Japanese car companies have built some of the most intriguing sports cars to have ever made it into American showrooms. This is especially true when examining the past 20 years, a period where Japanese sports cars really came into their own and started to equal - and in some cases, surpass - the expectations of U.S. drivers in terms of performance and style.
We've put together a list of 10 of the most compelling Japanese sports cars ever offered in the United States. Some of these vehicles are no longer on sale - which means you'll have to find them used - while others are waiting on dealer lots across the country.
The Mazda Miata is one of the purest sports cars ever offered by a Japanese - or any other - automaker. Ever since it first went on sale in 1989, the Mazda Miata has offered a lightweight platform, modestly-powered four-cylinder engine, and a slick two-seat roadster design that provides a fun, well-connected driving experience. The modern Miata available in 2012 might have added a retractable hardtop to its repertoire, but it remains remarkably light compared to the competition, and has stayed true to the original spirit of the compact convertible.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Nissan 370Z
The Nissan 370Z is the most recent evolution of Nissan's Z car formula. The two-seat sports car features a 332 horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6, the availability of either coupe or convertible editions, and a slick six-speed manual transmission that can automatically blip the throttle during downshifts. The Nissan 370Z is a worthy successor to the Z name, and it's also one of the more affordable Japanese sports cars currently available on the market. For those seeking additional thrills, the NISMO edition provides track-ready upgrades that give the already capable Nissan an additional edge when turning in hot laps.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Acura NSX
The Acura NSX was the car that proved that the Japanese could contend on the world stage against exotic supercar competitors. The Acura NSX was a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive supercar that featured an all-aluminum monocoque body, handling input from F1 star Ayrton Senna, and a 3.0-liter V-6 that initially produced 270 horsepower. Over time, the Acura NSX would evolve to offer more power and slightly updated looks, but the vehicle itself never strayed from the original formula that proved that it was possible to build an exotic sports car that would start every time you turned the key, without the need for excessive, and expensive, maintenance.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Honda S2000
The Honda S2000 can be thought of as a weaponized Miata, a compact roadster that added a dose of potent power to the lightweight sports car equation. At the heart of the Honda S2000 was a high-revving four-cylinder engine that offered an almost motorcycle-like 9,000 rpm redline in its initial version. Although power remained at 240 ponies during its entire availability, a 2.2-liter edition of the original 2.0-liter motor was installed mid-way through its lifecycle. The Honda S2000's six-speed manual transmission was the only gearbox available with the convertible, and even by modern standards the car provides exhilarating performance when driven at its limits.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Toyota Supra
The fourth-generation Toyota Supra made its debut in 1993 in the United States and it quickly gathered a cult following based around the incredible capabilities of its optional 2JZ-GTE six-cylinder engine. This turbocharged mill featured twin turbochargers and output of 320 horses and 315 lb-ft of torque in stock form, but aftermarket tuners quickly discovered that the engine could be tapped for over 1,000 horsepower without the requirement for substantial modifications. This robust motor, combined with a slippery body shape and a starring role in the Fast and Furious film franchise, has given the Toyota Supra one of the highest profiles in the world of Japanese sports cars.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Mazda RX-7
There are some who would say that the FD edition of the Mazda RX-7, which plied American roads starting in the early 90's, was the most beautiful automobile ever produce by a Japanese brand. The Mazda RX-7 was also notable for its use of a rotary engine instead of a traditional piston-driven power plant. Like the Supra, the RX-7's 252 horsepower engine was easily boosted past its stock rating, thanks to a turbocharger. Unlike the Supra, however, the RX-7 was light enough to acquit itself well on the race track even in factory configuration, as it maintained the automaker's philosophy that it was easier to reduce mass rather than add horsepower.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX was the culmination of the brand's World Rally Championship know-how, expressed in a compact sedan platform that featured a host of high tech innovations. A 270 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine was managed by an advanced all-wheel drive system, sport-tuned suspension, and race-inspired aerodynamics gave the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution tenacious grip and startling acceleration. Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, and a driver-controlled center differential rounded out the gee-whiz features that set the Evolution IX apart from other sports cars of its time. The Evolution X is still available at Mitsubishi dealerships, offering a somewhat more tame - but still extremely rapid - interpretation of the IX's original mission.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Honda Civic Si
The Honda Civic Si has been in near-continuous production for the last two decades. The most desirable Honda Civic Si models feature a rev-happy four-cylinder engine under the hood - the perfect hooligan power plant to unleash inside a compact sedan or coupe platform. Targeted at buyers on a budget who wanted to go as fast as their funding would allow them to, the Honda Civic Si ignited the sport compact performance craze and created legions of loyal Honda buyers who would keep the Si torch ablaze even after the most recent edition of the car toned down its rambunctious personality.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Toyota MR2
The Toyota MR2 was an anomaly when it was first introduced in the mid-80's. The Toyota MR2 initially offered a rear-mounted four-cylinder engine that could be had in supercharged or naturally-aspirated versions, which was unheard of at the time. The small two-seat compact sports car would come into its own in terms of performance in the 1990s, combining excellent power delivery with a small, lightweight footprint. Eventually, the MR2 gained a convertible option (MR2 Spyder), but it never gave up on the handling benefits of its unique rear-wheel drive, rear-engine layout.
Most Compelling Japanese Sports Cars - Mitsubishi Eclipse
More recent editions of the Mitsubishi Eclipse are quite tame compared to the turbocharged terror that ruled the sport compact performance car roost in the 1990s. The first and second generations of the Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe were favored by drag racers and sports car fans who loved the concept of a turbo four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive system wrapped in an affordable package. Pushing the motor well past its stock limits was a popular past time for those seeking low quarter mile ETs, and the Eclipse proved to be a durable and stylish Japanese sports car that was in reach of almost any buyer.