What is the Best JDM of the 1980's?
If you haven't checked out my "What is the Best JDM of the 1960's" and "What is the Best JDM of the 1970's" article, go check them out as well!
The 80's saw the debut of such cars as the AE86 Trueno/Levin, Toyota Supra, and many other great JDM legends that have captured the hearts of fans of all ages. Now let's dive in and see which one can be crowned the best based on performance, influence, and iconic status.
Honda Civic/Civic CRX
The 1980's saw the introduction of the AG and the EF generations of Civic. I generally consider the 80's Civics as the first purposefully made sporty Civics. Since the CRX was technically a Civic, I will consider both of them as one in this article.
The AG Civic became the first Civic to come with the Honda Si sporting trim, producing 110bhp. That may not sound like a lot, but back in the early 80's and late 70's, many compact cars featured sub-100bhp power outputs, meaning the Civic soon became immensely popular amongst petrolheads. What's more, the AG Civic spawned the first Civic CRX.
Sold as a purely sporty version of the Honda Civic, the first generation EC1 CRX also featured an Si version. A smart move by Honda, the CRX Si featured a 1.5L engine, meaning Japanese buyers need not pay a more expensive road tax from a 1.6L or over engine. While remaining under 1.6L, the EC1 CRX was able to push up to 140bhp!! Quite the performance for a little compact car at the time.
Someone save this beauty that I found near my old college apartment.
Towards the latter half of the 1980's the Civic was upgraded into one of my favorite Civic generations, the EF. Introduced in 1987, the EF9 was sold until the end of the 1980's and was a major improvement over its predecessor. Like the AG Civic, the EF Civic also saw a performance Si trim that was sold in Japan and in export markets. Packing a maximum output of 135bhp, the new Si also featured an upgraded double wishbone suspension as well as upgraded aerodynamics, giving it a 0 to 60 time of just 8 seconds! However, this was just the tip of the iceberg. In classic Japanese fashion, the best was saved for domestic consumption. Debuted towards the end of the EF9's run, the Civic SiR came onto the market as the ultimate Civic. Being the first Civic to feature the iconic B16A engine, the SiR packed a whopping 160bhp! (Note: European versions had a less powerful engine.)
The SiR was also the first Honda to include Honda's brilliant VTEC engine, making it economical as well as fast. All these upgrades helped the EF9 win many awards throughout Europe and Japan.
Along with the upgrade of the standard Civic, the Civic CRX also underwent an upgrade. Utilizing the same B16A VTEC engine as the Civic CRX SiR also produced a mind boggling 160bhp.
While the CRX faded into our memories, the Civic would continue on becoming one of Honda's most successful and popular performance cars. Sticking with the front-wheel drive principle, the Honda Civic was able to break many misconceptions about the non-preferred mode of propulsion. Although the CRX never made it past the 1990's, Honda did try to revive it through the CRZ hybrid, but unfortunately, although the CRZ is quite a cool looking car, it failed to capture the same amount of impact as the original CRX.
Honda (Quint) Integra
While, we're at it with the Honda Civic, let's look at another car that was another variant of the Civic, the Integra. Developed with sportiness and luxury in mind, the Integra, to explain simply, a larger, luxury sport variant of the Civic. In fact, every generation of Integra was developed from the base Civic of that era. Debuted in 1986, the DA1 Integra (highest trim) featured the same 135bhp DA16 engine as the CRX Si in the same generation, giving it similar performance, although the Integra was heavier due to the added luxuries.
Like the Civic, the Integra needs no introduction. Developed with the Honda Legend and Vigor to jumpstart Honda's luxury Acura brand, the Integra would leave quite an impact on the motoring world. Subsequent generations would go hand in hand with its Civic cousin as one of the best front wheel drive cars ever. Although the Integra's legacy is a long one, it inevitably saw its end in the early 2000's with the DC-5, but will forever be considered a JDM icon.
Toyota Celica A60
The Celica, like the Civic, is one of the greatest icons to ever come out of Japan. By the time the 1980's rolled around, the A60 Celica made its debut. Produced throughout the entirety of the 80's the A60 Celica was considered the last "classic Celica". It was also the last Celica to feature rear wheel drive, with subsequent generations only providing front or all wheel drive.
Producing 120bhp, the Celica proved quite the rival to cars such as the Civic, but the Celica was not done.
Known to the rest of the world as the Supra, the A60 Supra is more correctly called the Celica Supra, or in the case of Japan, the Celica XX. As the ultimate Celica, the Celica XX produced a monstrous 168bhp with a top speed of 130mph, proving quite a formidable machine. The legacy the A60 leaves behind is also immense. Of course, subsequent Celicas would continue on to be great performance cars such as the Celica GT-Four, but more importantly, the Celica XX would finally split off and become one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars of all time, the Toyota Supra.
(sorry for the bad photography on the Celica XX, this was from back when I was not as picky with my shots)
Toyota Supra A70
While the A80 Supra is the most loved Supra out there, I find the A70 Supra to be a more attractive car. The A70 Supra was the first standalone Supra separate from the Celica lineup and was Toyota's flagship sports car at the time.
Debuted in 1986, the base Supra, with the 7M-GE naturally-aspirated engine produced 200bhp, which was quite the step up from the A60 Supra, but that should only be par for the course considering the Supra has now moved up a class when compared with the Celica. In 1987, the 7M-GE saw some turbocharging (7M-GTE) and the maximum power output for the Supra went up a whopping 32 more bhp with a total output of 232bhp.
The A70 Supra saw a final upgrade in the early 90's (kind of straying away from the 80's now) to the iconic 1JZ twin turbo engine giving it a jaw-dropping 276bhp! Unfortunately for overseas fans, this ultimate version of the A70 was only available in Japan. Despite its performance and popularity as a driver's car, the car suffered from a head gasket problem that will become apparent every 75,000 miles. Though it was an easy fix, Toyota never issued a recall so there are many A70's out there that still has this problem, meaning one should be cautious when buying one of these second-hand. Aside from that little issue, the A70 Supra marked the beginning of what I call the "JDM supers", the 276bhp monsters that come from Japan's "Gentlemen's Agreement".
Toyota AE86 Trueno/Levin
Finally, we have reached the 80's and I can talk about everyone's favorite tofu delivery car, the AE86. The AE86 was the performance trim for the E80 series Corolla and Sprinter and came in two body styles, the Levin and the Trueno. Although the Levin and the Trueno are twins and are largely identical except for the obvious headlights, the Levin and Trueno were originally intended to be the same class of vehicle for two separate lineups in Toyota's fleet. While the Levin was the performance Corolla, the Trueno was the performance model of the Toyota Sprinter.
Producing 130bhp from its iconic 4A-GE engine, the Toyota Corolla AE86 Sprinter was a popular car rallies, circuit racing, and drifters alike. Because of its motorsport pedigree and LSD, the AE86 was incredibly popular amongst Japanese enthusiasts who enjoy spending the day on the curvy mountain roads of Japan. One of these enthusiasts is the Drift King, Tsuchiya Keiichi.
Tsuchiya Keiichi was a top notch racing driver who started the drifting trend when he felt that "it became boring winning all the time like this, so one day I decided to have some fun and started drifting the corners." And what car did he begin doing this in? You guessed it, the AE86.
With influence from Mr. Tsuchiya, another enthusiast named Shigeno Shuuichi would immortalize the AE86 and boost its popularity up until the present day. If you haven't guessed already, Mr. Shigeno is the writer and creator of the popular arcade game, manga, and anime known as Initial D. (He was also friends with my ex's dad, small world.) Through the world of Initial D, the AE86 was able to inspire whole new generations of petrolheads and JDM fans. Now if that isn't iconic, I don't know what is.
Sadly, the Levin and Trueno was akin to a one-hit wonder, with its successors unable to reach a similar level of popularity due primarily to thefact that Toyota for whatever reason decided to make the Levin and Trueno front wheel drive from the AE92 generation on. This decision destroyed the reason why the Levin and Trueno were popular, for having some sideways fun in the corners. Although Toyota would make a homage car in the GT86 as well as the new Corolla Sport, neither can be considered a true successor, making the AE86, THE Levin and Trueno.
If you ask me what I thought the most overshadowed Japanese sports car is, I would probably answer with the Honda Prelude. Developed from the Honda 1300 Coupe and the subsequent Honda Accord, the Prelude was introduced in 1978 and became a proper sports car with the introduction of the second generation Prelude, the BA. US and European versions of the car produced 110bhp and 137bhp respectively, but again, Japan gets all the good stuff, so the top of the line Japanese Prelude got a whopping 158bhp.
Completely changing itself from the first Prelude, which horribly flopped, the second generation Prelude featured a modern aerodynamic design, significantly reducing drag, as well as a lightweight body. Couple those with its power output and you have one formidable sports car on your hands.
With the second generation, the Prelude became the Honda's flagship sportscar until the introduction of the NSX in 1990.
In 1987, the Prelude saw another upgrade into the most beautiful Prelude generation. The third generation Prelude featured similar aerodynamics with the NSX, which was still in development at the time and just looks gorgeous.
Strangely, the third generation Prelude's sportiest trim, the Si State (Japan only) featured only 150bhp, less than the previous generation's 158bhp. Regardless, the third generation Prelude featured better aerodynamics and was able to best even Ferraris and Porsches in a slalom test, being able to zig zag at an average speed of 65 mph due to its new 4 wheel steering system. Japan also featured a facelifted Prelude called the Prelude INX which utilized fixed headlights, which helped improve aerodynamics of the car even more.
Despite having its flagship spot taken by the Honda NSX, the Prelude survived two more generations into the 2000's and proceeded to steal my heart as my favorite coupe from my childhood.
Z31 Nissan Fairlady Z (300ZX)
Possibly the most hated Z car due to its strange design which combines the classic shape of the S30 and the more modern boxier shapes of the era, the Z31 was definitely not the best looking car to come out of the 80's. However, the intentions were not to purposefully ugly up the iconic shape of the S30 and to an extent, the S130, but the Z31's odd shape helped significantly reduce drag and made the car much more aerodynamic than its predecessors.
The Z31 also packed quite a punch, with the turbocharged version packing 205bhp, easily outperforming the Prelude and Celica, its main competitors at the time. Everything about this car was great, but its one weak link was its strange design. I would bet that if the Z31 looked a bit more aesthetic, it would be quite welcome amongst Z fans.
(Look at this monstrosity). Though, mostly left forgotten, the Z31 would evolve into the much more powerful and popular Z32 and subsequently, the current Fairlady Z's which are quite superb.
Japan's first mid-engine car, the MR2's name itself stands for "Midship engine, Rear drive 2 seater." Developed to be an economical car while also fun to drive, the MR2 was tested on numerous racing circuits and with input from Ferrari, due to Ferrari's expertise in mid-engined cars, as well as Lotus (thus securing a partnership between the two during the development of the Lotus Elise, which featured the MR2 twin cam engine).
Originally fitted with the AW-10 engine producing 110bhp, the MR2 would soon see an engine upgrade to the iconic Toyota 4A-GE engine shared with the AE86. Although different markets saw different power outputs due to regulations, the most powerful was the Japanese market MR2, with 130bhp (though it was downgraded later for regulatory purposes).
In 1986, the MR2 saw a further performance upgrade with the supercharged 4A-GZE engine, giving it a whopping 145bhp. Quite a lot for a car that weighs only 2,300lb. Due to its light weight, even 50-50 weight distribution, and Lotus developed suspension (later upgraded by Toyota in later models), the MR2 was a formidable monster on the track and on curvy mountain roads, making the MR2 quite a popular enthusiasts car. It's popularity was particularly high in Hong Kong, where it was affectinately called the "matchbox", and was featured in the movie, 【古惑仔】(Young and Dangerous) as the protagonist's car. It was in this exact red actually.
Considered by many to be the best MR2 by many fans, the "matchbox" MR2 is definitely an icon of the 80's.
PC: Jerry Yee This MR2 was an all original USDM Supercharged MR2. It was so clean and original that it was featured in a Japanese auto magazine.
Better yet, the MR2 was one of the few JDM cars that had its highest trim (the supercharged) exported to foreign markets.
Developed by Mitsubishi in the 80's, the Starion was Mitsubishi's answer to rival cars such as the Mazda RX-7 and Nissan Fairlady Z. The Starion was an incredibly modern car for the time, as one of the first electronically fuel injected turbocharged cars.
Due to Mitsubishi's small globall influence, Mitsubishi had to sell the Starion under Chrysler badge names overseas under the Diamond Star Alliance. The Starion had a power range between 150bhp and 200bhp depending on the trim of the turbocharger. Being a rear-wheel drive car, the Starion did not perform well in offroad rally stages despite Mitsubishi's success with the rear drive Lancer of the time. However, a four wheel drive version was developed for the Group B rally stage, but unfortunately, the rally stage was canceled before the Starion rally car could be proven.
Being quite an affordable turbo car during the 80's turbo craze, the Starion was quite a popular car amongst enthusiasts as a tuner car. Unfortunately, like the Diamond Star Alliance, the Starion was left largely forgotten by many.
Nissan Sivlia S12
There are few out there that have not heard of the Nissan Silvia, and in my opinion, the S12 generation was the first modern Silvia. Debuted in 1983, the S12 was the younger brother to the Nissan Skyline and the Fairlady Z at the time with the FJ20ET turbocharged engine equipped versions of the S12 making 190bhp, while the highest output NA engine, the VG30E for the North American models made 167bhp.
Though not as iconic and popular as its successors, the S12 Silvia is not without pedigree. The S12 Silvia was used by Nissan for many different rally stages and was even considered for the Group B rally stage, but like the Starion and RX-7, the group was cancelled before the S12 could prove itself in that field.
Sold in both coupe and hatchback body types, the performance hatchbacks were strangely badged under the Gazelle line, while the Silvia designation was reserved for the high performance coupes.
The S12, though not the most famous of the Silvia lineup, is still an incredibly important car. Being the first modern Silvia (first S Chassis being the S10), the S12 was pivotal in the Silvia becoming the sensational drift icons, the S13, S14, S15 that we know today.
Nissan Skyline R30 2000 Turbo RS
Although the GT-R seemingly died with the Kenmeri Skyline, the Skyline never really lost its sporty touch. THE Skyline of the 1980's was without a doubt, the R30. Although it was never sold with a GT-R trim, it came with the 2000 RS Turbo.
Most famously known for this red and black color scheme, the R30 2000 RS Turbo developed 190bhp from the most powerful Japanese engine produced at the time, the FJ20ET. Nissan's decision to make the 2000 RS Turbo their flagship car, the 2000 RS Turbo featured cosmetic and luxury upgrades in 1983. Power windows, air conditioning, and power steering became standard, as well as a facelifted front-end, nicknamed the "Iron Mask"
Due to the now heavier 2000 RS-X Turbo, the power was upped from 190bhp to 205bhp as a result. The R30 was also the first Skyline to give us the new contemporary shape featured in subsequent GT and GT-R generations, up to the R34.
In 1985, the Skyline was upgraded to the R31, with its performance trim being the GTS-R. Developed for Group A Touring Car racing, Nissan built 831 GTS-R's in order to fit homologation requirements, making it quite a rare car.
(Did not have any pictures of a GTS-R, so take this four door R31 as a placeholder) Producing 210bhp, while the racing version produced a whopping 430bhp. The R31 was also the first Skyline to utilize the RB engine used in subsequent GT-R's.
Although mostly ignored due to their lack of the GT-R badge, the 80's Skylines were still incredibly important cars. They were the first of the modern Skylines and if it were not for their success, it is very possible that we would have never seen the revival of the GT-R name.
When talking about 80's JDM, who could forget the rotary wonder, the RX-7? Technically debuting in 1978, the Mazda RX-7 succeeded the RX-3 and popularized the rotary engine.
Due to the rotary engine's efficiency, the RX-7 was able to keep tax costs low due to the engine's low displacement of 1.3L, while also pushing out 135bhp in its final turbo iteration.
As the lightest generation of RX-7, the FB3S generation RX-7 also had a 50-50 weight distribution due to the lightness of the rotary. All this meant that the FB3S could turn on a dime and was known for its amazing handling.
By 1985, the RX-7 saw an upgrade into the FC3S. The FC3S focused more on the Savanna's grand touring aspect and featured a much more luxurious interior.
Aimed at foreign markets, Mazda designed the FC3S with much inspiration from the Porsche 924 in order to appeal more to the European and North American markets. The Series 5 Turbo model pushed out 200bhp from a 1.3L rotary engine. Being able to maintain a sub-1.5L displacement engine meant that Japanese buyers were able to buy this car without having to pay a more expensive road tax that many of the FC's competitors required.
The FC3S featured an aerodynamic wedge shape (and is my favorite RX-7) and just looks so much sleeker than its predecessor and successor alike. Although the FC3S focused more on being a grand touring car, the FC3S featured many performance upgrades that made it handle better and control much more precisely around a track than its predecessor.
The FC3S would continue to win many awards and do incredibly well in the world of motorsport. It was also one of the two cars on this list to be featured in Initial D, and along with the AE86, inspired whole new generations of petrolheads.
And the winner is....The Toyota AE86!
I'm sure many of you will agree that the AE86 is deserving of the title of being the best JDM of the 80's. Through people like Tsuchiya Keiichi and Shigeno Shuuichi, the AE86 inspired a whole new generations of enthusiasts as well as jumpstarted the current drift culture and drift scene. Aside from being influential, the AE86 was an incredibly formidable car back in the day and is still a fun and zippy little car popular amongst enthusiasts of all ages.
BUT, that's just my opinion. What do you think? What car would you pick? Were there any that I missed? Comment your thoughts down below, and as always, thank you for reading!