Japanese Cars Parked on the road Nissan GT-R
Image by Bob Hernandez via MotorTrend

There are scores of JDM (Japan Domestic Market) cars that attract the attention of enthusiasts and collectors.  This overview will look at 12 Japanese classics that are standouts among the most desirable and interesting JDM wheels.

So as not to play favorites, we’ve kept this list in alphabetical order. Read on to learn about the best JDM cars.

Autozam AZ-1

The super cute AZ-1 is one of the most memorable examples of a Kei car (a classification of ultra-small vehicles mandated by the Japanese government).  The AZ-1 has a unique pedigree. It results from a joint venture between Mazda and Suzuki and a mash-up of features usually found on a supercar: gull-wing doors and turbocharged mid-engine setup. 

Yet, its squattish proportions and bug-eye headlights give the car cartoonish looks embraced by many JDM enthusiasts. Despite just a few years of production (about 4,500 units from 1992-1994), the AZ-1 remains popular, including among numerous American fans who’ve managed to get their hands on them.

Honda City R

While tiny cars are the exception in the U.S., they are the rule (sort of) in Japan.  But, someone at Honda really got creative with the City R despite its diminutive size.  Pop open the hatch, and you’ll find the Motocompo folding scooter.  This gas-powered bike can get you into small places that can’t accommodate the City R microcar.  It’s the Japanese equivalent of an F-150 pickup with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the cargo bed (again, sort of).

Regardless, the City R emphasizes urban practicality instead of the performance creds you’ll find in many of the other cars on this list.

Honda Civic Mugen Si

Mention “Mugen” to someone, and if their eyes light up, you know this person is a genuine JDM devotee.  Mugen Motorsports was founded in the 1970s by the son of Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Company.  Since then, the world has seen a steady stream of Mugen-modified cars that have delighted performance junkies.   

There are so many Mugen cars to highlight, but we’ll call attention to one, in particular, the 2008 Honda Civic Mugen Si.  It’s a rare instance of a JDM car officially being exported to the U.S. Reworked features include an upgraded exhaust and suspension, making the Mugen Si very sought after here. The Japan-spec version of the Mugen Si is even more performance-oriented, but American fans have to take what they can get.

Honda NSX-R

The original Acura NSX remains a treasure among collectors. Thanks to Honda’s rock-solid engine technology, the NSX is arguably the first supercar suitable for daily-driver duties.  But, it’s the Japan-only NSX-R version that gets a JDM’er fired up.  

Honda (there’s no Acura in Japan) stripped out all the fluff, so there are no airbags, spare tires, or other non-essentials.  Dropping almost 300 pounds and enhancing the engine and suspension make the American NSX tame by comparison and a right-hand-drive rarity in the U.S.

Isuzu 117 Coupé

Before Isuzu enjoyed red-hot (and short-lived) success in the U.S. with its line of SUVs in the 1980s and 1990s, it sought to create a halo car for its home market. The result is the 117 Coupé that first appeared in 1968.  The sleekly styled two-door could easily be confused for an Alfa Romeo or other European coupe.  No wonder, it was penned by Georgetto Giugiaro, who designed Ferraris, Maseratis, and a host of other exotics. 

Advances like Bosch fuel injection helped embellish the 117 with features that were ahead of its time.   The car saw 14 years of production, two generations, and reasonable success for Isuzu.

Mazda Cosmo

Mention a Wankel Rotary engine, and a Mazda RX-7 or RX-8 will likely come to mind. But, long before these beloved sports cars hit America’s shores, the 1967 Mazda Cosmo offered Japanese consumers the company’s first taste of rotary wizardry.  Not only would Cosmo’s bold styling help distinguish it from competing sports cars, but the engine would serve as the basis for all future Mazdas with a Wankel power plant.

The sophistication of Cosmo’s engine impressed the motoring world and helped burnish the company’s engineering credentials. Seeing three decades and four generations of production, the Cosmo is a JDM classic.

Mitsubishi Delica

Not every JDM car has to be a swoopy coupe or cute microcar, and that’s where the Mitsubishi Delica comes in. Debuting in the 1960s, the Delica is still produced today after five generations.  This van continues a solid tradition of being a workhorse for business or off-road, thanks to an available four-wheel-drive system (a less-than-common setup for most vans).

In the late 1980s, Mitsubishi exported the Delica to the U.S. under the “Wagon” name. Still, this experiment only lasted a few years (Chrysler’s Dodge and Plymouth minivans were crushing the segment back then). 

Mitsubishi FTO

We’ll skip the original FTO from the 1970s and focus on the Mitsubishi FTO built from 1994-2000.  During this time, the automaker brought the 3000GT and Eclipse sports cars to the U.S., but the FTO stayed at home.  There, Japanese consumers had an opportunity to enjoy a sophisticated coupe with a powerful 24-valve V6 and very capable handling.  

With some models now cracking the 25-year mark (the U.S. threshold that allows for the importation of non-compliant vehicles), we can expect to see FTOs in the American JDM community. What does FTO mean? Fresh Touring Origination.  A forgettable name for a very memorable JDM original.

Nissan Pulsar GTI-R

Don’t confuse the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R with the Pulsar econobox Nissan sent to America in the 1980s.  The Pulsar GTI-R, which first appeared in Japan in 1990, is a proper hot hatch that can still make JDM aficionados drool.  Performance comes from a turbocharged four-banger cranking out 227 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque and all-wheel drive.

This seems tame by today’s standards, but this little hatchback could hit 60 mph from zero in 5.4 seconds and max out at 144 mph. Impressive for any car from any era.

Nissan Silvia S15

While the Silvia has been around in one form or another since the 1960s, the S15 model (debuting in 1999) is arguably most noteworthy as it’s the last Silvia produced before Renault’s takeover of Nissan in 2001. Nissan (or Renault, depending on your point of view) ultimately killed the S15 in 2002 to the dismay of loyal Silvia fans.  

During the S15’s brief existence, enthusiasts enjoyed a sleek two-door with the style of a European coupe. Power Plants included a zippy 247 horsepower turbo four-cylinder, while the Spec R and Spec S variants offered numerous upgrades, including a reworked suspension. 

Nissan Skyline GT-R

No JDM car list is complete without the legendary Nissan Skyline.  Of course, we’re talking about the Skyline in GT-R form, which has its origins beginning in 1972. But, the real excitement comes from the Skyline GT-R R33 and R34 (it’s hard to pick a favorite). 

The Skyline R33 incorporates an advanced twin-turbo V-6 and all-wheel-drive powertrain, which is even more effective thanks to improved aerodynamics and weight distribution. The Skyline R34 holds a special place in the hearts of JDM lovers as it’s the last Skyline with a GT-R variant.  The same twin-turbo and all-wheel-drive setup continue, but a more streamlined exterior and new chassis let Nissan turn up the performance a few extra notches.

Toyota 2000GT

Often called the Japanese Jaguar E-Type, the stunning Toyota 2000GT first came to prominence in the 1967 Bond movie, You Only Live Twice.  On-screen, we saw 007 in a one-off convertible, but the 2000GT was only available as a hardtop coupe in real life. Regrettably, the car saw production for only a few years (1967-1970) and only 351 examples hit the road. 

The automotive press of the day raved of the 2000GT’s performance and handling capabilities and the car served as an early warning to other automakers about Toyota’s technological prowess.  The 2000GT is so coveted among collectors that examples fetch high six-figure and even seven-figure auction bids. 

A modern JDM car you can buy today: check out this used Nissan GT-R. All vehicles are subject to prior sale. 

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