Japanese cars are some of the most widely used and game-changing cars in history, and thanks to several successful brands like Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota, the Land of the Rising Sun has sprinkled its name around every corner of the globe as a nation of automotive excellence and dependability.
It begs the question: which Japanese cars achieved the most, and helped to shape the world of the automobile as it currently is? It’s far from the most straightforward answer since there are so many brilliant examples to choose from. Ultimately, that has meant that we’ve had to leave out some particular favorites, but we’ve put together the best possible list we thought we could. Here are 10 of the most iconic trailblazers from Japan.
10 1967-1981 Mazda Cosmo
Known for: Leading the way for rotary-powered cars that followed
Mazda has always preferred to forge its own path and deviate from the norm, and the 1967 Mazda Cosmo was a perfect example of just that. Utilizing a 982 cc two-rotor Wankel engine, it was tasked with challenging cars like the Corvette as a usable sports car and was even used for racing.
The reason the Cosmo can be considered a revolution was that its rotary engine inspired numerous cars, including the Chevrolet Aerovette four-rotor prototype and the Mercedes-Benz C11 four-rotor prototype. Without it, Mazda wouldn’t really have the reputation it does for creating wonderfully weird but unquestionably brilliant cars such as the RX-7.
9 1989-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Known for: Reinventing the small two-door convertible market
The best-selling convertible of all time, and given the basic formula it represented, rightfully earned its place as a genuine game changer for the world of small, two-seat roadsters. It’s worth remembering that the convertible segment was starting to decline during the ’80s, but with its introduction, the Miata helped to regenerate the interest people had in it.
It was cheap, it was fun, and it is still to this day the right answer for anyone looking to spend their hard-earned cash on an evergreen sports car. In that sense, $7,000 for a 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata is an absolute steal. Aside from the fact that buyers would get their hands on a car with heritage as rich as just about anything else in the world, they’d also be in possession of a car that Christian Von Koenigsegg loves very much.
8 1989-1994 Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R
Known for: Huge success in the Touring Car series
Often referred to as ‘Godzilla’, it’s fair to say that the Nissan R32 GT-R has as much character and presence as the King of Monsters himself – albeit without destructive capabilities. Originally marketed as a four-door sedan, it wouldn’t take long before the world stood up in applause at how this humble silhouette was actually a masquerade for a titanic racing car.
Equipped with an extremely tuner-friendly 2.6-liter inline six-cylinder block, the R32 would take the fight to the world’s sports cars in the Touring Car series, which is something it would dominate during the early ‘90s. It was packed with revolutionary technology and engineered with performance in mind ahead of everything else and arguably should be spoken about as highly as the first-generation Honda NSX.
7 1983-1987 Toyota Corolla GT AE86
Known for: One of the first cars to popularize the art of drifting
The AE86 is not the prettiest car around, and neither is its primary ‘Corolla’ name the most respected in society – but this is no ordinary Corolla. Not only is it the star of Initial D, but this peppy box is capable of pulling off some spectacular drifts in almost any condition and road. It has become synonymous with driver engagement and enjoyment, thanks to a combination of sharp, responsive steering and a 1.6-liter twin-cam engine that loves to rev.
So before the likes of the Nissan Silvia S15 came along and popularized drift culture in the Western hemisphere, the AE86 was the car that put things in motion for JDM cars. That’s precisely why it still commands so much respect in the car world. While the Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86 special edition may be slightly out of reach for those interested in buying one, it’s pretty easy to grab a 1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S – you can thank us later!
6 1960-1984 Toyota Land Cruiser J40
Known for: The first iteration of one of the world’s most famous names
Japan may be most well known for the sports cars its manufacturers gave the world during the ‘90s, but the impact the original Land Cruiser had should not be undermined. It is one of the greatest off-road SUVs of all time and challenged the Land Rover Defender at the height of its power.
In the North American market, Toyota revamped the J40 model in the ‘80s, but it stayed in production until the turn of the millennium in some parts of the world. That means the J40 had a life cycle of over 40 years and spawned several alternatives during that time including the FJ40 and the 2FJ40. In doing so, it also laid the foundations for its future kin to go on and become the world’s most dependable vehicle. So, it’s arguable that the J40 is the reason why no SUV can outlast a Toyota Land Cruiser in 2023.
5 1972-Current Honda Civic
Known for: Huge commercial market success
For every interesting vehicle to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun, there has to be one that is created for the sole purpose of doing its job as a mode of transport. In that sense, few cars have gone on to sell as well as the storied Honda Civic. In fact, last year marked 50 years of the best-selling Civic, in which time an estimated 30 million units have been sold globally. For measure, that’s over 1,643 Civics sold every day consecutively for half a century.
What marks the Civic out as a true trailblazer, though, is not just the fact that it was and is a commercial success on unprecedented levels for the manufacturer. Rather, it combined that market success with various Honda Civic Type R trim grades that often draw sparkling reviews from journalists and owners alike. Few cars in history can claim to have the versatility that the Honda Civic does, and that’s why it’s on this list.
4 1969-1979 Datsun 240Z
Known for: One of Japan’s first mass-marketed sports cars
The Datsun 240Z is still extremely popular around the world now, as is proven by its recent on-screen appearance in Fast X. Moreover, the legendary sports car is one that many tuners and enthusiasts still take a keen interest in modifying to outrageous extents. But before the 240Z could do that, it had to become one of the cars that revolutionized the Japanese sports car industry, and on that front, it had a significant impact.
During the ‘60s, a change in safety regulations had effectively opened up the global sports car space for new manufacturers to join the conversation, and with its 130 hp 2.0-liter straight-six SOHC engine, in tandem with its sci-fi aesthetics, the ‘Fairlady’ was exactly what the doctor ordered. We’ve also rendered what a 2024 Datsun 240Z Concept would look like, and think Nissan should seriously consider our idea!
3 1967-1970 Toyota 2000GT
Known for: Saving Toyota as a business
Just before the 240Z made its appearance, Toyota had been toiling away to give the world its own alternative: the 2000GT. It looked like something out of a Marvel comic, and the 150 hp from its six-cylinder block sounded fantastic through the dual mid-mounted exhausts. It was a real performance car of its time, which stapled the 2000GT as a real pioneer of the late ‘60s in the sports car game.
It also looked like an E-Type on steroids, which means it has aged quite fabulously over the last 50 years. Perhaps its most significant feat was the fact that the 2000GT Sports car saved Toyota as a brand, and it’s quite possible that the world’s biggest manufacturer may not even be around these days without the success of the 2000GT. For some perspective on its perception, a 1967 Toyota 2000GT sold for $1.15 million last year on Bring a Trailer.
2 1991-2005 Acura NSX
Known for: Popularizing daily use sports cars
Is the NSX the ultimate sports car? An overwhelming number of people would say so, and that’s a fair point, given that the ‘Japanese Ferrari’ was responsible for inspiring (and in some cases outright dictating) the design of numerous supercars that came after it. It also cost a noticeable amount less than the Italian exotics that it was up against while announcing itself as a genuine sports car that was designed to be used on a daily basis – something the world hadn’t really experienced before.
The second-generation NSX is no doubt a great car and merges a brilliant powertrain with engineering prowess, but it will never be considered as revolutionary as the original. That says a lot, especially since both cars were conceived to do the same thing: show the world that Acura really could compete with the best of the best if it wanted to.
1 1993-2001 Subaru Impreza WRX
Known for: Dominating the World Rally Championship
There have been countless rallying legends to emerge from Japan; take the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Toyota Corolla GT-Four, or even the Yaris WRC. But standing head and shoulders above them all is the 1993-2001 Subaru Impreza WRX. First introduced in 1992, the Impreza is a rallying legend and has become synonymous with a particularly fast Scotsman that knew how to make a bombing run on a loose surface track look like a walk in the park.
If it was good enough for Colin McRae, it was only going to be a matter of time before the rest of the world realized that the Impreza was the perfect foundation upon which they could construct their dream road racers. Even now, over 30 years after the introduction of the first generation, it continues to be loved beyond measure by countless enthusiasts – and we doubt that will ever change. The Impreza is a true phenomenon by every possible metric.