Ultimate JDM Legends Guide
Japan is the spiritual home of drifting, and in this JDM Legends guide, we’re checking out our favorite JDM cars and Japanese drivers.
With Japan remaining at the forefront of drifting since its initial birth on the twisty touge mountains, the words “JDM legends” are often thrown around when talking about legendary cars and drivers.
The 90s were an incredible era for the JDM scene but let’s not forget that Japan has been producing some of the most epic cars imaginable since the early 70s.
At the time, Japan sat at the forefront of modern technology, and it wasn’t just Super Mario that was causing a stir on the other side of the globe.
As manufacturers such as Nissan and Toyota fought with the most prestigious European brands, insane new cars hit the market one at a time.
With Japan living in a bubble economy, consumers weren’t scared to throw their hard-earned yen at copping their favorite sports cars, and these prestigious vehicles began flying out of the showrooms.
It wasn’t just sports cars either, and Japanese manufacturers fought to compete with the high standards you’d expect to receive from the likes of BMW and Mercedes.
Alongside their luxury JDM vehicles, Kei cars’ sales also began soaring in the denser regions, offering exciting new ideas to the JDM market.
Little did we know at the time, but the near future would see drastic changes in the car world. With global warming forcing strict emissions clampdowns, leading manufacturers are now mostly focused on the hybrid and electric markets in the modern market, with the occasional exciting exception.
However, not all is lost. The beautiful thing is that many of these JDM legends still live on, and as many age like a fine wine, the likes of the Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R are becoming closer than ever to own legally in the US.
With the 25-year import ban almost reaching some of the most sought-after JDM cars, such as the Nissan Silvia S15, this could mean that 2024 could see a sudden wave of S15’s legally cruising on US highways.
With exciting opportunities opening up soon, we thought it was the perfect time to explore some of our favorite JDM cars, as well as the drivers that have helped earn their cult status in the drifting scene.
What does JDM mean?
Since you’re already browsing Drifted, we understand that most of you will already know what JDM is, but for those that don’t, here’s a brief explanation.
JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market – cars built in Japan for use on the Japanese car market.
Despite many Japanese cars being featured in US showrooms, many of the true JDM classics were never sold on the US Domestic Market (USDM.)
As revolutionary cars such as the Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R were causing upsets throughout Japan and Australia, these were never available to buy as brand-new, left-hand drive variants in the US.
Thankfully, since they hit the market in 1989, you can now get your hands on a JDM “Godzilla” in the US since the 25-year ban has now passed.
The JDM market has some of the world’s most sought-after cars. With far less restrictive emissions in Japan at the time, many have an insane amount of tuning potential, which often earned their desirable reputation.
Although some JDM cars were built to compete with luxury car manufacturers, let’s face it – you wouldn’t buy a JDM car because of the leather quality on the interior!
If that doesn’t sound like you, you may want to find yourself a JDM leather website!
Jokes aside, there’s a whole range of JDM vehicles to explore, and we highly recommend checking out some of the quirkier Kei cars and the Bōsōzoku scene.
Despite popular belief, not all JDM cars are high-powered, flamethrowing drifting sensations, but most of them are insanely cool in their own unique and crazy ways.
We’ll be exploring cars sold both in Japan and occasionally in the US in this guide, which means you sometimes won’t necessarily need to find a “True JDM” example.
What is a “true” JDM car?
We’re often asked this question, so we wanted to put the subject to bed.
“True” JDM cars are built in Japan, with the sole intention of being used by the Japanese car market.
On the other hand, you can get what many would class as a “JDM” car, which has been converted to left-hand-drive and legally sold in the US.
Unfortunately, this sometimes came with further consequences, as many Nissan 240SX owners have realized.
JDM Legends – The Cars
There’s not enough space on the interwebs for all of the cars we’d like to mention here, but we’ve provided a handful of the vehicles that we feel have been the true JDM game-changers.
We’re not explicitly looking at drift cars here, but naturally, we find it hard not to get excited by them!
Without further ado, let’s take a look at our favorite legendary JDM cars.
For those that don’t already know, the AE86 earned its ‘Hachi-Roku’ nickname because this translates to ‘Eight-Six’ in Japan.
Often regarded as the holy grail of drift cars, the humble AE86 was Keiichi Tsuchiya’s weapon of choice, and with that alongside the Initial D series, it has become the face of drifting over the years.
It may only have a 128-horsepower 1.6L engine under the hood, but it’s none other than the epic inline-four 4AGGE twin-cam 16v, which is the perfect match for this small, lightweight, and compact sports coupe.
The 4AGE was a game-changer when it was released in 1983, and the screaming engine perfectly matches the car’s character.
One of the most beautiful creations ever to leave Japanese shores has to be the Honda NSX.
Born in the 1990s, the NSX was the perfect mid-engined sports car to allow Honda to trump their European rivals.
With Ayrton Senna on-board to help refine the suspension and chassis development, you can guarantee that the NSX handles as well as it looks.
The NSX was the first car to leave the factory with a VTEC engine, which impressively produced up to 290 hp in stock form, alongside a redline of 8,000 rpm.
When it comes to NSX’s, the holy grail is the NSX-R, which unsurprisingly only ever reached the Japanese Domestic Market.
Although Honda has recently released a new NSX in recent years, it certainly can’t compete with the original JDM legends’ character and charm.
Fair play, Honda. You pulled it out of the bag with this one.
You were probably wondering how long it’d take for the s-chassis to surface - what JDM legends list is complete without a touch of Silvia?
Often regarded as the ultimate drift chassis, the Nissan Silvia, also known as the 180SX and 200SX in Japan/Europe, and the 240SX in America, is the dream car of most aspiring drifters.
With the highest-spec JDM Silvia’s receiving the cult-classic SR20DET engine capable of up to 250 hp, this high-revving engine has bossed drifting scenes across the world its introduction.
Despite some being over thirty years old, Silvia’s are still scooping up podiums at the most respected drift competitions across the globe to this day.
Nissan has been teasing rumors of an S16 surfacing over the years, but we’re yet to see any official confirmation.
Until then, you really can’t go wrong with any of these incredibly light, well-balanced drift weapons, and the S15 will soon be legally allowed to hit up the streets of the US.
Although JDM s-chassis prices are soaring, the 240SX remains cheaper than the “true” JDM alternatives, but the S15 was only ever sold on the Japanese market.
Honda Civic EK9 Type R
Although Honda Civic Type R’s are still for sale today, it’s the JDM, yo EK9 that has achieved its classic cult status over the years.
We don’t think Civic’s, even EK9’s, the most inspiring-looking cars; it’s what lies underneath the rather tame exterior that gets tails wagging.
With its highly-refined, lightweight braced chassis, the EK9 Type R boasts a limited-slip diff alongside the revvy, naturally-aspirated dual cam VTEC engine, which screams “VTEC JUST KICKED IN, YO” when you smash the throttle. (Or maybe that’s just the Civic owners, who knows?)
Nevertheless, the 182 hp B16-powered EK9 is about as close as you’ll get to a go-kart, and there are very few cars out there that can keep up in the twisties.
Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10 (Hakosuka)
If one car we feel should represent the term “JDM legend”, – it’s the Hakosuka.
This thing is just an absolute icon of the JDM scene, and it’s crazy to think that with the original Hakosuka’s rolling out of the showroom in 1969, it’s now over 50 years old.
The Hakosouka was Nissan’s first-ever attempt at the Skyline GT-R and quite possibly the prettiest - capable of 158 hp and 131lb/ft torque alongside a 7,000 rpm redline.
Although it followed other incredible classic Skyline’s such as the 2000GT, the Hakosuka is simply the holy grail. Although we don’t often get excited bout classic cars, the Hakosuka deserves every bit of respect it receives.
Not only does it look insane, but the Hakosouka went on to win 49 consecutive races in the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Hakosuka – JDM legend, defined.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI
We don’t often mention Evo’s at Drifted, but we certainly can’t deny that they’ve produced some real classic over the years, with the VI often crowned with cult status.
With production spanning over just two years, from 1999 to 2001, the turbocharged inline-four was capable of 276 hp, with the Tommi Mäkinen Edition the cream of the crop.
Producing a 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds, these AWD rally legends are incredibly sought-after.
With just 2,500 Tommi Mäkinen cars ever produced, you’ll be incredibly fortunate to get your hands on one, but it would undoubtedly be an excellent investment!
Mazda RX-7 FD3S
Despite the success of the RX-7 FC, it was the RX-7 FD that truly got enthusiasts excited.
As the ‘brap-brap’ noises of the 13B-REW turned heads in confusion, the curvy lines of the FD left eyes bulging out of their sockets.
Although the twin-turbo 13B Wankel rotary engine certainly wouldn’t be the ideal choice for everyone, it was one of the most incredible powerplants ever produced, providing you’re willing to have your pockets emptied regularly for maintenance.
Capable of up to 276 hp in stock form and four-figure potential with the right cash thrown at it, the FD features a 50/50 weight balance alongside a lightweight, well-refined construction and stunning aesthetics.
The Spirit R is the unicorn of RX-7 FD’s, and with 1,500 ever built, there’s just one LHD model out there – created especially for Mazda North America’s senior VP.
But, we all know that’s not “true” JDM, yo.
Nissan Skyline GT-R
Although we’ve already mentioned the Hakosuka, we certainly can’t leave out the rest of the Skyline family - especially the GT-R’s.
With the release of the R31 GT-R in 1986, the Skyline began kicking asses, with the R32 GT-R breaking the boundaries of what was thought to be possible just a few years later.
The R32 GT-R was the original ‘Godzilla’ to use the legendary RB26DETT engine alongside its groundbreaking modern ATTESSA AWD technology, which began outright destroying its rivals in competition.
Although the R33 GT-R wasn’t quite as revolutionary or visually enticing, it’s still a highly desirable alternative with an ever-growing price tag.
Many believe that the R34 GT-R was the best of the bunch, and it certainly has the looks to match.
Whichever GT-R is your favorite, it’s the RB26DETT that makes these machines genuinely outstanding. With 600 hp, an easily-achievable figure, they’re more than capable of going over 1,000 hp if you’re willing to pay the price.
Nissan Pulsar GTi-R
You might be surprised to see the Pulsar here, but we’ve got a lotta love for these ridiculous pocket-rockets.
With the R32 GT-R capturing the limelight, the GTi-R received little fanfare in comparison upon release but soon starred at the World Rally Championship with its 227 hp SR20DET in what is essentially a tin can!
Using all 230 horses under the hood, the AWD baby Godzilla could hit 60 mph in 5 seconds flat and is every bit as enjoyable as it looked to drive.
It wasn’t without its problems, and Nissan opted to abandon the WRC project after just nine events.
The GTi-R is the ultimate JDM hot hatch, and although it’s well-known for eating its chocolate gearboxes, they’re about as much fun as you can get behind the wheel.
Toyota Supra MKIV JZA80
Where do we even start with the Supra?
Well, first, let’s talk about the BM… Maybe not.
Ah, yes – 2JZ-GTE.
Arguably in contention for the most impressive powerplants ever produced, the 2JZ, with its twin-sequential turbochargers, is every tuner’s wet dream.
If you’re looking to chase four-figures from your high-powered build, then very few engines out there will do so as conveniently as the 2J.
Although the JDM version has just 280 hp, Toyota initially had plans to provide the car with 600 hp in stock form, which was later shelved, but it didn’t take too long for tuning houses to put the situation right.
It’s mind-blowing to think that the Supra is almost 30 years old now and still looks better than nearly every car being released in the present day.
The (real) Supra is another undisputed JDM legend. The GR variant? Not quite so much!
Subaru Impreza WRX STi 22B
We could almost begin to feel the hate mail reaching our inbox from Impreza fans having already featured the Evo.
But, don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten to give your irritating-sounding Boxer some love.
Built to commemorate Subaru’s 40th anniversary, alongside their third consecutive manufacturer’s title in the World Rally Championship, the 22B is the unicorn of the Impreza family.
Just 424 JDM 22B’s were ever produced, and despite conflicting reports, they all sold out somewhere between 30 minutes and 48 hours.
With a 2.2-liter turbocharged Boxer engine, it produced 280 hp at 6,000 rpm alongside 265 lb/ft torque and the obvious AWD drivetrain.
The late former Subaru rally legend Colin McRae’s 22B was sold at auction for an eye-watering £230,000 (around $320,000), so you might want to get saving if you intend to own a 22B in your lifetime!
JDM Legends – The Drivers
We couldn’t make this article and leave out the Japanese legends that made these cars famous.
In this section, we’ll be doing throwbacks of some of our JDM heroes’ best moments in drifting - you’re in for a real treat.
Let’s face it, the Godfather of drifting, the ‘Drift King’, Keiichi Tsuchiya certainly needs no introduction.
“I drift to overtake. Not because it is the quickest way around a corner, but the most exciting way”.
Although Keiichi believes that speed is the vital component of drifting, he knows that a good-looking car is also necessary. His weapon of choice? The AE86.
With both racing and drifting success over the years, Keiichi continues to be the face of Japanese drifting and is still heavily involved in the Japanese scene in the present day.
You’ll often have the pleasure of hearing Tsuchiya excitedly yelling down the mic in Japanese at your favorite JDM drift events.
Known for producing some of the world’s most incredible drift builds, Daigo Saito’s talents certainly don’t end there.
He’s not shy when it comes to launching his 1,000 hp, 1,000 kg Toyota Mark II over the jump at Ebisu Minami. Daigo has achieved success across the globe, even in the Formula Drift championship.
With D1GP and FD titles under his belt, alongside mind-blowing builds such as the drift Lamborghini, it’s no wonder that Daigo has achieved worldwide fame.
Quiet and humble until he lets rip behind the wheel of his wide variety of pink and purple Nissan Silvia’s, Naoki Nakamura is one of the craziest drivers ever to grace the drifting scene.
Unsurprisingly, Naoki has earned a cult following, being invited to drift competitions worldwide and attending Super D Matsuri events in the US.
Naoki continues to push the boundaries and isn’t shy when it comes to having a scrape or even a crash when putting on a show for his fans.
Although Naoki is famed for his street-style PS13’s, he’s realized that the only way to compete with the big boys in the modern day is to go for crazy power.
For that reason, you’ll likely see him behind the wheel of his 1,100 hp 3.4L 2JZ in worldwide competitions, but don’t worry - he’s still not shy when it comes to knocking on doors!
Although he’s more professional than the likes of Naoki, Yokoi certainly isn’t shy when it comes to pushing his S15 to its full potential.
With D1GP titles under his belt, Yokoi-san took on the best that the US had to offer in Formula Drift, taking the Texas Motor Speedway victory in 2015.
Yokoi is always one to watch out for whenever he features on the driver roster.
Despite having competed in JZX100’s and S15’s in the past, Team Orange driver Kumakubo is best-known for his Impreza and Evo builds.
Although many drift fans aren’t aware, Kumakubo owns a large portion of the Fukushima countryside, and this is where he opted to build Ebisu Circuit, which he still owns today.
Kumakubo has a love for rallying, which inspired his Impreza and Evo builds. He would later go on to convert his S15 into a *gulp* rally car.
With two D1GP Championships, Kumakubo is another contender to watch out for behind the wheel.
Until 2005, Nob Taniguchi held the most D1GP wins before being overtaken by Youichi Imamura.
Best-known for his S15 drift and street builds, he’s also competed in D1 in the Toyota Altezza and Toyota 86, and Supra chassis’.
In recent years, Taniguchi has opted for racing over drifting, where he’s achieved admirable success in the JGTC/Super GT championships.
After driving various vehicles such as the Mazda RX-7 and the Toyota Celica in the GT championships, he currently drives a Mercedes-AMG GT3 Evo in the GT300 class. How disappointingly un-JDM-like.
A lover of the 180SX, Kawabata has also had success with the AE86, S15, and most recently, the R35 GT-R.
Kawabata finally clinched the D1GP title by beating Kumakubo by just one point in the final round.
Another highly-respected veteran of the sport and the current holder of the fastest ever recorded drift, at a staggering 304.96 km/h from a 1,400 hp GT-R!
So, there we have it! We hope that we’ve covered everything you could want to know about the legends of Japan in this guide.
Thank you for reading our JDM Legends guide.
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We thank the following entities for the use of their photography in this article:
- Carlos on Flickr
- Jose M. Lopez on Flickr
- Cook24v on Flickr
- M.T. El Bialy on Flickr
- crash71100 on Flickr
- Fitment Industries