Japanese Cars That Changed the Automotive Game

Datsun 240z

Nissan USA

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toyota corolla

Game-Changing Japanese Cars

Quick: What's the top-selling automaker in the U.S.? If you answered General Motors, you're right for 2022, but in 2021 Toyota stole GM's crown, selling 2.3 million vehicles compared with GM's 2.2 million. Still, Toyota took the top slot worldwide in 2022. selling 10.5 million vehicles worldwide.

The first Japanese cars arrived in the U.S. in 1957 when Toyota shipped two of its Crown sedans to California. But it would be more than a decade before U.S. drivers, especially younger ones, began to take notice. 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. How did they do it? By building game-changing cars such as these.

Related: Reliable Cars You Can Drive Into the Ground

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

Toyota Corolla (1968)

Toyota brought its boxy, bland-looking Corolla to the United States two years after its overseas debut. 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 bestselling nameplate of all time. In fact, after 55 years and 12 generations of this inescapable icon, Toyota recently announced that it sold its 50 millionth Corolla in July. 

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Toyota Corolla (1968) | Did You Know?
Toyota Motor Sales

Toyota Corolla (1968) | Did You Know?

The fifth-generation Corolla (1983-1990) was the first to be assembled in Southern California at a plant operated jointly with General Motors. Recent Toyota Corollas are built in Mississippi and in Canada.

Related: These Are the Least Expensive Cars to Own

Datsun 240Z (1970)
Datsun 240Z (1970) by ACSC (CC BY-NC)

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," veteran auto journalist John Pearley Huffman says. 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 zero to 60 mph in eight seconds. It looked unlike anything American automakers were making at the time; Datsun advertised it as "a new kind of economy car."

Related: Ford Cars That Defined a Generation

Datsun 240Z (1970)
Datsun 240Z (1970) by Jaimie Wilson (CC BY-NC-ND)

Datsun 240Z (1970) | Did You Know?

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

Honda Accord 1976

Honda Accord (1976)

In 1976, the bestselling car in the United States was the V-8-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 bestselling 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.

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Honda Accord (1976) | Did You Know?

Honda Accord (1976) | Did You Know?

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

1979 Mazda RX-7
1979 Mazda RX-7 by Riley (CC BY)

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.

Related: Cars We Said Goodbye to This Past Decade

1979 Mazda RX-7 Rotary Coupe
1979 Mazda RX-7 Rotary Coupe by mangopulp2008Follow (CC BY-NC-ND)

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

The first car with a rotary engine to be sold in the United States was the Mazda Cosmo (1975-1978), a two-door fastback designed to compete with small sport coupes such as the Toyota Celica and the Ford Mustang II.

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Lexus LS400 (1990)
Wikimedia Commons

Lexus LS400 (1990)

Detroit luxury brands such as Cadillac and Lincoln were already feeling the heat from European carmakers including BMW and Mercedes-Benz when Toyota announced plans to launch an upscale nameplate of its own. "There was no Japanese luxury division in 1990," Huffman says. The Lexus LS400 had a V-8 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."

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Lexus LS 400
Lexus LS 400 by Stephen Kruso (CC BY-NC)
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mazda MX-5 Miata by Michael (CC BY)

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 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.

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1990-1993 Mazda MX-5 Miata
1990-1993 Mazda MX-5 Miata by Zytonits (CC BY-SA)

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

In the 30-plus years Mazda's been making the Miata, it's also rolled out a number of rare special editions. Fewer than 50 of the 1997 Laguna Blue R-Type Miatas were made.

Toyota Camry (1992)
Toyota Motor Sales

Toyota Camry (1992)

The Camry 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. 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 V-6 engine was optional — and more substantial than what other Japanese carmakers such as Honda were selling. In 1997, the Camry became the top-selling car in the United States for the first time.

Related: "Foreign" Cars That Are Made in America

Toyota Camry (1992)
Wikimedia Commons

Toyota Camry (1992) | Did You Know?

The Toyota Camry has been the bestselling passenger car in the United States 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 United States since the mid-1960s, when the Stout first showed up, and all of the major Japanese automakers have made 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 bestselling compact pickup. Today, the Tacoma enjoys the best resale value of any truck in its class, according to Kelly Blue Book.

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Toyota Tacoma (1995) | Did You Know?
Bring a Trailer

Toyota Tacoma (1995) | Did You Know?

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

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Lexus RX300 (1999)
Toyota Motor Sales

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 such as 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, carlike 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.

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Lexus RX300 (1999)
Toyota Motor Sales
Toyota Prius 2001
Toyota Motor Sales

Toyota Prius (2001)

Hybrid-powered vehicles were nothing when Toyota became the first automaker 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 United States, 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.

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Toyota Prius (2001) | Did You Know?
Toyota Motor Sales