The car industry in Japan was established in 1907 when the first company, Hatsudoki Seizo Co., Ltd., opened 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 Japanese cars are not only some of 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) are among the largest car manufacturers in the world speaks to the popularity of Japanese cars. And we’re here to appreciate some of the most iconic Japanese cars of each decade since the 1960s, when people all over the world started to take notice of Japanese imports.
Over the decades, Japanese automotive manufacturers have produced a plethora of the coolest and some of the worst cars in the world. Some brands have remained in production since the ’60s, reaching 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. Of those forgotten vehicles, some have been rather cool cars. The forgotten Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) models are a prime example.
One of the reasons behind the Japanese car industry’s success is their capable and reliable engines which have powered some iconic cars 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 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 the most interesting ones) to come from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1960s
The Japanese car industry’s export expansion began in the ’60s when their export totals increased almost 200 fold. Some of the coolest small-bore cars from the ’60s never made it from Japan to the U.S. In some cases, Japanese manufacturers had a limited supply of high-performance engines and were concerned 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. Companies were concerned they would not be able to sell enough models to recoup their investment. In any case, you can find a few rare examples of these Japanese cars at various car shows as enthusiasts have decided to take matters into their own hands, importing the cars themselves.
The Toyota 2000GT was first displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1965 and was instrumental in revolutionizing the public’s view of Japanese cars, who viewed them as inexpensive, practical vehicles. This sleek, two-seat grand tourer demonstrated that Japan’s automakers could produce premium vehicles as well.
The 2000GT was manufactured under contract with Yamaha between 1967 and 1970. The engine was an inline 2.0L 6-cylinder with a 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.
The vehicles had a 5-speed manual transmission, a limited-slip differential, and four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes — a first for a Japanese car. Only 351 regular production units of the 2000GT were manufactured. 62 were imported to the U.S. and sold for about $6,800 (around $50,000 in today’s money).
Mazda Cosmo Series II
The Mazda Cosmo was introduced in 1967, but it wasn’t until the Series II was released that it really made an impact a year later. It had a more powerful 128 hp two-rotor engine, power brakes, 15-inch wheels, and a 5-speed manual transmission.
Structurally, the wheelbase was extended 15 inches to improve interior space and ride quality. The independent front suspension on the Mazda sports car utilized an unequal-length A-arm with an anti-roll bar, while the rear made use of 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, and there was no power assist. Of the 1,176 Cosmos made, perhaps six Series II models were initially imported into the U.S. Far too few for such a stunner of a sports car, if you ask me.
When the S800 debuted, Honda had just moved into manufacturing cars and used the S series to demonstrate its capabilities. Introduced in 1966 to replace the successful S600, the S800 was available as a coupe or a roadster. Honda showcased its technical prowess with small-displacement engines by powering the S800 with a 791 cc inline 4-cylinder that produced 70 hp.
Early examples continued to use the clever chain drive and independent suspension of the earlier Honda S600 in the rear. Soon after that, Honda switched to a solid axle rear end with four radius rods by using a Panhard rod. Partway through production Honda replaced the front drum brakes with discs.
In February 1968, the S800M was introduced with flush-mounted interior door handles, exterior side marker lights, 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; Honda sadly canceled the program. There wouldn’t be another Honda S car until the now-iconic S2000.
Datsun Sports 2000 (Fairlady)
The Datsun Fairlady (called the Datsun Sports 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 4-cylinder engine breathing through twin Mikuni-Solex carbs that produced 148 hp. Given its light 2,100-pound weight and 5-speed gearbox, it was capable of 0-60 mph in the 7-second range.
The U.S. version was limited to 133 hp due to emissions regulations, but the above-mentioned powertrain was still attainable in the 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 units (around 1,000 of the half-year models) built in a left-hand-drive configuration. These are the most sought-after collectibles nowadays.
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, the 117 was manufactured until 1981, by which time Isuzu had produced 86,192 units. Isuzu built most of those cars after 1972 when the 117 went into mass production. Before that, the cars were virtually hand-built at a rate of about 50 units per month.
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 inline-four. In 1970, an electronic fuel injection unit from Bosch debuted, using the D-Jetronic system. This model included fuel injection named the EC (“electronic control”). The suspension was typical for the era: front wishbones, coil springs, shocks, and an anti-roll bar up front, and a solid axle with leaf spring and trailing arms to control axle movement at the rear.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1970s
The ’70s provided a perfect opportunity for Japanese imports to establish a firm foothold in the U.S. market — one that they successfully guard to this day. The oil embargo of 1973, along with more strict emissions regulations, forced domestic manufacturers to downsize. And small cars were the Japanese manufacturers’ specialty.
With the market being more equal, Japanese cars started to thrive. By the middle of the 1970s, Japan started exporting more than 1.8 million vehicles to the U.S. per year, a staggering improvement compared to 1965, when only 100,000 units were shipped over the Pacific. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best-known Japanese models come from this decade.
Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO GSR
The designer of the Colt Galant GTO, Hiroaki Kamisago, studied auto design in the U.S. The influence of American muscle cars is clear in his design of the Galant GTO, including the long hood, short rear deck, rear spoiler, and rounded quad-headlamps. The marketing department referred to it as the “Hip-Up Coupé!”
In regards to hardware, the Galant 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 hp. The scarce 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 4-cylinder setup good for 125 hp. The suspension was dead simple: MacPherson struts in the front and a live axle with leaf springs in the rear. Introduced in 1973, the Colt Galant remained in production until 1977.
Although succeeded by the 260Z in 1974 and the 280Z in 1975 (both ran until 1978), the initial 240Z remains the most coveted Nissan Z car to this day. Produced between 1970 and 1973, 164,616 right-hand drive units were made — 148,115 of which ended up in the U.S.
Powered by a 2.4L inline-six with dual Hitachi carbs, the 240Z had plenty of grunt for its time with 151 hp and 146 lb.-ft. of torque. The U.S. models were backed by a 4-speed manual or an optional 3-speed automatic as of 1971. A 5-speed stick was also available with the 240Z, but not in the States.
The beauty of the iconic 240Z, apart from its timeless design, was its simplicity. Front suspension was independent with MacPherson struts, coil springs, and telescopic dampers, while the rear suspension sported Chapman struts. The car was capable of reaching 60 mph from a standstill in around 8 seconds.
Originally part of the Mazda Grand Familia lineup (which included both rotary and more conventional engines), the RX-3 was the import name for the Japanese market Mazda Savanna which they 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 hp due to a smaller exhaust. It produced 118 ponies and could be ordered with either 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 the last option holding the title of the world’s first rotary-powered wagon. However, around 50 percent of the RX-3’s production were the more popular coupes.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (C110)
The unlucky C110-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R arrived at the worst possible of moments for high-performance cars. Introduced in September 1972, its production cycle was cut short after only six months in March of 1973.
Nissan produced only 197 cars in Japan, none of which were exported, although they had planned shipments to the Australian market before the oil shock. 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 with 160 hp on tap, routed to the rear via a 5-speed manual gearbox. Needless to say, the C110 was a competent vehicle, in no small part, thanks to a semi-trailing ring arm suspension. It also had disk brakes, front and rear. And if you think the R32, R33, and R34 are majestic JDM models, the C110 is a real unicorn as far as the GT-R badge goes.
The first-gen Toyota Celica can probably be considered the definitive Toyota sports car of the decade — much like the above-mentioned GT2000 defined the ’60s. Unlike the exclusive and expensive GT2000, the A20 Celica was affordable and, hence, extremely popular. Although the Celica wasn’t intended to be a sports car, it would later give birth to the iconic Supra.
The initial Celica models were powered by a 1.9L inline-four with a two-barrel Aisin carburetor which yielded a somewhat measly 97 hp. However, displacement was immediately increased to 2.0L the 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 for around 135 hp, but sadly, weren’t offered in the U.S.
Despite its production in the Malaise Era, the Celica still managed to create a lasting legacy. Something that one of its main rivals, the Ford Mustang II, can’t say for itself.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1980s
By the time the ’80s arrived, Japanese cars felt “at home” across the globe. They were now available in all major markets and not just as cheap alternatives to domestic products either. They’d earned 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 when Japanese manufacturers brought some serious performance cars to the market. This was also the start of the period when Japanese home market models (JDM) and those intended for the U.S. started to diverge. Due to the cost of developing a motor that would meet tougher U.S. emissions standards, many Japanese manufacturers used the same engines in their vehicles. They didn’t offer more interesting options (like high-output turbocharged, intercooled DOHC motors) to American customers.
Arguably one of the best Mitsubishi cars ever made, the Starion debuted in 1982 and bowed down after seven relatively successful years in 1989. It was never as popular as some of its other Japanese rivals, but it managed to spawn a badge-engineered version called the Conquest, which was marketed by both Dodge and Plymouth (1984-1986) and then 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 hp depending on the year model. Overseas, however, the Japanese used a 2.0L Sirius turbo until 1987. Although smaller, it delivered similar power (albeit with less torque) but redlined higher and felt like a better fit.
Underneath, the Starion was pretty much what you’d expect from an import sports car of the ’80s. An optional Sports Handling Package was available towards the end of the Starion’s run (1988 and 1989) that 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 2.6L SOHC 4-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.
Nissan 300ZX Z31 Shiro
By now, Nissan had a problem on its hand. The company had built the Z brand on the performance of the original 240Z (and its subsequent enlarged engine versions, the 260Z and 280Z). When the brand introduced its replacement in 1978, the original Z car fans were aghast. It had gone middle-aged. The car was overweight and more focused on bells and whistles than on pure performance.
The problem for Nissan was it sold more 280ZXs 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, Nissan launched the “Shiro” (white) edition in early 1988.
The electronically adjustable suspension was replaced by higher-rate springs, Koni shocks, and thicker anti-roll bars. Nissan swapped the power leather seats 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 5-speed manual feeding a viscous limited-slip diff. Just 1,002 were sold in the U.S., but buyers got a car capable of 153 mph — the fastest car from Japan at the time.
Mazda Miata (NA)
I’m well aware that the first-gen Miata was mainly sold as a ’90s 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 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 independent rear suspension, making for an incredibly 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.
Toyota Corolla GT-S AE86
Take one standard (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, which the motor definitely saw action), and the handling was nicely balanced. And at 2,200 pounds, it didn’t need much more of a motor.
The solid rear axle would easily trigger trailing-throttle oversteer, but that was 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.
Nissan Skyline DR30
One of the most distinguished Japanese performance cars from the 1980s grew 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 4-cylinder engine with 148 hp and tipped the scales at only 2,491 pounds. Needless to say, the DR30 (which was the designation for all FJ20-powered models) received a turbocharged FJ20ET version of the engine in 1983. With that addition, it produced 188 hp (or 202 hp as of 1984).
With the additional power came beefier front brakes and several interior upgrades like air conditioning, power windows, power steering, etc. These additions, on the other hand, increased its weight to 2,723 pounds. The exterior was revised too, and that’s probably the most distinguishing detail of the Skyline DR30. The completely new frontal fascia, nicknamed “Tekkamen” (iron mask), did the trick in separating this performance car from the rest of the bunch.
The Nissan Skyline DR30 would 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.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 1990s
The ’90s were stacked with iconic Japanese cars, making it extremely hard to pick only five. Most Japanese sports cars that started their journey in earlier decades became monstrously powerful during the ’90s (Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla seems like a fitting comparison).
At the same time, popular Japanese manufacturers gave birth to their luxury divisions, many of which would quickly become the number one luxury badges in the U.S. in terms of sales.
Mazda RX-7 (FD)
Although the first-generation RX-7 debuted in the late 1970s and second-gen models carried over through the entirety of the 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 as one of the best Japanese cars ever made.
Powered by a 1.3L twin-turbo twin-rotor Wankel mill, the FD RX-7 proved there actually was a replacement for displacement. It generated as much as 276 hp 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. A 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.
Toyota MR-2 (W20)
The MR-2 also started life in the ’80s but is now remembered as one of Japan’s ultimate 90’s sports cars. Drivers had a tough choice between the lighter, more nimble, and more driver-focused Mark 1 and the gorgeous, more powerful, but also heavier and more expensive Mark 2.
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 the case with Japanese sports cars, the base model only made 130 hp 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 many cosmetic additions (fiberglass engine lid, wider wheels and tires, decals, etc.) that clearly showcased its supremacy over the base models. They also had larger brakes, a different exhaust system, and a sturdier 5-speed manual gearbox.
The U.S. models ran the quarter-mile in the high 14 seconds. They accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in around 6 seconds, while the Japanese market GT-S units ate a quarter-mile of pavement in 13 seconds, often beating much more illustrious opponents in the process.
The iconic first generation of the NSX was available throughout the entire ’90s decade and well beyond, with a production run that spanned from 1990 to 2005. Originally built to fight the Italian powerhouses such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, the NSX came through and then some. Not only was the NSX a better performer than the Ferrari 328 and its successor, the 348 (both V8-powered), but it was also a more affordable and reliable car.
The most important contributor to the NSX’s above-mentioned success had to be its dual-overhead cam 3.0L VTEC V6 engine, which made 270 hp and 209 lb.-ft. of torque. Interestingly enough, the NSX wasn’t supposed to get this engine, which was revolutionary, but then-president of Honda Motor Company, Tadashi Kume, demanded it did. In 1997, Acura replaced the engine with a 3.2L unit which then generated 290 hp and 224 lb.-ft. of torque.
The Honda/Acura NSX was an 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-aluminum semi-monocoque frame and extruded aluminum 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.
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 a 2021 year model. 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, this 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 made 220 hp. In comparison, the GTE units utilized dual turbochargers for a whopping 276 ponies at first and 326 hp later on (after the manufacturers’ 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 the mid-13 seconds or better. It utilized aluminum in the front cross member and forged upper suspension A-arms to save on weight. It also was outfitted with 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 heavily tuned, which, although perhaps appealing to the “Generation X” and “Millennial” car enthusiast, won’t exactly be the “Baby Boomers” cup of tea.
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. It started the modern GT-R legacy, which continued with the R33 in 1995 and R34 in 1999. In fact, the latest Nissan GT-R is practically a continuation of the iconic trio, although it’s a different kind of a beast.
The R32 was produced 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-6, which generated 276 hp (surprise, surprise) and was backed by a 5-speed manual transmission routed all that power to all four corners. Nissan made several iterations over the years, and many were even more extreme than the road-going cars. There was the homologation special Nismo model without ABS and the even rarer Japanese market N1-spec, which also deleted the air conditioning and sound system, among other things.
In total, close to 44,000 R32 GT-Rs 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 clear for importing as well, but they aren’t any cheaper.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 2000s
By the time the millennium arrived, Japanese car manufacturers and their respective vehicles were already dominant across the globe. They’d come a long way since the early “cheap-car” days. Certainly, Japanese manufacturers were still selling econobox cars, but their SUVs, crossovers, hybrids, luxury cars, pickup trucks, sports cars, and pretty much every other drivable thing you could think of were consistently among the best of the best at the turn of the century.
One of Japan’s go-to affordable sports cars between late 1999 and 2009, the Honda S2000 is sorely missed nowadays. Known for its nimble, high-revving, and superlative driving dynamics, this two-seater became one of the quickest cars in history in achieving a cult-like following, 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 were the most powerful). Incidentally, that was the highest specific rating for any naturally aspirated production engine in history at the time. The engine boasted an 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 an additional 6.7 mm, and displacement was increased to 2.2L. Redline, 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.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII MR FQ-400
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution line started in the early ’90s, so to squeeze in all of the above cool Japanese models onto the ’90s list, we glossed over generations I through VI. This means that some of the greatest Evos, like the famous 1999 Tommi Mäkinen Edition, which accelerated to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and did quarter-miles in low-13 seconds, were overlooked.
The first Evo offered in the U.S. was the VIII (2003-2005). But Mitsubishi exclusively offered the high-performance special editions like the MR-spec FQ300, FQ320, FQ340, and FQ400 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 the 4G63 2.0L turbo-four mill shared with the rest of the lineup. The most powerful U.S.-spec Evo at the time had a mere 271 hp, by comparison.
The MR FQ-400 also came with Bilstein shocks for improved handling and many 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 the quarter-mile in 12 seconds.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi S201
There could be no Mitsubishi Lancer without its arch-rival, the Subaru Impreza. Like the Mitsu, I also had to omit what was arguably the single best Impreza WRX ever built. So, with a heavy heart, I’m now giving it an 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, with this injustice slightly alleviated, let’s move on to what might be the best Impreza WRX of the 2000s. It was introduced as early as 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, the S201 boasted 296 hp 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.
Acura Integra Type R (DC2)
As one of Honda’s original launch models in 1986 for the then-new brand, the Acura Integra represents one of the most important models in Honda’s lineup.
The performance-oriented Type R first came stateside in 1997 and remained available until 2001 (except 1999). Again, I’m simply trying to undo the injustice done to this immaculate 1990s car by putting this one in the 2000s section. After all, it was available for a couple of years in the millennium’s first decade.
Powered by the legendary DOHC VTEC 1.8L B18C5 4-cylinder mill, the Integra Type R generated 195 hp thanks to a 10.6:1 compression ratio. The engine boasted high-pressure die-cast aluminum pistons to achieve those specs. Backed by a 5-speed manual trans, it redlined at 8,400 rpm. Thanks to all that, the car could do a mid-to high-14 second quarter-mile and accelerate to 60 mph in a 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 to have come out of Japan.
Nissan Silvia (S15)
Available from 1999 to 2002, the S15 Silvia is also the last S platform car built by this Japanese manufacturer and the last Silvia produced to date. Although exclusive to the Japanese domestic, Australian, and New Zealand markets, the Silvia can occasionally be found in other parts of the world as a grey import.
The last generation of the Nissan Silvia sported a 2.0L SR20DE(T) inline-four engine with or without the turbocharger, making 163 hp and 247 hp, respectively. Initially, there were only the Spec-R and Spec-S models to choose from, with the former being backed by a 6-speed manual and the latter using a 5-speed unit. However, consumers could have ordered both with an optional 4-speed auto.
The S15 Nissan Silvia wasn’t just more powerful; it was 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 accessible for all sorts of tuning.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the 2010s
With the second decade of the 21st century, the Japanese manufacturers didn’t disappoint boldly stepping into the high-performance sports car market. From remastered classics bearing venerable badges to some luxurious newcomers on the scene, these five cars are the ones that were most memorable in the 2010s.
Nissan GT-R Nismo
As already mentioned above, the GT-R is a whole different kind of animal than its Skyline-based predecessors. Though it was available beginning in 2007, 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 where production cars are concerned. The vehicles started with 479 hp and were later bumped to 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, a special aerodynamic package, and a racing-style rear wing. Needless to say, the suspension is also tuned, and the brakes have been enlarged as well.
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 was in the latter half of the decade if you were willing to pay 50 percent extra 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 hp 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, and the car also gets stiffened springs and stabilizer bars. Speaking of suspension, the 370Z’s front 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.
Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ
Many of the Japanese sports cars disappeared from the U.S. market during the 2010s. But while, one by one, others 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 two-door coupe sports cars powered by 2.0L 4-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 make 200 hp 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 4-cylinder engine is the resulting low center of gravity. This immensely improves handling, and the 86/BRZ duo are among the best on the road.
Honda Civic Type R
This compact car was one of the first to receive the Type R badge, and so far, it is the car with the most Type R-labeled models to show. 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 hp. 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 the mid-13-second range and accelerates to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.
The engine isn’t its only focal point in terms of upgrades, as the Civic Type R also boasts a radical body kit with special suspension and larger brakes.
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 that 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 hp, the LFA is unlike anything the company has ever produced. The sexy two-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 hp to already insane ratings, along with a re-calibrated transmission, stiffer suspension, a new front splitter, lightweight wheels, track tires, and a huge rear wing.
Coolest Japanese Cars of the Future
As we move into the next decade, drivers might be wondering what to expect from the Japanese car market in the future. If the start of the 2020s is anything to judge by, we should see the continuation, rebirth, and transformation of some of the most iconic vehicles to come out of Japan.
With the ongoing production of fan favorites like the Toyota Supra and Honda NSX to the release of the Nissan GT-R Nismo special edition and the highly anticipated launch of the 2022 BRZ/86, there are plenty of current and upcoming models to catch your eye.
What the future of Japan’s car evolution looks like is anyone’s guess, but you can bet that whatever it holds, Japanese manufactures will likely hold to their heritage, making cars that are affordable, practical, and, above all, reliable — and, don’t forget, good fun to drive.