When someone normally hears or thinks about a V8 engine, almost always, they’re going to think of an American engine. After all, over the last 50-plus years, pretty much all US-based performance cars are equipped with V8 engines. Obviously, that’s changing a bit with modern times, but the point still stands.
With that in mind, though, the US is not the only country to produce awesome V8 engines, so today, we’re going to flip the script on its head and look at the best Japanese V8 engines ever.
#1 Toyota 1UZ-FE
Alright, getting into this, I think the obvious number one Japanese V8 of all time is the 1UZ-FE from Toyota. Keep in mind that this list is not really ordered in any particular way, but I do think the 1UZ is likely the most important and influential engine on the list.
If you didn’t already know, the 1UZFE was a pretty advanced engine when it came out. Very few V8s at the time were dual overhead cam, with 32 valves, and actually reliable. The 1UZFE is arguably the first ever reliable Japanese DOHC V8 and definitely one of the greatest.
The cylinder block of the 1UZFE is made from cast aluminum and uses a 90* design. The cylinder heads are also made of aluminum. As we mentioned before, it is a dual overhead camshaft engine with 32 valves (4 valves per cylinder). Unfortunately, the 1UZFE doesn’t have hydraulic lifters. Instead, it uses a shim-over bucket design, so it needs periodic valve adjustments.
The 1UZFE came in a variety of Toyota cars, ranging from sports cars to luxury cars. Toyota equipped the 1UZ in the Lexus GS400, LS400, and SC400. The 1UZFE was also equipped in the Toyota Aristo, Celsior, Crown, and Soarer.
Toyota knocked it out of the park with the 1UZFE. Not only is it powerful, but it’s also reliable.
#2 Nissan VH45DE
Next up we have another very influential 1990s V8 which was really the direct competitor to the 1UZ, which is the Nissan VH45DE. The VH45DE was initially developed for use in the Infiniti Q45, and it was launched in 1989, which was ironically the same year the Toyota 1UZ-FE came to market.
And much like the 1UZ, at the time that it launched, the VH45 was a pretty advanced engine, using an all-aluminum design with dual overhead cams.
Looking at the inside of the VH45, it’s pretty evident Nissan wanted it to be a strong and long-lasting engine. It uses a forged crank, forged connecting rods, 6-bolt main caps, and a full-length girdle. Up top, you’ll find Nissan’s variable valve timing system, VTC, but it wasn’t used for all VH45DEs.
A lot of you might be wondering how the VH45 stacks up with the later VH41. These two engines are extremely similar, with the major difference being the decreased stroke of the VH41. The cylinder heads on the VH41 supposedly flow more air, and on top of that, the VH41 is physically smaller and reportedly more “over-engineered.”
#3 Nissan VK56DE
That takes us forward in time to the next Nissan V8 on the list, which is the VK56DE, which is the first V8 engine we saw from Nissan that was specifically designed for use in full-sized trucks and SUVs, which is the VK56DE. Of course, Nissan could’ve used a smaller engine, such as the VK45DE, but when Nissan was developing the Titan as their first full-sized truck for the US, they knew that they’d need something bigger.
And more specifically, Nissan knew that US truck buyers needed more power and more torque for towing and hauling. The VK56DE grew from the roots of the VK45DE, but Nissan increased the stroke by 9.3mm and used a 98mm bore. With that larger displacement, they kept the 32-valve DOHC design, which was massively different from American trucks, which were almost exclusively push-rod at that time.
It came to market with an impressive 305 horsepower and 379 lb-ft of torque, which was later bumped to 320 horsepower in the Infiniti QX56 when using premium fuel, although it’s likely that they all made that much power with premium fuel. Much later on, it was updated with direct injection, which increased power to 420hp for select Infiniti models and anywhere from 375 to 400hp for Nissan applications.
Safe to say, it went toe-to-toe with larger engines from other manufacturers and outpaced nearly everything at its size. As with previous Nissan V8 engines, this was also used in GT1 and Australian V8 Supercar racing in heavily modified form, outputting an insane 650hp.
#4 Toyota/Lexus 2UR-GSE
That takes us to the next engine on the list, which is technically designed and manufactured by Toyota, but it was never found in anything other than Lexus applications, and that’s the 2UR-GSE. The UR engine family as a whole was designed to replace the UZ engine family, and the 2UR-GSE specifically is the pinnacle of performance in this engine family.
This particular engine was developed in collaboration with Yamaha, which has been working with Toyota for many decades and has helped them with the development of numerous engines, including the 1JZ. The 2UR-GSE has an impressively high 11.8:1 compression ratio, direct fuel injection, and initially produced 416 hp and 371 lb-ft of torque when offered in the IS F.
Later on, when the same engine was used in the RC F and GS F, it got a compression bump which led to an additional 51 horsepower. Currently, it’s being used in the LC500 coupe, where it produces 471 horsepower and 398lb-ft of torque. To this day, it’s the most powerful engine Lexus has ever offered, and compared to any V8 other than maybe the Ford Coyote, it’s very impressive in terms of power per liter.
#5 Toyota 3UR-FE
Moving from the 2UR-GSE, let’s move down the UR engine lineup to the 3UR-FE. When Toyota dropped the redesigned Tundra on the world in 2007, they needed an improved engine if they wanted to compete with the Titan and also the American trucks, which historically dominated the market.
With the previous truck engine being the 2UZ-FE, Toyota made a massive leap improvement with the 3UR-FE. The new engine was a 5.7L design that borrowed some of its technology from the aforementioned 2UR-GSE, but with more priority torque, durability, and affordability over the insane high-revving performance of the 2UR-GSE.
With these required changes in mind, the 3UR-FE didn’t feature direct injection; however, it keeps the high-flowing 32-valve DOHC heads with an impressive power output of 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque at the time of its introduction, which was strong numbers for any V8 engine at the time. This motor was shared between the Tundra and Sequoia SUV, as well as the Lexus LX 570 luxury and Toyota Land Cruiser.
Really, it was such a success that it had almost no changes for its entire production run, and it wasn’t until recently, in 2022, that we saw it replaced in the Toyota Tundra.
#6 Nissan R390 GT1 – Racing Engine
With the road-going engines out of the way, there are some interesting ones that are worth mentioning on this list, with the first one, again, coming from Nissan, and that’s the VRH35L racing engine that you’ll find in the R390. Keep in mind that the R390 is technically a road car because Nissan did build a singular road-legal model, but the rest of them fall under the scope of the R390 GT1 race car.
This is a twin-turbo 3.5L V8, with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, an 85mm bore and 77mm stroke, with an all-aluminum design producing a pretty strong 641hp and 520lb-ft of torque, but none of that is what makes this engine worthy of being on this list.
What made me put it on this list is the fact that one of the most popular and successful supercar manufacturers in the world powers every single one of their cars with an engine that’s almost entirely based on the VRH35L, and that’s McLaren.
That’s right, everything from the early MP4-12C to the P1 to the 720S are all using one V8 engine family from McLaren that’s based on the VRH35 after McLaren bought the rights to the engine from TWR. Obviously, McLaren made changes as needed, but considering they had to buy the rights to the engine, it’s pretty obvious that all modern McLarens are using an engine heavily based on the VRH35, which for my dollar, makes it one of the best Japanese V8 engines ever.
There are some other engines from Japan that I think are worth mentioning real quick, including the Toyota R36V, which is an insane 3.6L V8 that outputs upwards of 1,000hp, the Toyota V, which is Toyota’s little-known Hemi V8 engine from the 1960s and we’ll have an article and video on that soon, and the Mitsubishi 8A80.