitter. A limited-slip front differential, height-adjustable suspension, and 17-inch RAYS wheels were also part of the setup.

Subaru Impreza WRX STi S201

02. Acura Integra Type R (DC2)

As one of the launch models for then all-new brand in 1986, the Acura Integra represents one of the most important models in Honda’s lineup at the time. The performance-oriented Type R first came stateside in 1997 and remained available until 2001 (with the exception of 1999). Again, I’m simply trying to undo the injustice done to this immaculate 1990s car by putting it in the 2000s section. After all, it was available for couple of years of the millennium’s first decade.

Powered by the legendary DOHC VTEC 1.8L B18C5 four-cylinder mill, the Integra Type R generated 195 horsepower thanks to a 10.6:1 compression ratio. The engine boasted high-pressure die-cast aluminum pistons in order to achieve that. Backed by a 5-speed manual trans, it redlined at 8,400 rpm. Thanks to all that, the car was capable of doing mid to high-14 quarter-miles and accelerating to 60 mph in little over 6 seconds.

To this day, the Acura Integra Type R is widely regarded as one of the best (if not “THE” best) front-wheel drive performance car out of Japan.

Acura Integra Type R

01. Nissan Silvia (S15)

Available between 1999 and 2002, the S15 Silvia is also the last S platform car built by the Japanese manufacturer and also the last Silvia produced to date. Although exclusive to the Japanese domestic, Australian, and New Zealand markets, the Silvia can be seen in other parts of the world as a gray import.

The last generation of the Nissan Silvia sported a 2.0L SR20DE(T) inline-four engine with or without the turbocharger. The former made 247 horsepower while the latter developed 163 hp. Initially, there were only the Spec-R and Spec-S models to choose from with former being backed by a 6-speed manual and latter using a 5-speed unit. However, both could have been ordered with an optional 4-speed auto.

The S15 Nissan Silvia wasn’t only more powerful, but also smaller and (in some cases) lighter than its predecessors, making it the best performer of the range. It’s one of the most popular cars among drifting crowds and extremely open-minded towards tuning.

Nissan Silvia S15


Coolest Japanese Cars of the 2010s


With the second decade of the 21st century almost at its end, it’s safe to say that we probably won’t be seeing too many better candidates for this list than what’s a;ready available out there. So, to wrap things up, here are the best Japanese cars of the 2010s.

05. Nissan GT-R Nismo

As already mentioned above, the GT-R is a whole different kind of animal than its Skyline-based spiritual predecessors. It’s been available since 2007, but the range-topping Nismo edition only arrived in 2014.

Powered by a powerful 3.8L twin-turbocharged VR38DETT V6 engine, the GT-R by far exceeds everything that Nissan has ever done in terms of performance. At least when production cars are concerned. It started out with 479 hp and now provides 565 hp. The Nissan GT-R Nismo, on the other hand, develops 600 ponies and gallops to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds.

Aside from more power, the Nismo model sports plenty of carbon fiber bits, special aerodynamic package, and a racing style rear wing. Needless to say, suspension is also differently tuned, and brakes have been enlarged as well.

Nissan GT-R Nismo

04. Nissan 370Z Nismo

Available since 2009, the latest iteration of the Z car is nearing its climax. The special Nismo version was available from the get-go and still is if you’re willing to provide 50 percent over the base car’s MSRP.

The 370Z draws breath from a 3.7L VQ37VHR V6 engine backed up either by a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed automatic gearbox. The NIsmo badge adds only 18 horsepower over the base models (332 hp vs. 350 hp), but the torque curve is much flatter here, giving the 370Z Nismo more torque at lower rpm.

The Nismo-tuned suspension is standard here, and the car also gets stiffened springs and stabilizer bars. Speaking of suspension, the 370Z’s fron suspension uses a double wishbone pattern with forged aluminum control arms, while at the back multi-link suspension with forged aluminum upper control arm, lower arm, and radius rod does the trick.

Nissan 370Z Nismo

03. Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ

The Japanese sports cars have almost disappeared from the U.S. market during 2010s. But, while one by one were waving their goodbyes, Toyota and Subaru decided to join forces and introduce a new one.

The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ are essentially the same 2-door coupe sports cars powered by 2.0L four-cylinder engines. While the 86 utilizes a 4U-GSE designation, the Subaru engine is designated FA20. Both are of Subaru’s flat-four boxer design and develop 200 horsepower with a 6-speed automatic or 5 ponies more with the corresponding 6-speed stick.

One of the biggest advantages of having a horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine is a low center of gravity the car gets out oft. This immensely improves handling and the 86/BRZ duo are among the best at that out there.

Subaru BRZ

02. Honda Civic Type R

The compact car was one of the first to receive the Type R badge and and so far the car with the most Type R-labeled models to show for. However, the latest generation of the Civic Type R raises the bar significantly and rightfully finds a place on this list of the best Japanese cars of the 2010s.

Introduced in 2017 and based on the tenth-generation Civic, the latest of the Type R iterations generates a whopping 3o6 horsepower. Incidentally, this is also the first Civic with the red Honda badge slapped across its grille. Paired with a 6-speed manual transmission, the performance-oriented Civic does a quarter-mile in mid 13’s range and accelerates to 60 mph in under six.

The engine isn’t its only focal point in term of upgrades as the Civic Type R also boasts a radical body kit, together with special suspension and larger brakes.

Honda Civic Type R

01. Lexus LFA

Arguably the most illustrious performance car to come out of Japan during this decade (not counting the second-gen Acura NSX), the LFA is also the most ambitious car the Toyota’s luxury division has ever assembled.

The Lexus LFA was in production between late 2010 and late 2012 during which time the Japanese had created exactly 500 units. Powered by a 4.8L even-firing V10 with 553 horsepower, the LFA is unlike anything the company has ever produced. The sexy 2-door coupe could accelerate to 60 mph from a standstill in 3.6 seconds.

not content with the stock version, Toyota also offered an optional Nürburgring Package which added another 10 horsepower to already insane ratings, re-calibrated transmission, stiffer suspension, a new front splitter, lightweight wheels, track tires, and a huge rear wing.

Lexus LFA is one of the coolest Japanese cars of 2010s

Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them, but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. I founded GearHeads.org and then built and ran AutoWise.com until selling it to Lola Digital Media in 2020. I look forward to watching AutoWise grow as part of the AllGear group.