Home Cars 13 Greatest Japanese Sports and Performance Cars of the 1990’s That Were Killing it

13 Greatest Japanese Sports and Performance Cars of the 1990’s That Were Killing it

Vukasin Herbez November 19, 2017

Japanese car manufacturers stepped into the global car arena in the early 1960’s. In comparison to other makes or models from America or Europe, Japanese cars were small, slow and diminutive in every aspect. Kei Cars and small sedans with four-cylinder engines were the type of cars the Japanese car industry produced for the domestic market and similar Asian markets.

However, after the Japanese brands realized they needed different models for success in the American and European markets, they invested in design studios abroad. They also hired designers and engineers from America and Europe to fully comprehend the characteristics of the respective market.

During the 70’s and 80’s, Japanese car brands expanded to the whole world. They even became a force to be reckoned with in America and Europe. Their production has risen to the level of domestic manufacturers. Japanese brands established factories on American soil to reduce costs. This also helped them deliver cars to the customers faster than before. Even though they became a key player, most of the cars they produced were low-optioned models, economy cars and trucks.

However, in the 90’s, Japanese car brands flourished. They finally gained the confidence to produce sports and luxury models to rival America’s and Europe’s finest. This list is all about the best, fastest Japanese performance cars of the 90’s. They were a special class of cars that featured an amazing variety of shapes, drivetrains, engine configurations, body styles and technology.

Most of these models are available for an affordable price and in left-hand drive form. So, if you are looking for a cool JDM classic, you can get one affordably. In the last decade of the 20th century, these Japanese performance cars have been the most intuitive segment on the global market.

1. Toyota MR 2

Back in the mid-80’s, Toyota shocked the automotive world by introducing the MR2. It was a small mid-engine sports car with great performance. It brought superb road holding at an affordable price. In those days, people considered Toyota to be a dull manufacturer of economy models without any interesting cars for enthusiasts. The MR2 changed all that since it was totally different from other Toyota models.

It appealed to fans of spirited driving and dynamic handling. They presented the first generation MR2 in 1984. It featured 1.5-liter and 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines mounted centrally behind the driver between the cabin and rear axle. This gave this little car fantastic handling.

The second generation, which lasted into the 90’s was even better. It was more modern-looking and came with better technology and sharper handling.

The version to look for is the 1.6-liter supercharged model called the SC, or supercharger. It delivered 145 HP and 140 lb-ft of torque. Those power output figures don’t sound powerful today, but the MR2 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just seven seconds, which is still respectable. The prices for well-preserved examples are still affordable. The MR2 is tons of fun, so if you are looking for a small, nimble sports car from Japan with sublime handling, this is it.

2. Nissan 300 ZX

One of the best cars in a long line of Z-named Nissan sports coupes was the 300 ZX. Nissan introduced it in 1990 and discontinued it in 1996. Car enthusiasts respect this model since the 300 ZX was a proper sports coupe. It had the technology and performance to rival those much more expensive, exclusive cars. The twin-turbo V6 engine pumped out 300 HP and the 300 ZX could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds and top 150 mph.

Those results are still impressive today. Although the maintenance costs can be a little higher than its competitors, the Nissan 300 ZX is still a great choice. Not only is this car fast, it also has decent comfort and equipment. The tuning potential of the turbo V6 is great. Aftermarket components are plentiful for this model. If you want your 300 ZX to be even faster and quicker, you can do it quite easily.

The prices for this model are currently at around $10,000 for pristine cars with full-service history and no accidents. You can find them for less, but it is possible these will not be as dependable. Since the 90’s Japanese cars are slowly becoming more desirable, hurry up before the price of the Nissan 300 ZX explodes.

3. Honda/Acura NSX

The new decade marked a new era for Honda with the launch of one of the best sports cars of the decade – the Acura NSX. Honda planned this model for a long time. The basic idea was to introduce a sports car with the technology of a supercar. It had to come with uncompromised performance, power and design, too.

To say Honda succeeded would be an understatement since the NSX was brilliant. Basically, the buyers got Ferrari performance and looks for a supermarket price along with Honda’s signature reliability and low maintenance costs. The heart of the NSX was a 3.0-liter V6 with 274 HP and a 3.2-liter V6 with 290 HP later. Since the car was light, 0 to 60 mph times were lightning quick 5 seconds and the top speed was over 170 mph.

The introduction of the NSX stunned the competitors and the car market. Nobody expected such a bold move and such a composed, complete car. The NSX was capable and extremely balanced thanks to its mid-engine layout and clever engineering. Sports car buyers responded well to the new product. The original NSX stayed in production for almost 15 years, up to 2005.

4. Nissan Skyline R32

Anybody who played racing games in the last 20 years will know about the R32. This crazy powerful all-wheel-drive Japanese coupe was on top of many American enthusiasts’ wish lists for a quarter of a century. But now it is finally eligible to import. They presented this model in 1989, but introduced the best versions in the early 90s. This makes the GT-R version a quintessential 90’s car.

For those who want the facts, it was a two-door coupe with intelligent all-wheel drive. It had a 2.6-liter turbocharged engine with 276 HP stock and a lot of tuning potential. Unfortunately, all R32s are right-hand drive models since Nissan produced them for Japanese and Australian markets mostly. But for true JDM fans, this just adds to their appeal.

American fans of the Skyline R34 will be pleased to know they can now import this car legally. Their time is limited because the prices are sure to go up.

5. Toyota Supra Mk4

While eagerly waiting for the new 2018 Supra to hit the showrooms, don’t forget the Mk4. It was the fourth generation that Toyota introduced in 1993. This is one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars. It reached legendary status by appearing in many street racing movies like Fast and Furious. It has also appeared in many racing games and music videos.

If you think the Supra’s popularity is based purely on media appearances, think again. This is one serious machine, especially in the turbo version. The base model was naturally aspirated. Despite being quick, the most sought-after model is the 3.0-liter straight six twin-turbo variant with 276 HP. You may not think 276 HP is much, but the engine produced somewhat more than they advertised.

Also, it had fantastic tuning potential. So much so, that today it is hard to find a stock Supra. With just a few bolt-on power adders, and a bigger turbo and intake system it can go all the way to 1,000 HP on the rear wheels.

6. Honda Civic Type R

Japanese manufacturers were always active in the hot hatch class. However, only a few of their models received cult status and a place in hot hatch hall of fame. One of those cars is the first Civic Type R they introduced in 1997. This car was especially well received in America. Its performance, driving dynamics, road holding and light weights were famous with budget-minded enthusiasts who wanted performance.

The heart of the EK9 generation Civic Type R was a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder with the famous V-Tec system, which delivered 185 HP. This high-power output was legendary. Even though there wasn’t much space for engine tuning, you could take the rear seat out and make your Civic lighter and faster. The car stayed in production until 2000 and still is a popular model amongst the hot hatch fans in America.

7. Mazda Miata

This is a little roadster with a diminutive four-cylinder engine. However, perfect balance, rear-wheel drive, rev-happy engines and precise handling make the Miata a joy to drive. Mazda sold over a million examples since it entered the market in 1990. You can find them affordably almost anywhere.

Since the power output of any Miata is relatively small, you can engage in some spirited driving down twisty roads while still being under the speed limit and out of trouble.

For those who want something more out of this little convertible, the number of aftermarket companies that offer various bolt-on kits and components is enormous. So, you can easily and inexpensively personalize your Miata to make it go faster and handle better.

8. Mazda 323/Familia GTR

The early ’90s were a perfect time for the introduction of rally homologation specials and many European and Japanese companies did just that. Almost all those models became successful on the rally stages and legends of hot hatch segment.

However, some of them remained popular all those years and some fell into oblivion. This car is one of the latter. Called Mazda Familia GTR for Asian markets and 323 GTR for the European market, it was a very competent and fast version of the popular Mazda compact car. But GTR meant more than just a cool nameplate. That meant highly tuned version of a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and special all-wheel drive.

The power output was pretty high at 205 hp, and AWD system meant that this little compact handled like a dream. Today, they are pretty rare and not so expensive so hurry up and snap this obscure piece of rally history.

9. Autozam AZ-1

If you don’t know what this is, nobody can blame you. It is a tiny sports car powered by a turbocharged three-cylinder engine with 660 cc and 64 HP. It was built by Mazda and sold by Suzuki in limited numbers from 1992 to 1995. During that time, they made less than 5,000.

Despite its size and 1,500 pounds of weight, the Autozam AZ-1 was a proper sports car. Some even consider it the only supercar in Kei Car segment. With a perfect chassis, gullwing doors and decent performance, it was a favorite driving machine in Japan at the moment. The bizarre styling but lively driving dynamics give the driver a unique driving experience.

This is one of the reasons you should consider importing this little gem since they never officially sold it outside of Japan. You can now import it to America since it is older than 25 years.

10. Honda S2000

Honda introduced the S2000 in 1999 and discontinued it in 2009. The S2000 is a 90’s model, even though they presented it at the end of the decade. This model was a true driver’s car with all the important features. It had a lightweight construction, ideal weight distribution and a powerful, rev-happy engine. It also provided razor-sharp handling in an elegant open-top package.

Under the hood was a 2.0 or 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine with 240 HP, which was the main selling point of the car. This little gem of an engine featured a 9,000-rpm redline and four valves per cylinder. It had the famous Honda’s V-Tec system, which provided power at high RPMs and a wonderful screaming sound. Thanks to intelligent engineering and light weights, the S2000 had a respectable performance and perfect handling, earning it universal praise.

During its 10-year production run, Honda sold over 110,000 of these fast, little roadsters. You will be pleased to know you can find one today at around $6,000. However, there is one thing you should know. The S2000 is a small car with limited interior space, so if you are over six feet tall, you will probably have problems fitting inside.

11. Mitsubishi 3000 GT

The 3000 GT is another 90’s legend that mainstream sports car enthusiasts have forgotten, which is a shame. With pop-up headlights, rear panorama glass, and big spoiler, the 3000 GT screams early 90’s car design. But there is much more about this car than contemporary nostalgia since this is one serious driving machine. Under the hood is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 300 HP, which sends power to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system.

This layout makes the 3000 GT a capable coupe that can tackle any road conditions and provide extra grip in extreme situations. The only downside is the weight. Since they packed the 3000 GT with technology, it tips the scale at almost 1,8 tons or 3,800 pounds. However, with an acceleration time of just over five seconds, it seems like the 3000 GT carries it with ease.

12. Nissan Silvia S14

Known as a Silvia or 240 SX on other markets, this was Nissan’s most affordable sports car in the mid-90’s. Nissan introduced it in 1993, and the car world instantly praised it for its handling, rear-wheel drive and sharp steering. This was a light car with good weight distribution and decent power from four-cylinder engines.

In stock form, S14 had from 150 to 220 HP if you chose the optional turbo engine, which were decent numbers for the period. Like all Japanese sports cars from the era, the Silvia had fantastic tuning potential, as well as dependable mechanics. This meant enthusiastic owners could easily up their power levels to over 300 HP or more and transform the Silvia into a supercar.

Since it was so light and well-balanced straight from the factory, the Silvia soon became a favorite car for drift races. It is still one of the favorite choices, even 20 years after they produced it. This is a fantastic achievement for any car.

13. Mazda RX-7

Mazda introduced the first RX-7 model in the late 70’s, but the car on this list is the third generation. They presented it in 1992 and discontinued it in 2002. If you know a thing or two about Japanese sports cars, you know that the RX-7 has a special place in the nomenclature of performance cars from the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

The reason is the engine. In contrast to other cars on the market with conventional piston engines, the RX-7 had a rotary Wankel engine since the beginning. The rotary engine has many advantages over regular engines. Wankels are much smaller, simpler, capable of higher rpm and when equipped with a turbocharger, extremely powerful. The third generation RX-7 had several versions on offer.

It produces from 252 to 276 HP and has a vivid performance thanks to its small weight and perfect balance. Of course, tuners have developed numerous add-ons and aftermarket parts for more power and torque. But, this interesting feature can be the biggest problem of the RX-7 since Wankel engines are not regular engines. Sourcing parts and services could be a problem.

On the other hand, Wankel engines were always unreliable, so maintenance is a problem. However, great looks, fantastic performance, and innovative technology make the third generation RX-7 one of the greatest Japanese sports cars of the 90’s. You should grab this true modern classic before the prices start rising fast.

If one of these classic Japanese 90’s cars has caught your eye, be sure to move fast before they are gone or priced too high out of your range. Be sure to check their service and accident history, too.

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