Japanese Cars That Changed The World

Cars that changed the automobile landscape and cemented a small island nation in the big leagues.

JDM is more than just an acronym for vehicles hailing from the small island nation of Japan. JDM has become a culture, a way of life for gearheads the world over, influenced by motorsport, street culture, technological advancement, and even by the country’s small confines. It’s a culture that has influenced the world, seeped into every crevice of automotive culture and left a mark that can’t be scrubbed. Even if Japan were wiped off the face of the planet, JDM culture would live on in automotive legend.

We’ve picked out ten Japanese automotive creations that have shaped the culture and taken JDM global; to honor Japan’s most iconic cars.

Toyota 2000GT

While throughout history there have been numerous iconic sports cars from Japan, the Toyota 2000GT stands out as one of the earliest and most iconic of the lot. It’s not just that it featured in a 007 film, as a convertible no less, but the E-Type aping styling ensured it was one of the most beautiful Japanese sports cars ever made. The partnership between Toyota and Yamaha has stood until this day, as has the air of wonder associated with the inline-6 in JDM culture.

In its most powerful iteration, a 2.0-liter Yamaha-tuned inline 6 produced 150 hp, driving the rear wheels, while a limited slip differential and power-assisted disc brakes were firsts for Japanese cars that enabled the 2000GT to rival the Porsche 911.

Datsun 240Z

The 240Z could so easily have been the 2000GT, before the falling out between Nissan and Yamaha. But that didn’t stop it from becoming just as much of an icon. It was, after all, the JDM sports car born for the American market – due to the efforts of Mr. K who oversaw the reintroduction of the brand to American soil.

A 2.4-liter inline-6 developed 151 hp, sending it to the rear wheels of one of Japan’s most stylish sports coupes. Unlike the 2000GT, it wasn’t a standalone project, though, and the 240Z spawned a long line of Nissan Z-cars that helped define JDM performance. With Nissan’s involvement with Mercedes-Benz, the Z-Car heritage looks like it may long continue.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

It’s not often that a sports car sells more than a million units in its lifetime, and that’s a true testament to just how much of an icon the Mazda MX-5 Miata is. Debuting in 1989, the MX-5 was a spiritual successor to British and Italian sports cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, built in the same vein as the Lotus Elan. Lightweight, compact, naturally aspirated, and rear-wheel-drive, it was a recipe for success from the start, providing an affordable means of getting behind the wheel of one of the best driver’s cars the world has ever seen.

Spanning four generations, the spirit of Jinba Ittai – horse and rider as one – the details may have changed, but its spirit never did. The MX-5 Miata is still one of the best driver’s cars around – a lasting tribute to the automotive purist and a true Japanese icon.

Toyota Corolla

It’s not all supercars and sports cars that defined JDM car culture. The Toyota Corolla is the world’s best-selling automotive nameplate ever; beating out the Volkswagen Beetle in 1997, and reaching the milestone of 40 million Corollas sold in 2013. In existence since 1966, the 12th generation Corolla sedan is on the verge of being unveiled. Originally a rear-wheel drive commuter before changing to front-wheel drive, throughout the years the Corolla has been all things to all people – from capable, reliable commuter right through to the performance icon that was the AE86 of Initial D fame.

While Japan birthed many a performance icon, the Corolla shaped the subcompact and compact segments the world over and contributed largely to the notion of Japanese reliability.

Honda/Acura NSX

Japanese supercars came to the fore in 1990 when Honda released the NSX. With aerodynamics and a cockpit design influenced by the F-16 fighter jet and input on development from the late Formula 1 world champion, Ayrton Senna, the all-aluminum bodied supercar became a legend of the automotive world. It punched far above its weight, powered by a mid-mounted 3.0-liter aluminum VTEC equipped V6 developing 270 hp. It became notorious for slaying the Italian supercar elite, but more than that, it was usable every day. The NSX became the everyday supercar, long before the Audi R8 or Porsche 911 picked up the mantle.

The original NSX was held in such high regard, it’s no wonder we couldn’t wait for the 2nd generation to finally arrive in 2016 – 11 years after the original ended production.

Toyota Supra

The words ‘Japan’ and ‘performance’ can’t be uttered in the same sentence without the name ‘Supra’ popping up. What started out as a rival to Nissan’s Z-car as the Celica Supra, though not quite succeeding in doing so, the Toyota Supra evolved into a standalone nameplate that would dominate the JDM sports car scene. Its engineering would become the stuff of legend, the 2JZ-GTE engine to this day is one of the world’s most tunable engines, even on stock internals.

The Supra is one of Japan’s greatest exports, a global performance icon, and much to fans’ pleasure, there’s a new one on the verge of release thanks to a Toyota-BMW partnership.

Mazda RX-7

Though Mazda never had a monopoly on the use of the Wankel rotary engine, it was the only brand that persevered with the unique motor over the course of the 20th century. Though the RX-8 was the latest in a long line of RX models dating back to 1968, it was the FD generation Mazda RX-7 that cemented the Wankel rotary in the hearts and minds of automotive enthusiasts. The twin-rotor 13b motor was equipped with the first ever mass-produced sequential twin-turbocharger system to be exported from Japan, giving the high revving rotary the torque it needed to give the lightweight sports car supercar performance.

While Mazda struggles to get the rotary engine to comply with ever more stringent emissions legislation, the RX-7 has gone down in history as the pinnacle of the engine technology, with fans pining for a revival of the hallowed nameplate in this, the 50th anniversary year since the birth of the original Mazda RX model.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32

Three letters: G – T – R. Adorning the backsides of some of the most famous Nissan Skylines of all time, those letters denoted supreme performance for the street and the racetrack, and became synonymous with Japanese performance. But it was the R32 generation Skyline GT-R that cemented the GT-R nameplate in history like no other. Revived in 1989, the R3 GT-R marked the introduction of the RB26DETT bi-turbo inline-6 engine and the motorsport-oriented ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system, both of which were engineered purely for success in motorsport.

Race cars developed up to 600 hp, and when competing in the 4500cc classes, the turbocharged torque and all-wheel drive ensured complete and utter dominance. The R32 Skyline GT-R earned the nickname ‘Godzilla’, the beast from the East, a name which has subsequently stuck through all iterations of the GT-R nameplate, even when it was no longer a Skyline.

Subaru Impreza WRX STI

Born to conquer the World Rally Championship, the Subaru Impreza WRX was dominant as an evolution of a fairly plain commuter Impreza. But it began to reach its full potential when Subaru Technica International (STI) got their hands on it, dialing up the wick for greater performance, better handling, and dominance on the street and the rally circuit.

As an early pioneer of turbocharging for road cars, Subaru was able to turn the WRX STI into a supercar bating, rally-inspired machine, pairing boost with all-wheel drive and multiple locking differentials that enabled high levels of performance on all surfaces, at any altitude. Over the years, the WRX STI has fallen from grace, now rivalling mere VW Golfs – albeit the Golf R – where it once gave supercars nightmares. But the icon is still that, a true performance icon from Japan.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

To rival Subaru on the stages of the World Rally Championship, Mitsubishi put together its own garishly styled, commuter-based performance machine. The Lancer Evolution, through ten generations, rivaled the WRX STI and, like its nemesis, gave high-end sports cars and supercars nightmares on the street. All-wheel drive and turbocharging were once again the order of the day, and while power outputs remained locked at 276 hp due to the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ of Japanese manufacturers, performance kept increasing.

The final iteration of the Evolution, the Evo X, remained in production for 10 years before Mitsubishi finally retired the model, ending an era of performance icons that continued Japan’s legacy as true performance leaders of the automotive world.


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