From sports cars, to economy sedans, to borderline supercars, below is a list of the top 30 Japanese vehicles of the past 50 years. These are the most notable and iconic Japanese cars that have sparked revolutions in car culture and inspired generations of people to become automotive enthusiasts, tuners, and collectors.
1986 Toyota Supra
Midway through 1986, Toyota finally gave the Supra its own name and dropped the Celica nomenclature. The Mark III generation of the Toyota Supra included 2.5-liter inline-6 engines – either naturally aspirated or twin turbocharged. The USA versions included 3.0-liter naturally aspirated and single CT26 turbocharged and intercooled variants. Styling became more pronounced and elegant, stepped away from the traditional 80s boxy styling.
1992 Honda Integra GS-R
The 1992 Honda/Acura Integra GS-R was more noted for its engine rather than for its looks or styling. The 1.8-liter DOHC engine was the perfect swap for those in the tuner crowd looking to gain more performance out of their Honda Civics or Honda CRXs. The higher revving engine made this one quick and nimble little car, and the available bolt-on performance parts made this car and engine come to life
1999 Nissan Silvia S15 Spec-R
The so-called little brother of the Skyline, the Silvia S15 was a two-door sports car that built on the popularity of the 180/240SX platform. Its FR layout coupled with a revised suspension setup made this a very stable and reliable car when hitting twisty roads. The engine supplied in the Silvia was the venerable SR20DE, but the upscale and better performing Spec R Silvia contained the SR20DET four-cylinder intercooled and turbocharged engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission
1990 Nissan 180SX/240SX S13
The S13 generation of the Nissan 180SX/240SX is one that is instantly recognizable on the Japanese drift circuit. It is a cheap and reliable entry-level drift car for youths looking to get started in motorsports competition. The S13 readily takes to mods to its SR20DE engine (Japan) or KA24 engine (USA). The most common performance gain is by swapping in the SR20DET turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine
2002 Nissan 350Z
After Nissan killed off the Z32 production in 1996, Nissan fans were left without any options for a 2+2 sports car model, especially in the United States. In 2002, after several years of waiting, Nissan unveiled the swoopy 350z with a 3.5-liter V6 in naturally aspirated form. The award winning design was met with great praise from the Nissan community and the styling lives on today in the 370Z
1982 Mitsubishi Starion
In the early 80s, cars were weird, and then came this nugget along with its American cousin, the Chrysler Conquest. These were boxy, rear-wheel-drive animals with a 4-cylinder non-turbocharged 2.0-liter engine or a turbocharged and intercooled 2.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. These cars were very quick and arguably ahead of their time
1988 Toyota Celica All-Trac
The 1988 Celica All-Trac was the first year All-Trac was available for purchase in the United States. It was powered by a 3S-GTE 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine mated to an all-wheel drive drivetrain making 222 horsepower and 224 foot-pounds of torque. The Celica All-Trac would go on to win numerous World Rally Championship events. It was known for its peppy engine and torque as well as the superior traction capabilities of its full-time all-wheel drive system that led to its rally success
2000 Toyota Altezza
Also known as the Lexus IS 300 in the United States, the Toyota Altezza was powered by the naturally aspirated 2JZ Toyota Supra engine mated to a Tiptronic automatic transmission or a five-speed manual transmission. The four-door sedan featured a signature hood bulge and German-inspired styling cues. Of note are the taillights that are clear with red circles consisting of the actual brake lights
1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T and GSX
The mid-1990s Eclipse GS-T and GSX were both powered by the workhorse 4G63 turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine making 210 horsepower and 214 foot-pounds of torque. The body was restyled and smoothed out from the previous first generation’s boxy styling and instantly became a hit with the release of 2001’s The Fast and The Furious where the film’s main character, played by the late Paul Walker, drove a neon green GS-T Eclipse
1994 Mitsubishi GTO MR
Known as the 3000GT VR4 or Dodge Stealth here in the United States, the GTO was the larger sibling to the Eclipse and was made to compete with the Supras, RX7s and the like of the day. It was not very popular probably due to its cost, yet it still deserves a spot on this list due to being an iconic engineering and design staple of its day. The GTO was powered by a 3.0-liter V6 in either SOHC, DOHC, or DOHC turbocharged and intercooled formats
2012-2016 Toyota/Scion/Subaru 86/FR-S/BRZ
Born out of a collaborative effort between Toyota and Subaru, the 86 is the tuner car of the current and next generation. Created as a small to mid-size sports car, the 86 is powered by the 4U-GSE naturally aspirated Boxer or flat four-cylinder engine making close to 200 horsepower in a rear-wheel-drive configuration. The aftermarket has exploded in regards to engine performance, suspension and body modification offerings and as such has driven the cost to modify the 86 down
2010 Lexus LF-A
One of the first supercars ever developed by Toyota, the LF-A, developed under the Lexus brand, is a two-door supercar powered by a 4.8-liter V10 making upwards of 560 horsepower and 354 foot-pounds of torque. The chassis is built in a monocoque design utilizing carbon fiber and aluminum as its main components. Aside from the Acura/Honda NSX, this is the first Japanese supercar to be introduced to the mass market
2007-2016 Nissan GT-R
The culmination of over 45 years of the GT-R’s evolution, the R35 version of the GT-R is a borderline supercar with over 500 horsepower , AWD, and enough electronics to handle the brute force and acceleration one experiences when putting the pedal down on the evolved Godzilla. The twin turbo V6 is unique to the GT-R and the AWD system makes sure the power is put down to the pavement efficiently
2007-2015 Subaru WRX STI
The rally fighter/tuner wars of the late 90s and early 2000s were extremely heated between Mitsubishi Evos and the Subaru WRX models. The Subaru WRX is widely recognized for its many WRC championships, owing to its turbocharged Boxer engine and all-wheel drive configuration. The bug-eyed styling is a trademark of the WRX and makes it instantly recognizable to the tuner crowd and motorsports fans the world over
1992-2016 Mitsubishi Evolution 1-X
The eldest of the two rally fighters, the Mitsubishi Evolution gained cult status from its appearance in the Jackie Chan movie, Thunderbolt. The Mitsubishi Evo is powered by the 4G63 turbocharged and intercooled inline four-cylinder engine making up to 300 horsepower in its later configurations. Coupled with all-wheel drive, the Evo was a beast on the rally circuit and could more than hold its own on the street circuits as well. Evos have been featured in many movies from the aforementioned Jackie Chan movie to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
1999-2000 Honda Civic Si
In the late 90s, Honda started seeing the market for a performance-oriented economy car due to the burgeoning tuner market of the early and mid-90s Civics. Enter the 1999-2000 Honda Civic Si. Both years featured the Electron Blue Pearl paint scheme and the hearty and robust B16A2 engine with VTEC pushing 160 horsepower and 111 foot-pounds of torque.
2000 Honda S2000
Honda’s sports car for the everyman that didn’t cost an arm and a leg like the NSX. The S2000 was a rear-wheel-drive, front engine sports car with a notable 9000 RPM redline. The F20C four-cylinder engine produced 237 horsepower and 153 foot-pounds of torque, which was more than enough pep for this lightweight convertible platform. The shark-nose styling was a hit; however, the pricing from dealers priced this out of the market for most of its target age group.
1990 Honda/Acura NSX
Honda’s first and only supercar, though many would debate the supercar status due to the low horsepower of the 3.0- and 3.2-liter engine variations (270 and 290 horsepower respectively). The NSX was the world’s first mass-market car made entirely of aluminum and therefore it was extremely lightweight.
1999 Mazda Miata MX-5
The poor man’s race car, the MX-5 Miata shows off what Mazda is known for – functioning design. The small convertible front engine, rear-wheel-drive layout with its 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine, gave this car a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Coupled with its small stature and relatively low cost, the Miata instantly became a hit on the SCCA circuits.
1991 Honda CR-X
The 1991 Honda CR-X was a very small econobox hatchback that was very lightweight and had a peppy engine. The Si model, which is very rare, had the B16 DOHC VTEC engine that produced 150 horsepower and could propel the small hatchback around very quickly. Much the same as its close kin, the Honda Civic, aftermarket parts flooded onto the scene for this engine and the car in general, and a cult following arose for the CR-X.
90s Honda Civic
Another basic, mid 90s econobox that gained notoriety from The Fast and the Furious movie franchise. The Civic being a nicely built economical automobile that could be had for a decent price exploded onto the aftermarket tuner scene after being prominently featured in the first installment of The Fast and The Furious. Being mass-produced, lightweight, and low in price by the time the movie was released (2001), aftermarket parts suppliers flooded the market with turbocharger kits, cold air intakes, suspension systems, and you name it for the Civic.
1970 Datsun 240Z
The start of the Z-car love affair started in 1970 when the 240Z was released for sale in the United States. The long-nosed styling to encompass the 2.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine coupled with the sloping back glass make this sports car easily recognized. The low price and 151 horsepower in such a lightweight platform caused generations to fall in love with the original Z car. To this day, the 240Z is sought out by tuners, collectors, and restorers alike.
Mid-90s Nissan Fairlady Z 300zx Z32
Nissan’s other sports car of the 90s was a continuation of the 240 and 280 Z cars before it. The 300ZX was a 2+2 design that was powered by a 3.0-liter V6 with either a naturally aspirated configuration or a twin turbocharged and intercooled setup. Styling hinted at the 240 and 280 Z cars of the past and it maintained its stature as a performance model with the twin-turbocharged variant producing 300 horsepower and 283 foot-pounds of torque.
1968 Datsun 510
Billed as an economy car, the Datsun 510 never saw much success stateside, but it has become very popular with automotive restoration enthusiasts and some tuners due to its unique, small, and boxy styling. The car was created to be the “poor man’s BMW” and its design cues point to that. The 510 was offered in several styles from a two-door sedan, four-door sedan, two-door coupe and a five-door wagon.
Mid-90s Mazda RX7 FD3S
Mazda’s answer to the horsepower and sports car wars with Toyota and Nissan the 1991-2000 Mazda RX7, chassis code FD3S, was a two-door, two-seater sports car with a twin turbocharged and intercooled 1.3-liter rotary engine capable of over 280 horsepower. True horsepower was never known due to the gentlemen’s agreement between manufacturers. More than anything, the FD3S was known for having nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution front to rear due to the compact nature of the rotary power plant.
Mid-90s Toyota Camry
One does not generally think of the Toyota Camry as one of the greatest cars of all time, but the mid-1990s, the Toyota Camry was one of the most popular and bulletproof cars of the modern era. Built in Georgetown, KY, the Camry was not necessarily known for its build quality at first, but that later changed as production processes were changed and upgraded.
1998 Toyota Supra JZA80
In what could be called Toyota’s answer to Nissan’s Skyline, the JZA80 Toyota Supra began production in 1993 and would later end in 1998. The Toyota Supra was a two-door sports car available with either a 3.0-liter naturally aspirated inline six-cylinder engine mated to an automatic or five-speed manual transmission or the God-like 3.0-liter 2JZGTTE twin turbocharged and intercooled inline six-cylinder mated to an automatic or six-speed Getrag transmission.
1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34
This is the car that sparked the interest of the so-called “PlayStation Generation.” Nicknamed Godzilla by most Japanese automotive enthusiasts, the R34 Skyline GT-R is a culmination of many years of Nissan engineering advances. While advertised at 280 horsepower due to a gentleman’s agreement between Japanese automakers, the 2.6-liter, twin turbocharged and intercooled inline 6-cylinder engine mated to an all-wheel-drive system, available Super HICAS system and a slick shifting Getrag 6-speed transmission would generate well over the advertised horsepower figures.
1969 Nissan Skyline GT-R PGC10
Everyone who is a fan of Japanese classic cars will instantly recognize the 1969 Nissan Skyline GT-R. The first generation of the legendary Skyline sported a 2.0-liter inline naturally aspirated 6-cylinder engine that outputted a robust 160 horsepower and 130-foot pounds of torque. The fuel system was handled by three Weber side-draft carbs that produced an awesome sound at full tilt.
1967-1970 Toyota 2000GT
If one could pick one of the most iconic and arguably the sexiest Japanese car styling of all time it would have to be the 1967-1970 Toyota 2000GT. Designed by Satoru Nozaki, the flowing body lines were sculpted entirely out of aluminum and the car had pop-up headlights and integrated luggage compartments in the rear quarter panels.