Datsun 240Z

24 Iconic Japanese Cars That Belong on Every Gearhead’s Bucket List

Japanese carmakers arrived late to the performance car party but quickly caught up to the competition. Best known for their reliable cars, automakers from the land of the rising sun managed to transfer that aspect to their sports cars while keeping them affordable.

During the last half of the 20th century, the world saw the rise of iconic JDM models, which haven’t slowed down in the 21st century. Over the years, we’ve all been exposed to these Japanese legends through pop culture, whether via video games like Gran Turismo, movies like The Fast & the Furious, or anime shows like Initial D or Wangan Midnight.

There’s certainly no shortage of awesome Japanese cars, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the best of them all.

Toyota 2000GT

1967 Toyota 2000GT
Image Credit: Mecum Auctions.

Toyota built the 2000GT between 1967 and 1970, but they only made 351 cars. In a way, the 2000GT was the first Japanese supercar, setting several speed and endurance records. Today, it’s the holy grail of JDM cars.

The 2000GT had a 2.0-liter straight-6 engine that produced 150 horsepower. The engine was initially used in the Toyota Crown, but fitted with a DOHC head developed by Yamaha before finding a home in the 2000GT.

Datsun 240Z

Datsun 240Z
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Nissan/Datsun also wanted to join the sports car party and introduced the Nissan S30/Datsun 240Z in 1969. The Datsun 240Z is the genesis of the Nissan Z cars and was sold as the Datsun Fairlady Z in Japan.

The 240Z was an affordable and reliable high-performance sports car for the masses, making it a great alternative to the expensive European models. It even looks a bit like the iconic Jaguar E-Type. Under its long, sleek hood, it had a 151-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-6 engine.

Toyota Supra Mk4

Toyota Supra Mk4
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Toyota designed the fourth-generation Supra to be much more aerodynamic than its boxy predecessor. The legendary 2JZ twin-turbo inline-6 3.0-liter engine powered it, producing 320 horsepower in stock form.

The Supra wasn’t super popular when it was sold in the States, but prices skyrocketed after its starring role in the 2001 movie The Fast and the Furious.

Lexus LFA

White Lexus LFA on racetrack
Image Credit: Toyota Global

Lexus designed the LFA to provide owners with the ultimate driving experience, and in the process, they redefined what a Japanese supercar could be. Lexus only built 500 units of the LFA, including 50 Nürburgring Package models with more power, improved handling, and increased downforce.

The LFA had a screaming 4.8-liter V10 engine that produced 558 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. It revved to 9,000 rpm and emitted one of the most glorious sounds in the known universe.

Honda / Acura NSX

1991 Acura NSX
Image Credit: Charles/WikiCommons.

The first NSX beat Ferrari at its own game, changing the entire supercar world. For the first time, a supercar was as easy to drive as an everyday grocery-getter. The NSX had an aluminum body, and legendary Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna helped fine-tune the chassis. Behind the driver, Honda fitted a 270-horsepower V6 VTEC engine.

Gordon Murray, the man behind the McLaren F1, used the NSX as inspiration for the F1’s handling.

Honda S2000

Honda S2000 Ultimate Edition
Image Credit: SAUD AL-OLAYAN/Flickr.

In 1999, Honda launched the S2000 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Production lasted for ten years, and the S2000 will go down in history as one of the greatest sports cars ever.
The S2000 had a screaming 2.0-liter VTEC engine that revved to 9,000 rpm and produced 240 horsepower. Honda placed the engine behind the front axle, giving the S2000 a perfect 50:50 weight distribution.

Mazda Miata

2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Image Credit: Chad Kainz/WikiCommons.

The Mazda Miata may not have the hairy-chested reputation of the Honda S2000, but it’s still among the most significant sports cars ever made. The Miata follows the traditional sports car formula to a T: Small, lightweight, open-top, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, and excellent handling. There’s no need for a powerful engine to have fun here.

Speaking of the engine, the Miata has grown in weight over the years, so its engine and power have increased with it. Early models had a 116-horsepower 1.6-liter, and the latest ND MX-5 Miata has a 2.0-liter with 181 horsepower. The Miata is the best-selling two-seater sports car ever made, so it should be easy to find one.

Nissan 300ZX

1989 Nissan 300ZX
Image Credit: Kazyakuruma/WikiCommons.

The 300ZX is known to be a fickle beast and challenging to work on. However, the 300ZX Twin Turbo is one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars you can buy for sensible money. It’s jam-packed with fancy tech, including four-wheel steering that improves handling and stability.

Tuners have extracted ridiculous amounts of power from the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 engine – even the infamous Japanese Mid Night Club drove the 300ZX.

Toyota MR2

1987 Toyota MR2
Image Credit: SealyPhoto/WikiCommons.

There have been three generations of the Toyota MR2, and they’re all great in their own ways. The first-generation MR2 is boxy in a typical 1980s fashion and is available with a supercharged 1.6-liter. The second generation is more stylish and refined, and thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-liter, it’s a lot more potent than its predecessor.

The third generation is more like a Lotus Elise for much less money. There’s no room for luggage, and a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter engine is fitted behind the driver. All the generations have distinct driving characteristics, and they’re all fun to drive.

Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4

Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4
Image Credit: order_242/WikiCommons.

The 3000GT VR4 was Mitsubishi’s flagship model. It packed lots of fancy and innovative tech, such as AWD, an all-wheel steering system, active aero, and adaptive suspension. These things are relatively common now, but the 3000GT VR4 debuted in 1990.

Under the hood, the 3000GT had a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 that produced 300 hp and 308 lb-ft of torque, and the 0 to 60 mph sprint took 4.9 seconds. While old technology is a cause for concern, it might be wise to snap up one of these beauties before prices skyrocket.

Mazda RX-7 FD

Mazda RX-7 FD
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Mazda gave the RX-7 a complete body makeover for its third generation, and it looks way better than its predecessors. When it emerged in the early ’90s, automotive journalists around the world raved about it, partly because of the stylish design but also because it offered excellent driving dynamics and had a reasonable price tag.

Later, it emerged that the 1.3-liter twin-turbo Wankel engine isn’t as reliable as a conventional engine, but real gearheads don’t care about that. At least it’s not as bad as its successor, the RX-8. The rotary unit produces as much as 276 horsepower in stock form, but JDM enthusiasts have extracted much more from it.

Mazda Cosmo

Mazda Cosmo 110S
Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Long before the FD RX-7 was born, the Cosmo pioneered Mazda’s rotary engine. Others had experimented with rotaries before it, but none were as successful as Mazda. The Japanese carmaker built the engine on Dr. Felix Wankel’s design but solved many inherent issues during development.

The Cosmo’s 1.0-liter two-rotor engine produced 110 horsepower, which is impressive considering its age and displacement. The Cosmo was the predecessor to Mazda’s famous RX lineup and is now very sought-after by collectors worldwide.

Nissan Skyline GT-R

Nissan R34 Skyline GT-R V Spec II Nur
Image Credit: Haseeb Rizvi/Flickr.

The first Nissan Skyline GT-R was built in 1969 and is known as the Hakosuka nowadays. Since then, there have been many generations of the Skyline GT-R, some more impressive than others.

The R-32 GT-R dominated race circuits and earned the nickname Godzilla. Those who like their sports cars to have some pedigree will swear by this one. The R-33 is arguably better but doesn’t have the same racing history as its predecessor. Finally, the R-34 is peak Skyline GT-R. All are powered by the legendary RB26DETT engine, which produced between 276 and 320 horsepower in stock form.

Nissan 350Z

2009 Nissan 350Z
Image Credit: Hugh Llewelyn/WikiCommons.

The Nissan 350Z is an affordable entry into the wonderful world of Japanese sports cars. You probably won’t find them cheaper than they are right now, so it is wise to buy one while you can.

Nissan stuffed the VQ35 3.5-liter V6 engine under its hood, and power grew to more than 300 horsepower over the years. Even the early cars with less power will scramble from 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Tommi Makinen Edition
Image Credit: Adrian Kot/Flickr.

There are ten generations of the Mitsubishi Evo, and it doesn’t matter which one you pick. They’re all excellent performance sedans that offer tons of power and grip, enabling them to challenge the laws of physics. All Evos have a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and AWD.

Our pick of the litter would be the Mitsubishi Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition, built to celebrate the Finn’s fourth consecutive WRC victory. It was painted to resemble the rally car, and Mitsubishi fitted an uprated turbo, improved the chassis and steering, and fitted a new exhaust, wheels, and suspension.

Nissan 200SX / Silvia S14

Nissan 200SX / Silvia S14
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Nissan’s S-series cars are a favorite among those who enjoy getting their cars sideways through the corners. Because of that, they’ve all seen their prices increase by ridiculous amounts – known as ‘drift tax.’

All the S-cars offer excellent driving dynamics, but our choice would be the S14, just because it looks mean and has a massive selection of aftermarket parts. It has a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that produces around 250 horsepower. It’ll reach 60 mph in just over 5 seconds and willingly snaps out its tail if you kick the clutch.

Honda / Acura Integra Type R

Honda / Acura Integra Type R
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Honda introduced the Integra Type R in 1995, and the model is still considered to be among the best-handling FWD cars ever made. Exterior-wise, not much separates it from the base model, but Honda did a lot of work under its beautiful shell.

The Integra Type R features many chassis and engine updates compared to the regular Integra. The coveted B18 1.8-liter DOHC-VTEC inline-4 engine sends around 200 horsepower to the front wheels. 0 to 60 takes just over 6 seconds, but this car isn’t built for straight-line speed; it’s a cornering machine!

Subaru BRZ / Toyota GR86

Subaru BRZ
Image Credit: Subaru.

So far, we’ve mostly covered cars from the past, but Japanese carmakers still make great driver’s cars today. Subaru’s BRZ and the Toyota GR86 are essentially the same car but with some minor differences.

They’re powered by Subaru’s 2.0-liter boxer engine that sends around 200 horsepower to the rear wheels. Zero to 60 mph takes around 7.7 seconds, and they really come into their own on a twisty road or track, thanks to the excellent driving dynamics and steering feel.

Toyota Corolla GT AE86

Toyota Corolla GT AE86
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Decades before Toyota marketed the GT86 and GR86, there was the original AE86 – also known as the Hachi-Roku. It’s a Corolla from the 1980s, and in stock form, it drives and feels like you’d expect from a 1980s Toyota. However, with a few tweaks, it becomes an excellent drifting machine.

The AE86 Corolla has a 1.6-liter twin-cam engine that produces around 125 horsepower, and they’re all sent to the rear wheels via a manual transmission. Expect to pay a small fortune for one of these today, as the ‘drift tax’ and starring role on the anime cult show Initial D have pushed prices through the roof.

Toyota GR Yaris

Toyota GR Yaris
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

The Toyota GR Yaris hot-hatch is built with assistance from the manufacturer’s racing division, Gazoo Racing. They designed it to meet WRC homologation rules because this is a modern rally car for the road!

Gazoo Racing built the turbocharged 1.6-liter three-cylinder engine. 257–268 horsepower is sent to all four wheels via its 6-speed manual transmission. Zero to 60 takes just over five seconds, and the top speed is electronically limited to 143 mph.

Subaru Impreza WRX 22B STi

1998 Subaru Impreza 22B STi
Image Credit: MrWalkr – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/WikiCommons.

The standard Impreza WRX can put more expensive sports cars to shame, but the 22B is a whole other beast. The 22B STi is considered the best WRX ever and was built to celebrate Subaru’s rally wins from 1995 to 1997.

On the outside, the 22B STi coupe is wider and more aggressive. Under the hood, it has a turbocharged 2.2-liter engine that sends 276 horsepower and 268 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. Zero to 62 mph only takes 4.6 seconds, and the 22B manages a top speed of 157 mph.

Toyota Celica GT-Four

1995 1998 cc red Toyota Celica car driving on an English country road
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Toyota built three generations of the Celica GT-Four from 1986 to 1999. It was created to compete in WRC, and as its name implies, the model has AWD, not FWD, like the standard Celica. In the States, it was marketed as the All-Trac Turbo.

A turbocharged 2.0-liter engine powers all generations of the Celica GT-Four. The first generation produced 182–190 horsepower. This was increased to 200 horsepower in the second generation and 240 in the third generation.

Lexus LC500

Lexus LC500
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Lexus unveiled the LC500 in 2017, and it’s still one of the best grand touring cars money can buy. Its design looks as stylish, elegant, and aggressive today as when it debuted. It even offers ride quality and driving dynamics that rival the best European models.

The LC500 is available with a 3.5-liter V6 hybrid paired with a CVT gearbox. However, we’d rather have the 471-horsepower V8 with the 10-speed automatic transmission.

Nissan GT-R Nismo

Nissan GT-R Nismo
Image Credit: Wiki Commons

For those who need more power than the regular R35 GT-R can deliver, Nissan’s in-house performance division created the GT-R Nismo. This beast is more track-focused than the regular GT-R and basically turns everything that made the original great up to 11.

The GT-R Nismo uses the same twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 as the standard GT-R, but it now produces 600 hp and 481 lb-ft of torque. It’ll explode from 0 to 60 in just 2.5 seconds and has a top speed of 205 mph. Nismo also installed lightweight parts, upgraded suspension and brakes, and improved the aerodynamics.

Andre Nalin

Author: Andre Nalin

Title: Writer


Andre has worked as a writer and editor for multiple car and motorcycle publications over the last decade, but he has reverted to freelancing these days. He has accumulated a ton of seat time during his ridiculous road trips in highly unsuitable vehicles, and he’s built magazine-featured cars. He prefers it when his bikes and cars are fast and loud, but if he had to pick one, he’d go with loud.

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