Japanese cars are known for their reliability and approachable pricing, but automakers in the land of the rising sun know how to have fun, too. Over the years there have been some legendary Japanese sports cars, including the original Datsun 240Z, Mazda RX-7, Mk IV Toyota Supra, first-generation Acura NSX, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Toyota MR2, the original Mazda Miata, and many more. Those Japanese classics delivered precise handling, respectable power, and supreme driver involvement—not to mention that aforementioned reliability and approachable pricing. Some of today’s sporty Japanese cars are favorites among MotorTrend editors, and we’re eager for any chance to get behind the wheel. These Japanese performance cars are worth a look.
Even more than a decade into its sales cycle, the R35 Nissan GT-R continues to be a formidable opponent, especially among other Japanese sports cars of today. Godzilla remains one of the quickest all-wheel-drive sports cars we’ve ever tested, with a 0-60 time matching that of the Bugatti Veyron. Through corners it demonstrates face-bending grip, hanging on with up to 1.06 average lateral g on the skidpad. The GT-R may be as fast as it is old, but it remains one of the best Japanese sports cars of all time. We’re hopeful Nissan will follow through with an epic R36.
The exotic-fighting Japanese performance legend lives on in hybrid form. Acura put everything it knows into the NSX’s modern revival, creating a carbon-trimmed masterpiece with a battery-enhanced twin-turbo V-6 in the middle. All in, that setup is good for 573 hp and blistering acceleration. Purists might lament the loss of the original NSX’s lightweight body and available manual transmission, but as we found on a drive in its home country of Japan, today’s car provides “joy on the track” and proves “technology and emotion can happily coexist.”
Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ
You know how it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow? Get behind the wheel of a Toyota 86 for proof. This small, sporty Japanese car makes around 200 hp, and crawls from zero to 60 mph in about 7 seconds; many of today’s crossovers are quicker. But want for acceleration evaporates as soon as you show the 86 a winding road; its chassis is sublime, communicative, and steadfast in its pursuit of making its driver smile. “I love that it has just enough body roll to make a 30-mph corner feel like a 60-mph corner,” we said of the 86 TRD Special Edition. Hey, slow car fast over fast car slow, right?
Subaru WRX STI
Today’s Japanese rally car for the road may not be as tech-savvy as some competitors, but that means it’s perhaps less digitally filtered than the others. A slightly laggy turbocharged flat-four engine, notchy six-speed manual shifter, and trademark all-wheel drive are starting to feel a bit dated in today’s world of hybrid assistance and lightning-shift automatics. Still, those traits make it fun in a refreshingly old-school way. Is it a Japanese sports car? That remains debatable, but we think it certainly inherits the spirit of the Japanese performance cars of old.
The Nissan 370Z has built a strong fan following around its rakish looks and sporty driving dynamics. Although it’s pretty fun and has posted some solid numbers, it has a bare-bones interior and lacks modern safety technology. That’s no surprise considering its age; it debuted in 2009. There’s been no official word on a 370Z replacement, either. Other rear-wheel-drive performance coupes seem to offer better value, but if you love the Japanese sports car ethos and the 370Z’s raspy exhaust note, it’s still here for you to enjoy.
We know what you’re thinking: Is this really a Japanese sports car? We say yes; it’s got a Toyota badge on the bumper, BMW-stamped parts behind it be damned. Regardless of nationality, it’s an awesome car to drive, with a turbocharged inline-six and fantastically balanced chassis. The naysayers will be there as long as the Mk V Supra remains on sale, but we’ll simply point to the numbers and remind them that it beat out esteemed competitors born and bred in the land of its, ahem, cousin.
Light weight, rear-wheel drive, and infinite headroom: That’s the secret recipe that makes the Miata great. The MX-5 has never been the fastest, or the most powerful, and definitely not the most luxurious Japanese sports car out there, but it’s definitely among the most fun. We’ve boldly proclaimed that “This remains the best sports car for the money in the world, full stop. You cannot have more fun per dollar spent.” For a shade above $30,000, that’s a prospect plenty of people have discovered for themselves—well over a million, in fact.
Lexus RC F
Lexus’ RC F is something of a segment bender; it’s somewhere between a luxurious grand tourer, brawny muscle car, and (supposed) track-focused tool. In a bubble, this Japanese performance car is great, but then comparisons against the lightness or speed of European rivals start to come in for the pop. The RC F Track Edition shaves a few pounds here or a few tenths there, yet we’re not quite convinced it’s meant for hard days of hot lapping. That said, it’s still fast, loud, fun, and a unique offering in a segment crammed with storied nameplates.
Honda Civic Type R
Civics get a bad rap. Front-wheel drive gets a bad rap. Drive the Honda Civic Type R, however, and you’ll wonder why either of those is considered a bad thing. The CTR is superb, with all the grip, balance, power, and involvement you could ever really ask for. Plus, it’s still a Civic hatchback, so beneath its wing-clad rear liftgate is plenty of cargo space for life’s daily needs. Its Civic Si sibling delivers its own set of thrills, too, sharing a turbocharged punch and sweet-shifting six-speed manual. We’re big fans of these affordable sporty Japanese cars.
Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400
Infiniti’s current sportiest car veers more toward the grand tourer end of the spectrum, but its 400-hp twin-turbo V-6 makes it a compelling option for customers shopping for sporty Japanese cars. The Q60 Red Sport 400’s engine feels strong and responsive, and its swoopy styling is quite distinctive. However, show it some corners and the Q60 Red Sport falters. Our take: “It feels very sporty driven to about eight-tenths, but after that it all starts to fall apart.” Infiniti’s unpredictable adaptive steering system doesn’t help, either. These may not be issues for those who want a quick, comfortable coupe to drive every day. For the rest of us, we’re eager for Infiniti to join the true Japanese performance car ranks with something like the Q60 Project Black S.