Take a casual look down your high street and the majority of Japanese manufactured cars on our roads seem to be of the sensible and practical variety, it is almost as if the task of providing adrenalin-pumping performance cars has been left to the Germans and Americans.
And then you hear the whoosh of a wastegate or catch the manic scream of a small-capacity naturally aspirated engine in the air and remember that while the roads are littered with Honda CR-Vs and Toyota Priuses, there are a still whole host of exciting Japanese performance machines out there too. You just have to look that little bit harder to find them.
So we decided to do just that and found some of the very best Japanese cars out there, from some desirable older classics to the latest tech-laden sports cars. We found that there is a wealth of historically significant cars out there so lets get started.
This may not be the first of the really collectable JDM classics around – we will get to those in a bit – but the ‘Hachi-Roku’, despite its modest beginnings, is the one that started the global drifting craze.
In standard 1.6-litre form it only made around 120-bhp, what made it special was the rear-wheel-drive layout, easily modifiable engine and great chassis that made this little hatch stand out from the crowd. The contemporary GT86 draws its inspiration from this original affordable enthusiasts’ car.
Now this Toyota was destined to be a classic from the start. Only 351 2000GT’s were ever built and it was a lighter, more nimble alternative to the Jaguar E-Type.
While it was only ever produced as a coupe, two convertibles were built for the Bond film ‘You only live twice’ as Sean Connery apparently couldn’t fit into a standard car.
Toyota Celica 5th Gen
The Celica has been through 7-generations but the one most people remember, and want, are the 5th-gen models.
This was the ‘90s version which took the rallying world by storm and special edition versions like the 230-bhp GT-Four Carlos Sainz models are highly desirable today.
Toyota Supra 4th Gen
The Supra has been through 4-generations (a new Supra is on the way after a 16-year wait) and while they all have their unique charm, the 4th-generation A80 models are the ones everybody wants.
Twin-turbos, huge tuneability and age-defying looks have kept these cars popular for decades. The A80 was one of the first JDM cars to start the modern trend of massive horsepower tuner cars. The 2JZ-GTE inline-six became a renowned for being able to handle big boost pressures while still remaining reliable.
The LFA was a limited production supercar that featured a painstakingly designed carbon-fibre reinforced polymer chassis and a 560-bhp 4.8-litre V10 engine that sounded like it had escaped from a ‘90s Formula 1 car.
The eye-watering price didn’t deter 500 customers from taking delivery and the LFA remains one of the handful of exotic supercars to hail from Japan.
Mazda RX-7 3rd Gen
Mazda is one of the few manufacturers to have persisted with the rotary engine and while the RX7 exhibits all of the negative traits of the design (high oil consumption and rotor wear), it also showcases its supreme smoothness and strong performance in the 3rd-gen FD RX-7.
Twin-turbos helped it produce up to 276-bhp which meant contemporary 911 rivalling performance. Those smooth and swoopy body panels are still beautiful today.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi
Subaru dominated the rallying scene in the early ‘90s and introduced a range of excellent AWD sports saloons to capitalize on its racing successes. All generations of the WRX are very capable but some limited-edition models like the 22B STI, P1 and RB5 are particularly special.
That distinctive exhaust note and wastegate whoosh will be indelibly etched in fans memories from those early blue and gold rally cars as they raced to dominance on the world’s rallying scene.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo
The Evo was an aggressive all-wheel-drive road car with only one mission, to go fast on every possible road surface. There were ten official evolutions of the design, spanning from 1992 to 2016 and each got a successively more complex AWD system and more power to go with it.
In the UK, the nuttiest variant was the FQ-440 MR, limited to 40 units and producing 440-bhp. Less manic versions are perhaps better rounded for daily driving and most variants produced around 270-bhp which was plenty.
The tiny S600 was Honda’s first mass-market car and it featured some advanced engineering under that small bonnet. The 531cc engine produced an impressive 57-bhp and thanks to an all-up weight of just over 700kgs, was capable of 90mph.
Both roadster and coupe variants were built and this little sportster (and its S500 predecessor) was the first sign that some great things were about to come from the Honda factory.
The S2000 was the direct descendant of those early S cars and its technological selling point was one of the best naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engines of all time.
UK fans will be familiar with the screaming 240bhp 2.0-litre 9000-rpm motor but Japanese customers got an extra 10-bhp and US cars were also available in a slightly torquier 2.2-litre version. Production ended in 2009 and values are already rising for these modern classics.
Honda Civic Type R
Ten generations of Civics have been sold since 1972 and while most were of the budget daily-driver variety, the Type R variants have built up a cult following amongst enthusiasts.
The advanced V-Tec variable valve timing N/A motors had a lot to do with their popularity. Low on torque, they delivered the goods at the higher spectrum of the rev range and felt and sounded like thoroughbred sports cars in the process. The latest turbocharged models have moved the Type-R into another performance dimension without losing that manic character.
Honda Integra Type R
When it comes to front-wheel drive sports cars, the Integra Type R is generally considered to be one of the very finest examples ever built. Introduced in 1995, the Integra produced up to 200-bhp from its 1.8-litre V-TEC powerplant and the exquisitely balanced chassis gave it the ability to take on much more powerful competitors on the track.
These cars are highly sought after today and as with the rest of the N/A offerings here, we are unlikely to see their like ever again.
The ultimate expression of Honda’s sports car vision arrived in 1990. The NSX was a 276-bhp 3.0-litre V6 VTEC powered sports coupe with the pace and handling to match the contemporary Ferrari 348 and Porsche 964 without any of the reliability and drivability issues that up until then had been part and parcel of the sports car experience.
It may have stayed in production a tad too long, the last car rolled off the line in 2005, but it redefined its segment and gave the competition a wake-up call. The latest NSX hybrid is quite a different proposition but offers a similarly game-changing combination of talents as the original.
The 240Z is where Nissan/Datsun entered the global sports car market. The 151-bhp 2.4-litre inline-6 gave the light coupe the performance to take on the Europeans while its inherent reliability laid the groundwork for a strong enthusiast following.
The 260Z and 280Z that followed lost a bit of the focus of the original but were still great GT cars.
Nissan 300ZX 2nd gen
The 300ZX arrived in 1983 and was built for two generations. It is the 2nd generation Z32 models that are the more popular today, especially in twin-turbo form where they produced over 300-bhp.
Like many Japanese performance cars, a lot have been modified over the years but it is the standard models that are the most desirable today.
The 350Z returned to a big-capacity unboosted engine to provide the goods, in this case a 3.5-litre V6, and it proved to be a very successful recipe. It may have been a bit portly in standard form but it was easy to modify and racing versions achieved good results on track.
Many tuners added turbo and superchargers as well as outlandish bodykits to create some extreme 350Zs, the NISMO variants were slightly more subdued factory fettled models.
The 370Z followed in the footsteps of the 350Z and offered improvements in all areas of performance. Its beefy 3.7-litre V6 produces up to 350-bhp in NISMO trim and having been on sale since 2009 has been continually updated to a modern yet satisfyingly old-school sports car experience.
Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R
The Nissan GT-R legend can be traced all the way back to 1969 where the very first GT-R Skyline saloon appeared. Based on a humble family car, this performance model featured a 160-bhp 2.0-litre inline-six engine and numerous updates to the suspension.
A coupe version was introduced but production was short-lived for both as the 1973 oil crisis meant the next GT-R would only see the light of day in 1989.
Nissan Skyline GT-R 32
That car was the Skyline GT-R 32, it combined a very advanced AWD system with the now legendary RB26DETT 2.6-litre inline-six twin-turbo engine to produce a car that could out-accelerate and out-corner quite a few very expensive super cars on just about any road or race track.
The official power figure was stated as 276-bhp, done to appease the then existing gentleman’s agreement but most cars were making in excess of 320-bhp. Its Japanese Touring Car successes brought the GT-R global recognition and the modern legend had begun.
Nissan GT-R 35
Currently the pinnacle of the GT-R range, the R 35 was the first to drop the Skyline name, it has been around since 2007 and yet still competes with contemporary supercars costing many times its base price.
While factory models produce around 600-bhp, tuners have extracted well over 1000-bhp from modified examples making for some very interesting YouTube videos as these cars utilize their complex AWD systems to dispatch some heavyweight exotics.