2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata
100. 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata.
| October 17, 2014
Today, the Japanese car industry is so tightly interwoven with the fabric of American automotive culture that it’s almost impossible to separate it. But going into the 1960s, practically no American wanted or trusted Japanese products outside of the transistor radio and Honda Cub 50 motorcycle.
So the Japanese industry had to fight to prove itself in this country, and it did so by turning out affordable products that, even if they lacked excitement, were durable and economical to operate. By the 1970s Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota were pushing the product envelope with machines that dared to be entertaining alongside the now well-known virtues of Japanese cars. Throw in a couple of traumatic fuel shortages caused by OPEC oil embargoes, and by 1980 Japanese carmakers were entrenched in America. By the 1990s, they were building many of their cars here in the United States.
These are the 100 greatest Japanese cars of all time. But we admit we’re biased in favor of cars that have had a significant impact here in North America — either in sales or in defining the car culture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any cars on this list that were sold only in Japan (there’s no way we’d leave off Nissan’s mighty Skyline GT-Rs, for instance) but we considered all the cars primarily in the context of our market. The mere knowledge that the GT-R existed was enough for it to rock our world, even if we weren’t allowed to buy one from Nissan until 2009.
Naturally, every entry here can be debated; that’s the reason behind these lists. There is, after all, no shame in being provocative. At least when it comes to writing long lists on the Internet.
100. 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: The next evolution of the Miata promises to be leap forward in style and ability. Call this one a pick based on hope and faith.
99. 1967 Mazda Cosmo: Japanese-market GT coupe that was the first two-rotor rotary-powered car. Predates the RX-7 by more than a decade and only about 1,500 were built.
98. 2011 Nissan Leaf : It’s the best-selling all-electric car ever made. And it’s a consistently good one, too.
97. 1999 Honda Insight: Toyota’s Prius hogs all the glory, but it’s the two-sea teardrop-shaped Insight that showed how a hybrid could be sweet to drive and own.
96. 1965 Toyota Sports 800: Sleek, tiny and fun with power from a 790cc two-cylinder flat engine. It was Toyota’s first sports car. Only sold in Japan.
95. 2000 Toyota Altezza: Rugged, sharp-handling car sold in America as the Lexus IS 300. Deserves to be remembered for more than its taillights.
94. 2003 Infiniti G35 Coupe: The two-door version of Infiniti’s smallish car is stylish and quick thanks to its VQ-Series V6. Murder it out in flat black.
93. 2002 Acura RSX Type-S: Follow up to the beloved Integra in America, the RSX lacked that car’s delicacy and replaced it with toughness and easier-going 2.0-liter engines.
92. 2002 Honda Integra Type-R: The Integra name continued on in the car known as the RSX in America. Great handling and 200 horsepower.
91. 1972 Toyota Corolla SR5: A five-speed manual transmission is added to the Corolla to create the first SR5. It turns out that the Corolla could be fun.
90. 1988 Toyota Celica All-Trac: Add a turbo and all-wheel drive to the Celica to create a rally-ready, 190-hp beast. World Rally champ in 1990.
89. 1990 Toyota Celica All-Trac: Basis for the WRC champions in 1992, 1993 and 1994. Enough said.
88. 1993 Honda Civic Coupe: North America’s two-door Civic coupe becomes the standard platform for sport-compact lunacy for a full decade. A tough car that was also easy to tweak.
87. 1973 Nissan Skyline GT-R: The often-overlooked KGPC110 version of the Skyline GT-R. There was 160 hp from its inline-6. Only 197 were built, making it the rarest GT-R.
86. 2004 Mazda 3: Known in Japan as the Axela (because, why not?), the Mazda 3 has never been a sales leader. But there’s no other compact car that drives as well or feels more substantial. It’s the car every other compact must be judged against.
85. 1988 Honda Prelude Si: Today 135 hp seems modest, but the injected 2.0-liter four combined with four-wheel steering to produce Honda’s best handling car of the 1980s.
84. 1992 Honda Prelude Si VTEC: Honda’s VTEC system migrates over from the NSX to create the 190-hp Prelude Si in a new, slightly weird body. It’s still a brilliant car to drive.
83. 1991 Infiniti Q45: The first product from Nissan’s luxury division is this large, but driver-oriented, luxury sedan with a 278-hp, 4.5-liter V8 under its hood. Active suspension was an option.
82. 1991 Toyota MR2 Turbo: It wasn’t quite a budget-priced NSX, but the second-generation midengine MR2 Turbo had 200 hp aboard. Entertaining in every way, and practical in almost no way.
81. 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R: A plain box filled with the brilliant SR20DE 2.0-liter four rated at 140 hp. The sort of great, affordable car that makes you love cars forever.
80. 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata: The second-generation Miata gets fixed headlights, a revised chassis and a slight bump in power for its 1.8-liter engine. Now a great used car buy.
79. 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata: A slightly boxier but even sharper-handling version of the Miata. A 170-hp 2.0-liter four is now standard. And it’s still ridiculously fun.
78. 1985 Honda Civic CRX Si: The egg-shaped two-seat version of the Civic fortified with a fuel-injected engine making 91 hp. Everything a small car should be and not an ounce more.
77. 1958 Toyota Toyopet: Opening its first store in an old Rambler dealership in Hollywood, California, on October 31, 1957, Toyota stocks it with two $2,300 Toyopet Crown sedans. Everything snowballs from there.
76. 1986 Acura Integra: Honda takes the risk of opening a luxury division with this Civic derivative in three- and five-door form and the larger Legend sedan. The risk pays off.
75. 1982 Mitsubishi Starion Turbo: Mitsubishi enters the American market led by this rear-drive GT coupe powered by a 145-hp, turbocharged version of its 2.6-liter four. In ’86 the ESI-R version grew fender flares and 16-inch wheels and power rose to 176 hp.
74. 1964 Honda S600: While the S500 is the first production Honda, it is its successor, the vastly superior S600 roadster, that set Honda’s path. It’s still, ahem, nifty.
73. 1967 Toyota Century Limousine: Big and indulgent, the first-generation Century would stay in production 30 years. It’s the V8-powered Century and 2000GT sports car introduced almost at the same time that emboldened Toyota to move beyond economy cars.
72. 1917 Mitsubishi Model A: It’s Japan’s first production car and that kind of matters. Based on the Fiat Tipo 3 and powered by a 2.8-liter four.
71. 1986 Mazda 323 GTX: All-wheel drive and a turbocharged, 132-hp 1.6-liter engine in a dinky box, the 323 GTX was the first Japanese rally beast. It didn’t make it to America until 1988.
70. 1991 Subaru SVX: A big, spacey coupe with a 3.3-liter flat-6 under its Giugiaro-designed nose feeding all four wheels. It was ahead of its time and we’re still waiting for its time to come.
69. 1990 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo: After two generations of tubby cruiser Z-cars, the “Z32” hits the world with blistering performance and an amazing appearance. The 300-hp Twin Turbo wasn’t just world-class, it was world-beating.
68. 2009 Nissan 370Z: So good that it’s often taken for granted today. Today’s Z uses a 3.7-liter, 332-hp version of the VQ-Series V6, giving it performance that required adding turbos back in the 1990s.
67. 1986 Mazda RX-7 Turbo: The second-generation RX-7 isn’t as beloved as the first, but it was a better car with all-independent suspension and a turbo option. It’s now a used sports car bargain.
66. 1989 Nissan 240SX: The legendary Silvia in its original “S13” form. An easygoing commuter car when it’s bone-stock, but the S13’s rear-drive chassis has proven both robust and almost infinitely tunable. A car that’s ridiculously easy to drive sideways… and every other which way.
65. 1989 Nissan Maxima: Flat-out gorgeous, this slick “four-door sports car” elevated expectations about what a Japanese sedan could offer serious drivers. Early versions had a 160-hp 3.0-liter V6; later versions had 190 horses.
64. 1995 Nissan Maxima: The first car to use Nissan’s now ubiquitous VQ-Series V6, it was rated at 190 hp with exceptional torque production. And the engine would grow in power over this car’s production life.
63. 1992 Lexus SC 300/400: A revision of the Toyota Soarer, the SC 300 had a 3.0-liter straight-6, while the SC 400 got Lexus’ 4.0-liter V8. Brilliantly built, indomitable in how it drove, it’s a great luxury GT coupe.
62. 2007 Mazdaspeed 3: Put a 263-hp, turbocharged 2.3-liter four into the Mazda 3? Good idea. Fast and always composed, it’s one of Mazda’s all-time best.
61. 1997 Honda Civic Type-R: Never sold in America, the first Civic Type-R used a 1.6-liter engine spinning to 185 hp. A Momo steering wheel and Recaro seats were also part of this three-door’s package.
60. 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX: It had the 4G63 turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel drive before the Evo did. The sweet product of the misbegotten Diamond Star joint venture in Illinois also produced the almost undifferentiated Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser.
59. 2007 Honda Civic Type-R: Japan only, but so tasty it built a legend over here, too. A robust 222 hp from its 2.0-liter K-Series four powered this four-door sedan.
58. 1979 Toyota Pickup 4×4: Toyota adds four-wheel drive to its ludicrously popular truck to produce an instant icon of California teen life. And a great off-road machine.
57. 1999 Honda Civic Si: Finally Honda offers the popular two-door coupe body with a high-performance 1.6-liter B16 DOHC engine making 160 hp. Instantly popular, most examples are quickly destroyed with misbegotten modifications.
56. 1992 Acura Integra GS-R: The first high-performance variation of the Integra with the 1.7-liter, 160-hp VTEC engine that screamed to an 8,000-rpm redline.
55. 1984 Toyota Corolla Sedan: The Corolla goes front-drive for the first time and becomes even more popular than before. Soon practically all Japanese small sedans would be built this way.
54. 2002 Nissan Altima: The also-ran Altima becomes a serious player in its third generation. Moving to the new “FF-L” platform optimized for North American market conditions, this Altima earned critical praise and became a true alternative to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
53. 2016 or 2017 Acura NSX: It’s going to be a hybrid. It’s going to be fast. It’s going to be made in Ohio. It’s got to be awesome.
52. 1978 Toyota Celica: The second-generation Celica is great-looking and still rear-drive. But more importantly, it was styled at Toyota’s Calty studio in California. Toyota is becoming more and more American.
51. 2000 Honda S2000: The classic sports roadster rebuilt around an advanced, super-stiff structure and high-winding, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a roughly 9,000-rpm redline. An update for the 2004 model year increased engine size to 2.2-liters and knocked the redline down to about 8,000 rpm with better low-end torque delivery. The S2000 chassis was balanced, while its drivetrain thrived on abuse.
50. 1995 Subaru Legacy Outback: Subaru had long searched for an identity in America and finally found it with the first Outback wagon. It’s sort of a proto-crossover and it’s become a Subaru mainstay.
49. 1983 Honda Prelude: The second-generation Prelude was a much better car than the first and vastly prettier. The big change was an all-new chassis that featured a double-wishbone front suspension that would become a distinctive Honda engineering element through the 1980s and ’90s.
48. 1969 Nissan Skyline GT-R: Compared to the turbo monster GT-Rs that would come later, the first GT-R was almost tame with its 2.0-liter straight-6 making about 160 hp. But it was the first of a monumental species.
47. 2002 Nissan 350Z: Nissan pulled the 300ZX from the American market in 1996 and it seemed that the company’s signature product was essentially dead. But then in 2002 came the 350Z, making brilliant use of the 287-hp, VQ-Series 3.5-liter V6.
46. 2012 Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ: Built by Subaru using some Toyota parts, these twin rear-drive sport coupes resurrected the small, 2.0-liter pure driving machine for the 21st century.
45. 1982 Toyota Celica Supra: The first Supra was just a Celica with a long nose and six-cylinder engine. The second one, though, was this square-cut legend. The 2.8-liter straight-6 had twin-cam heads, the rear suspension was independent and the cockpit featured the best seats in the business. A true grand tourer.
44. 1984 Honda Civic Si: The bread-van generation Civic with a tuned suspension and fuel-injected engine becomes the engaging Civic Si hatchback. The 1.5-liter four only made 91 hp, but back then that was an improvement.
43. 1992 Subaru WRX: The Impreza was still new to the market when Subaru fortified it with the magical pixie dust of turbocharging and all-wheel drive. Suddenly it was a 237-hp rally car you could buy called WRX. A car so good in flight that it should have required a pilot’s license.
42. 1958 Datsun 220 Pickup: The first Datsun truck sold in America, it established a sales beachhead for the company that, back then, wasn’t doing a great job selling cars.
41. 1976 Honda Accord: By 21st-century standards, the original three-door Accord is tiny and underpowered. To an America that was still shell-shocked by the OPEC oil embargoes, the Accord was a refined alternative to the massive domestics that dominated the sales charts at the time. Cars like the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — then America’s best-seller — suddenly seemed like the wallowing dinosaurs that they were.
40. 1998 Toyota Prius: Toyota’s first hybrid may not have been sleek, but it redefined how automotive efficiency could be achieved.
39. 1995 Nissan Skyline GT-R: The R33 only falls this low on the list because it follows the groundbreaking R32 GT-R and isn’t as overwhelming as the R34 that followed it. But it’s the second all-wheel-drive, twin-turbocharged GT-R, and that means it was awesome.
38. 1983 Toyota Camry: After conventional rear-drive boxes like the Corona, Toyota introduces the front-drive Camry and reinvents its mainstream family car. A simple, nearly indestructible machine that’s perfect for millions of buyers.
37. 1965 Toyota Corona: It’s the first Toyota people bought not because it was cheap, but because it was better than other cheap cars. It’s the car that established Toyota’s quality reputation and was perceived by buyers as a smart choice.
36. 1973 Datsun B210: So simple it almost had no moving parts. Rear-drive and agricultural, the B210 became an icon of 1970s Japanese ruggedness. A car everyone owned, and many have tried to forget.
35. 1995 Toyota RAV4: A company noted for brawny 4x4s builds a little one around front-drive car parts and the result has been selling in huge numbers ever since. It was a crossover before there were crossovers.
34. 1998 Lexus RX 300: The luxury crossover that started it all, and what all the other crossovers still pretend to be. It is consistently the best-selling vehicle Lexus offers and never less than excellent to drive.
33. 1996 Honda CR-V: It followed the mini-crossover lead of Toyota’s RAV4 and has surpassed it in many ways. It’s often the best-selling SUV in America on any given month.
32. 1984 Toyota 4Runner: Stealing the Chevy Blazer formula, Toyota caps the bed of its best-selling 4×4 pickup with a great shell and creates a versatile SUV. It has evolved since then, but it’s still a tough machine.
31. 1984 Toyota Corolla AE86: While the Corolla sedans adopted front-drive, the two-door models stuck with rear-drive and a solid axle. When equipped with a twin-cam 1.6-liter engine, it was the car around which competitive drifting evolved.
30. 2008 Subaru WRX STI: Subie ups the tech beyond NASA levels and thumps the 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-4 to 305 hp.
29. 2008 Lexus IS F: Big V8 in a small car produces Lexus’ muscle-bound sedan. The 416-hp 5.0-liter V8 paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission results in an IS that hits 60 mph in about 4 seconds.
28. 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R: The mighty R34 generation with every advanced drivetrain trick known to the 20th century. Will always be the ultimate GT-R to many.
27. 1986 Acura Legend: The large, front-drive, V6-powered sedan that established the Japanese luxury brand as viable in America.
26. 1970 Mazda RX-2: With 120 horses aboard, the Wankel rotary-powered RX-2 was about as quick as anything from Japan then sold in America. It established Mazda’s presence in the U.S., even if it didn’t make the rotary a permanent part of the market.
25. 1971 Toyota Celica ST: It’s the Mustang formula applied to a Toyota: a great-looking coupe body over ordinary mechanicals. But it was Toyota’s first mass-market sporty car and that won it a generation of young buyers.
24. 1985 Toyota MR2: The little midengine two-seater that remains one of the most attractive cars of the 1980s. Powered by a 112-hp, 1.6-liter engine, it wasn’t very fast. A supercharged model became available in 1987 with 145 hp.
23. 2009 Nissan GT-R: The R35 is the first version of the GT-R sent by Nissan into America. It’s radical in conception with a 473-hp twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V6, rear-mounted dual-clutch transmission, and high tech in every nook and all-wheel-driven cranny. Godzilla, indeed.
22. 1996 Nissan 240SX: A conventional coupe capable of incredible performance when modified — often and most effectively with Nissan’s SR20-DET replacing the stock 2.4-liter truck engine. The “Silvia” is an icon of drifting and balanced dynamics.
21. 1951 Toyota Land Cruiser: Why are Toyotas tough? Because the first “BJ” Land Cruiser was built tough. The off-road machine that made Toyota’s reputation around the world.
20. 1961 Toyota Land Cruiser: The upgraded FJ40 series Land Cruiser is the one that generated most of the Land Cruiser legends. Indomitable.
19. 1988 Honda CRX Si: The first CRX was great. But it’s the second CRX Si that was perfect. It’s a two-seat front-driver that elevated unpretentiousness up into a fine art.
18. 1993 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution I: In chasing the World Rally Championship, Mitsubishi stuffs the ordinary Lancer with everything good in its inventory. That includes a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4G63 engine and all-wheel drive. The Evo won the WRC Constructors Championship for Mitsubishi in 1998.
17. 2011 Lexus LFA: Carbon-fiber body, 4.8-liter V10 that screams a banshee wail as it knocks out 553 hp and a borderline insane $375,000 price tag. Proof that Toyota can build one of the best cars in the world any time it decides to.
16. 1992 Toyota Camry: A simple car built around simple mechanicals and refined into almost silken perfection. There’s nothing exotic about this Camry, but its size and styling make it perfectly suited to the American market. Every Toyota since has been chasing this one’s character.
15. 1973 Honda Civic: Honda’s cars were too toylike to be taken seriously until the Civic came around in ’73. Ridiculously comfortable for its size, amazingly engaging to drive and absolutely rugged in its construction, this Civic built and defined what a Honda automobile is and should be.
14. 1993 Mazda RX-7: Keeping the mass low and adding a sequential turbocharger system to the two-rotor Wankel engine resulted in a third-generation RX-7 sports car that practically wrapped itself around its driver. Lightning reflexes combined with brilliant adhesion.
13. 1990 Lexus LS 400: Toyota launches its luxury division on the back of this over-engineered, amazingly quiet, easygoing big sedan. It’s at least as well executed as any Mercedes, but retails for about $10,000 less than anything the Germans make. The 4.0-liter, 250-hp, 32-valve V8 is more serene than most convents.
12. 1971 Mazda R100: Tiny little Wankel rotary-powered coupe that was the first Mazda sent to America. It was a 120-hp screamer at a time when most small cars were lethargic slugs.
11. 1994 Toyota Supra Turbo: Two sequential turbos boosted the 3.0-liter straight-6 to 320 hp. But aftermarket toys could boost that beyond 1,000 hp with the tough iron block taking the punishment. Plus, it handled well.
10. 1967 Toyota 2000GT: Delicate and ferocious at the same time, it’s the first Japanese car that could be called collectible. It’s branded a Toyota, but much of the engineering and assembly work (including design of the 2.0-liter straight six) was done by Yamaha.
9. 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata: England stopped building small sports cars, so Mazda built one that had all their charm with the quality and reliability for which Japan is famed. Consistently excellent, the Miata has become a stalwart of amateur racing around the world.
8. 1997 Acura Integra Type-R: Everything a front-drive performance car should be. It’s light, instantly reactive, handles brilliantly and is an absolute blast to drive. Plus the 1.8-liter VTEC engine makes 195 hp as it spins up its 8,400-rpm redline. It’s still the best handling front-drive car ever built.
7. 1968 Datsun 510 Bluebird: Not just a single car, but a full line of two- and four-door sedans plus a wagon. In specification it was basically a BMW 2002 with a couple thousand bucks shaved off the price. That included four-wheel independent suspension on all the models except the wagon. Somewhere someone is racing an old 510 as you read this. And probably winning.
6. 1978 Mazda RX-7: Turns out that a simple, two-seat sports car was the natural home for the Wankel rotary engine after all. It’s the car that established Japan’s commitment to filling every market niche with a competitive and entertaining product.
5. 1970 Datsun 240Z: By 1970 Porsches and Corvettes were too expensive and the British sports cars that were left were archaic and unreliable. All those realities produced a market opening that Nissan filled with the astonishing Datsun 240Z. The 2.4-liter straight-6 growled like a Jaguar, the styling was more expressive than a Corvette’s and it was built as well as any Porsche. And it was cheap. This is the car that proved Japan was capable of producing the best cars in the world… at a budget price.
4. 1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32): Except for maybe Porsche’s 959 supercar, this was the most technologically ambitious car of the 1980s. The twin-turbocharged, 2.6-liter straight-6 produced 276 hp and could easily be tweaked to make more than twice that. The all-wheel-drive system could be tuned for specific situations and the rest of the car was calibrated for awesome. This isn’t the first GT-R, but the R32 is the car that gave the GT-R the name Godzilla.
3. 1991 Acura NSX: Midengine, all-aluminum monocoque construction, a suspension tuned with help from Ayrton Senna, and all the reliability and usability of a Honda. The NSX was so fantastic, so undeniably good, that it forced Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche to build better sports cars. For the first time, a Japanese car was the best car in the world.
2. 1967 Toyota Corolla: It wasn’t fancy or fast or even very good-looking. And the very first Corolla had a pokey 1.1-liter pushrod four under its hood. But it’s the car that got the world to buy Japanese cars. Practically everyone has a Corolla story or still has a Corolla in their garage. And good experiences with Corollas led millions to buy more and more Toyotas.
1. 2004 Toyota Prius: The second-generation Prius, the one shaped like a sardine, is the car that made the gasoline-electric hybrids mainstream transportation for millions of ordinary consumers. In the 21st century virtually every car is following the Prius’ lead in some way or another. And that includes the Porsche 918 Spyder and Ferrari LaFerrari hybrids. This is the future and there’s never anything greater than that.