What’s the best Japanese performance and competition car ever? We list our favourite 25!
Japanese car manufacturers love nothing more than punching above their weight, and it’s a feat they’ve been pulling off with some aplomb for decades. The country’s relative isolation and unique way of looking at and solving technical challenges means that their automotive offerings, and their competition offerings in particular, tend to be at best slightly left field, often utterly bonkers and straight up certifiable. Here then is our rundown of our favourite Japanese competition cars of all time.
Despite being one of Japan’s smaller manufacturers, Mazda has the distinction of being the only one to have triumphed at the legendary Le Mans 24h, a feat made all the more impressive as it was done with the firm’s rotary engine spinning away like satan’s sewing machine! The car in question was the 787b, an evolution of the 767b and a machine that’s gone down in automotive history as one of the wildest looking and sounding competition cars of all time. Perhaps the ultimate vindication of Mazda’s engineering nous was the fact that all three cars ran incredibly reliably, eventually crossing the line in 1st, 6th and 8th.
McLaren-Honda MP4/4 1988
Ok so maybe this is a somewhat contentious entry seeing as it’s actually a Japanese engine in a British (slightly Kiwi) chassis, but there’s just no getting around the sheer, crushing might of the MP4/4. Piloted by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost and powered by Honda’s 1.5l V6 RA168-E turbo, the MP4/4 set about carving out its place in history immediately by winning its very first race, then cemented that place by winning all but one of the races in the 1988 championship! Now if only Honda and McLaren could recapture some of that success for 2016…
1997 TOMs Toyota Supra JGTC
Arguably the most iconic JGTC racer of all time (see the Calsonic Skyline for the other contender), the TOMs Supra pretty much defines the Japanese GTC series for many people, particularly if (like me) you first learned of the series through playing Gran Turismo 2. The rules governing the JGTC and the GT500 class in which the Supra competed persuaded Toyota to fit the car with the four-pot 3SG motor, so the mighty TOMs car went to war without the model’s famous 2JZ engine. Still, it made a smidge under 500bhp, enabled Toyota take the 1997 JGTC title and introduced the Supra to a generation of car fans.
Calsonic Nissan Skyline R32
Another mighty banzai warrior from the All Japan Touring Car Championship, the Group A R32 Skyline was almost debilitatingly successful. It simply overwhelmed its opposition with its sheer grunt and battery of computer controlled chassis and suspension systems, eventually winning 29 races from 29 starts spread across 4 seasons. The Calsonic liveried car stands toe-to-toe with its HKS painted sibling in terms of outright icon value, but we’ve opted to include the former here as it smashed its way to title success in 1990 and 1993. Like the TOMs Supra mentioned elsewhere, there’s a very good chance that you’ve hurled a digitally rendered version of this car around Suzuka.
Subaru Impreza 555
Even now, a full 21 years since Colin McRae took his Subaru Impreza to WRC Championship glory (and despite the firm having been absent from the top tier of the rallying world for the best part of a decade), it’s the image of this car that almost certainly swims into view when someone mentions ’90s WRC action. Taking over from the tough but heavy Legacy in 1993, the Impreza proved well suited to the demands of Group A competition, McRae taking it to three Rally of New Zealand wins on the trot, plus the aforementioned title.
Mitsubishi Evo Group A
The thorn in Subaru’s side for much of the ’90s, Mitsubishi built a succession of highly competitive Lancer/Evo Group A rally cars, competitive enough to give the Japanese concern’s lead driver Tommi Makkinen 4 titles on the trot from 1996 – 1999! The cars were seldom as sophisticated as rival WRC offerings from the likes of Subaru and Toyota (mainly because Mitsubishi clung grimly to the Group A regulations for as long as they could), yet they were tough, reliable and suited Makkinen’s driving style.
Toyota Celica ST185
Japan’s assault on the World Rally Championship came of age in the early ’90s, and Toyota was the first team to taste championship glory with the Celica ST165 in 1990, the year Carlos Sainz hauled his car to the Drivers’ title. It was the ST185 that followed that really put the fox amongst the pigeons though, Toyota Team Europe eventually turning the Celica into a potent car, one capable of challenging for victories on any surface you care to mention. It took three different drivers to championship titles three years in succession, Carlos Sainz in 1992, Juha Kankkunen in 1993 and Didier Auriol in 1994, and to this day remains one of Toyota’s finest competition machines.
Toyota Celica Twin Cam TA64
Toyota’s Group B Celica owed much to the Group 4 rules that preceded it. Granted, it did have a boosted four-pot making a handy 400bhp back in 1983, a figure that compared very favourably with the equivalent Quattro of the same year, but the firm had stuck resolutely to a rear-wheel drive layout. This meant that despite the shove, the torque and the star studded driver lineup (Juha Kankkunen made his works debut in one), the Twincam was never able to challenge the established rallying order in Europe. It was however the undisputed master of the Safari and Ivory Coast rallies, winning all 6 African WRC events it started!
1999 Nissan Primera BTCC
Further evidence of Japan’s growing confidence in its motorsport abilities can be found in the influx of teams competing within the BTCC. By the tail end of the 1990s, Britain’s domestic touring car championship was comfortably the most competitive and best supported in the world, the Super Touring regulations having served to boost grids and attract manufacturer entries from some of the largest companies in the world. Nissan Primeras were campaigned in the early part of the decade without much success, and it took the signing of Laurent Aïello and David Leslie for the Gts to be truly competitive. Nissan was comfortably the fastest team throughout the 1999 season, eventually crushing the Honda Accord and Volvo S40s.
1998 Honda Accord BTCC
Nissan weren’t alone in signing up to the BTCC in its Super Touring era, Honda also got in on the action with their Accord. The B-series cars were piloted by some of the finest drivers on the grid, including David Leslie, Gabriele Tarquini and James Thompson, and Prodrive was signed up to build and develop the cars. A deal with West Surrey Racing in 1999 coincided with the launch of the new shape Accord and a corresponding upswing in results, 2nd overall in the standings that year and in 2000, the final year of the Super Touring era.
Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak
Did you spend the late ’90s playing Gran Turismo 2? If so, then this car should need no introduction! Comfortable the most powerful machine in the game, the Escudo (or Vitara in UK-speak) bore very little resemblance to the beige stodge being flogged by Suzuki dealers across the world: it boasted massive wings, splitters and diffusers, and was powered by a twin turbo 2.5 V6 engine with a power power output of 981bhp. Built to rocket up the amazing Pikes Peak hillclimb in as short a time as possible, the Escudo was driven by the equally amazing Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima, and made the hill its own for a number of years.
Nissan R390 GT1 1997
Mazda might be the only Japanese car firm to have actually triumphed at Le Mans, but they’re far from the only one to have had a good crack at it! Long before they became fixated with trialling three-wheeled, front wheel drive oddball racers, Nissan could be found campaigning the mighty R390 GT1 in the GT class. It went head to head with European icons like the Mercedes Benz CLK GTR (the one that had a propensity for mid-air aerobatics) and the Porsche 911 GT1. 1997 saw the cars make their debut. They were fast but fragile that year, eating Xtrac gearboxes at an alarming rate (only one car finished the race), but 1998 was better, Nissan coaxing all four cars to the finish in 3rd, 5th, 6th and 10th. They were only beaten the mighty Porsche 911 GT1.
Toyota TS020 GT-One
Japanese manufacturers have long viewed Le Mans as the ultimate motorsport prize, hence why so many have tried to win at La Sarthe over the years! Toyota’s groundbreaking GT-One came closer than most to achieving this back in the late ’90s, the GT1 (and later Le Mans Prototype) racers going toe-to-toe with the Mercedes CLK GTR and 911 GTR. The cars were comfortably among the fastest cars on track and looked likely to challenge for the win, but a series of terrifying tyre failures and resulting accidents blunted TTE’s charge in 1999. Toyota ultimately had to settle for second place.
Toyota MR2 ‘222D’ Group B
Somewhat ironically considering how the likes of Toyota and Honda are now viewed, Japanese involvement in Group B rallying tended to be somewhat blunted by an unwillingness to push the boundaries of technical feasibility, Toyota’s Twincam Celica Turbo being a case in point. TTE saw the limitations imposed by that car’s two-wheel drive layout and resolved to do something about it, hence the MR2. Built to contest the proposed Group S category, the MR2 prototype had four-wheel drive and was built around a tubular space-frame, with Xtrac transmission and a prototype 600bhp motor. Of course Group B was cancelled in 1986 and the proposed Group S was quashed with it, so we’ll never know how good the MR2 could’ve been.
Mazda RX7 Group B
Undoubtedly one of the most often overlooked Group B rally cars, the RX7 nevertheless warrants a place on the list because, like most Mazda competition machines, nothing else sounded anything like it! Powered by a twin rotor 13b that was moved a full 10cm further back than the stock car, the RX7 was a keen handling machine, albeit one saddled with a live axle. The 300bhp generated by the spinning triangle up front made it one of the most powerful NA Group B cars, yet it was soon overwhelmed by the forced induction monsters that became more and more common as the decade wore on. Mazda opted to retire from the category at the end of 1985 to concentrate on its Group A 323.
2016 Toyota TS050 Hybrid LMP1 – Note: Images included are for the 2015 car, the TS040
This article was begun long before Toyota’s gut-wrenching trip to Le Mans this year, but we’ve since had to revisit it to underline just how heartbreaking the final lap defeat must’ve been. You’ll no doubt spot other Toyota La Sarthe challengers on this list, all of them united by their inability to take a driver to the top of the podium, and so far the TS050 has been no different! The technology behind it is nonetheless sensational, more than earning it a place on this list: a 2.4 V6 with a pair of turbos, plus a pair of front and rear hybrid motors at either axle. These deliver a combined power output of 986bhp. None of this changes the fact that the leading car ground to a heartbreaking halt 23 hours and 57 minutes before the end of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Now an established classic in its own right and with prices to match, there was a time when the 240Z was seen as nothing more than Japan’s vague sort-of E-type clone, though the firm’s involvement in world rallying in the late ’60s soon changed all that. Powered by a meaty straight-six with triple carbs making 220bhp, the big Datsun earned its stripes in the grueling wilds of the East African Safari Rally, an event it managed to win in 1971 and 1983. Though never quite nimble enough to beat the likes of the Mk1 Escort and the Renault Alpine A110 on tarmac, the big Z managed to build a reputation for toughness, grunt and reliability.
Pikes Peak Honda NSX
What do you get if you cross Japan’s ultimate, early ’90s Ferrari smasher with America’s most infamous hillclimb event? The Pikes Peak NSX, that’s what. Honda has actually upped its involvement with Pikes Peak of late, but we’ve chosen to include one of the original cars here, mainly as no other Japanese supercar has ever managed to match the NSX for sheer drama. Built by HPD and campaigned in 2012, the twin-turbo V6 was coaxed into making huge power and helped it finish 4th in the Open class.
Toyota Corolla WRC
1996 saw Toyota banned from the WRC for cheating, their Celica ST205 having been found to be running highly illegal turbo restrictors. A lesser manufacturer would’ve turned tail and run, but TTE came out fighting and developed a brand new car for the new World Rally Car regulations. Based around the Toyota Corolla and debuted in 1997, the new car was a far more advanced bit of kit than the Celica it replaced and was on the pace immediately, no doubt helped by a driver pairing which included Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol, both former WRC champions. It brought Toyota the Manufacturers’ title in 1999 but will forever be known as the car that cost Carlos Sainz the Drivers’ crown that same season, the Corolla’s engine throwing in the towel yards from the finish of Rally GB, the final event of the year.
Honda Civic BTCC
Honda has stuck by the BTCC through thick and thin, and they’ve been rewarded by being well and truly embraced by the UK racing fraternity. Their Civic touring cars have been a fixture of the series for well over a decade now, a tie-up with Team Dynamics having seen them rise to become one of the most consistently competitive cars on the grid. Driven by BTCC legends like Gordon Shedden, Matt Neal and Andrew Jordan, the Civics have been successful enough to tempt Honda back into the sport as a works manufacturer, something of an achievement in a post Credit Crunch world!
Rod Millen’s Toyota Tacoma Pickup
Forget any preconceived ideas you might have about pickups being slow and unsophisticated, because Rod Millen’s Tacoma was one of the most extreme, trick and downright brutal machines to wear the Toyota badge! Based around Millen’s already extremely successful Celica Pikes Peak car, the Tacoma was powered up the hill by a mid-mounted 2.1 four-pot making 800bhp, with four-wheel drive to make the endeavor a tiny bit more feasible. The truck was based around a space-frame, tubular chassis, while the ground effect-inducing body panels made use of some of the most advanced (read lightweight) composite materials around, including carbon fibre and Kevlar. Millen used it to win the climb in both 1998 and 1999, but adverse weather conditions prevented him from beating his best Celica time of 10:04.06.
Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500
Japan’s domestic race series continues to deliver some of the maddest and baddest race cars around, one of the more recent examples being the GT-R NISMO GT500. Far removed from the road-going GT-R, the GT500 racer features two-wheel drive and is powered by a twin-turbo 2.0 four. That might sound a tad weedy considering the V6 found in the road car, but it ensures close competition within the series (Toyota and Honda all take part with works-backed teams) and kicks out a handy 500bhp, hence the car’s name. It all makes our own BTCC and GT championships seem a tad tame…
1981 Mazda RX7 TWR
Tom Walkinshaw Racing was responsible for some of the greatest racing cars of all time, but it cut its teeth campaigning the first generation RX7. Mazda was a relatively unknown manufacturer at the time and the firm opted to use motorsport to try and convince the general public of its abilities and its revolutionary rotary engine, and the RX7 was an obvious candidate for the race car treatment. TWR’s engineering nous was well employed, the team ultimately able to turn the sports coupe into a reliable racer, the ultimate proof being outright victory at the 1981 Spa 24 Hours (the car was driven by Pierre Dieudonne and Tom Walkinshaw himself), Mazda’s first endurance victory and one that sowed the seeds for future racing success.
Honda RA 272
It’s easy to forget just how hard Japanese car manufacturers had to fight in order to be taken seriously in the middle of the last century, hence why so many ventured into motorsport. Honda was one of the most proactive in this respect and dived headlong into the cut-throat world of ’60s F1 with their first car, the RA 271, a model swiftly replaced by the more successful RA 272. A high-revving 1.5L 48-valve V12 pushed 230bhp to the rear wheels, while a lightweight body housed sophisticated suspension. Success came in 1965, Richie Ginther storming into the lead of the Mexican Grand Prix and holding on to take a famous victory, the first in for a Japanese team.
Honda NSX GT
Launched to much fanfare in 2013, Honda’s all new NSX Concept GT has whetted the collective appetites of car fans around the world, mainly because we can’t wait to try out the road-going version for ourselves! The GT is far more than a mere marketing exercise though, it’s a fully paid up, beautifully engineered Super GT racer, one powered by a trick (it’s a Honda racer, remember) turbocharged four-pot with an equally impressive hybrid power system. The rules governing Super GT, not to mention the intense tyre war and competition from Japan’s ‘Big Three’ manufacturers, mean that the NSX GT is about as fast as a production-based racer can get.