Datsun 240z
Nissan USA
Datsun 240z
Nissan USA

Oh, What a Feeling

The first Japanese cars arrived in the United States in 1957 when Toyota Motor Corp. shipped two of its Crown sedans to California. But it would take more than a decade before American drivers, especially younger ones, began to take notice and start buying. By the time Baby Boomers were having babies of their own in the '80s and '90s, Japanese car companies were going head to head with Detroit's Big Three for market dominance. In 2018 alone, Japan's automakers produced 6 of the 10 best-selling vehicles in the U.S. How did they do it? By building game-changing cars like these.

Toyota Corolla 1968
Toyota Corolla 1968 by Mytho88 (CC BY)

Toyota Corolla (1968)

Two years after its overseas debut, Toyota brought its boxy, bland-looking Corolla to the U.S. It was equipped with a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine that produced about 60 horsepower, a four-speed manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive, all for about $1,700. Toyota promised up to 30 mpg and a top speed of 87 mph. That first model may not have been built to thrill, but in time, the Corolla would become the best-selling nameplate of all time. More than 30 million have been sold worldwide to date.

Toyota Corolla (1968) | Did You Know?
Toyota

Toyota Corolla (1968) | Did You Know?

The fifth-generation Corolla (1983-90) was the first to be assembled in Southern California at a plant operated jointly with General Motors. Toyota's 2020 Corollas are built in Mississippi and in Canada.

Datsun 240Z 1970
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Datsun 240Z (1970)

While Detroit was busy building bigger, faster muscle cars, Japanese engineers were inspired by Europe's lighter, more nimble sports cars instead. "[They] took a really good idea like the Jaguar XKE and built it with enough quality that you could actually drive the thing every day," says veteran auto journalist John Pearley Huffman. The 240Z from Datsun (today's Nissan) boasted a 2.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine that produced an impressive 151 horsepower and could scoot from 0 to 60 mph in 8 seconds. It looked unlike anything American automakers were producing at the time; Datsun advertised it as "a new kind of economy car."

Related: Muscle Memories: 15 Ford Cars That Defined a Generation

Datsun 240Z (1970) | Did You Know?
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Datsun 240Z (1970) | Did You Know?

The 2020 Nissan 370Z — the 50th anniversary for the Z-car line — comes equipped with a V-6 engine that produces 332 hp and can hit 60 mph in just 5 seconds.

Honda Accord 1976
Honda

Honda Accord (1976)

In 1976, the best-selling car in the U.S. was the V8-powered Oldsmobile Cutlass. It was big, cushy, and got lousy mileage. With the nation clawing its way out of a recession and gas prices rising, big Detroit cars weren't what young buyers wanted or needed. Honda, meanwhile, was a struggling, bit-player in the U.S. auto market. "Suddenly, the Accord comes along, small, efficient. They couldn't keep them in stock. People were paying over sticker price for them," Huffman says. "It changed the standard of what an American car is." A whole generation of drivers grew up with the Accord, each model getting a little bigger and more powerful. In 1989, the Honda Accord nudged past the Ford Taurus to become the best-selling car in the U.S. — a first for a Japanese automaker. The Accord would remain the top-selling car in American until the Ford Taurus took back the crown in 1992.

Honda Accord (1976) | Did You Know?
Honda

Honda Accord (1976) | Did You Know?

Honda was the first Japanese automaker to build in the U.S. Its plant in Marysville, Ohio, opened for business in 1982.

Mazda RX-7 1979
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Mazda RX-7 (1979)

Mazda Motor Corp. had been experimenting with Wankel rotary engines — which promised high power from a compact form — since the mid-1960s. But the company didn't perfect the promise of this mechanically quirky engine until it unveiled the RX-7 sports coupe. It was as fast as a Datsun Z car, handled as well on the test track, and would go on to sell more than 800,000 vehicles over its production run. The RX-7 morphed into the RX-8 for the 2003 model year, but it sold poorly by comparison and Mazda ended the line in 2012. The rotary engine never caught on, in part because of its relatively poor fuel economy and inability to meet tighter emissions standards, but Mazda insists it will return.

Mazda RX-7 (1979) | Did You Know?
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Mazda RX-7 (1979) | Did You Know?

The first car with a rotary engine to be sold in the U.S. was the Mazda Cosmo (1975-78), a two-door fastback designed to compete with small sport coupes like the Toyota Celica and the Ford Mustang II.

Related: 15 Best Mustangs of All Time

Lexus LS400 1990
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Lexus LS400 (1990)

Detroit luxury brands like Cadillac and Lincoln were already feeling the heat from European carmakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz when Toyota announced plans to launch a new, upscale nameplate of its own. "There was no Japanese luxury division in 1990," Huffman says. The Lexus LS400 had a V8 engine that was just as powerful as anything out of Detroit, a fit and finish that was on par with German automakers, and a build quality second to none. All for tens of thousands of dollars less. "They took market share with that car," Huffman adds. "It validated the whole Japanese reputation for quality, and sophistication, and refinement. That car changed everything."

Related: 12 of the Classiest Cadillacs Ever Made

Lexus LS400 (1990) | Did You Know?
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Lexus LS400 (1990) | Did You Know?

Toyota wasn't the only Japanese automaker — or even the first — to aim for the upscale American car market. Honda introduced its Acura division with the Legend sedan and Integra coupe in 1986.

Mazda MX-5 Miata 1990
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Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990)

If the tired phrase "instant classic" still deserves to be spoken, you may as well use it to describe the Miata. When Mazda's revival roadster first hit showrooms, it promised to be every bit as fun to drive as the classic MGB and Fiat convertibles it emulated — with none of the accompanying mechanical quirks. Buyers went bonkers, and it wasn't long before Honda and Toyota (and plenty of other automakers) were turning out two-seat convertibles as well. In 2016, the Miata crossed a milestone when the 1,000,000th vehicle rolled off the assembly line in Japan.

Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990) | Did You Know?
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Mazda MX-5 Miata (1990) | Did You Know?

In the 30 years that Mazda's been producing the Miata, they've also rolled out a number of rare special editions. Fewer than 50 1997 Laguna Blue R-Type Miatas were produced.

Toyota Camry (1992)
Toyota

Toyota Camry (1992)

The Camry first arrived in U.S. showrooms in 1982 and soon began giving the Honda Accord a run for its money. But both cars were still on the small side. American drivers who grew up with Japanese cars wanted their Hondas and Toyotas to grow with them and their families. "Previous Camrys had been Japanese-market cars," Huffman says. "This [model] was designed by a Japanese company for America, built in America for Americans." It was notably larger than the previous generation of Camrys — a V6 engine was optional — and more substantial than what other Japanese carmakers like Honda were selling. In 1997, the Camry became the top-selling car in the U.S. for the first time.

Toyota Camry (1992) | Did You Know?
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Toyota Camry (1992) | Did You Know?

The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling passenger car in the U.S. every single year except for 2001, when the Honda Accord (briefly) knocked the Camry from its perch.

Toyota Tacoma 1995
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Toyota Tacoma (1995)

Toyota has been selling its pickup trucks in the U.S. since the mid-1960s, when the Stout first showed up, and all of the major Japanese automakers have manufactured light pickups (often for U.S. brands) since the early '70s. But the Tacoma was the first to give American drivers what they really wanted: a compact truck that was as comfortable and well appointed as a car on the daily commute. In just a few years, the Tacoma was nipping at the Ford Ranger's back bumper for the title of best-selling compact pickup. Today, the Tacoma enjoys the best resale value of any truck in its class, according to Kelly Blue Book.

Toyota Tacoma (1995) | Did You Know?
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Toyota Tacoma (1995) | Did You Know?

The first Japanese pickup truck to be sold in the U.S. was the Datsun 220, which arrived (in very limited numbers) in 1959.

Related: 32 Most Reliable Trucks of All Time

Lexus RX300 (1999)
Toyota

Lexus RX300 (1999)

With the possible exception of the Range Rover, most drivers didn't associate SUVs with luxury and refinement back in the 1990s. Popular SUVs at the time like the Ford Explorer and Chevy Blazer were essentially trucks without the pickup bed — and they handled just about as well. The Lexus RX300 changed all that. "It essentially invented the luxury crossover," Huffman says. Instead of starting with a truck, Toyota engineers took the underpinnings of a Camry, giving the RX300 more responsive, stable, car-like handling that you could drive aggressively (unlike other SUVs). Since then, the entire market's been taken over by that kind of car, Huffman adds.

Lexus RX300 (1999)
Toyota
Toyota Prius 2001
Toyota

Toyota Prius (2001)

Hybrid-powered vehicles were nothing when Toyota became the first auto manufacturer to mass-produce one for the consumer market. (To be fair, Honda's two-seater Insight, which arrived in 1999, holds the title of the first hybrid sold in the U.S., but it was never available on a wide scale.) Like Mazda's Miata, the Prius became the catalyst for an entirely new class of vehicles, and it wasn't long before hybrid engines started appearing in everything from hatchbacks to luxury SUVs. Toyota's Prius remains the king of the hybrid hill in terms of sales. "It defines the category," Huffman says.

Related: 15 Reasons Why I Drive a Prius Prime Electric Hybrid

Toyota Prius (2001) | Did You Know?
Toyota