Many people remember the 90’s as the Japan’s most exciting motoring period; however, the 80’s produced some of the country’s finest motoring achievements. Some of the most memorable cars ever produced came from this period and we’ve put together a list of eight of our favourite. Make sure you check out our “Best 10 Japanese Cars from the Golden 90’s” list as well.
Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R
We might as well start off this list with a bit of a bang. The R32 GT-R might not have started the GT-R namesake but it is responsible for bringing it up to legendary status. Nissan canned the GT-R name in 1973, but brought it back when they needed a new car for Group A racing homologation rules.
The R32 GT-R was a wildly different beast to the previous GT-R. It featured a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, a powerful 2.6-litre twin-turbo engine that produced 276 hp, and a weight of just over 1,400kg.
A Nismo edition was launched in 1990 with a total production run of 560. This featured some aerodynamic changes, removal of the ABS system, and weight saving. It was also only available in a gun metal grey colour.
The R32 GT-R was branded with the Godzilla name when it dominated the Australian motoring scene. The car was so dominate in Australia it tore apart Group A racing in the country and got itself banned in the process.
Toyota shocked the world when it launched the original MR2. Nobody expected the Japanese car manufacturer to make something like it, but they somehow ‘knocked it out of the park’ with the MR2. Toyota was mainly known for its practical family cars, however the MR2 was nothing of the sort.
The first generation was introduced in 1984 with the model code “W10”. When fitted with the 1.5-liter 3A engine, it was known as the “AW10”. Likewise, the 1.6-liter 4A version is identified by the “AW11” code.
Toyota engineered the MR2 to be as light as possible, with a body weight of 950kg for the Japanese model. Handling was a primary focus of the engineers at Toyota and they decided to opt for a lightly powered, small-displacement engine for the car. Lotus engineer, Roger Becker came aboard to the design the suspension system for the MR2.
Originally, the MR2 was just sold with a naturally aspirated 4A-GE 1,587cc inline-four engine, however they decided to introduce a supercharged model in 1986. This increased power from around 128 hp to 145 hp.
The MR2 won the “Japanese car of the year” award when it launched in 1984.
The Honda CRX was produced from 1983 to 1991 and won multiple awards for best car, and best import car during its lifespan. The CRX has its origins in another one of the Japanese manufacturer’s legendary cars, the Civic. Honda used the same drivetrain as the Civic for the first generation of CRX, but with unique styling and interior furnishings.
Japanese and European models came with a 1590 cc DOHC engine that put out 135 hp for the UK-spec model and 140 hp for the Japanese domestic market (JDM model). This combined with a weight well under 900kg meant the CRX had some real ‘get up and go’ performance.
A raft of changes were introduced in 1988, from its original torsion bar in the front and beam axle and trailing link in the rear to 4-wheel double wishbone suspension, in line with its sister Civic/Ballade models. VTEC-equipped models also received a makeover, with updated suspension, brakes, lights, and bumpers amongst other things.
One notable feature of the CRX though was its abysmal safety rating, with the Australian Used Car Safety Rating stating that the car had “Significantly worse than average” protection for its occupants. Still, at least it’s a blast to drive!
How could we forget the AE86. A car that was not only made famous by Initial D, but also for its incredible styling and driving characteristics. Toyota introduced the car in 1983 with production ending in 87. The car later inspired the development of the Toyota GT86.
The 86 was available with a fuel-injected 4-cylinder twin-cam 1587 cc 4A-GE engine in Japan and Europe which was also used in the first-generation Toyota MR2, the Toyota Celica GT-R , and the GT Carina. This engine had a maximum gross power output of 128 hp, though it was later down-rated 118 hp in net output.
The AE86 came with a 5-speed manual gearbox, and later came with the option of an automatic. The 4A-GE engines used in the AE86 and AW11 were equipped with Toyota’s Toyota Variable Intake System (T-VIS). Additionally, Toyota offered the AE86 with the option of a LSD.
In a way, the AE86 inspired a generation of car enthusiasts. It may not be as impressive as a GT-R, Supra or NSX, but the AE86 is one of our most loved cars of all time. It also makes an excellent Tofu delivery car.
Coming in at the tail-end of the 1980’s, the 180SX was produced from 1988 until 1998. It was based on the S13 chassis from the Nissan S platform. The 180SX was built and sold by Nissan as a sister model to the Nissan Silvia, however, the S13 Silvia was discontinued in 1993. Interestingly, the two models were sold at different stores in Japan. The 180SX was sold at the Nissan Bluebird stores, while the Silvia was sold at Nissan’s Prince stores.
Differences between the cars included pop-up headlamps and a liftgate with different bodywork at the back for the 180SX. Originally, the 180SX came with a 1.8-litre CA18DET turbocharged engine, however a 2.0-litre SR20DE engine was added to the car in 1991. This either came naturally aspirated or with the option of a turbocharger.
Two variations of the first iteration were produced. These were called the Type I (standard type) and Type II (advanced type). Nissan’s HICAS II four wheel steering system was optional only on the Type II 180SX. All versions had the CA18DET engine with 175 hp. The 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic transmissions were available for all the types.
Outside of Japan, the car was re-badged as a 200SX, while the US market used the 240SX nomenclature.
Mazda RX-7 FC (Savanna RX-7)
We all think of the 90’s RX-7 when we here the name, but that doesn’t take away from how epic the previous generations were. The second generation was produced from 1985 until 1988 and featured styling that was reminiscent of the Porsche 924.
The Series 4 version of the car was available with a naturally aspirated, fuel-injected 13B-VDEI producing 146 hp in North American spec. An optional turbocharged model, known as the Turbo II in the American market, had 182 hp.
The Series 5 version of the car came in 1989 and lasted until 1992. This featured a better engine management system, updated styling, lighter rotors and a higher compression ratio for both the naturally aspirated and turbocharged models. The series 5 turbocharged 13B engine could produce around 215 hp.
he rotary engine had financial advantages to Japanese consumers in that the engine displacement remained below 1.5 litres, a significant determination when paying the Japanese annual road tax which kept the obligation affordable to most buyers, while having more power than the traditional inline engines.
This meant that the RX-7 could offer comparable performance to other Japanese sports cars, with added benefits. It could be lighter, more lively, have a more balanced chassis and the road tax expense was less. Another benefit was the epic noise the rotary engine made.
Toyota A60 Celica
The A60 Celica is a car I always remember fondly. A high school friend of mine had three of these beauties at once, and they were great to drive despite not being the greatest examples out there. August 1981 was when the third-generation Celica was introduced with buyers getting the choice of either a coupe or liftback model. The liftback was the more successful of the two models.
A vast variety of engine packages were available with the Celica, including a 1.6-liter 4A, 1.6-liter 2T, 1.8-liter 3T, 1.8-liter 4T, 1.8-liter 1S, 2.0-liter 2S, 2.0-liter 18R-G and 2.0-liter 21R, depending on the market. However, despite all these options it was the 2.4-litre that was what you really wanted. The 2.4-litre engine was also the largest four-cylinder engine ever offered in any Celica model.
An updated model was launched in August 1983. The new model had revised features such as fully retractable headlights, a restyled grille, and airdam. The rear combination lamps were also revised. Japan’s Celica 1600 GT got a new 4A-GE engine, and the 1600 GT-R model was introduced with the same engine. A turbocharged 1800 GT-TR model was also released.
Transmission options included a 4-speed automatic gearbox or a 5-speed manual and the curb weight was anywhere from 970 to 1,227kg depending on the model.
Anybody remember the “£1500 Cars That Aren’t Porsches Challenge” from Top Gear. Well, if you don’t the car that Jeremy Clarkson drove in that challenge was a Mitsubishi Starion, however it probably wasn’t a prime example.
The Starion is a two-door, turbocharged four-cylinder rear-wheel drive four-seat hatchback sports car that was produced by Mitsubishi from 1982 until 1989. It wis also one of the first modern turbocharged Japanese cars to use electronic fuel injection. North America had rebadged variants of the Starion under the Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth brands.
Most markets received the SOHC 2.0 L Sirius 4G63 engine, however the American market received a larger 2.6-litre SOHC Astron G54B engine. Interestingly, the 2.0 and 2.6-litre models produced roughly the same power, but the 2.6-litre did create slightly more torque. Apparently, the Starion was the first production Japanese car to use controlled fuel injection and turbocharging together.
After 1987, European models were fitted with the 2.6-litre engine, along with the GSR-VR for Japan. The reason for this was because worldwide emissions restrictions were tightening to meet American standards.
The Starion produced anywhere from 150hp to 197 hp depending on the model and turbocharger fitted. Additionally, the power figure depended on whether a 8-valve or 12-valve head was used.
A naturally aspirated version known as the GX was offered in the Japanese market, with production ending in 1983. The Starion GX was offered without power windows, air conditioning, independent rear suspension, fuel injection or power-assisted steering.
Nissan DR30 RS Turbo
While it’s not up there with the GT-R’s and other more famous Nissan cars, the DR30 range of Nissan cars should certainly not be forgotten. The DR30 range started life in 1981 with a naturally aspirated 4-valve-per-cylinder DOHC FJ20E engine generating 148 hp. However, it is the 1983 turbocharged model that is what we are focusing on here.
Nissan fitted a turbocharger to the FJ20ET engine in the DR30 in 1983, while making a number of other changes and updates as well. Front brakes were also significantly upgraded to cope with the power increase and the model received a facelift.
Due to the new look of the car, the DR30 facelift was branded with the nickname “Iron Mask” for its distinctive front end. Power from the turbocharger increased power from 148 hp to 188 hp. At the time, this was the most powerful Japanese production engine of the period.
Further changes were made in 1984, most notably the addition of an air-to-air intercooler allowing the compression ratio to be increased from 8.0:1 to 8.5:1 with a revised turbocharger exhaust housing that increased power to just a shade over 200hp.
The DR30’s legacy is that it really rejuvenated the Skyline brand in the early 1980s. It also paved the way for the eventual re-introduction of the legendary GT-R badge and that could only be a good thing. While it may not be the best Nissan, its legacy is what made us put the DR30 Turbo on this list.