Subaru WRX in motion

The Best JDM Cars: Yesteryear’s Icons And Today’s Bestsellers

Hanna Kielar6-minute read
UPDATED: December 12, 2022


Want to feel like an expert car handler from the latest “Fast & Furious” movies? Or are you an amateur drifter looking for a ride that provides a superior driving experience? Japanese street cars, or JDM cars, may be just the thing you’re looking for. Find out more about the best JDM cars below before you shop.

Table Of Contents

    What Is A JDM Car?

    A JDM car is any vehicle that was produced for the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) – meaning they are not intended for export to the United States. JDM vehicles span a much wider range than race movies might indicate. Japanese sports cars, for example, can be lightweight and fast, but a wide variety of cars can be considered JDM and many are highly sought after. Buyers like JDM vehicles for a variety of reasons, including the unique options, perceived tunability and ability to score decent deals on used cars in good condition.

    Unfortunately for JDM car purists, getting a JDM vehicle into the United States means contending with import rules. The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1996, which has been revised numerous times by new laws, requires that imported vehicles comply with all U.S. emissions, bumper and safety standards in order to be legal to drive in the U.S., which makes the cost of import prohibitive. Typically, cars that meet the criteria are manufactured specifically for export and sale in the United States. Several popular JDM cars have a “twin” that is street legal in the U.S., and these are becoming increasingly popular. These vehicles are often referred to as JDM cars but technically they are not.

    There's a loophole, though, for those seeking to bring a true JDM into the U.S. JDM cars manufactured more than 25 years ago can be imported without modifications or meeting federal standards. Modified JDM cars are common, especially in show and race circles. Importing newer modified cars, however, must meet all required standards to be legal. That makes modifying an import less viable than modifying a Japanese car manufactured for export to the United States.

    What Matters Most For JDM Vehicle Shoppers

    Authenticity is paramount for those seeking JDM cars. Paperwork that demonstrates that the vehicle is a legal import is of utmost importance. As many JDM imports are 25 years old or older, it's also advisable to check for rust and any previous damage that could cause trouble when you're driving.

    Other things that matter to JDM vehicle shoppers can include:

    • Tunability, which makes it easier to work on the car yourself
    • Reliability, which Japanese cars tend to have a reputation for, overall
    • Cool factor, whether it's from a sleek design or having the most unique car on the block
    • Well-engineered engines, which is something many expect whether they're buying new Japanese stock or custom JDM cars

    The cars on this list have all been called out by industry-leading magazines or earned awards as leaders in at least two of the above categories. Some even tick all the boxes. 

    Undeniably Cool JDM Cars You Need To Know

    Let's take a moment to talk dream JDM cars. These are the iconic rides that aren't yet legal to import to the United States. While these whips might not be available for purchase today, it’s still fun to see what might be possible down the proverbial road.

    1. Toyota Supra Mark IV (Turbo)

    Best for: Big horsepower

    Model year: 1993-1998

    Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive (RWD)

    Engine: 3.0L twin-turbocharged inline-6

    Torque: 315 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm

    The twin-turbo inline-6 with a rear-wheel drive platform makes this vehicle highly coveted for drifting, dyno runs and drag racing. It's known worldwide thanks in part to the pop-culture boost it received from the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise. This model has been a staple in racing circuits including Le Mans, IMSA and JGTC. The tough, well-designed engine handles numerous mods, letting drivers achieve 1,000 hp.

    2. Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X

    Best for: Canyon carving, rally style

    Model year: 2008

    Drivetrain: All-wheel drive (AWD)

    Engine: Inline 4, 16-valve, turbocharged

    Torque: 366 Nm (270 lb-ft)

    As a small, lightweight vehicle with a proven AWD system, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X is known for iconic handling that brings it quickly around curves. Excellent speed, handling and traction make this one of the best JDM cars for making good time on winding mountain roads.

    3. Subaru Impreza WRX STI

    Best for: Rally

    Model year: 2014

    Drivetrain: AWD

    Engine: EJ20, Boxer 4, turbocharged, 16-valve, DOHC

    Torque: 422 Nm (311 lb-ft) @ 4,400 rpm

    Subaru's symmetrical AWD is sought after for use on pavement and gravel and in rally situations. The robust torque and powertrain propels this compact car easily, making it a contender in a variety of competition situations or an enjoyable ride when you need to find your way around the city.

    4. Nissan Skyline GTR

    Best for: Being king of the local JDM scene

    Model year: 1999

    Drivetrain: AWD

    Engine: Inline 6, twin turbo, 24-valve GR

    Torque: 400 Nm (295 lb-ft)

    An original in JDM imports to the United States, the Nissan Skyline GTR can be super fast and handles lots of modifications well. The reliable powertrain ensures you can get where you're going or rev up the engine once you get there. The epic handling makes this a favorite for drifters. True JDM Nissan Skyline GTRs are unique on the American landscape, so you can enjoy some standout fame in tuner circles.

    Best Cheap JDM Cars You Can Buy Today

    Not everyone can afford a 25-year-old JDM car or the expensive modifications needed to make a newer JDM car legal in the U.S. But, Japanese automakers offer many fun cars that are sold in the United States and are available for a lower price. Check out some of the best cheap JDM “twin” cars you can buy today.

    1. Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

    Best for: Canyon carving

    Model year: 2015

    Drivetrain: AWD

    Engine: Turbocharged 2.0 I4

    Torque: Max 305 lb-ft

    The 2015 model was the final edition of this sought-after car. The Lancer Evo's reliable powertrain and AWD system makes it great for driving around day-to-day as well as for weekend performance. It has four doors for practicality, making it a family-friendly, fun vehicle.

    2. New Toyota Supra

    Best for: Refined driving experience

    Model year: 2022

    Drivetrain: RWD

    Engine: 2.0L Twin-scroll single-turbo inline 4-cylinder

    Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 1,550-4,400 rpm

    Modern Japanese technology makes this a safe, reliable vehicle. The New Toyota Supra is great as a daily driver, and it comes with a 3.0L turbocharged 6-cylinder engine option, which makes it a sporty speedster in the right conditions. The rear-wheel drive platform adds to the fun and excitement of handling this car.

    3. Subaru WRX

    Best for: Rally

    Model year: 2021

    Drivetrain: AWD

    Engine: 2.0-L direct-injection turbocharged Subaru Boxer 4-cylinder

    Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2,000 – 5,200 rpm

    This inexpensive car evolves from economical to sporty depending on how you drive it. With the legendary Subaru AWD system, it's great in bad weather as well as on gravel and dirt surfaces, making the Subaru WRX a good entry-level option for those interested in rally racing.

    4. Mazda MX-5

    Best for: Grand touring

    Model year: 2021

    Drivetrain: RWD

    Engine: 181-hp, SKYACTIV-G 2.0 DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder with VVT

    Torque: 151 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm

    This compact roadster is zippy and fun to drive. It will bring you casually around curves on country roads, but it's also easy to slip into tight parking spaces, or down narrow urban streets. The Mazda MX-5 is a traditional sports car for recreational driving on the road.

    5. Honda Civic SI

    Best for: Sporty yet practical

    Model year: 2020

    Drivetrain: FWD

    Engine: Inline 4-cylinder with turbocharger

    Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 2,100 – 5,000 rpm

    Bring sporty fun to your commute with a Honda Civic. This practical, economic choice can be modified for added speed, and the popularity of the vehicle makes future upgrades fairly easy to implement.

    The Bottom Line: Decide What You Really Want in a JDM Car

    Buying one of the best JDM cars is difficult if you want a true JDM vehicle. You'll need to scour the market for cars that are 25 years old or older, or pay for costly alterations in order to make the car legal to drive in the United States. But, if you want the iconic lines, storied reliability and fun ride associated with some popular JDM cars, you can find all that with used Japanese exports.

    If your main priority is to find a car that’s easy to tune to your taste, consider the broader group of best cars to modify.

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    Hanna Kielar

    Hanna Kielar is a Section Editor for Rocket Auto℠, RocketHQ℠, and Rocket Loans® with a focus on personal finance, automotive, and personal loans. She has a B.A. in Professional Writing from Michigan State University.