JDM, an abbreviation for Japanese Domestic Market, refers to the cars produced exclusively for the Japanese market. They, therefore, have custom features for the Japanese population and culture – in line with Japan’s rules and regulations. As such, JDM cars aren’t sold in other markets, such as the United States, except through grey imports.
Over the years, JDM cars have grown in popularity since the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the automotive world witnessed the golden era of Japanese sports cars. During this time, Japanese automakers effortlessly blended performance, affordability, and reliability in their sports cars. Today, JDM sports cars have a cult-like following around the globe.
The ease with which Japanese engines can be tuned or upgraded to unlock the engine’s full potential is the reason many American street racers are ditching the big block V8s and shifting to the import tuner segment. And thanks to the US 25-year import law, most of the JDM cars on this list are now eligible for import.
Whether you’re looking for a track weapon with unlimited tuning potential or a fast street cruiser, here are the 10 best JDM sports cars for racing enthusiasts.
10 Honda Civic EK9 Type R
While the 2017 FK8 was the first time the Civic Type R officially became available in the US, the car that gave birth to the lineage is the 1997 EK9. So, if you are on a budget and looking for cheap JDM cars for sale, look no further. The first-generation Honda Civic Type R packs heaps of fun. It is light, nimble, handles exceptionally, and is fast enough to keep up with modern hatchbacks and sports cars.
Under the hood, the EK9 sported a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated inline-four engine that put down 182 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel the car from 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds before hitting a top speed of 140 mph. The Honda Civic EK9 Type R is one of the best driver’s cars, and you can get it on the used market for about $16,000.
9 Toyota Corolla AE86
Dubbed the drifting godfather, the Corolla AE86 dominated motorsport events around the globe, from Group A, touring, and rallying to club racing and drifting. It was the weapon of choice for the Japanese racing driver Keiichi Tsuchiya, aka Drift King, and the man who popularized the sport.
The AE86 popularity reached an all-time high after starring in the Initial D anime. Even today, modified AE86 models are still popular sightings in racing events. The car’s rear-wheel configuration, lightweight nature, near 50/50 front/rear weight distribution and a highly tunable 4A-GEU engine make it one of the best drift cars ever. Given its age, Toyota AE86 examples are getting rarer and pricier by the day as many owners are reluctant to let them go.
8 Mitsubishi GTO
The ’90s represented the pinnacle of Mitsubishi Motors, and the 1990 GTO was yet another hit from the Japanese automaker. It was the most technologically advanced car of its time, featuring futuristic components like four-wheel steering, all-wheel drive, active aero, and electronically adjustable dampers.
All variants come equipped with three engine options, but the most powerful is the 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine that cranks out 276 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque. Surprisingly, the GTO wasn’t as popular as the Skylines or the Supras from the same period. This makes the GTO a cheap and affordable JDM sports car today.
7 Nissan Silvia
Introduced in 1999, the S15 Silvia boasted Nissan’s legendary S-platform, which dominated drifting events for decades. Even today, you’ll find a bunch of Nissan Silvias drifting at popular events in the world. However, the most coveted S-chassis model is the S15, since it never made it to the US.
It was the last S-chassis model and got the legendary 2.0-liter SR engine. The naturally aspirated SR20DE produced 163 hp, but the one you want is the turbocharged SR20DET that churned out 247 hp and 203 lb-ft of torque. Today, the S15 Silvia is among the most sought-after JDM cars due to its drifting heritage and wide aftermarket support. You can get high-mileage examples on the used market for about $10,000 and about $30,000 for slightly used examples.
6 Subaru Impreza WRX STi 22B
Besides the Lancer Evo, the Impreza WRX is another Japanese rally icon that dominated the WRC stage during the ‘90s. The Subaru WRX featured rally-inspired technology like stiffened suspension, all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
To celebrate Subaru’s 40th anniversary and the third consecutive WRC manufactures title, the Japanese automaker introduced the 22B STi in 1998. Powered by the 276-hp EJ22G engine, only 400 of these holy grail Imprezas made it off the production line, making them the most desirable Subarus today.
5 Mazda RX-7
Designed by Yoichi Sato, the third-generation RX-7 is arguably the most beautiful ‘90s sports car. It featured a light and sleek design, but the RX-7’s real party piece was the powerful rotary engine lurking under its hood. The JDM-only Series 8, aka Spirit R, is among the most coveted JDM cars of all time.
It was also the final and the most powerful iteration, powered by the twin-turbocharged 13B-REW that produced 276 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque in the Type RS. While the rotary motor is a ticking time bomb if not properly maintained, the rev-happy engine can easily produce over 500 hp with aftermarket tuning. Given its reputation, prices for the FD RX-7s are skyrocketing, with average prices of over $35,000.
4 Toyota Celica GT-Four S205
Before the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi EVO appeared in the limelight, the Celica GT-Four was already sending shock waves and clinching titles. It was the first Japanese car to enter the WRC sporting an AWD system and went ahead to dominate a competition previously dominated by Europeans.
It might look like a dressed-up Celica, but underneath, the Celica GT-Four S205 packs a hell of a punch. It sports a 2.0-liter turbocharged 3S-GTE that produces between 239 hp and 252 hp, making it the most powerful Celica model of all time. Despite its success and incredible performance, the GT-Four S205 is a somewhat underrated and forgotten gem, making it a cheap JDM classic. Good-condition examples go for well under $20,000.
3 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo was the eternal rival of the Subaru Impreza before Mitsubishi discontinued the model in 2015. Their rivalry dates back to the ’90s, when the two locked horns in the WRC. Even today, the Evo can still outperform some of the fastest performance sedans on the market, thanks to the legendary 4G63 engine.
In 1999, Mitsubishi introduced a special edition model in honor of Tommi Mäkinen, a four-time World Rally Champion. Named the Tommi Mäkinen Edition, it is one of the rarest and most sort-after Mitsubishi Evolution models, with only 4,092 units produced.
2 Honda NSX Type R
The Honda NSX is arguably the most iconic JDM car on this list. Introduced in 1980, the NSX forced other automakers to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategy. Dubbed the ‘everyday supercar,’ the first-generation NSX was fast, affordable, and reliable.
Seven years later, Honda introduced a JDM-only NSX Type R model. While it featured the same 3.0-liter VTEC V6 engine from the standard NSX, it underwent a diet that dropped its curb weight by 99 pounds. Other performance upgrades included stiffened and re-tuned chassis and suspension for track duty, forged aluminum wheels, and lightweight carbon-Kevlar seats.
1 Nissan R32-R34 Skyline GT-R
Skyline GT-Rs are some of the most iconic Japanese cars. Nissan revived the GT-R nameplate in 1989 with the R32 – the granddaddy of the modern R35. The R32 was the benchmark for the rest of the Skyline family and other ’90s JDM sports cars. Sporting a groundbreaking ATTESA AWD technology and the iconic RB26DETT engine, the R32 destroyed the competition across the globe, hence earning the Godzilla name.
The rest of the Skyline family (R33 and R34) went along to dominate the 1990s and the early 2000s before Nissan retired the nameplate in 2002. Its starring role in movies and games like the Fast and Furious, Need for Speed and Forza earned the Skyline GT-R a cult-like following among turbofans. Given the RB26DETT can easily produce over 600 hp, Skylines are highly regarded by the tuner community and racing enthusiasts, hence pushing their prices over the roof.
Sources: Car and Driver, Low-offset, Drifted, Jdmbuysell, and Jdmexport.