Japanese cars have taken the world by storm. Over the years, some countries have seen parts of their automotive landscape completely taken over by these foreign machines. Many Japanese brands are widely recognized all around for their reliability and longevity. Despite J cars being sold almost everywhere, there are numerous models that are exclusive to the island country and are rarely seen by outsiders. On top of that, some these particular cars aren’t just special Camrys and Civics but instead, high-performance machines with features that wouldn’t be seen in competitors' cars until years after the JDM models have gotten old. After some of these rare cars starred in Hollywood movies, everybody knew they had to get their hands on these forbidden cars.
Cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R and the Toyota AE86 Trueno have become automotive icons of Japan after being in TV shows, anime, and movies. While a few of these cars are available in some form or another in outside countries, they just aren’t the same as the JDM models. Not to mention, even if these cars do get sold outside of Japan, the high-performance ones are almost never shipped to other continents. However, while the historic movie stars are highly desired, they're far from the only cars that were limited to the Japanese market. Some of these cars are even part of an automotive segment that isn’t widely known outside Japan. So, here are 20 JDM cars you didn’t know you wanted.
20 Nissan Laurel
The Nissan Laurel was basically Nissan’s Toyota Chaser. The Laurel isn’t much to look at, as it was only offered in with restrained four-door styling. However, its styling isn’t why this sedan is enticing to some enthusiasts but rather, one of the motors that it could be optioned with. Much like the Toyota Chaser, this Laurel has a motor that was popularized with an epic performance car. In the Laurel’s case, it could be optioned with the RB25 straight-six motors, which made their claim to fame when equipped with twin-turbochargers and placed under the hood of the Skyline GT-R.
While the Laurel’s motor wasn’t the twin-turbo version, it could be equipped from the factory with a single turbo, where it produced 250 horsepower.
If that’s not good enough, these cars’ popularity on the drift circuits shows how modifiable it is.
19 Toyota Mark II
Toyota once sold quite a few rear-wheel-drive four-door sedans that hid powerful JZ motors under their hoods. While the Cressida was a mid-level luxury car and the Chaser was a performance model, the Mark II was meant to be an entry-level alternative to these Toyotas. The Mark II also stayed on the market for years after its stablemates were discontinued. Besides the standard four-cylinder engine options, the Mark II was available with a naturally aspirated 2JZ motor or 1JZ motors that could be equipped with either one or two turbochargers. While later examples dropped the twin-turbo option, these cars look almost identical to the mid-2000s Corollas, making them a perfect sleeper across the ocean. Better yet, these rear-wheel-drive sedans were also offered with manual transmissions. Overall, these low-end cars can hide some serious performance.
18 Honda S660
There are many different kinds of Kei cars, such as trucks, vans, and SUVs. However, the most common form factor for performance Kei cars is a hatchback. The Honda Beat and its successor, the S660, took a different approach. For those who think the Miata is a tiny convertible, the S660 makes the Mazda look like a heavy-duty pickup in comparison. Despite its tall nose, there's no engine under the hood of this Honda, as the engine's instead located behind the driver’s seat.
This mid-mounted engine is a turbocharged three-cylinder that produces 63 horsepower, and it can rev to nearly 8,000 RPM.
As this motor is powering a car that weighs less than a ton, it’s still a lot of fun to drive despite its low power output. Given its layout, the S660 is pretty much a city-friendly supercar that stickers for around $15,000 in Japan.
17 Mitsubishi FTO
While cars like the Toyota Supra and the Nissan Skyline GT-R revolutionized performance cars in the ‘90s, not every potent sports car is as ridiculously expensive as those two. There were some affordable sports cars that showcased technology that wouldn’t ever be seen outside Japan. To this day, some of these more economical options can still be somewhat affordable, even when imported.
Mitsubishi’s entry into this cheap and fast segment was the FTO, a small performance coupe that was powered by tiny high-strung V6 motors that produced up to 200 horsepower.
These cars would send their power through either a five-speed manual or a semi-automatic transmission. While it’s not quite on the same level as the GT-R and the Supra, being front-wheel drive, it was still an amazingly capable machine that had a wide array of aftermarket options.
16 Nissan Patrol
When it comes to Japanese off-roaders, the Toyota Land Cruiser stands above the rest in terms of popularity. While the older, tougher Land Cruisers are mostly gone, the luxurious contemporary models are still extremely capable machines. However, Toyota isn’t the only brand that sells trucks like the Land Cruiser.
The Nissan Patrol is another Jeep-like vehicle turned luxury SUV that has earned a reputation for its durability.
Until recently, the Patrol wasn’t available in many countries and only reached North America as recently as 2016 under the Armada nameplate. However, earlier models were less luxurious and far more capable. These models are powered by large six-cylinder motors that are famous for their ability to take beatings over many years. While these old Patrols may be showing their age, they’re still ripe for being imported to take more beatings across the seas.
15 Toyota Chaser
You may remember the Toyota Cressida from a couple decades ago. It was a slightly more luxurious sedan that was popular among old people, as it was larger and more comfort-oriented than other Toyotas from the time.
The Chaser is similar to the Cressida, starting out as a stately sedan with a traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform.
However, where the Cressida slowly died off as a foreign Buick replacement, the Chaser was modified into a performance sedan. Despite the Camry-esque looks, the Chaser can pack quite a punch under the hood. While it was offered with a number of engines, the one to look for is the twin-turbocharged 1JZ straight-six that produced 276 horsepower. The 2JZ that famously powered the Mk. IV Supra was also available but not in turbocharged form. These cars could also be optioned with a manual transmission.
14 Suzuki Alto Works
Kei cars are a unique aspect of the Japanese automotive landscape. While tiny cars are sold all around the world, these cars have a specific purpose. In Japan, taxes and insurance on cars can be considerably cheaper on a Kei car than on larger vehicles. Such vehicles were also once exempt from certain laws pertaining to owning normal cars, such as requiring a parking spot in the cities or being exempt from emissions testing. Despite being limited to 64 horsepower, there exist performance versions of these cars, such as the Suzuki Alto Works. Despite its power limitation, this car is turbocharged and has four valves per cylinder, making it efficient and fast. Further aiding performance, the car weighs well under a ton, making it easy to tear around the city.
13 Toyota Century
Nearly every country sells a world-renowned luxury car. While we’ve all heard of the Mercedes S-Class and the Rolls-Royce Phantom, Toyota has a car that can take on these well-known giants, even if many westerners don’t know it exists. This car is the Toyota Century, a gigantic land yacht that’s the last word in old-school luxury. And it’s not just old-fashioned with regard to its styling or the interior layout either. The Century first entered production in 1967, and it's only reached its third generation last year. Its first configuration lasted 30 years before being redesigned. The interior is trimmed almost entirely in wool for a unique touch, different from the leather and Alcantara in other high-end luxury cars. While currently powered by a V8 motor, previous models had either a V12 or a non-Chrysler Hemi V8 under the hood, depending on when it was made.
12 Nissan Skyline GTS-T
While the Nissan Skyline is easily the most well-known JDM car, the model is only really known for its GT-R version outside of Japan. While the GT-R is an amazing car that deserves every bit of its fame, there are many other versions of the Skyline, which range from boring daily drivers to models that are nearly as good as the Godzilla we all know. The GTS-T is one of those Skylines.
Sold during the R32 and R33 generations, the GTS-T was effectively a lower-end GT-R with a little less technology and was rear-wheel-drive only.
While it was powered by a slightly detuned version of the GT-R straight-six, it still could be had with twin-turbochargers. This Skyline was even offered in four-door body styles as well. While it may not have the same pedigree as the GT-R, it's nearly as good and much cheaper.
11 Toyota Blade Master G
Look at that name. Blade Master G. Does it get any more Japanese than that? The Blade is based on the Toyota Auris, which itself is based on the Corolla. While the Corolla and the Auris were never interesting cars in most trims, the Blade Master G is a surprisingly fast hatchback. That’s because, unlike many other Corolla-based cars, this sharp-edged hatch doesn’t have a four-cylinder under the hood but rather, the 3.5-liter V6 out of a Lexus IS. Where the standard four-cylinder cars produced under 200 horsepower, the Master’s six-cylinder produces around 280 horsepower through a sequential six-speed to the front wheels. That’s enough for endless front-wheel-drive burnouts. It’s a little shocking that such a car never came to the US, given America’s penchant for large motors, regardless of application.
10 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon
Off-road vans have become a trend in the automotive community. These vehicles are just about as practical as they come, as they can carry a lot of people, tow large loads, and drive across any terrain. The only problem is that these vans are enormous and inefficient because many of them are based on gigantic commercial vans such as the Ford E-series and the Mercedes Sprinter.
A popular JDM alternative is the Delica Star Wagon, which has four-wheel drive and seating for up to eight.
Its mid-engine design and cab that hangs over the front wheels allow this vehicle to have strong approach angles and a smaller wheelbase. On top of it all, the Delica is powered by small four-cylinder motors, meaning that this practical off-roader can return decent mileage.
9 Toyota Mega Cruiser
What you're looking at isn't a Hummer H1. Despite looking almost identical to the original Hummer, this is actually a Toyota of all things. While almost everyone is familiar with the Land Cruiser, this is the mechanically unrelated but appropriately named Mega Cruiser.
This Japanese behemoth was powered by a 4.1-liter diesel straight-six that produced 150 horsepower and 280 lb-ft. of torque, which isn’t a lot when it has to move a truck that weighs over three tons.
Despite being mechanically unrelated to the Humvee, it does have a lot in common with it. Both of these gigantic off-roaders have fully independent suspension and saw heavy use as police and military vehicles. Besides its massive size, the Mega Cruiser should be a capable off-roader, given its tiny overhangs and torquey motor.
8 Daihatsu Midget II
This bizarre-looking pickup is the Daihatsu Midget II, and it’s possibly the most iconic Kei truck ever created. The Midget started out in the 1950s as a diminutive three-wheeler that resembled a scooter with a bed on it more than a car. The Midget II was far more car-like, featuring a stable four-wheel design instead of the old tricycle. These newer trucks were designed to meet Kei car standards and were limited to a tiny, low-power motor—not that the Midget needed much power to do its job. The car’s design is the strangest part of the Midget, as its narrow body has nearly every detail protrude from it. The wheels stick out from the sides like a bug, the headlights are mounted off to the side, and it has its spare tire mounted to the front.
7 Nissan Figaro
During the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, Nissan experimented with a series of unique and retro-styled compact cars. These cars included the Be-1, S-Cargo, Pao, and Figaro. While half of these cars were stylish, practical hatchbacks, one of the more standout models was the Figaro, which was a hardtop convertible. Before retro cars became popular in the 2000s, Nissan was trying to do the same thing in 1991 with the Figaro. While these were all small cars, they weren’t small enough to be Kei cars. However, the lack of restrictions doesn’t mean that the Figaro has an insanely powerful motor under the hood. While the turbocharged 1.0-liter four-cylinder could've been enough to give this car plenty of pep, it's heavily hindered by a three-speed automatic. However, this car isn’t about performance but rather, relaxed, efficient, and stylish cruising.
6 Toyota Land Cruiser J70 30th Anniversary
In many countries, the Land Cruiser was introduced as a Jeep-like off-roader that was slowly transformed into an expensive and luxurious but no less capable SUV. That said, the Land Cruiser became an exclusive vehicle that wasn’t accessible to the masses like the old models were. However, that’s not the case for other parts of the world. In these countries, the Land Cruiser continues as a rugged, simple workhorse that even retains some the original’s styling. However, even Japan didn’t have access to such Land Cruisers until 2015, when a definitive version of the J70 model was released to as a 30th-anniversary edition. Besides being sold in SUV form, these anniversary Land Cruisers could even be ordered as a pickup. If there’s a version of these cars that won’t be too beat-up on the used market, the 30th anniversary is likely your best bet.
5 Daihatsu Copen
If there’s a definitive performance Kei car, it would be the Daihatsu Copen. Similar to the Honda S660, the Copen is a tiny convertible that’ll make a Miata feel like a Lincoln Continental. However, unlike the S660, the Copen has its motor in a more conventional location, and it powers the front wheels.
Being a Kei car, these Daihatsu convertibles are limited in engine size and power output, but its turbocharged three-cylinder motor and manual transmission allow it to out-accelerate many other sporty cars in this diverse segment.
Surprisingly, the Copen actually saw an international release to select countries. Without the Kei car restrictions, the Copen found an additional 20 horsepower, which dropped its zero-to-60 time by a couple seconds. While that version is rare, it’s the one to get.
4 Mitsubishi Minica Dangan
Kei cars may seem like simple beasts, given that their job is to be small enough to meet the standards of the segment. Even the sportier options seem to just have a turbocharger thrown on and maybe a convertible body to entice buyers. This isn't always the case, however, as the Mitsubishi Minica Dangan demonstrates. While the basic Minica was nothing special for the Kei market, the Dangan version was an amazing performance option with a lot of engineering behind it. This tiny car was powered by the first mass-production engine with five valves per cylinder, and it could rev to 9,000 RPM. Furthermore, this crazy engine sent its power to all four wheels. It’s no coincidence that Dangan means "bullet" in Japanese, as this car is as quick and as small as its namesake.
3 Nissan March Super Turbo
When it comes to making a small car more powerful, it’s commonly agreed that turbocharging is the way to go. However, when Nissan created its own racing series, it decided to go with a racecar based on its compact March model. Rather than just turbocharging it, Nissan decided to turbocharge and supercharge it, otherwise known as "twincharging." The idea of this practice is to use the supercharger’s low RPM boost to make up for the turbocharger’s lag. At low RPM, this March produced up to 10 PSI of boost, then the turbocharger pumped that number up even further. Despite this car being made for Nissan’s own racing series, it decided to homologate its own car, releasing the Super Turbo in a street-legal version. The Super Turbo is easily distinguishable from the standard model with its unique front end.
2 Toyota Mark X +M Supercharger
While Toyota continues to sell boring, front-wheel-drive sedans in many parts of the world, the brand seems to keep the better cars to themselves. This is evident as the brand has a dedicated rear-wheel-drive platform that they’ll only share with the west as an expensive Lexus. One of these cars that they keep to themselves is the Mark X. This sedan is offered in a number of sports trims. While many of these are just appearance packages, there's the +M Supercharger option, built by an in-house tuning company. This boosts the 3.5-liter V6 to 355 horsepower, which makes it a quick option for those looking at mid-size cars. With that much power going to the rear wheels, this four-door sedan is probably a capable drift machine.
1 Mitsubishi Galant AMG
Mitsubishi is known for building two kinds of vehicles: boring ones and fast ones. AMG is only known for making one type of car: fast Mercedes-Benzes. Yes, that AMG helped build a special-edition Mitsubishi Galant. While the Galant is usually an extremely boring sedan, it was offered in some incredible performance variants. It’s a little ironic that this AMG-badged sedan isn’t the best version of the Galant. Even if this isn’t one of the more rally-oriented cars, the AMG Galant did produce 170 horsepower from its tuned four-cylinder motor—impressive for a non-turbo engine. Making it more enticing was its 8,000 RPM redline, making this front-driver a good middle ground when it comes to fast Galants. Even more surprising is that this wasn’t the only AMG Mitsubishi. However, the AMG package on the other car was merely a cosmetic upgrade.
Sources: New York Times, The Truth About Cars, Car and Driver
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