Japanese cars have long been the epitome of reliability and trustworthiness, with a couple of hiccups here and there (Nissan Pulsar NX, Toyota Paseo). However, they haven’t always been beautiful to look at, unless you’re talking about the original Acura NSX or the Datsun 280ZX. Things have changed with the current generation of Japanese cars, which boast great design and more personality than ever, along with driving dynamics that can rival (and even best) the Germans in some cases. Their bombproof reliability hasn’t been altered through the generations, either. Here are the ten best rising cars from the land of the rising sun.
Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S
Best Japanese Car for the Enthusiast: These superb sister cars offer up two of the best driving experiences out there, at any price. Subaru and Toyota have created a bargain $25k sports car that delivers handling and steering feels more expensive sports cars would kill for. The compact fastback-style coupe is a joy to look at, and 200 hp from its 4-cylinder boxer engine is plenty of power to get you moving. The fantastically stick sport seats are perfectly positioned for fast and flick-tastic driving. Okay, so the interior is a bit spartan when it comes to design and creature comforts, but you’ll be too busy grinning from ear-to-ear as you drift it around corners to care.
Lexus IS350 F Sport
Best Japanese Car for the Young Executive: It’s the sports sedan that makes BMW quiver in their brake shoes. Yes, the wholly new IS350 F Sport is fast, composed and supremely tractable. The mean F-Sport spindle grille is like a hungry mouth ready to consume its rivals, but the interior is outfitted for comfort as well as a sporting driving experience. The 306 hp 3.5-liter V6 is entirely potent, but what’s more important is the way the car handles. The beefier anti-roll bars, multi-link rear suspension and stiff chassis make for great carving partners, and the selectable Drive Mode is nutty good when moved to Sport Plus, which changes the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), adds steering weight, sharpens the throttle and remaps shift patters of the eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s a salute to the LF-CC car in the area of design and to the LFA supercar in terms of handling dynamics. Most of all, it’s a joy to drive.
Honda Accord Hybrid
Best Japanese Car for the Long Commuter: The venerable Accord has always been a top notch choice for families, largely due to its practicality, reliability and easy driving feel. This generation gives it not only a bit more personality but also an option to go with a mile-eating hybrid that gets 50 mpg city thanks to its three drive modes. It runs on pure electric, hybrid drive and engine drive, shifting effortlessly and automatically depending on driving style and conditions. Even in pure gas mode, the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is a bastion of efficiency and smoothness. Plus, it’s got all the benefits of the big family sedan to go along with shockingly good fuel economy. Why on earth would you drive one of those other hybrids that looks like a lozenge on wheels?
Best Japanese Car for the Family Man: You know how we feel about this car from the GP100. It’s not just one of the best cars from Japan, it’s one of the best cars, period. The looks alone — big fenders, a sleek greenhouse and the face a mother and everybody else would love — are enticing. The 184 hp, 2.5-liter SkyActiv engine is smooth and performs especially well with the available six-speed manual transmission, which shifts like a sports car. It’s big enough to hold your family yet drives like a car that shouldn’t care about them; great steering and handling round out a car that has no business being called a family sedan. The small Japanese company has clearly kicked this one straight through the uprights. Just wait for the torquey diesel, and you’ll see us grinning even more.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR
Best Japanese Car for the Weekend Rallier: Mitsubishi and Subaru make the only two rally-based cars sold in America, and the Lancer Evo has typically been the more tractable of the two in spite of the Subie WRX STI’s greater popularity. Don’t expect fancy interior digs, since the Evo is all about the driving experience. It’s meant to be tossed hard and fast. All-wheel-drive, a quick six-speed Twin-Clutch Sportronic Shift transmission (TC-SST) with manual mode and paddle shifters, and a high-output 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder good for 291 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque make for a car that’s just as at home in snow and mud as it is on pavement. Plus, the Evolution MR has a clean, understated design (opt to have the monster spoiler removed) that doesn’t make you look like you just graduated from high school. Think of this rally rocket as the opposite of a big cushy Japanese luxobarge — since that’s exactly what it is.
Mazda MX-5 Miata Club
Best Japanese Car for the Backroad Warrior: There’s not much more we can say about the quintessential Japanese roadster. The Miata has been around since 1989 and shows no signs of disappearing, thank heaven. The Club version sports Miata racing style with exclusive wheels and mildly flashy rocker panel stripes. Using the same 167 hp 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine as the base model, the Club adds performance bits such as a shock tower brace for increased stiffness, a sportier suspension setup, a limited slip diff and enhanced aerodynamics. The result? A sharper scalpel. The renowned short-throw six-speed manual transmission is an utter delight, transporting you to your ultimate childhood go-kart dream.
Best Japanese Car for the Road Tripper: What is this, an automotive blue plate special? No, it’s an all-new Avalon that’s better than ever. First of all, it no longer looks like a bee-stung Camry or a bar of soap; the body work has been leaned out and manages to look far better than its predecessors. Plus, the Avalon ups the driver experience significantly. The suspension is stiffer, the steering has more effort and feel, and it’s 100 pounds lighter than before, making for a driving experience that’s pretty impressive for a big sedan. It’s still powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 with 268 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, but it sure feels faster now that the sponginess has been kicked out the door. They’ve done up similar magic in the interior: there’s plenty of room and an atmosphere that’s downright luxurious with ambient lighting and soft touch materials that don’t scream, “I’m retired, dammit!” It’s finally the Avalon for everyone.
Best Japanese Car for the Luxe Lover: Even though the only thing that’s really changed this year is the name (formerly the QX56) and the addition of the Advanced Backup Collision Intervention System (whew), this Infiniti is still an impressive behemoth of a vehicle. It’s tall, wide, long — and faster than it has any right to be. The little design attempts to make it look smaller fail miserably, but we don’t care. This sucker’s got all the presence of a grizzly bear with chrome teeth. The 400 hp, 5.6-liter V8 makes this monster deceptively fast, eating up miles (and gas) without effort. Everything about the Jet Executive interior is rich, making you feel more special than you are. Fine leather seating, with heat in both front and second row, 13-speaker Bose audio, 360-degree Around View monitor (you’ll need it), Hydraulic Body Motion Control (also needed) and a host of safety features mean the QX80 lacks virtually nothing save for the ability to squeeze in the tightest of parking spots. You could, of course, just run everyone over.
Nissan GT-R Track Edition
Best Japanese Car for the Track Carver: Though there’s nothing remotely standard about the stock GT-R, the Track Edition takes things up a notch by ditching the rear seats to save weight and adding additional brake cooling (for those hot, hot laps) and a track-tuned suspension setup for tighter handling and apex crushing. The 545 hp twin-turbo V6 is partnered with a twin-clutch 6-speed tranny for supercar-quick launches and the kind of speed that cars twice its price can only dream of. The wicked all-wheel-drive system has an industry-first independent rear transaxle and can handle 100 percent of power to the rear wheels, making the car handle like a traditional RWD sports car with all-wheel-drive traction when needed. It all makes for a formula for the best Japanese sports car the world has ever seen.
Best Japanese Car for the Sports-Team Dad: The all-new MDX isn’t dramatic, but it certainly does everything incredibly well, from transporting kids to performing less like an SUV and more like a sporty car. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more athletic three-row SUV by virtue of its dropped weight, Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive and potent but economical 290 hp V6 engine. We’re impressed by generational change that’s evolutionary and intelligent: the overall shape is less edgy and more cohesive than the last MDX, and the interior upgrades are noticeably finer in quality and design. We love the captivating jewel-eye headlights and the button-activated third row seats that proudly display Acura ingenuity and serve your own laziness.