They started slow but now they're incredibly fast.
Following World War 2, Japan started to truly appreciate the motorcar. Ownership rates started to climb in the 1950s, and automakers started to grow. However, the rest of the world wasn't too interested in Japanese cars as they were viewed as imitative and boring. Toyota was the brand that stepped up and started to change that perception with the 2000GT. Working with Yamaha, Toyota had realized it needed a sports car that could compete with the European cars of the time, including the Jaguar E-Type. The 1967 Toyota 2000GT was a sensation, garnering reviews comparing it favorably with the Porsche 911. It was a limited production model with just 351 built, but it put Toyota and, by extension, Japanese automakers on the world map. Japanese companies started taking advantage of the newfound respect in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, legends started to be built. The 1990s saw Japanese performance cars start to take the world by storm, though, so that's where we'll start this list, and keep it to just one model per automaker.
When Honda decided it would take on the European supercar makers, the Japanese automaker did so on its own terms. The idea was to compete with the V8 powered Ferrari models of the time, but make the experimental Honda more affordable. As a result, the Honda NSX was the first car to go into production with an all-aluminum body and featured an all-aluminum 3.0-liter V6 VTEC engine making 270 hp. Its immediate impact and long-term influence go deep and wide. At the time, MotorTrend said the NSX is "far better than any Ferrari or Lamborghini ever built; it makes the Corvette ZR1 look like something contrived under a shade tree." Later, McLaren's Gordon Murray described the NSX as "monumental" and was the inspiration for McLaren F1 after he approached Honda. He tried to persuade the company that the NSX could handle more power, but Honda didn't see the need.
A few years after the first GT-R debuted, the first Supra hit the road. In its early generations, it was based on the Toyota Celica liftback stretched to accommodate an inline six-cylinder engine instead of a four-cylinder lump. But it evolved into something more with the A80 generation, the fourth generation, the one available twin-turbocharged Toyota 2JZ-GTE engine. That engine, known for being bulletproof and infinitely tunable as a result, was just part of the recipe. The Mark IV's popularity soared after it went out of production due to the first Fast and Furious movie, but it was featured in the movie for a reason. The platform had success in road racing, and its out-of-the-box performance was excellent. Road & Track recorded its stopping distance from 70 mph as just 149 feet in 1997. That wasn't beaten until 2004 and by the Porsche Carrera GT by only four feet.
Mazda has managed to create and refine the roadster to a point that is yet to be matched. The MX-5 can't be described as powerful, though. Mazda doesn't have a powerful car on its books at the time of writing, but the automaker's history is thick with race cars and performance sports cars. The most significant culturally is the rotary-powered RX-7, and most specifically the turbocharged wonder that is the FD generation. Matching the 252 hp and later 276 hp 1.3-liter engine was its taut and expressive chassis, as well as a fluid and timeless aesthetic design. To this day, the chassis holds up as one of the best ever to go from design to production due to the low center of gravity and the 50/50 weight balance achieved by having the small, light engine mounted in a front-mid configuration.
This list wouldn't be complete without the 22B generation Subaru Impreza. It was built to commemorate Colin McRae securing the brand's third consecutive manufacturer title in the FIA's World Rally Championship. It featured a hand-built and bored out version of the four-cylinder boxer engine in standard Imprezas - up to 2.2 liters - as well as a larger turbo. The 276 hp was matched by Bilstein suspension components, enlarged brakes, a twin-disc clutch, a differential lock control module, and larger wheels and tires. It could hit 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds and thrash down any road or track the driver dared to aim it down. Only 424 22B STis were built, and if you want one, you'll need a small fortune in order to acquire it.
The Skyline GT-R name first appeared in 1969, then disappeared again in 1973. The name was revived in 1989, and the R32 generation was built to dominate Group A racing. It was the R32 race car that earned the nickname of Godzilla, but it's the fifth generation R34 GT-R running from 1999 through 2002 that stamped the GT-R name into automotive history. Its 2.6-liter twin-turbo straight-six engine wasn't just fast; it was built to last. In NISMO Z-Tune form, it was bored out to 2.8 liters and made 493 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque. That power went to all four wheels via a high-tech all-wheel-drive system, while the V-Spec models came with an upgraded drivetrain that included Active LSD at the rear rather than the standard mechanical version.
Some may lament us for choosing this over the R35 Nissan GT-R as Nissan's entrant on this list, but if it weren't for the Skyline GT-R, it's possible the R35 may never have even been born.
When Mitsubishi was on top of its game, it had a road-going version of its rally car based on the Lancer sedan. In the same mold as the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Evo was a relatively affordable all-wheel drive, turbocharged performance car. Until the eighth generation, the Evo was a Japanese market only car with limited availability elsewhere on the grey market. In 2003, though, it made it to US shores, complete with its factory Bilstein shocks, Brembo brakes, and around 270 hp. Unfortunately, the tenth generation was the last and ended production in May of 2016.
In 2011, Lexus dropped a masterpiece of a supercar. The automaker wanted to create an icon and did in the form of a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer monocoque chassis and body housing a front-mid mounted 4.8-liter V10 engine developed with Yamaha. It's 553 hp was at a screaming 8,700 rpm with a banshee wail, with Lexus claiming it could go from idle to redline in just 0.6 seconds. Lexus built the LFA for only one model year, then dropped the mic, and subsequently, has said it sees no need for a replacement. Those that got to drive the car raved about it, including Jay Leno on this side of the pond and Jeremy Clarkson in the UK. "I have to say I absolutely love it. It is an intelligent car built by intelligent people. In some ways it is raw and visceral; In others, it is a lesson in common sense. Engine at the front, two seats in the middle, and a [trunk] you can use. Despite all of this, there is a sense that you are in a real, full-on race car," Clarkson said.
While Honda created the first NSX in Japan, Acura designed and built the next generation here in the US. Acura built upon the experimental nature of the original NSX and infused it with a hybrid drivetrain generating 573 hp and 476 lb-ft of torque that propels it to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds. Acura's SH-AWD system helps lay down that power and make sure it's going to the right wheel at the right time. The current Acura NSX is a sensational car, and as has been pointed out many times, carries the same type of technology as the Porsche 918 but without the price tag, and it's in production.
Honda's performance version of the Civic has been around since 1997, but it didn't officially land in the US until 2017. It's a ridiculously fast front-wheel-drive car, but the clever approach to torque-vectoring makes torque steer from its 300-and-change horsepower, and its eye-catching approach to aerodynamics keeps it glued to the road at speed. Despite being front-wheel-drive when most of the fastest hot hatches are moving to all-wheel-drive systems to handle the power, the Civic Type R holds its own and with a sense of unmatched purity in its class.