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20 Japanese Sports Car Models That Interest Every Enthusiast

Vukasin HerbezMay 9, 2019

In the history of the car industry, Japanese sports cars have always held a special place. The combination of innovative engineering, lightweight construction, and exceptional build quality proved to be a winning ticket. Also, it established Japan as the home of legendary sports cars. From its humble beginnings to today’s sports car giants, the Japanese Domestic Market, or JDM philosophy has gained respect for its achievements.

No matter what your car preferences, you have to respect those Japanese sports car models. They came from nowhere in the late ‘60s. Soon, they established themselves as affordable but exciting models for every buyer. After that, the Japanese decided to attack those well-known European makes.

As a result, they created some serious performance machines that are now prized collector items. So, here are the 20 everlasting Japanese sports cars every enthusiast should know about.

  1. Mazda 1100 Cosmo

Back in the ‘60s, the biggest news among car engineers was the Wankel rotary engine. The innovative concept of a single piston engine that was far lighter and smaller than conventional units, but with more power and revving capacity captivated the imagination of several major manufacturers. And one of the first companies that was brave and confident enough to introduce such an engine in mass production was Mazda.

And they did it with their little sports coupe they called the 110 S Cosmo, which debuted in 1967. The Cosmo was a sharp looking two-seater with a modern design and tiny 982 cc engine with 110, or 130 HP in later versions. Since the car was extremely small and light, the performance was vivid, especially for the standards of the day.

They imported the Mazda 110 S Cosmo to the USA, but the reception was nonexistent. Mazda was a new name to American customers and a Wankel-powered two-seater for the price of a Corvette was a hard sell. And that is why they only made around 1,300 cars, so those left-hand 1100 Cosmos are rare today.

  1. Mazda Miata

Small roadsters are among most car fans favorite types of cars. And what is better than a classic Miata? The Miata’s secret was simplicity, lightweight and balance. But Mazda didn’t try to invent something new. Instead, they just copied the basic concept of a classic British roadster. Then they added modern materials and design and made the whole thing reliable and agile.

Even though 116 HP from its twin-cam 1.6-liter engine doesn’t sound like much, in a 2,200-pound car, it’s more than enough. Also, when Mazda presented the Miata in 1989, it caused quite a sensation since it was the only roadster on the market. In fact, it started one of the most successful lines of sports cars, producing over a million up to 2019.

  1. Toyota 2000GT

Toyota debuted the 2000GT in 1967, turning the eyes of the world to a small company from war-torn Japan. All the car magazines of the period praised the ride and driving dynamics. But despite getting only 150 HP from its high-revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder, the 2000GT offered decent performance and almost racecar-like handling. In the late ‘60s, they entered this car in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) championship where it enjoyed much success.

Unfortunately, due to the high price and poor brand recognition, the numbers of 2000GTs sold are low. In fact, they sold exactly 351 cars up until 1970. But it didn’t even help that they featured the 2000GT in a James Bond film. Still, no one could call it a failure. The 2000GT did exactly what it was supposed to do. It showed the world that the Japanese car industry was the next big thing in the car world and capable of producing fantastic sports cars.

  1. Datsun Fairlady Roadster

Everybody knows that Japanese automobiles started out as downsized copies of European and American cars. However, one of the most interesting Japanese copy of a European car was the cute and compact Datsun Fairlady Roadster. Datsun built it from 1959 to 1970 and it was also known as the Datsun Sports.

They borrowed the design, technology and feel directly from those British roadsters, especially the Triumph and MG. However, Datsun did more than just copy the British. It gave the little roadster significant power with the 2.0-liter engine. Also, it had better handling and driving dynamics.

But most importantly, they guaranteed the quality of their cars, which is something the British companies had difficulties with. Datsun made over 40,000 of those cool little cars over an 11-year production period, selling most of them in the USA. And of course, they came with left-hand drive.

  1. Isuzu 117 Coupe

They never offered the gorgeous Isuzu 117 Coupe on the American market, which is a shame. But even with its limited production, the 117 managed to become one of the early Japanese classics as well as an influential model. Back in the late ‘60s, Isuzu was building and selling passenger cars they later abandoned in favor of trucks and pickups.

However, they knew they needed a halo car. And it had to be something to turn the attention of the industry on Isuzu as well as present them in the best possible light. So, they used their existing passenger car rear wheel drive platform. And then they paired it with a 1.6 liter, and later, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. After that, they went to Italy to find a fashionable suit.

There, Isuzu contacted the famous designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who provided them with an elegant, cool-looking coupe design. This was the final piece of the puzzle so in 1968, the beautiful Isuzu 117 Coupe debuted. The car stayed in production until 1981 selling in reasonably large numbers. Despite the fact it wasn’t particularly fast or agile, the 117 Coupe was a comfortable GT perfect for relaxing cruising.

  1. Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka

Possibly the most famous name in the history of Japanese performance and sports cars is the Nissan Skyline GT-R, which they presented in 1968. The Skyline GT-R started its life as a performance version of the upscale Skyline model. However, thanks to many significant designs and mechanical changes, it evolved into a JDM performance legend.

They called the first GT-R the Hakosuka, which is a Japanese term for “box.” They named the car that since it featured square lines and a boxy profile. But underneath the sheet metal, there was some serious sports car technology with a high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine and 160 HP. The Hakosuka GT-R had race tuned brakes and steering.

Also, they gave it an independent rear suspension, which made it capable on the street and on the racetrack, too. Unfortunately, they never imported this model to the states. But today, it is highly collectible, expensive and desirable, especially since they only produced it in a right-hand configuration. Nissan offered the Skyline GT-R from 1969 to 1972, building almost 2,000 of them.

  1. Datsun 240Z

The 240Z was the first highly successful Japanese sports car on the American market. But more importantly, it is a legend that is still highly desirable, even today. The 240Z is a proper sports model featuring a bigger engine and better construction. When it debuted, it came with more power and performance than anything coming from Japan in those days.

However, the critics said the 240Z was a copy of several European designs. But nevertheless, the 240Z managed to win many buyers over and even created its own segment. When Datsun presented the car in America back in 1970, the 240Z was the perfect car for the times. The muscle car craze had started to wind down. The tightening safety regulations killed all the domestic performance cars.

And that meant people were looking for alternatives with similar driving excitement, better handling and budget-friendly prices. And because most European models were too expensive, the Datsun 240Z fit the bill. The early models got 150 HP from a 2.4-liter six-cylinder engine, which was more than enough for a lively performance.

Over the years, Datsun improved the original model with bigger engines like the 2.6 and 2.8-liter units and several restyles. The demand was always fantastic, so when they discontinued this first series of Z cars in 1978, Datsun made over 300,000. And those numbers make it one of the most successful sports cars in history.

  1. Honda S600/S800 Roadster

Honda was one of the first Japanese car companies to enter the American market in the ‘60s. But the first Hondas weren’t cars because the company sold only small but durable scooter motorcycles in those days. However, Honda always had the ambition to start proper car production. And one of their first models was a cute little roadster they named the S600.

Honda presented the S600 in 1964. It was a two-seater convertible with extremely compact dimensions and a low weight. The car got its power from a small 600cc engine. And although it only produced 57 HP, the car delivered a lively performance since it weighed just 1,500 pounds. Interestingly, the S600 had a chain drive, which was a primitive drivetrain system straight from motorcycle production.

However, in 1967, Honda introduced the S800, an upgraded and more powerful version. It came with a bigger 800 cc engine producing 70 HP, which was also available as a coupe. They ceased production in 1970 after building more than 22,000 of these Kei car roadsters and coupes. Although the car wasn’t initially popular on the American market, today, it is highly sought-after by collectors.

  1. Nissan Silvia CSP 311

Most people know of the Nissan Silvia for the widely popular S14 and S15 versions they produced in the ‘90s. They became the definitive drift cars, but the story of the Silvia as one of Nissan’s most legendary sports cars dates the back the to mid-60s with the cool looking Silvia CSP 311 coupe.

In fact, it was one of the first modern and proper sports cars from this brand. Nissan presented it in 1964 at the Tokyo Motor Show. The Silvia CSP 311 was a big step forward for this still obscure manufacturer. The car had European looks and proportions and it was luxurious by the Japanese standards of the day. Yet it was a proper sports coupe with rear wheel drive.

They equipped it with a 1.6-liter four cylinder with 96 HP, which gave it decent performance numbers. However, the first Silvia was an expensive car for the Japanese domestic market, so they sold just 554 of them, most of which stayed in Japan. But today, car fans and experts alike consider the Silvia CSP 311 to be one of the most influential early Japanese sports cars ever.

  1. Mazda RX-3 Coupe

Despite the limited appeal of Mazda’s Wankel engine offerings, problematic durability, and unusual driving dynamics, they continued to offer it in various models for U.S. buyers, even in their compact pickup trucks. But in the early ‘70s, the most interesting was the small but lively RX-3 Coupe.

This tiny car was a nicely styled fastback coupe with modern design cues, although on a much smaller scale than its contemporary models from America and Europe. However, the most important was the engine. Under the hood was a two-rotor, 1.1-liter Wankel unit that produced 91 HP. Although it doesn’t sound impressive, most foreign markets had the same engine with 115 HP.

But the domestic emissions regulations choked this little rotary motor. Thanks to its 2,300-pound weight, manual gearbox with short gearing and high revving engine, this tiny coupe is quite capable. The car even broke a few records at the Bonneville races in 1974.

  1. Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Kenmeri

The first GT-R they named Hakosuka proved to be a good halo car for the Nissan corporation. In fact, it proved Nissan could produce competent and fast cars, despite having a limited appeal on the domestic and a few select Asian markets. So, in 1972, Nissan decided to unveil the second generation of their fantastic 2000 GT-R.

They called it the Kenmeri, and it was a totally redesigned car with almost unchanged mechanics. This means the high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder retained its 160 HP rating, but the suspension, brakes, and steering received some minor modifications. Interestingly, the Kenmeri nickname came from a popular Japanese TV commercial. It showed a young couple, Ken and Marry, enjoying their new Skyline.

The viewers found this ad interesting and the car got the name from the two characters in the marketing campaign. Sadly, this generation is extremely rare since Nissan produced it for one year only, in 1973. And they only produced 197 of them.

  1. Mazda RX-7

 

The reassurance of interest in the Japanese sports cars of the ‘70s has been one of the biggest news in the classic car world in recent years. The forgotten models, some even with RHD-only configurations are becoming more popular with U.S. enthusiasts who import them from Japan or Australia.

So, if you are looking for a genuine JDM example, you are late since the prices are stratospheric and the choice of models is limited. However, there is an alternative, and it’s in the form of the Mazda RX-7. There is no doubt that this first generation of compact Mazda sports car has all the right ingredients to become a cult classic.

It is 40 years old, has rear wheel drive, a specific design, pop up headlights and interesting technology. The RX7 is affordable and plentiful and even has had some racing success. Mazda presented the first generation in 1978. And the RX-7 stayed on the market right up until 1985. During that period, they produced almost 500,000 RX-7s, selling most of them in America.

Under the hood is a 1.1 to 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine. And that is the RX-7’s most notable feature. This extremely compact and light engine produces 102 to 135 HP, which provides a lively performance for this little coupe.

  1. Toyota Celica

After the sales flop of the beautiful, highly advanced Toyota 2000 GT in the late ‘60s, the Japanese company didn’t give up on entering the American sports car market. They realized they needed a more conventional model with a much lower price. Also, Toyota wanted a design similar to the already known form of their other models.

And that is how the first generation from 1970 to 1977 of the Toyota Celica came to be. Toyota built it on a standard Toyota Carina base. The Celica was one step above the popular Corolla in terms of size, technology, and engine power. They presented the new Celica to American buyers in 1970 with two body styles, a regular two-door coupe and a hardtop fastback.

Immediately, people started comparing the new Celica to the Ford Mustang because it was clearly inspired by the Ford pony car. In fact, it was also the sportier version of a regular production sedan, just like the Mustang was.

  1. Toyota MR2

Back in the mid-80s, Toyota shocked the automotive world by introducing the MR2. It was a small mid-engined sports car with great performance and superb road holding at an affordable price. However, in those days, as well as today, people think of Toyota as a dull manufacturer of economy models without any interesting cars. But the MR2 changed all that since it was different from other Toyotas, appealing to fans of spirited driving and dynamic handling.

They debuted the first generation MR2s in 1984. They featured a 1.5-liter or 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine they mounted centrally behind the driver, between the cabin and the rear axle. And that is what gave this little car fantastic handling. The second generation lasted into the ‘90s and was more modern-looking and with better technology and sharper handling.

But the version you should look for is the 1.6-liter supercharged model they named the SC for supercharger delivering 145 HP and 140 lb-ft of torque. Although those power output figures don’t sound earth-shattering today, the MR2 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just seven seconds, which is quite respectable.

  1. Autozam AZ-1

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

Despite its size and 1,500 pounds of weight, the Autozam AZ-1 was a proper sports car. In fact, some people consider it the only supercar in the Kei Car segment. It comes with a perfect chassis, gullwing doors, and decent performance, making it the favorite driving machine in Japan at the moment.

The bizarre styling but lively driving dynamics give owners the unique driving experience. And that is one of the main reasons you should consider importing this little gem. Even though they never officially sold the AZ-1 outside of Japan, you can now import it to the USA since it is older than 25 years.

  1. Toyota Supra Mk4

Although the new 2019 Supra if finally hitting the showrooms, the last model and fourth generation, which they introduced in 1993, is infamous. This is one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars that has reached legendary status by appearing in many street racing movies, including the Fast and Furious franchise. Also, you’ll see it in numerous racing games and music videos.

And if you think the Supra’s popularity is purely due to its media appearances, think again. This is one serious machine, especially in the Turbo version. The base model is naturally-aspirated, and despite being quick, the most sought-after model is the 3.0-liter straight six twin turbo variant pumping out 276 HP.

Even though 276 HP may not sound like much, the engine produces somewhat more than they advertised and has fantastic tuning potential. So much so, that today it is hard to find a stock Supra, because with just a few bolt-on power adders, and a bigger turbo and intake system, you can send all the way to 1,000 HP to the rear wheels.

  1. 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. And it had to have uncompromised performance, power, and design. To say that Honda succeeded in all of that would be an understatement since the NSX was all-around brilliant.

Basically, the buyers got Ferrari performance and look for supermarket prices, 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, the 0 to 60 mph time was a lightning-quick five seconds with top speeds of over 170 mph.

The introduction of the NSX stunned the competitors as well as the entire car market. Nobody expected such a bold move and such a composed and complete car. The NSX was not only capable but also extremely balanced thanks to the mid-engine layout and clever engineering.

  1. Toyota Corolla AE86

The Toyota AE86 story is quite interesting since they never intended this model to be a proper performance machine. Yet in the ‘80s, it became one of the biggest JDM legends in the world. Even though the AE86 was just another version of the standard Corolla, the eighth generation was also the last rear-wheel-drive model.

So, the Toyota engineers thought that they should install a high revving 1.6-liter engine to see how it will transform the car. And the results were fantastic since the AE 86 wasn’t a boring or slow Corolla. Instead, it was an agile, light and nimble machine that appealed to many driving enthusiasts.

But it also attracted those buyers who wanted a precise driving machine, but didn’t have the money for a new BMW E30 325i. Due to its rear wheel drive platform, stiff suspension and optional limited slip differential, the AE 86 soon became a drift legend. And, in fact, they still use the AE86 in drift events all around the world.

  1. Honda CRX

The Japanese brands almost fully dominated the market of affordable performance models in the early ‘80s. And the Honda CRX is the perfect example of one of the most memorable cars from that era. They offered it from 1983 to 1991, basing the CRX on the Civic. But, Honda gave it a lower, sportier body and with only two seats.

Since it was light and nimble with had precise steering, the CRX was a true sports car, but with front-wheel drive and delivering up to 140 HP. The biggest selling points were the extremely light body, as the whole car weighed 1,800 pounds combined with a high revving four-cylinder engine. Honda never repeated the success of the CRX, but many fans remember the CRX as a blast to drive.

  1. Datsun 510

The Datsun 510 is an interesting car. Today, it is popular among JDM enthusiasts in America. However, this wasn’t a proper sports car since standard 510s were just regular, affordable, compact sedans or wagons. Also, they were popular choices for cash-strapped buyers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

But, the small, lightweight body paired with a lively engine, independent rear suspension, and rear-wheel drive soon transformed this economy compact into a performance car similar to the BMW 2002 or Alfa Giulia Ti. The base engine was a 1.6-liter four cylinder with 96 HP.

However, with the 1.8-liter unit with twin barrel carburetors, this little car had some power and convincing performance. It was also available as a two-door coupe, which became a popular base for modifications. The 510 was one of the first successful racing cars in America as well as an SCCA champion in the capable hands of John Morton from the Brock Racing Enterprises team.

These are the top 20 everlasting Japanese sports cars every enthusiast should know about. Which one appealed the most to you? While some of these cars are still easy to find, others are quite rare or must be imported. So hopefully, you’ll be able to find the one you want at a reasonable price.

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