Racing, drifting, or just plain driving a Japanese sports car is some of the most fun you’ll ever have behind the wheel. How does Japan accomplish this? Somehow with each car, they’ve hit a balance of performance between suspension, engine power, and weight. For the amount of performance and reliability, Japanese sports cars are unrivaled by American and European automakers. Each car has a unique feel to it, and all have their strengths. Perhaps just as important, they all have their weaknesses as well. Owners of Japanese sports cars will understand though, that for all their faults, the payoff is extraordinary and well worth the heartache that comes with every faulty cooling system, every blown head gasket, and every bit of oil seeping from the valve covers.
Two Toyotas made this list, and it’s not a mistake. Toyota used to be known for making primo sports cars that bent the rules and pushed limits, sometimes beyond themselves. The MR-S was the third and final generation belonging to the MR-2, and it had a transverse mid-mounted engine with a transaxle operating the rear wheels, steering and cooling all the way in the front of the car across its short wheelbase. It was also lightweight, weighing in at just under 2,200 pounds. Aside from its unstable rear end, even in a straight line, the MR-S had a wonderful-and terrifying-way about it, where under a small amount of throttle, it could spin out fairly easily and you could feel it about five seconds after it already happened. Give it a lot more gas, and the same thing could happen too. The truly fantastic part about this car was the sweet spot in between, where for a few blissful moments the car turned better the more throttle you gave it. If you ever needed to get out of a corner faster, just give it a little more gas and the car would find traction and bring you through it, and that makes it one of the best handling Japanese sports cars of all time. As long as you knew what you were doing, the car would do what you wanted it to.
Honda’s only affordable proper RWD sports car came at the beginning of the century, with zero compromises. The S2000 is hailed as a perfect sports car, and barring any anti-Honda biases it’s pretty close. The S2000 was a convertible that had a mid-mounted engine with 240 horsepower, and revved up to 9000 RPM in the AP1 model. It’s thought of to have superior handling, and although straight-line acceleration is lacking the car finds its power in higher RPMs, so as long as you stay in the high revs the car has plenty of power through the corners.
A problem that some S2000 owners face is what’s called snap oversteer, where through a corner the car will suddenly break traction and spin out in a circle. Because of how quickly it happens, some drivers find it impossible to deal with. This is why the S2000 should be experimented with on a race track and not in the mountains, because if you spin out on a racetrack you hit dirt, grass, and gravel, instead of a gigantic 1000-year-old redwood. If you’re wondering what the big deal is about experimenting in the mountains, here’s a hint: the tree will always win.
It can’t turn very well, it’s worth a lot of money, and it can have enough horsepower to rival a LaFerrari. The Toyota Supra Mk.4 Turbo, the second generation Supra, is a proper example of Japanese muscle. It came stock with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six engine producing 300 horsepower, but on its stock forged internals, the engine can make 900 horsepower. Its engine, the 2JZ is known to make at least 2000 horsepower when rebuilt appropriately. The block is legendary and sought after by hot rodders looking to build a drag racer because of its incredible potential. If you can find one, you better be ready to pony up $40,000 or so, which is a lot of money for a sports car from the ‘90s,
What started in Japan way back in the early 1990s and didn’t reach the US until its eight iteration is the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The base model, Lancer, was a front wheel drive car with 120 horsepower, but the Evolution trim got AWD and a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that made more than 270 horsepower.
The car came with Brembo brakes and Bilstein shocks, and although at first didn’t have the monster Japanese internal parts or LSD, there was an MR version of the Evo 8 that was equipped with the Japanese parts, however still received a more conservative tune due to emissions laws in the US. Regardless, the Evolution is a brilliant car, if you can find one, and if you do grab it as quick as you can. The Evolution offers an intoxicating combination of power delivery and handling, where your right foot is never completely satisfied yet the Evolution never runs out.
Finally, we come to possibly the greatest tragedy in Japanese import history, the Nissan 240sx. When it was made in Japan as the 180sx, the car came with a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four engine that made 170 horsepower, until the car was upgraded in 1991 with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine, making more than 200 horsepower. When the car finally made it to the US, as the 240sx, it had lost all of that. Never sold with a turbocharged engine, the U.S. 240sx came with a 2.4-liter inline-four engine from a truck, and made 140 horsepower. Despite this, the car was still brilliant. It was lightweight, and handled well, and was forgiving. You could enter this car into a drift that was controllable, and the car would almost never spin out unless provoked.
In other words, you had to really abuse all of the freedom the 240sx gave you before it would sit you down for a talk in the form of sending you over the edge of a cliff. This made it a great beginner sports car, and even with its lack of Japanese engines, the 240sx is still probably one of, if not the most, fun car on this list.
There you have it, our list of the best Japanese sports cars. Sure most of them are old, even as old as 1989, but when you get one even today, you can still see the twinkle in their headlights, and they don’t hesitate to bring the same excitement and wonder they always have.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.