We pit two JDM legends head-to-head to find out which reigns as the Japanese sports car king.
It’s the Japanese version of the Mustang vs the Camaro pitting two of an era’s greatest icons against each other. One, the Toyota Supra, was made world famous in the inaugural The Fast & The Furious and introduced a generation of American car fans to the world of JDM. The other, the Nisan Skyline GT-R, remains forbidden fruit banned for import to the US, a car so gobsmackingly impressive it garnered the nickname Godzilla. But which of these legends deserves the title of greatest JDM (Japanese Domestic Manufacturer) car of all time? Read on to find out.
Though the Toyota Supra had been around for three generations, originally spun off from the Celica, it wasn’t until the car’s fourth generation that Toyota decided to put all their over-engineering to work and make it a true performance car contender.
The Toyota Supra A80, a.k.a. the Mk. IV Supra, debuted in 1993 a rear-wheel drive 2+2 sport coupe. It was the heyday of JDM cars as Japanese carmakers capitalized on the economic good times by producing an unparalleled crop of performance cars.
What makes the Supra stand out as one of the greatest cars of the day is its infamous 2JZ engine. The 3.0L inline-six is a classic of Toyota’s tendency to over engineer things. The 2JZ wasn’t just powerful, it was also super durable, capable of handling far, far more power than the stock 220 horsepower or ever the twin turbo’s 321 horsepower. The 2JZ is among the most tunable engines of all time, with owners often coaxing well over 1,000 horses from it without issue.
Often, the export and especially the US version of Japanese performance cars of the era were watered down and less powerful than their JDM counterparts. But not so with in the case of the Supra. The domestic version of the twin-turbo was capped at 276 horsepower while the export version was tuned to 321 horsepower. (Since this was the golden age of tuning, the Supra is one of many instances where manufacturers ensured the tunability of their cars so buyers could boost output at their own discretion.)
And it wasn’t just the Supra’s engine that made it great. From a precision-tuned suspension to great brakes to a stiff and well-balanced chassis, the Supra was a beast of a sports car. The turbocharged version even had sequential turbos to ensure good power delivery throughout the rev range. The Mk. IV Supra is also a great looking car. It features perfectly balanced proportions and great body lines that derive from the Toyota 2000GT and classically ‘90s smoothed edges.
Sadly, the Mk. IV Supra was born at the wrong time in automotive history. Great as it was, overall sales for sports cars in the US were down in the late ‘90s as the market shifted, inexorably, toward the SUV. The Supra was cancelled in the US in 1998, three years before a tuned-up orange Supra would make its silver screen debut in The Fast & The Furious and change car culture forever after.
Like the Supra, the Skyline was a long-running nameplate by the time Nissan decided to make it a serious performance car. While the 9th generation R33 Skyline GT-R was a fairly good sports car, it’s the tenth-generation R34 that’s gone down as perhaps the pinnacle of the era. Debuting in 1998 as the ’99 model year, the R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R was a monster car even in its base form and only got more impressive from there.
Under the hood of the base Skyline GT-R was a 2.6L twin-turbo straight-six making 327 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque. The numerous variants piled on the performance features. The initial V-Spec version added a diffuser, specialized brake vents, a dual-element rear wing, and an LSD (limited-slip differential). The V-Spec II added a carbon fiber hood complete with NACA ducts. The rarest and most powerful spec was the NISMO Z-tune which bored and stroked the twin-turbo engine to 2.8L for 493 horsepower and 398 lb-ft; just twenty of these cars were built.
The Skyline GT-R is also aesthetically blessed. In the twenty some years since its debut, the R34 Skyline has entered the realm of iconic cars. Its backend rivals that of the Ferrari F40 and ’59 Cadillac Eldorado as one the most recognizable ever designed.
It’s also critical to note that the R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R was only produced for the Japanese market. This exclusivity has only further bolstered the car’s mythical status here in the US. Under current import law, only Japanese 25 years and older can be imported. However, a special carve out called the “Show and Display” rule, originally lobbied for to allow the Porsche 959 to make it stateside, has been used to import a handful of the ultra-rare R34s in recent years. Still, the 25-year rule puts us tantalizingly close to seeing some of those first-year cars finally imported.
The Supra rose to fame in The Fast & The Furious, but the Skyline GT-R became a legend of popular car culture too with appearances in Gran Turismo 2, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the classic Japanese automotive anime, Initial D (though Rin Hojo’s Skyline is an R32).
It’s hard to overestimate the influence of the Mk. IV Supra. It helped popularized tuning culture in the US and turned a generation of American kids on to greatness of Japanese performance cars. The 2JZ has ascended to the Olympian ranks of engines we all know by name. The Supra had it all where it counts, the power, the handling, the looks. And yet, the Skyline GT-R looms even larger.
The R34 Skyline GT-R is one of the greatest driver’s cars ever built. It offered loads of power from the factory with plenty of opportunities for further enhancements. It’s one of the coolest looking cars from a time when Japanese designers could seemingly do no wrong (rose colored glasses no doubt, but I’m making a point here). You still can’t import them to the US (at least not easily), further cementing its mystique. And to top it all off, the nickname “Godzilla” points to the R34 Skyline GT-R’s outsized, apex predator status. In the end, the R34 Skyline GT-R can’t be denied as the winner of this epic JDM matchup.