Japan has sent some interesting cars our way. The Datsun 240Z, Toyota Celica ST, Mazda RX-7, Honda S2000, and Acura NSX… but it seems they kept the wildest cars for themselves. JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) cars are the ones we didn’t get when they were new because they either didn’t meet U.S. standards or the manufacturers didn’t think they’d sell well.
Anything that is at least 25 years old can be imported, which means many of the best cult classic JDM cars are fair game. So check out the list and start shopping. Pretty soon you could be rocking a car nobody in the USA has seen.
10 Honda City R
Nobody out wackies the French. Except for the Japanese, single-handedly with this one car. Sure, it looks like an unassuming sub-compact, but it’s a micro-car with a secret. Pop the rear hatch and you’ll discover that there’s a folding motor scooter, the Motocompo, nestled in the storage compartment.
Yes, if gas mileage – or easy parking – are so incredibly important to you that a postage-stamp-sized car that gets 63 mpg isn’t good enough, you can yank a scooter out of the back for the rest of the trip. And what a trip that would be.
9 Mitsubishi FTO
Speaking of wacky, JDM shoppers also had the Mitsubishi FTO: a pretty cool car saddled with a ridiculous name. Don’t agree? You will when you learn that FTO stands for Fresh Touring Origination. Seriously.
But they got the rest of the car right with chiseled good looks, a 24-valve V6 with variable valve timing (MIVEC as they called it), and a 5-speed stick. The FTO was never the fastest car, but it was sporty, handled well and was relatively easy to tune. It was also named Japanese Car of the Year in 1995, helping secure its street cred for years to come.
8 Honda Civic Type-R
Honda has sent plenty of Civics to the USA over the years. 7.3 million by 2006, in fact. Sadly, the mid-'90s Civic Type-R was not one of them. A modified version of the base car, the Type-R went on a diet with Recaro seats, removal of sound deadening, and more. Then they went to work on the VTEC engine, hand-porting intake, and exhaust manifolds to achieve one of the highest power-per-liter ratios from a normally-aspirated engine before pairing it with a close-ratio transmission and limited-slip differential to transfer all the twist into motion.
As with any VTEC engine, you have to keep the revs up. But since it sounds so good screaming toward redline, that isn’t a problem for anyone drawn to the Civic Type-R in the first place.
7 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R
In 1990, Nissan unleashed the Pulsar GTI-R, a compact that had more in common with the Skyline GT-R than the Nissan Pulsar NX we received in the USA. Other than part of the name, the two Pulsars had nothing in common. That’s because the GTI-R was made to homologate a rally car.
That meant it had a short wheelbase, all-wheel-drive, locking differentials at the front, center, and rear; 5-speed stick, turbo-charger, a massive hood scoop to suck air in for said turbo, and a spoiler out back to channel whatever air made it past the scoop. The GTI-R didn’t do well for the Nissan rally team, but it sure cleaned up on the street.
6 Nissan Silvia
Yes, the Nissan 200SX and 240SX made it to the West and were pretty close to the JDM version, the Silvia. The major difference was that they were powered by the engine from the Pathfinder, instead of the turbo-4 from the Pulsar GTI-R as they were back home.
But, sadly, we never got any version of the S15. The sleekest, fastest, and most capable of the S platform cars, the S15 was – and is – a drifting hero, winning 7 D1 Grand Prix championships. Maybe that’s why a Mississippi man was willing to face up to 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine for smuggling one into the country.
5 Autozam AZ-1
One of the things that makes JDM cars so much fun is how unexpected they can be. Look no further than the Autozam AZ-1 for proof. A joint venture between Mazda and Suzuki, this Kei car (the smallest class of cars allowed on highways in Japan) is only slightly larger than a loaf of bread, features gull-wing doors, and a mere 63 horsepower from its 660cc engine.
But it was designed to be fun to drive, which differentiates it from all the other Kei cars, and that’s what puts it at #4 on this list. It’s a stripped-down, turbo-charged, rear-mid-engine car with fewer than 4,500 ever made – and huge aftermarket support, which is strange for something made in such limited quantities. But today, an AZ-1 can be modified in practically any way you want.
4 Mazda Cosmo
Everyone who knows anything about cars knows about the Wankel Rotary engine found in the Mazda RX-7 and RX-8. But decades earlier, in 1967, Mazda offered their first rotary engine in their first sports car - the Cosmo. This Japan-only car was created a scant four years after Mazda went into business and signaled to anyone who was paying attention that it was a company to take seriously. Nearly 2 million rotary-engined cars can trace their lineage to the Cosmo, which makes it a VERY big deal.
Not only did the Cosmo offer a cool vibe with its decidedly Japanese styling, but it also signaled to the world that this new company would put engineering first and never follow convention. Throughout the years, the gauntlet tossed down by the Cosmo would be echoed in cars that have defied convention. That’s what makes this such an important – and classic – JDM car.
3 Toyota 2000 GT
Ok, let’s get it out of the way right here. The Toyota 2000 seen in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice was a one-off convertible created only because Sean Connery was too tall to fit into the hardtop. But that’s ok, because it gave movie-goers a better view of the star and his helpful, albeit confusing, guide. Frankly, the car also looked stunning with the roof cut off. But that’s not what’s important here.
The 2000 GT was Toyota’s message to the world that it was a manufacturer to be reckoned with – and today’s sales certainly support that idea. Considering that current values start at $500,000 and go up from there, this isn’t merely a cult car. It’s important. That’s why it sits so high on the list. Simply put, the Toyota 2000 GT is JDM automotive royalty.
2 Honda NSX-R
Way back in 1990, the Honda NSX did what nobody thought possible. It brought the rarefied world of mid-engined supercars to the real world. Finally, there was a car that was as at home on the morning commute as on a race track. One that could deliver incredible performance without demanding routine $10,000 engine-out services to keep it running.
As good as it was, the NSX wasn’t the pinnacle of early ‘90s Japanese engineering. That’s reserved for the ‘92 Japan-only NSX-R. The differences were a balanced and blueprinted engine, stiffened suspension components – and most critically – weight reduction across the board. Spare tire? Gone. Airbags? Gone. Central locking and power mirrors? Gone and gone. In all, about 265 pounds were removed and the result was a dramatic improvement in handling, acceleration, and braking that push it to #2.
1 Nissan Skyline
You’re doing something right when your car is nicknamed Godzilla by the motoring press. And that’s exactly what happened with the Nissan Skyline GT-R R32. This high-performance, AWD coupe dominated whatever race it appeared in, winning all 29 Japanese Touring Car Championships entered, the ‘91 Spa 24-Hour race, three Australian Group A Championships, and back-to-back Bathurst 1000 races. It was like an invasion wherever it went and prompted the local Australian press to name it for the Japanese monster that destroyed all it came in contact with.
As if that weren’t enough, the Skyline GT-R R32 was also featured in the Gran Turismo video game series, introducing it to a new group of racing enthusiasts, solidifying its position as one of the all-time most desirable Japanese cars and putting it in a very familiar position: first place.