What were the greatest JDM cars made during the 90s?
Plucking six of the very best from Japan's golden era
The 90s was a fantastic era for petrol heads. It gave us the spellbinding McLaren F1, the glory years of Michael Schumacher, and also berthed two of the most significant automotive franchises in modern history: The Fast and the Furious saga and the Granturismo gaming series - both of which can be credited for igniting a global thirst for what is now considered Japan's golden era in the race for automotive perfection.
Japan had already given us some brilliant cars up until this point. Take for instance the Datsun 240Z, or the Toyota 2000GT - but even these cars could not keep up with some of the speedsters that skunk work departments in Europe had began to conjure up. At the start of the 90s, the nation's top manufacturers had ended up in some kind of mass brawl, in regards to who could create the best sports cars, and the results were phenomenal.
The Toyota MR-2. Image credit: Bhmpics.
They had no problems going into a fist fight with Europe. What's most interesting about this era was the difference in approach taken by Japan's big guns, and this really shows in the individual qualities each car had. Every petrol head has their personal list of favourite JDM cars that they pretend they don't know by heart, with others even going to the extent of laminating their list and sticking it neatly on the corner of a wall in their man-cave.
I, shamelessly, am no different. I've limited my list to six cars for a very specific reason: I grew up in the 90s playing Granturismo, and as previous players would know, the game used to set up with grids of six cars per race - and so it's under this specification that I’ve compiled this line-up.
Fast and Furious. Image credit: Pinterest.
Briefly straying off topic here for a second, but I wanted to take this opportunity to say that I hate the direction that the Granturismo and Fast and Furious series' have been heading in as of late. GT sport was visually pleasing, yes, but the lack of any real ''simulation mode'' was heart-breaking, whilst F&F has been ambitiously stupid since the seventh film. I hope F9 and GT7 somewhat go back to their roots and restore some parity. OK, rant over.
Anyway, to keep my list slightly more equitable, I didn't include any special edition variants because every car didn't ended up having one. Rather, I stuck to more mass-produced vehicles. I also did this because during this era, a ''gentleman's agreement'' was made, which stated that any manufacturer who wanted to participate MUST limit the power output of their entrants to 280bhp. This was to keep the contest even, and to ensure that the general engineering was what shined through, as opposed to brute force. So, without any further a due, here's how the grid line's up:
GRID - P6: SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STI (GC8)
Image credit: Car Throttle.
The Impreza was first introduced in 1993, and was originally intended to battle it out with the Corolla's and the Sentra's of its day for the title of 'best daily commuter car'. However, it ended up completely transforming Subaru's reputation across the globe, and gave birth to the idea of a cheap, reliable, turbocharged, all-wheel drive car that, as planned, could be used every day.
Its 2.0-litre boxer engine creates one of the most recognisable soundtracks ever. The Impreza also wrote itself into the history books as one of the best rally cars ever made. The image of Colin McRae letting the back end of a navy blue Impreza slide across a muddy special stage route in Wales quickly became one of the most iconic snapshots in motorsport folklore.
GRID - P5: MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION (VI)
Image credit: Pinterest.
The original Lancer's were nothing special - just your average, boring, every day family saloons. But with the Japanese car-wars in full chat, Mitsubishi wanted to show what they could do and they did so by rebuilding the Lancer for one thing: The World Rally Championship. It went on to dominate during the 90s.
The Evo's and Impreza's that were created between the early 90s and the late 2000s were so similar in performance, durability and purpose that they became locked in an eternal battle for supremacy. Which car comes out on top is still up for debate to this day, and ultimately, it boils down to a matter of opinion.
GRID - P4: MAZDA RX-7 (FD3S)
Image credit: Garage dreams.
Mazda's contribution to the tussle was by far away the most unique one. The third of its name, the RX-7 was lighter, sleeker, and to my eyes, better looking than all of its rivals. The one quality which made it so much different from the others though was its engine: a turbocharged 1.3-litre rotary.
It just loved to reach the red-line, and despite being notoriously unreliable, the notes that the RX-7's rotary would hit, especially high up the rev range, could put an orchestra to shame. Such was the tunability of the car, people would dominate the street racing scene of Tokyo with them. Here's one such example of an RX-7 which has been cranked up to 11 - but please be advised, your ears will pop.
GRID - P3: TOYOTA SUPRA (A80)
Image credit: Evo.
Breaking into the podium is the first of what many consider to be the ultimate 90s Japanese sports car - and with good reason. It was the first to violate the ''gentleman's agreement'' with its 3-litre twin-turbo straight 6, which churned out an estimated 326bhp. It matched up to 911s and M3s of its day and possessed a higher power-to-weight ratio than the then modern Ferrari - the 358.
In its stock configuration, the Supra was limited to 155mph, but with the limiter taken off it would edge its way towards 180mph. It did haul around a fair amount of weight - 1,565 kg to be precise, but it was still nimble in the corners thanks to its ingenious chassis configuration. Despite this, its most formidable party piece was actually its braking ability. The Supra could slow down from 70mph to a stand-still in just 45 metres - a record it held for nearly EIGHT years until the £300,000 Porsche Carrera GT wrestled that title off it.
GRID - P2: NISSAN SKYLINE GTR (R34)
Image credit: Mertgungor.
Over the years, there have been many iterations of the Skyline, but it wasn't until the R32 that people began to take an interest. The R34, however, was the sibling which really took the world by storm. Its massive turbochargers, in conjunction with an all-wheel drive system that was truly generational, meant that the R34 provided the blueprint for bedroom wall posters throughout the noughties.
Praised as one of the purest driving machines to ever come out of Japan, the R34 will be remembered for as long as automobiles cease to exist. It's only fitting that the R35 GTR, a car which is currently one of the best all round supercars money can buy, was derived from something as perfect as this. As a car, it's pretty faultless. In my opinion, only one machine would come before it in this race...
GRID - P1: HONDA NSX (NA1)
Image credit: Vroom.be.
A car that simply couldn't remain in the sports-car category, because it demanded promotion to the supercar class. Aerodynamics were a fundamental focus for the NSX, and not often does the result of a few science experiments look this good.
Powered by a 3.0-litre V6 like many of the others on this list, the NSX had its engine placed slap bang in the middle. Why? Aside from perfect weight distribution, the purpose was simple: Honda wanted to commit to a project that exceeded the performance of the Ferrari range of the time, but even they couldn't have predicted that their cut-price, mid-engined supercar would topple the competition from Italy.
It was Japan unshackled - and as you've probably heard a million times, the late, great, Ayrton Senna helped develop it. And let's be real, that's all that needs to be said about a car for you to know it's something special.
Miata's! Image credit: Japanese nostalgic car.
In today's world, it's virtually impossible to buy an example of one of these car's that haven't, in one way or another, been tampered with. Those that do remain stock demand outrageous sums of money - and I think that provides a testament to how wonderful these machines are, and just how ahead of their time they were.
That concludes my personal list of six favourites from the 90s era of Japan. Let me know if you’d make any alterations to this grid by voting in the poll below! I’ll leave you with an iconic photo of the man who was the living, breathing, human equivalent of these cars – and also, with one of my favourite quotes of all time:
''Spirit. Thank you. Thank you for providing us with the direct-port nitrous... uh... injection, four-core intercoolers, ball-bearing turbos, and... um... titanium valve springs. Thank you.''
Forever associated. Image credit: Wykop.