The best JDM cars of the 90s … wow, what a selection to pick from – this was a great time for gearheads, and we were driving some of the coolest cars available, if only we’d have known back then just how collectible they’d become, perhaps we’d have been a bit more caring toward them … we kicked the ass out of them.
For those of you that don’t know, JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market, which basically encompasses everything that was originally built for the Japanese market only, although most of them later found fame & fortune throughout the world.
Early examples of JDM cars have an almost cult-like following. People collect them, love them, talk about them … to these people, the earlier JDM cars represent the pinnacle of automotive utopia, and while my foot is firmly in the camp of liking them, I don’t they’re the be all and end all.
A Little JDM History
To clarify, JDM cars were purely for the Japanese market, they weren’t exported, although there were private imports (when the cars reached a certain age). Many of the models may have gone on to be exported as a model variant, but the true definition of JDM means Japan-only, and they’re usually different (albeit only slightly) to the models that went on to be exported.
Part of the reasoning behind the JDM cult is that these cars were quite often fitted with early technology that the manufacturers weren’t yet willing to release to the wider world. Either because it was still in its infancy and not quite perfected, or as a way of keeping home market customers entertained and loyal; whatever the reason, the cars generally had toys-a-plenty.
The other reason that the JDM cars found popularity is that they would cover around half the miles of their European and American cousins, so when the cars became available on the used market, you could find yourself with an excellent low-mileage example, and cars were traded quickly and often in Japan.
The Best JDM Cars of The Nineties
Despite getting close to nearly thirty years old, you can still find a great number of these cars for sale. The only real difference is that their prices are constantly and consistently rising – pristine examples of early JDM cars are beginning to fetch big money – partly down to rarity value, partly because of the their cult status among gearheads.
If you’re in the market for one, don’t wait around too long because before you know it, your budget will have been blown, or your neighbor will have snapped it up. Now … where did I leave my loan application form?
Produced between 1991 – 2002, the RX7 was different. For a start, it used a rotary engine which was tiny (both physically and displacement) – just 1.3 liters, but it made some serious horsepower thanks to the twin turbos (the RX7 used the first ever mass produced sequential turbo system); between 247 – 276 hp depending on the exact spec.
Thanks to the compact size, Mazda could fit the motor behind the front axle line, which gave the car near perfect 50:50 weight distribution, which of course helped to make the RX a great handling car. Added to that was some outrageous styling – all swooping curves, big rear wing and purposeful stance, the RX was more … different … than most of its contemporaries, even today, a nice example can still catch your eye.
Thanks to some pretty lightweight engineering, the RX7 could push through 0-60 mph in just under six seconds, and go on to a max top speed of 155 mph.
Teeny tiny engine, big big performance.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi
What can you say about these legendary Scoobies? The WRX STi (Subaru Tecnica International) was purely JDM only and not available outside of the country, although other versions eventually made it across to our shores.
These cars were made famous by the likes of Colin McRae and Richard Burns, two outstandingly talented WRC drivers that seemed to be able to make them fly. Standard road going trim saw them knocking out between 247 – 276 hp, enough for most types of fun, but the WRX STi came with upgraded and tuned engines, better transmission and uprated suspension.
The WRX stands for World Rally eXperimental, which gave you just a hint at the history behind it. The flat-four motor has a distinctive sound, and the big turbo just aided that, especially when the dump valve whooshed & whistled.
If you’re on the lookout for one, then it has to be in triple-five colors.
Honda wanted the NSX to be known as the first, true everyday sports car … that would be equally at home cruising on the highway, as it was showing the competition a clean tail as it disappeared up the road, all without needing big bucks spending on it every time you wanted to use it (unlike some of the Italian competition).
Back in the day that they came up with this, Honda were a major player in the F1 circus, so they borrowed some of the tech, some of the knowledge and the odd facility to create the best non-European super car available. It worked.
The 3.0 V6 VTEC equipped motor (variable valve timing was virtually unheard of back then) still only made around the same horsepower as the other JDM cars, but it was reliable and silky smooth. Thanks to the massive effort to save weight, it handled brilliantly and was fast, properly fast … 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, but a top speed of 168 mph.
Knowing that using titanium connecting-rods, or being the first production car to use an all-aluminum semi-monocoque unit body, and revolutionary extruded aluminum frame wouldn’t be enough, they employed the services of one of their race drivers to help fine tune the handling – Ayrton Senna was pretty handy behind the wheel!
They also added a few new features that weren’t commonplace – ABS and electric power steering, even more rare to find them on a ‘super car’.
Similar to the NSX, the 4th generation Supra was designed and built to be light … Toyota went to extreme lengths to shave off those extra few pounds … hollow carpet fibers (really), magnesium aluminum steering wheel, plastic gas tank, single exhaust pipe and a gas injected rear wing were the main delights to be found.
Even with adding features like dual airbags, traction control, bigger brakes / tires & wheels, the 4th gen Supra still weighed in just over 200 lbs lighter than the previous generation, although it must be said it wasn’t quite as svelte as the RX7 or NSX.
The sequential twin turbos were enough to push the 3.0 liter engine to run between 276-326 hp, which gave it a top speed of 156 mph and 0-60 sprint time of 5.1 seconds … pretty smart for the traffic light grand prix racers. These Supras from the 90s are one of the most sought after JDM cars right now – they look great, handle like they’re on rails and pack a punch … who wouldn’t want one?
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI
The Lancer Evo was Mitsubishi’s answer to the all-conquering Impreza from Subaru. Not only were they vying for the win on the street (in terms of sales), but they were also taking the fight to Subaru on the stages – Tommi Makinen delivering them some great results.
So important was Makinen to the brand, that a special, limited edition ‘Tommi Makinen’ version was created purely for the JDM crowd. It featured upgrades such as 17” Enkei white wheels, faster spooling turbo which was down to the titanium internals, lower ride height and quick steering rack. Although strictly a JDM car, the gray market imports were so large that Mitsubishi eventually made it official.
The Evo was a popular model, and you generally sat in either camp – you were an Evo fan, or an Impreza fan, both had wild styling and big rear wings, although for the Evo VI, there were some minor styling changes (like the reduction in size and movement of the fog lamps) to gain a better aerodynamic advantage.
With the turbo charged 4-cylinder 2.0 liter engine kicking out around 276 hp, the Evo was fast – around 5.6 seconds to 60 mph.
Nissan Skyline GT-R
The Skyline was originally made in the late 60s, to around 1973, but it wasn’t intended to be a performance car back then, just a regular driver that found no fame or glory (hence the short lifespan). In 1989, Nissan decided to revive the name, only this time it would be used on their flagship sports car with which they wanted to take on the world at motorsport.
Over the years, the GT-R became more sporty and featured a lot of trick technology such as the SUPER-HICAS four wheel steering and the ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive system, added to that was the onboard data analysis and computers … this was technology being used to make the car faster, not just as an incentive to buy.
So good was the Skyline that British motoring show ‘Top Gear’ said that it was the true contribution from Japan to the super car industry. It had an oddly sized 2.6 liter engine which made 276 hp, and the all-wheel drive system meant that it could lay that power down, regardless of the road or weather.
The Skyline is a modifiers favorite, with some examples now pushing easily over 1,000 hp once tuned; the strength of the engine being tested to the max, and still not bursting – these are hardcore road machines.
Honda DC2 Integra Type R
I have to confess … I have a soft spot for the ‘Teg Type R having owned one for a while. Honda truly produced something special with the Integra, and it’s widely acclaimed as being one of the best, if not the best front-wheel drive sports cars ever made. It really was that good.
The effort that Honda went to was never really surpassed, until we start talking about modern day examples like the Veyron, for Honda too lost money on every DC2 it sold, thanks to all of the extra hand finishing they did, in fact the engines were all hand built – no clumsy robots here.
Honda felt that hand building the engines was necessary as they were going for maximum performance, and in fact they managed the holy grail of all engine tuners (certainly back then) in achieving 100+ hp per liter without forced induction. The 1.8 liter 4-cylinder motor made just shy of 200 horsepower, and revved like crazy … a redline of 8500 RPM, and when the VTEC kicked in, it howled like a banshee. Perfect.
Allied to the power was an effort to make it light – a thinner windshield was used, lighter wheels, less sound insulation (and didn’t you know it) … it all added up to a lightweight, power hungry sports car that handled brilliantly. The wheels and tires were on the skinny side, but it was almost impossible to unstick the car through the twisty stuff, and again, Honda pulled a trick out of the bag by fitting the DC2 with a helical limited-slip differential – this thing was glued to the road.
Featuring red accents, a plaque stating that it was number XX and a close ratio transmission, the Integra Type R was everything that a gearhead wanted.
Nissan Sylvia S13
You can’t say that the Sylvia was the car that started the whole JDM movement, but it was certainly one of the originals. Throughout its life, it’s had numerous upgrades and enhancements; power has ranged from 133 hp right up to 247 hp, and depending on which model you bought, you could have a limited-slip differential fitted as standard – this made an excellent drift, even straight out of the showroom, and that’s part of its legend.
The Sylvia was popular – named as Japan’s Car of the Year in its first year, the 2 door sports coupe captured the hearts and minds of drifters and gearheads, and was the ‘something a little different’ for regular commuters and drivers.
You could even choose whether you wanted forced induction or the naturally aspirated version when buying new, and the aggressive styling was an instant hit. The final piece in the winning jigsaw was the chassis – Nissan went to great lengths to perfect it, and the handling was sublime (for the time). If you can find an unmolested example today, you’ll be paying top dollar for it – the early examples are seriously collectible.
Honda Civic Type R
Another sporty Honda, another classic in the JDM world that seems to have a following all of its own. Honda took a normal Civic (which never really set the world alight) and made it a legend, it’s that simple.
The monocoque chassis was seam welded for rigidity, the engine was hand finished (including hand gas flowing the cylinder head), there was a helical lim-slip diff fitted, close ratio transmission, and everything that wasn’t necessary was junked. It had steel wheels, no air conditioning, no powered windows, no power steering and they even removed the radio – this was intended as a racer for the road.
The little 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine had one of the highest specific outputs of all time – 182 horsepower (all naturally aspirated of course) and was rev hungry … you had to really drive it to get the best from it, although it wasn’t all peaky like a turbo engine (with no low down torque or go).
Inside the cabin, Honda made some effort to distinguish it from the regular Civic, fitting red accents everywhere and wrapping the steering wheel in leather. Truth be told, it wasn’t especially spectacular inside, but that didn’t matter because this was a pure pocket rocket that was all about driving fun, and it delivered that by the bucket load.
That’s my list of nine of the best JDM cars from the Nineties, no doubt you may have one or two of your own that you should like to see on the list, and that’s the thing … the JDM scene was big, nearly every Japanese manufacture had something special for the home market, nearly all producing great power, or fitted with tech that we wouldn’t see in mainstream cars for years to come.
While it’s great to relive old memories, buying a JDM car now is fraught with the possibility of things going wrong. These cars are almost thirty years old, and by their very nature, they’ve led a hard life … they were made to be hooned everywhere, and whether you were a teenager or fully grown adult, you couldn’t help yourself when behind the wheel … the high-revving nature of the engines meant that it was foot in the firewall wherever you went.
You should also remember that parts supply isn’t what it was, although there are specialists everywhere, getting hold of parts could be time consuming and expensive – most specialist parts coming direct from Japan … what could be a minor problem with a modern car, may in fact see you immobile for a while, waiting on parts to arrive.
I love the original JDM cars, they were great fun to drive, fast, handled well and always made me smile, but would I own one today? Maybe only as a sunny day toy that’s kept under wraps for 99% of the time.