When you list the largest auto producing countries in the world, you have to include Japan in the top three. Japanese cars may not be as respected as German or Italian cars, but they are the best-selling in the world for their simplicity, practicality, reliability and most importantly, affordability.
Over the past century, Japanese automakers have built many iconic models known and loved in every corner of the world, including the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Toyota Supra, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Honda NSX. However, there are many other great Japanese cars that most gearboxes have never heard of, as they were built by unknown automakers, are rare, or have never been sold outside of Japan. Let’s explore ten of the best JDM cars you probably didn’t know existed.
10 Aspark Owl
The EV industry has come a long way. Ten years ago we hardly had EVs on the road. Fast forward to today, and we have EV options in almost every segment, including supercars. One of the best electric supercars ever made has to be the Aspark Owl, even if many are unfamiliar with it.
The Owl has everything. First, it has a beautiful design that draws attention everywhere and improves aerodynamics. Equipped with a quad-motor drivetrain that develops an incredible 1,984 horsepower, the Owl is fast too.
9 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution
Of all the motorsports you can participate in, the Dakar Rally is arguably the hardest to win. This gruesome competition takes place in some of the toughest conditions in the world and requires a special vehicle to win. Well, that’s exactly what the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution was, as it is the most successful Dakar Rally vehicle ever made, with 12 titles won.
To meet the homologation requirements, Mitsubishi built 2500 street-legal copies of the Pajero Evolution in the late 1990s. If you can get your hands on one, be thankful, because it’s one of the best off-road SUVs you can buy.
8 Mazda Eunos Cosmo
Most gearboxes have at least heard of the Mazda Cosmo Series I – it was the first production car to be powered by a Wankel rotary motor† However, not many people know about the Eunos Cosmo that Mazda built three decades after the Series I.
The Eunos Cosmo is special in many ways. It had a modern design, advanced technologies such as a built-in navigation system and a touchscreen with climate control, and is still the only Mazda to be powered by a triple-rotor Wankel engine – a 2.0-liter engine that powers more than 300 horses.
7 Toyota GT-One
When the FIA introduced the GT1 championship in the 1990s, top manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and McLaren joined. Toyota did not want to be left behind and therefore developed the GT-One and street-legal versions to meet the homologation requirements.
There weren’t many differences between the race car and the road car. The GT-One road car had a carbon fiber body and was fitted with an upgraded version of Toyota’s 3.6-litre R36V V8 turbo engine. With only two road-legal units ever made, the GT-One is one of the rarest Japanese cars ever built.
6 Autozam AZ-1
Most gearboxes don’t know this, but Mazda used to have a sub-brand called Autozam that made several great cars, mostly targeting the Kei car market. Of all the cars Autozam has ever built, the AZ-1 is arguably the best.
Introduced in the early 1990s, the AZ-1 is a mid-engined Kei-class sports car that impressed many with its unique gull-wing door design. Like most other models built by Autozam, the AZ-1 was equipped with a Suzuki-produced 653cc three-cylinder engine coupled with a five-speed manual transmission.
5 Nissan R390 GT1
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is as iconic as it gets when it comes to motorsport. Building a car that can compete in this competition is a huge achievement, let alone winning it. After returning to racing in the mid-90s, Nissan’s Nismo teamed up with Tom Walkinshaw Racing to develop a car that could compete at Le Mans, resulting in the R390 GT1.
Nissan built one street-legal version of the R390 GT1 as needed. This car was equipped with the same 550 hp twin-turbocharged V8 engine as the race car, giving it great performance.
4 Toyota Century V12
Toyota has always dominated the affordable car market and is therefore one of the most valuable brands in the world. However, Toyota also builds luxury cars and the Century is among the best it has to offer.
The Century debuted in the 1960s and has been the car of choice for the rich and powerful of Japan ever since. We are interested in the second generation Century, which debuted in 1997. This car has an elegant design, a luxurious interior and a huge V12 engine under the hood. Best of all, it recently became eligible for import into the US.
3 Tommykaira ZZ
Most people familiar with Tommykaira know it as a custom car builder. However, from 1996 to 2000, the Japanese tuning company built and sold its own sports car – the ZZ.
The first generation ZZ was special in many ways. First, it has been completely redesigned by Tommykaira and has not adopted any styling cues from other production cars. It also had a removable roof – a rare sight at the time. After selling 220 units, the ZZ went into a long hiatus and returned in 2014 for the second generation as a fully electric car.
2 Mazda 787B
As we mentioned before, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an uphill task for any car manufacturer, as the car must not only be fast, but also be reliable enough to run non-stop for 24 hours.
In the early 1990s, Mazda decided to take a shot at winning Le Mans, so it built the 787B. Mazda knew it couldn’t match the insane amount of power its European rivals had, so it decided to focus on making the 787B more reliable than any other car in the competition. The strategy worked perfectly as the 787B became the first and only Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
1 Yamaha OX99-11
Most people know Yamaha as the manufacturer of some of the best Japanese motorcycles. However, Yamaha has tried several times to compete with Toyota and Nissan in the automotive world, almost succeeding in the early 1990s with the OX99-11.
The OX99-11 is an unusual sports car with a strange design with a canopy door and a tandem arrangement. Equipped with a 400 horsepower V12, the OX99-11 would be fast. Only three prototypes were ever made.