In America today, most Japanese automotive manufacturers are renowned for their affordability, reliability, and simplicity. That's all thanks to decades of solidly constructed, attractively designed, typically smaller-statured cars arriving on these shores. But there's also a solid appreciation for Japanese sports cars, from the gorgeous coupes of the 1960s to the rally-bred insanity of all wheel drive, turbocharged monsters.
Japanese imports truly began their climb to the top of the global market during the 1980s and 90s. It was cars like the Honda Civic, Toyota Celica, and Mazda Miata that solidified the impression that Japanese cars were well engineered, utilitarian vehicles that offered cheap parts and easy maintenance, if work was even required at all.
The cars that are built strictly for Japanese consumption are called JDM cars, short for Japanese Domestic Market. Many JDM cars are never sold outside of Japan, and sometimes Japanese manufacturers will withhold entire model lineups. Within specific models, too, often only certain ones get shipped overseas. Then there's Japan's category of cars so tiny and underpowered that to even call them cars would be a subject for debate, designed teensy tiny on purpose to keep a low tax and registration basis.
From the best of the best to the cheapest of the cheap, Japan's automotive industry is always pushing the limits of quality, performance, and technology. Keep scrolling for 10 of the absolute best JDM cars, and 10 that are truly head-scratchers.
20 Sweet: Nissan Skyline GT-R
Movie buffs may have been introduced to the Nissan Skyline GT-R for the first time as Paul Walker blasted through the streets of Los Angeles in the first installment of The Fast and the Furious movie franchise, but true auto enthusiasts have been well aware of this impressive series of cars for decades. The Skyline GT-R debuted in 1969 as a heavily modified performance version of Nissan's Skyline coupe.
By the late 1980s, the Japanese market clamored for a revitalization of the car, and the third, fourth, and fifth generations evolved with all wheel drive, powerful twin-turbo engines, and that distinctive wedge-shaped style. JDM market examples are starting to hit American streets more frequently now thanks to 25-year importation limits coming to an end, and though available only in right hand drive, a GT-R should be close to the top of any enthusiast's list.
19 Sweet: Subaru Impreza GC8 STI
Subaru's legendary success in rally racing truly began with the development of their Impreza STI. After a number of years racing the larger Legacy chassis, the lighter Impreza proved to be incredibly dominant in professional rallying, and for model year 1992, coupe, sedan, and wagon versions were all homologated for Japanese streets in both WRX and STI form.
While the United States received the 2.5RS form of the first-generation Impreza, turbocharged WRX and STI engines wouldn't hit these shores until the next generation of "bugeye" sedans in 2001.
The GC8 body shares bodywork, interior, and many mechanical components with its stable mates - and even later generations - so tuners and home mechanics here in America often find early normal induction examples and swap in beefier drivetrain packages to replicate the missing first-generation STI.
18 Sweet: Subaru WRX STI S207
Since the first Impreza STI's introduction, the model line has seen continual improvements, though the underlying principles have remained the same. Still featuring 2 and 2.5-liter turbocharged engines and all wheel drive, the newest generation may weigh significantly more than its predecessors, but thanks to ridiculous power output and a higher level of creature comforts, the car remains attractive to this day.
Sadly, America still does not receive the highest end STIs that Subaru produces. Case in point is the 2015 limited run of JDM S207 editions, which use the lighter weight 2-liter engine but tuned to higher output and paired with a close-ratio steering rack more akin to the actual rally racing version of the car. With easily available aftermarket support for both engine management and parts, imagine the potential for an S207 on American streets.
17 Sweet: Mitsubishi Lancer Evo Tommi Makinen Edition
Subaru's main rally competitor for the last twenty years has been the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which has been released in ten distinct generations since debuting in 1992. Road going Lancer Evo homologation versions are even more spartan than Subaru's STI, with firmer suspension and minimal creature comforts.
Perhaps the most desirable version of the Lancer Evo is the limited run of Tommi Makinen Edition models which were released in 1999 after the Finnish driver won Mitsubishi its fourth WRC drivers championship.
The TME resembles a true rally car even more than other Lancer Evos, with a lower ride height, white wheels, a wider air intake on the front bumper for improved access to an enormous intercooler, Momo details like the steering wheel and shift knob, as well as a quicker spooling titanium turbine for improved power and reduced turbo lag.
16 Sweet: Toyota Soarer Twin Turbo
Toyota's response to the Nissan Skyline GT-R was their high-end Soarer Twin Turbo touring coupe. The Soarer would eventually be sold for the American market badged as the Lexus SC, but before 1991 it was only available in Japan.
Various models of the wedge-shaped Soarer featured a wide range of styling and engine options, including a twin-turbocharged 1G-GTE and a single-turbo version of the 7M-GTE which would later feature in Toyota's high performance Supra model line.
Pre-91 Soarers are a rare sight on American roads - though they are old enough to qualify for importation, and with upgraded suspension the touring coupe gains the nimble handling of a sports car. Right hand drive is the only available spec, however, making a Soarer something that only true drivers will want to enjoy.
15 Sweet: Nissan Silvia S13
One step below the Skyline GT-R on Nissan's performance coupe ladder was the Silvia, known in America as the 240SX. The simple lines of an S13 Silvia reveal the intentions behind the car. It perhaps lacks supercar performance, but makes up for it with lightweight utility that delivers a solid driver's experience thanks to multi-link rear suspension, intercoolers for charged air, and optional limited-slip differentials out back.
The American 240SX shares many traits with the JDM version, but less powerful engines resided under the hood for the duration of production.
Today, the scarcity of both 240SX and Silvia models can be traced to its popularity within drifting culture thanks to a short wheelbase and tight handling, leading many parts and upgrades to end up being quite expensive on the secondhand market. Still, a true JDM Silvia deserves a second look if ever spotted on the street.
14 Sweet: Toyota Supra
Toyota began producing their Supra line of performance coupes in 1978, and the model defined a new era of lightweight sports cars for the many decades to follow. The Supra reached peak desirability with a fourth generation redesign that followed four years of development, including the new stylish exterior and two versions of the now legendary 2JZ engine.
The normally aspirated 2JZ-GE pumped out 220 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque, while the twin-turbocharged version boosted output up to 276 horsepower and 318 lb-ft. The Supra is a rare instance where a foreign market car actually shipped to the United States with its highest engine option, as the North American 2JZ-GTE actually featured smaller, steel turbos and bigger fuel injectors which allowed it to churn out 320 horsepower even though torque was down minimally to 315 lb-ft.
13 Sweet: Honda Integra Type R DC2
Rear wheel and all wheel drive cars reached new heights in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to the likes of the Subaru STI, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, and the Nissan Skyline GT-R, but Honda still spent time capitalizing on the market for nimble little front wheel drive cars.
Their Integra, which was sold in the United States under the Acura marque, is regarded as perhaps the best handling front wheel drive car ever made, and its peak form is the JDM DC2 Integra Type R.
With a more rigid chassis than its lower spec siblings and a limited slip front differential, the Integra Type R also featured a hand-built engine that red lined at 8,500 RPM and churned 197 horsepower out of the small, normally aspirated four cylinder.
12 Sweet: Honda S2000 AP1/F20C
Honda didn't solely commit to the front wheel drive project. In fact, during the 90s and 2000s they produced a couple of the most desirable rear wheel drive cars ever. Their S2000, which debuted in 1999, was a lightweight convertible that focused entirely on driver experience.
At the time, its F20C - 2-liter inline four engine - was the highest output normally aspirated engine in the world, cranking out 247 horsepower on the way to a sky-high 8,8000 RPM.
A six speed manual transmission and limited slip rear differential came standard. In 2004, Honda released a face-lifted version of the S2000 with a larger engine that reduced the redline to 8,000 RPM, though it featured slightly improved torque figures. These "AP2" S2000s are not quite as sought after, however, thanks to the joy of rowing through the gears at the high RPMs in the original spec model.
11 Sweet: Honda NSX
Honda sold the distinctive NSX under the Acura brand name in the United States to distinguish the new supercar from offerings like the Civic and Accord. The decision seems silly now, given the NSX's obvious design as a sports car on par with the best in the world, featuring a hyper-advanced aluminum body, a mid-mounted V6 engine with titanium components, and a Formula 1-inspired design with contributions from actual fighter pilots. No one was about to make the mistake of thinking the NSX was a normal car.
A mint NSX today is a highly sought-after collectible, but higher mileage examples command numbers that may even exceed their original sticker price; where the NSX could cost one third to one tenth as much as its Italian competitors, maintenance costs were significantly lower and the NSX is so reliable that many have driven over 300,000 miles with not much more than routine servicing.
10 Skip: Mazda RX-8
Mazda's RX-8 may seem like an awesome and unique sports car at first glance, and on second glance, the high-revving, aviation-derived rotary engine under the hood can certainly sound appealing. But even though RX-8s have developed quite a cult following for tuners and home mechanics, the sad fact is that owning one always ends up being an exercise in frustration.
The Wankel rotary engine design spins a rotor, which keeps the engine well-balanced and lightweight, but over time the seals that insure proper ignition end up failing which lets oil get into the air-fuel mixture. That high-revving engine also ends up consuming a high volume of fuel, resulting in terrible MPGs and high emissions, which is a major part of what led to Mazda halting sales in Europe two years before the end of deliveries to America.
9 Skip: Mazda Laputa
When Japanese imports first flooded the American automotive market, their combination of reliability, affordability, and small size left American manufacturers in the dust.
What many Americans might not know, however, is that the cars we received here, like the Honda Civic and Toyota Celica, weren't even that small for Japanese standards.
In Japan, cars are taxed based on engine displacement and size, with what is known as the kei car being on the lowest rung, even below subcompact. Today's cars, trucks, and vans in Japan that are designated as kei cars include the Mazda Laputa, which is actually a rebadged Suzuki Kei. Powered by a 656 cc gasoline engine, the little car certainly makes parking easier, but driving in Wyoming at 80 miles per hour would be absolutely terrifying.
8 Skip: Daihatsu Thor
Daihatsu's Thor is a joint venture with fellow Japanese manufacturer Toyota, who badges it the Tank. The small van seems like it should fit into the kei car class, but strangely, both its engine and exterior dimensions are just slightly larger than required, so owners of the Thor still have to pay higher registration taxes to drive something that doesn't give them much added value.
The engine is still tiny, checking in at just 1 liter. Given that it is paired to a continuously variable transmission, it seems like it probably isn't powerful enough to propel the minivan up to highway speeds when packed full of passengers. If the Thor wasn't going to meet the kei requirements anyway, why not make it bigger and more powerful?
7 Skip: Mitsubishi/Daihatsu Midget
Mitsubishi's Midget is another joint venture (this time with Daihatsu) that does meet the requirements to fit in the kei class. Powered by only a 660 cc engine, with that spare wheel well looking like a clown nose, and the front fenders poking out wider than the driver door, the Midget is a common sight in Tokyo, as it is used by bar owners who inexplicably manage to squeeze beer kegs in the back.
The one or two-seater van is just barely wide enough to count as much more than an enclosed motorcycle, and in fact the first generation Midget was built with only three wheels. The second generation, built from 1996 to 2002, can be optioned with four wheel drive, though off roading in one is definitely not a good idea.
6 Skip: Suzuki SX4
Not every car in Japan is tiny enough to count as a kei car, and many wealthier owners choose stately sedans and crossovers that are multiple steps up the tax bracket. One example of an almost-SUV type vehicle is the Suzuki SX4, made in conjunction with Fiat.
Originally intended for the European market, the SX4 ended up being sold in Japan as well, where it fits into the compact class. Calling it an SUV is a bit of a stretch, even though four wheel drive is offered.
With low clearance, minimal wheel travel, and an exterior styled very similarly to a minivan, Americans should be glad that the SX4 isn't available on car lots, or American manufacturers might be tempted to produce something similar to stay in competition.
5 Skip: Suzuki Swift
American manufacturer GM has, in fact, teamed up with Suzuki to produce a rebadged Suzuki Swift specifically for the Japanese market. The tiny, SUV-style crossover was called the Chevrolet Cruze - a direct precursor to the much larger sedan now offered in America.
The JDM Chevy Cruze reached the end of the line with the debut of the second generation Swift in 2004.
Nowadays, Suzuki's Swift is on its fourth generation, and global sales have exponentially increased, along with popularity in Japan. An Indian company named Maruti even rebadges the Swift for their domestic market. This version, called the Dzire, accounts for half of the Swift's impressive global sales to date. Still, the JDM version boasts a measly three cylinder engine under the hood, which would simply not cut it in America if they tried to reunite with today's Cruze sedan.
4 Skip: Toyota Alphard
The Toyota Alphard is a relatively large van when compared to many other people movers on the Japanese market. Fitting seven or eight people - depending on configuration - the Alphard is considered full-size by Japanese standards. The third generation Alphard even has two V6 engine options, and a fully luxurious options package exists called the Executive Lounge grade.
While the Executive Lounge option is largely for moving business leaders around Japan, the 296 horsepower V6 was necessary for Toyota to open up the Russian market, which requires a more powerful engine.
The Alphard will also ship to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, but is still smaller than most American minivans, and American consumers would no doubt feel claustrophobic even in the Executive Lounge arrangement.
3 Skip: Mitsubishi Outlander
Some undesirable JDM offerings do make it across the Pacific to American shores. The Mitsubishi Outlander, now in its third generation, is the result of a 17 year production run that originally served only the Japanese market, then expanded to Russia, South America, and finally the USA.
A high-end performance version even existed at one point that shared an engine with the Lancer Evo, though detuned to crank out only 200 horsepower when exported.
The newest generation is manufactured in Japan, China, Malaysia, and Russia, and even debuted in Russia before the rest of the world. Improvements over past generations include revised suspension and upgraded electronic features, but Americans in the market for an SUV would do much better turning to just about any other option they can find.
2 Skip: Daihatsu Hijet
Daihatsu's Hijet work van has somehow made it to its tenth generation since debuting in 1960. Tiny, efficient, and taxed at the lowest rate possible by the Japanese goverment, the Hijet is a utilitarian kei class van that in previous generations also came in truck form.
The tiny 600 cc (the largest allowed to qualify for a kei classification) produces something like 50 horsepower, good enough to haul what little can fit into the van's cargo area. Still, imagine the little van delivering a load of lumber to a job site. Clearly, even with a larger, Indonesian-market 1000 cc engine upping the power as much as can be delivered with a turbo, the little van could not be taken on American highways when full of lumber or bricks. Luckily, the chances of a Hijet finding its way to the US are slim to none.
1 Skip: Toyota Vitz
If the Toyota Vitz above looks familiar, that's because the Vitz is the JDM market version of the Toyota Yaris sold in most of the rest of the world. Not all cars that are sold in Japan change significantly between their JDM versions and their American versions, and the Vitz mostly just lost its name.
Unlike Subaru's STIs and Lancer Evos, though, the Yaris actually gets drivetrain upgrades when it leaves Japan's soil, and there's even a supercharged, 205 horsepower version in the pipeline for European markets, inspired by Germany's Nurburgring.
Still, whether it's called a Vitz or a Yaris, the underwhelming little car is low down on the list of hatchbacks, a list that seems to gain awesome new additions, like the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS, on a regular basis.