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 â70s, 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.
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.
The reassurance of interest in the Japanese sports cars of the â70s 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.
After the sales flop of the beautiful, highly advanced Toyota 2000 GT in the late â60s, 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.
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 â90s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 â80s, 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.
The Japanese brands almost fully dominated the market of affordable performance models in the early â80s. 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.
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 â60s and early â70s.
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.