From one small, car-mad island to another, cars built in Japan have a particular appeal here in the UK for all the significant differences in our respective cultures and geographical distance between us. While its car industry is still relatively young all things considered, the Japanese evolved quickly from making cars that mimicked American and European tastes into confident expressions of local engineering skill and – now – design too. There’s still a strong degree of uniqueness about Japanese cars, in particular performance models, which require a strong degree of bespoke engineering compared with the increasingly homogenised offerings of European car-makers. Here are some of our current favourites.
The nine best Japanese cars to buy in 2023
1. Mazda MX-5
It’s quite incredible to think that this generation of Mazda MX-5 is still going strong, let alone the badge – drop-top sportscars are all but extinct in every other carmaker’s line-up. It could be argued that the fourth-generation ‘ND’ model’s reign as the king of modern small sportscars has been so convincing that other manufacturers have decided not to bother. The Mercedes SLK (SLC when it disappeared) is gone, the Audi TT is going next year, but the ND MX-5 introduced in 2015 just seems to keep going, and will almost certainly get a replacement when the time is right, given its special place in the Mazda range. The current version is a car true to its original brief, keeping its footprint and ultimately its weight strictly in line with the original of 1989. A Small, high-revving 1.5-litre entry-level engine plays off against the thrills of the more powerful 2.0-litre.
2. Toyota GR86
Despite the chaos of the last few years in the real world, one thing has remained constant in the automotive industry: Toyota is still the world’s biggest carmaker, regaining its title in 2022. So perhaps it’s no surprise to see in among the manufacturing giant’s myriad wares lies a sportscar or two. The GR86 is the latest addition to Toyota’s growing ‘GR’ line-up, and as the name heavily implies, it is a follow up to the GT86 petrolheads have been enjoying for the last decade. The format for the newcomer doesn’t upset the apple cart – it’s been designed to carefully evolve what we’ve loved about the GT86, but with more power, more grip and updated technology. The 2.4-litre flat-four engine cranks the power up to 234PS (172kW), but power still goes to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.
3. Nissan Z Coupe
Nissan’s latest ‘Z’ car is forbidden fruit in Europe. We won’t get this replacement for the 370Z, which is a shame, as the monstrous GT-R has also been pulled from our market, leaving us with no Nissan sportscars at all. The new Z Coupe’s design is a modernised ‘greatest hits’ of the car’s extensive lineage, returning to a purer shape reminiscent of the S30-generation 240/260/280Z cars, while some touches like the rear lights are a nod to the 300ZX of the nineties. Built on an evolution of the 370Z’s platform, a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 develops 400PS (294kW) and as you’d expect, a six-speed manual gearbox is equipped, though a Mercedes-sourced nine-speed automatic is also offered.
4. Honda Civic Type R
The Honda Civic Type R has been a common sight on British roads in its 25 years as one of the best hot-hatchbacks out there. The new one, codenamed FL5, is aiming to land a knockout blow on the current brigade of 300PS plus rivals. But unlike many of those adversaries, the Civic aims to do it in the only way it knows – using front-wheel-drive, a manual gearbox, and VTEC power. The new car is a strong evolution of the former-favourite FK8 model, the updated appearance combining with an engine developing 329PS (242kW), suspension and chassis revisions designed to introduce more grip, and an interior that’s heavily updated and brought into the modern world. You’ll pay a pretty penny more for this Type R than its predecessor though, with prices starting from just under £47k.
5. Lexus LC
Where most cars are styled by the designer’s pen or the click of a mouse on a CAD terminal the Lexus LC looks like they let a katana-wielding warrior set about the clay styling buck and carve elegant chunks out of it with broad sweeps of his sword. And after decades of deference to European and American tastes the LC is a confident assertion of distinctively Japanese design, and all the better for it. In a premium sector still dominated by European ideas of luxury the LC stands as an individual and discerning choice, the hybrid version following parent brand Toyota’s associations with the technology. But we’d have to have the free-revving LC500 V8 version, its choice of engine as anachronistically eccentric in this day and age as the styling is exotic.
6. Subaru WRX
The new Subaru WRX isn’t coming to Britain, though that shouldn’t surprise. The later Impreza WRX models and the standalone ‘WRX’ of the previous-generation model didn’t quite hit the sweet spot with British buyers in the way the earlier cars did during their World Rally Championship-era zeitgeist. The new one keeps some of that rallying spirit alive with chunky, purposeful cladding and a decently raised ride height, though it drops the wild, trademark WRX rear wing. And power still comes from a turbocharged boxer engine, a 2.4-litre unit developing 271PS (199kW) that goes to a four-wheel-drive system. Though the car’s only market for the time being is North America, a six-speed manual gearbox will be offered alongside an eight-speed automatic.
7. Toyota GR Yaris
The 1.8-litre supercharged Yaris GRMN was a difficult sell, in a hot-supermini market eagerly awaiting the superb value Fiesta ST due not long after it. But Toyota’s second attempt at a ‘GR’ badged hot Yaris – the aptly named GR Yaris – is a different ball game entirely. It’s a curious car, because its development was originally undertaken to create a new WRC car for Toyota’s works team. However, when it was decided that the Yaris WRC model based on the previous-generation supermini would continue in competition, Toyota decided to build the homologation special road-going GR Yaris anyway. For a short three-door hatchback, it requires several unique engineering solutions to package a permanent four-wheel-drive system, powered by a 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine developing up to 272PS (200kW). It finally made its competition debut in the 2022 World Rally Championship season as the basis of the GR Yaris Rally1 entered by Toyota Gazoo Racing, winning the manufacturers title.
8. Isuzu D-Max
Where once there was only Defender there is now only D-Max. Yes, in the rolling hills and dales of rural Britain the farmers have long-since ditched the old Land Rovers that were once a fixture of country living and moved pretty much wholesale into Japanese pick-ups as the utility vehicle of choice. And, frankly, who can blame them. Cheap to buy, steadfastly unglamorous, tough as old boots and likely to spend its entire working life without ever troubling a jet wash, a mud-caked D-Max with a white box cover over the flatbed and a couple of bales of hay in the back is the modern farmer’s friend. A consistent award winner in various commercial, trade and 4x4 mags, a new version is on the way and looks to pick up where the old one left off.
9. Mitsuoka Buddy
Mitsuoka’s mad creations never fail to disappoint. There’s something uniquely Japanese about the weirdness of its miniaturised homages to classic British cars, but the brand also likes to push iconic American cars through its uncanny-valley design workshop. The MX-5-based Rock Star evokes a Corvette Stingray, but the marque’s most recent crude creation is its first SUV. Called the Buddy, it uses the technical basis of the latest Toyota RAV4, but with a boxy makeover intended to pay homage to the K5-generation Chevrolet Blazer, complete with BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres and ‘80s steel wheels. It’s not available here in the UK, but Bookham-based TW White - Mitsuoka’s UK dealer - still advertises the Jaguar XK120 inspired Mitsuoka Roadster.
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