What’s the greatest Japanese sports car of all time? Once again, this feels like a poison chalice, as not every car can make a 25-slide showcase. However, we’ve done our best to be all-inclusive, with a strong mix of the small, the affordable, the fast, the furious and the unattainable.
We’ve steered clear of hot hatches – that could be a gallery for another day – and, for the most part, we’ve restricted ourselves to one example of every make and model. First up? The Far Eastern E-type…
It has been labelled the ‘Japanese E-type’, but this is unfair. Whisper it, but we reckon the Toyota 2000GT is prettier than the Jag. Launched in 1967, the 2000GT was powered by a 2.0-litre six-cylinder engine developing 150hp, enough for it to hit a top speed of 136mph. By the time the last car rolled out of the factory in 1970, the 2000GT had set numerous speed records, appeared in a Bond movie and put Japan firmly on the world sports car map. Just 337 cars were built.
If the Toyota 2000GT is the prettiest sports car to emerge from Japan, the Autozam AZ-1 is arguably the cutest. Sold by Mazda under its Autozam brand, the AZ-1 was built by Suzuki and featured a pair of gullwing doors. Power was sourced from a Suzuki 657cc turbocharged engine producing 63hp at 6,500rpm. Weighing just 720kg, the AZ-1 could hit a top speed of 87mph. Just 4,392 were produced before the AZ-1 fell victim to the Japanese recession.
The Lexus LFA was a long time coming: development work started in 2000, with the final production version not appearing until October 2009. It was worth the wait. “If someone were to offer me the choice of any car that had ever been made, ever, I would like a dark blue Lexus LFA,” said Jeremy Clarkson. Powered by a 4.8-litre naturally-aspirated V10 engine, the LFA can hit 200mph, and just 200 were built.
In the Toyota 2000GT, Japan had built a sports car for the wealthy and the glamorous, but in the 240Z, Datsun delivered something a little more blue collar. “The difference between the Datsun 240Z and your everyday three-and-a-half thousand dollar sports car is that about twice as much thinking went into the Datsun. It shows. For the money, the 240Z is an almost brilliant car.” This quote from Car and Driver in 1970 tells you all you need to know about the 240Z. It was built to mess with the sports car establishment and it went on to outsell all European rivals in the U.S..
The vast majority of cars in this gallery are icons from yesteryear, but here’s one you can buy new today. That’s assuming you have the £82,000 required to purchase a Nissan GT-R. It’s a sports car for the digital generation, powered by a 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged engine developing 570hp and 470lb ft of torque. It’s a proper, old-school sports car, requiring focus from the driver and dedication to the cause. A new GT-R is on the way, so be quick if you fancy the current model.
Styled by Pininfarina, the Honda Beat was built to comply with Japanese kei car regulations. Much like the Suzuki Cappuccino, the Beat paid homage to the likes of the MG Midget and Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite, and offered mid-engine and rear-wheel drive fun in a tiny package. Although not officially offered in the UK, it’s not hard to source a Japanese import. In fact, you could bring one over in your hand luggage.
Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S
Unveiled at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show, before being formally announced a year later, the Cosmo featured futuristic styling, a name inspired by space travel and a 982cc twin-rotor engine. Sold domestically as the Cosmo Sport, and 110S overseas, this was the world’s first volume production rotary-engined sports car, and is therefore the godfather of the RX-7 and RX-8.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32)
Make no mistake, when the Nissan Skyline GT-R R32 arrived in 1989, it was the most advanced road car you could buy. It didn’t so much upset the establishment, as send its rivals scurrying back to the drawing board and looking back in wonder. Nissan’s engineers cited the Porsche 959 as the benchmark, so it’s hardly surprising that it could outmanoeuvre just about any car in the world. A proper icon.
Toyota Corolla AE86
Often described as the ‘Japanese Mk2 Escort’, the Corolla GT – factory codename AE86 – arrived in 1983, and was Toyota’s rear-wheel drive answer to the front-wheel drive hot hatches of the day. It was powered by the same 125hp 1.6-litre twin-overhead-cam engine you’ll find in the original MR2, and it could complete the 0-62mph sprint in 8.3 seconds, before hitting a top speed of 122mph.
The original everyday supercar, the NSX was Honda’s attempt at building a more reliable, practical and faster version of the Ferrari 328 (and later, the 348). Initially powered by a 3.0-litre quad-cam 24-valve VTEC V6, later models saw the displacement increased to 3.2-litres. In this larger guise, the NSX would hit 62mph in 5.7 seconds and was good for 168mph. Obviously, it was quick, but raw pace was only half the story. The soundtrack as it raced towards the 8,000rpm redline was a real highlight.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think that the British car industry thought the days of the two-seater sports car were over when the production of the TR7 stopped in 1981. The brilliant MR2 – Toyota’s first mid-engined car – provided the proof that not everybody wanted a front-wheel drive hot hatch for their cheap thrills. It offered styling far beyond its sub-£10k price tag, a brilliant twin-overhead-cam engine, and superb handling. If you can’t find a decent first-generation MR2, the subsequent models are worth a look.
The Subaru BRZ and the Toyota GT86 might be new, but they have an old-school feel to them. The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Boxer engine is mounted low in the chassis, giving the car a lower centre of gravity, while it develops 200hp at 7,000rpm, meaning you have to rev it hard to get the best from it. Sure, it could use more power, but that could upset the equilibrium of the finely-balanced sports car. The best Japanese sports car of all-time? No. But one of our favourite new cars? Absolutely.
The Mazda MX-5: enough said.
If only Honda built something like this today. Although it was based on Civic, the Honda CRX was five inches shorter than the three-door version and sat two inches lower to the ground. Honda positioned it as a 2+2, but in reality it was more like a hot hatch with a large boot, making it perfect for those who fancied a little extra practicality to go with their sports car. In its day, it was brilliant.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Selecting the best Mitsubishi Evo would be a challenge – and put us at the mercy of the car’s legions of fans. If push came to shove – and the Evo has plenty of that – we’d opt for the Tommi Makinen edition, which arrived in 1999 and was named after the Finnish rally driver who’d won four WRC drivers’ championships in a row. It featured Recaro seats, white Enkei alloys and optional go-faster stripes.
Toyota Celica GT-Four
Toyota launched the original Celica GT-Four in 1986, with power sourced from a new 3S-GTE turbocharged and water-intercooled engine. With 185hp on tap, it was, at the time, Japan’s most powerful 2.0-litre engine. A fifth-generation model followed in 1991, including a limited edition Carlos Sainz model for the UK, before the sixth-generation GT-Four arrived in the UK in 1994. By now, the power had increased to 255hp – enough for a 153mph top speed and 0-60mph time of 6.1 seconds.
Honda Integra Type R
Is this the greatest front-wheel-drive performance car of all-time? Probably. By today’s standards, the Integra Type R certainly isn’t quick – although a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds isn’t too shabby – but few cars could keep up with this Honda on a twisty road. It’s almost perfect, with a low-slung driving position, a rev-hungry engine and a superb gearbox.
If the Integra Type R is best front-wheel-drive performance car, the third-generation ‘FD’ Mazda RX-7 is in with a shout of being one of the best-looking sports cars ever made. The car pictured is a lightweight Bathurst limited edition, named after Australia’s most famous race track and sold only in Japan. With a 280hp rotary engine, it’ll hit 62mph in just 4.7 seconds, before reaching a top speed of 160mph.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (R34)
We’ve already covered the Skyline with the inclusion of the R32, but you’ll excuse us for wanting to add the R34 to the mix. It offered supercar-levels of performance in a PlayStation suit, with power sourced from a 2.6-litre inline-six turbocharged engine. Thanks to a sophisticated all-wheel drive system, it could hit 62mph in 4.7 seconds, before reaching a top speed of 165mph.
In a world of lazy turbocharged engines, the Honda S2000 is a real tonic. At its heart lies a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine developing 240hp, making it, at the time, the most powerful naturally aspirated engine on a power-per-litre basis. It’ll rev to 9,000rpm, with peak power arriving at 8,300rpm, meaning you have to work really hard to get the best from it. We’d recommend a later S2000, by which time Honda had tweaked the suspension, fitted better tyres and added stability control.
The first Toyota Supra arrived in 1978, with the last car rolling off the line in 2002 after close to 600,000 units had been produced. After four years of development, the fourth-generation A80 was launched in 1993, with the turbocharged version offering supercar-taming levels of performance. It appeared in a myriad of computer games and movies, cementing its legendary status and ensuring that the new Supra – which has been a long time coming – has a lot to live up to.
Subaru Impreza 22B
The Impreza 22B was built to celebrate Subaru’s three successive WRC Constructors’ titles, and the 40th anniversary of the company. Limited to just 400 examples in Japan, a further 16 cars were imported to the UK under the Single Vehicle Approval scheme. Its 2.2-litre turbocharged engine produced 280hp, while the extra wide bodywork from the rally cars delivered proper race car for the road styling.
Developed in partnership with Chrysler, the Mitsubishi 3000GT was also known as the Mitsubishi GTO and Dodge Stealth. This was a tech-laden sports car, featuring four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, active aerodynamics and electronic suspension, not to mention the small matter of a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged engine.
We conclude with the Suzuki Cappuccino, while acknowledging that there are so many other Japanese cars we could have included. The Nissan 350Z, the Honda S800, the Mazda Cosmo (JC), the new Honda NSX, the Nissan 200SX and 300ZX and the Mitsubishi Lancer 2000 Turbo spring to mind, not to mention countless hot hatches. But we had to draw the line somewhere.