What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (2024)

Automotive enthusiasts and a low-budget film helped popularize these Japanese domestic market cars on the streets of America

By Karl Brauer

From the perspective of USA-based car enthusiasts, performance-oriented Japanese cars have gone from obscure to mainstream over the past 30 years. That’s not to say Japan’s performance car industry didn’t exist before 1990, but the average American’s awareness of Japanese domestic market models (or JDM cars) was minimal, at best. The term JDM originally represented cars sold primarily in Japan, but it has come to mean any high-performance Japanese model, whether a new or used car sold exclusively in Japan or in multiple global markets, including the U.S. and Canada.

That started to change in the 1980s, as sporty two-door coupes like the Honda Prelude, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 240SX, and Toyota Supra and Celica joined the Nissan 300ZX in U.S. showrooms. But the real pivot toward JDM vehicles came in the 1990s, when magazines like Sport Compact Car and Super Street focused on the growing enthusiasm for Japanese “tuner cars” and the enthusiast culture forming around them. The Acura Integra, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Nissan 240SX were among the most common models featured in these magazines.

The growing popularity of those American market magazines was conveniently timed with a wave of Japanese supercars coming to U..S showrooms, such as the all-new Honda NSX (badged as an Acura in the U.S.) and Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4. The 1990s also saw substantial horsepower and chassis upgrades to existing U.S-market Japanese sports cars like the RX-7, Supra, and 300ZX, many of them now featuring twin-turbo engines and successfully competing in high-profile motorsports activities.

By the early 2000s additional JDM models had made the leap to U.S. showrooms, including the all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (or Evo). The Honda S2000, a new rear-wheel-drive sports car with a 6-speed manual transmission and 9,000 rpm redline, added to the momentum, as did a little movie called The Fast and The Furious.

This relatively low-budget, performance-car-themed film put a heavy emphasis on JDM cars sporting numerous aftermarket car parts. Honda Civic and Mitsubishi Eclipse variants, utilizing large spoilers and nitrous oxide, along with true JDM cars like the right-hand drive Nissan Skyline GT-R, helped validate the film with JDM fans. The Fast and The Furious was a huge box-office success, inspiring more than 10 sequels/spin-offs, and popularizing terms like nitrous oxide, supercharger, and twin turbo.

While most automotive enthusiasts still wouldn’t put JDM cars on the same plane as European supercars from BMW’s M Sport group, Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG, or Porsche, there’s no denying the rising interest, and market value, of the following JDM classic cars.

1. Acura Integra Type R

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (1)

Called the Honda Integra Type R in Japan, it was sold in the U.S. from 1997 to 2001. The Integra Type R featured a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing (VTEC) and upgraded suspension and brake components. It is considered among the best Japanese performance hatchbacks of the era.

2. Acura NSX

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (2)

Known as the Honda NSX in Japan, this mid-engine, V6-powered supercar debuted in the U.S. in 1991 and featured the first mass-produced lightweight aluminum body. It’s not overstating things to say the Acura NSX established a new supercar performance benchmark that other supercar brands had to scramble to keep up with.

3. Honda Civic

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (3)

Originally a compact car with an emphasis on fuel economy, the Honda Civic is one of the most popular cars to modify using JDM performance upgrades and styling themes. The Honda Civic Type R, a longstanding performance version of the model offered in Japan and Europe, finally came to the U.S. market in 2017

4. Honda S2000

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (4)

Introduced for the 2000 model year, the S2000 was a rear-drive, two-seat convertible with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine offering a 9,000-rpm redline and one of the highest horsepower-per-liter metrics at the time. A “CR” (Club Racer) version was offered for one year (2008) with upgraded components and lighter weight.

5. Mazda RX-7

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (5)

Powered by the FD3S rotary engine, the Mazda RX-7 was a two-seat sports car first introduced in 1978 and sold in the U.S. through 1995 (it continued to be sold in Japan until 2002). Known for its lightweight and confident handling, the RX-7 was the original “hero car” driven by Vin Diesel in the first Fast and Furious movie.

6. Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (6)

Known as the Mitsubishi GTO in Japan and other markets, the 3000GT VR4 offered several high-tech features when it launched in 1991. These included all-wheel drive, an adaptive suspension, active aerodynamics, and an adjustable exhaust system. A retractable hardtop version was also available.

7. Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (7)

A Japanese domestic market sport sedan never intended for global markets, the Evo was a hit with enthusiasts around the world and eventually exported to Europe and the U.S. Leveraging all-wheel drive and a turbocharged engine, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution proved highly successful in World Rally Championship racing.

8. Nissan 240SX

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (8)

Dubbed the Nissan Silvia in Japan, this rear-wheel-drive coupe offered rather modest performance in the U.S. but was available with the SR20DET turbocharged four-cylinder engine in Japan and other markets. Converting U.S.-sold 240SX models into Silvias with an SR20DET engine swap is a popular modification.

9. Nissan 300ZX

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (9)

A successor to the original Datsun 240Z, this model is known as the Fairlady Z in Japan and the 1990-1996 versions featured a twin-turbo V6 engine and four-wheel steering technology dubbed Super HICAS (High Capacity Actively Controlled Steering). Nissan ended U.S. sales in 1996 but continued to sell it in Japan until 2000.

10. Nissan Skyline GT-R

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (10)

An all-wheel-drive, turbocharged coupe, the Skyline GT-R was never officially sold in the U.S., though many Japan-market GT-Rs have been imported and are easy to spot with their steering wheel on the right side. The modern Nissan GT-R is the first official version of the Skyline GT-R sold in the U.S.

11. Subaru Impreza WRX STI

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (11)

Built to compete in the World Rally Car Championship race series, the Impreza WRX STI uses all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder for rapid acceleration and stable handling on dirt road courses. Launched as the Subaru Impreza WRX, the STI letters represent later performance upgrades.

12. Toyota Supra

What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (12)

Initially a Japanese market Celica spin-off model, the Toyota Supra went on sale in the U.S. in 1980 and by 1994 it offered a powerful twin-turbo 2JZ engine making over 320 horsepower. Toyota ended U.S. sales in 1998 but continued sales in Japan until 2002. A new Supra, developed largely by BMW, debuted in 2020.

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What is a JDM Car, and How Did They Become Popular in the U.S.? (2024)


How did JDM cars become so popular? ›

But the real pivot toward JDM vehicles came in the 1990s, when magazines like Sport Compact Car and Super Street focused on the growing enthusiasm for Japanese “tuner cars” and the enthusiast culture forming around them.

How did Japanese cars become popular in America? ›

But their low price based on the low value of the Japanese yen against the US dollar increased the number of Japanese car buyers in the US. Subsequently, the 1973 oil shock increased the popularity of Japanese cars because of their good fuel economy.

What is JDM car? ›

JDM, short for Japanese Domestic Market, refers to vehicles that are originally designed and sold in Japan but are also popular among car enthusiasts worldwide.

Why are JDM cars illegal in the US? ›

All cars that you can drive around in the US need to comply with applicable import laws. Unfortunately, JDM cars don't necessarily comply with some of these laws, especially those related to emission control and safety. Cars you import directly from Japan's Domestic Market also come with right-hand drive.

When did JDM cars become popular? ›

Cars manufactured for the Japanese domestic market have been growing in popularity since the late 1990s.

What is JDM car culture? ›

“JDM” simply stands for the “Japanese Domestic Market” cars. These vehicles are manufactured and made solely for the Japanese market and are built to be sold within Japanese borders only. These cars are regulated by the Japanese government and are made to meet a tight set of standards.

When did Japanese cars become popular in USA? ›

Even more brands came to America and abroad during the 1970s, and by the 1980s, the Japanese manufacturers were gaining a major foothold in the US and world markets.

How did cars become popular in America? ›

The automobile gave people more personal freedom and access to jobs and services. It led to development of better roads and transportation. Industries and new jobs developed to supply the demand for automobile parts and fuel. These included petroleum and gasoline, rubber, and then plastics.

When did Japanese cars come to the US? ›

“In 1958, Toyota became the first Japanese company to sell a mass-produced passenger car in the US. The Toyopet Crown was a substantial success in Japan but it landed wide of the mark in America.

What car is the king of JDM? ›

The Nissan Skyline GT-R tops the list with good reason. .

Why are JDM cars cheap? ›

Whereas the new JDM cars are barely transported at all. This all makes the costs much more affordable. Japanese cars typically have a restricted number of options and a lower starting specification. For example it is very common to find the entry level models to have cloth seats rather than leather as standard.

What JDM cars are illegal in US? ›

Without spending a small fortune, almost all 1997 or newer JDM cars are illegal in the U.S. Owning or driving illegal JDM cars is asking for more punishment than drug possession or automatic weapons.

Is the Bugatti illegal in the US? ›

In the United States, the Bugatti Chiron can be driven on public roads without a special licence. The car you might (very) rarely see on European streets is physically different from the one you would find in the United States.

Why do JDM cars have to be 25 years old? ›

In essence, the 25-Year Import Rule strikes a balance between welcoming classic cars and ensuring that safety and emissions standards are met. While this wait might seem long, it is designed to harmonize the interests of car enthusiasts, the automotive industry, and regulatory authorities.

When was JDM at its peak? ›

The peak of classic Japanese tuner cars hit 30 years later in the late 1990s, alongside the end of the bubble economy in Japan.

Why are old Japanese cars so popular? ›

One way or another, it has been felt for a long time now that because of the rules, regulations of that country plus the stringent build quality and affordable prices from the various manufacturers, Japanese cars are safe and reliable to buy. Japanese drivers change their vehicles more often than average and as such ...

Why is the Japanese car industry so successful? ›

The author identifies several advantages of Japanese carmakers, including a less restrictive government, more efficient manufacturing, a more productive workplace culture, and products that are overall superior to their American counterparts.

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