Japanese brands are way cooler in their home market.
The Japanese ‘Big Three’ if you will (Honda, Toyota and Nissan) have massive domestic market lineups consisting of all sorts of zany things, from unexpected performance models to whacky kei cars and odd looking camper vans.
We frequently find ourselves perusing the local websites for Toyota, Nissan and Honda and looking longingly at all the Japan-only models we wish could get behind the wheel of. This made us realize just how much forbidden fruit there is in Japan for car enthusiasts, so today we’re going to count down our 10 favorites.
We stuck to cars that are currently in production for this list, just for the sake of length. If we were to list all of our favorite Japan-only models that have been released throughout the years, you’d be sitting here all day scrolling through our list. The list is also curated to our personal tastes, so after reading through it, feel free to share your favorite Japan-only cars in the comments below.
10. Nissan NV100 Clipper Rio
The Nissan Clipper (or Suzuki Every) has been around for quite some time and as a result, it’s one of the most widely recognized miniature kei vans for the Japanese domestic market. It’s nothing special, but we like its well-proportioned, squarish styling and upright stance. You can also get the Clipper Rio with a five-speed manual and a 660cc turbocharged engine, which would be a decently fun little setup, we think. We’d love this thing to go camping with on the weekends and use as a city car during the week. It’s almost perfect! It’s also sold in some markets outside Japan, it should be noted.
9. Daihatsu Copen
What’s not to like about the Daihatsu Copen? This drop-top, two-door kei car makes 63 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque from its tiny little 660cc turbo three, is available with a CVT automatic or a five-speed manual and is also wildly affordable, priced from under $15,000. We’re bending the rules a little bit including the Copen in our Japanese ‘Big Three’ list, but Daihatsu’s owned by Toyota, so we think it counts.
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8. Toyota Pixis Joy
We like the Toyota Pixis Joy for one good reason: its styling. Why are so many cars so aggressive now? Look at the Pixis Joy! Just sitting there with its soft edges and round headlights, smiling away for no reason. It looks great. We hope to see softer edges like the Pixis Joy’s on North American-bound cars from Honda and Toyota going forward. If you’re wondering, the Pixis Joy has a 660 cc three-cylinder engine, while the sportier Pixis Joy S gets a turbo 660cc three-pot. A CVT is the only transmission option.
7. Honda N-One
The Honda N-One kei car is another good example of well-executed soft styling. This thing has great dimensions and appears to offer a good balance between attractive styling and practicality. It features a 660cc three-pot making 54 hp paired with a CVT transmission. It’s nothing crazy, but the N-One only weighs around 1,800 lbs, so the tiny turbo mill doesn’t have much weight to lug around. We think there’s quite a bit of demand for cute, retro-styled cars like this globally – a fact evidenced by the market’s positive reaction to the Honda Urban EV concept.
6. Nissan Leaf Nismo
Nissan just recently launched the Leaf Nismo in Japan. The Nismo-ized Leaf gets a Nismo body kit, stiffer suspension, lighter wheels shod in stickier tires and a variety of interior add-ons including a Nismo steering wheel and Nismo seats. We think it’s a pretty well-executed product and would do well in markets outside of Japan, but this sporty EV is for Nissan’s home market only for now.
5. Toyota Noah GR Sports
Yes. Toyota’s Sporty ‘GR’ division has applied its expertise to the Noah minivan in Japan. The Noah GR gets a full body kit, GR tuned suspension, aluminum pedal covers, a smaller sport steering wheel and some GR badging. We think the minivan is a seriously overlooked automobile in North America and the Noah wears its tuner-inspired GR body kit strangely well. Or maybe we’re just really weird for thinking this is cool.
4. Nissan Serena Nismo
Oh yes, that’s right. We included more than one tuner special minivan on this list. The rather funny looking tuned van you see above is called the Serena Nismo. It gets a full Nismo body kit, retuned suspension, a Nismo exhaust and some other small upgrades. Make fun of it all you want, but we’d rather have this than any of the yawn-inducing minivans on sale on the United States today. Who said vans had to be so stuffy and boring, anyway?
3. Honda S660
You knew we had to include the Honda S660. A tiny, two-door Honda sports car that’s available with a manual transmission? It’s an automotive enthusiast magnet! The kei roadster features a 660cc turbo three making 63 hp, which is available with a CVT automatic or a six-speed manual. The S660 is also the spiritual successor to the Honda Beat – a car that lives in the hearts of many North American car enthusiasts thanks to Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo series.
2. Honda Jazz Shuttle
The Honda Jazz Shuttle is just a wagon version of the already spacious Honda Fit. It makes sense, right? The Fit was designed for convenience and a wagon is even more convenient than a hatch. As far as tiny packages go, this may be peak practicality.
1. Toyota Century
The Toyota Century is among the coolest new cars in production. This classically styled Japanese luxury sedan has been in production since the 1960s and recently got a major overhaul. It makes 425 hp from its hybrid V8 powertrain and features rear-seat entertainment, available wool upholstery and traditional wood trim. Akio Toyoda has also concocted a sporty Century GR for his own personal use, which makes him at least 100 times cooler than before. We love the Century – but you can bet this one will remain exclusive to Japan.
Honorable Mention: Subaru Levorg
We had to include the Levorg – after all, this list has mostly consisted of things we like but that most North Americans would never, ever buy. That’s not the case with the Subaru Levorg, which is actually just an Impreza wagon. With the Subaru Outback proving to be rather popular with North American consumers, we think they’d take to the Levorg just as well. Our old road test editor Dan Ilika liked the Levorg so much he wrote an entire article dedicated to it entitled ‘We Need the Subaru Levorg and We Need it Now‘. The Levorg isn’t a Japan-only model and is actually for sale in many markets globally, but we still think this Japanese-bred model deserves a spot on the list.
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