A somewhat racist, often derogatory term used to describe cars or motorcycles of Japanese origin, most often those manufactured by Honda. The term is generally used derisively, and often used to ridicule Japanese cars that try to combine efficiency with sportiness. Most of the time, a car is only considered a "rice burner" if it has been modified to appear faster or more sporty / elegant than it really is. If it truly is fast, it will still be ridiculed as a "rice burner," even if it wins the drag race against the one who ridicules it. Classic "rice burners" have any combination of the following: custom intake and performance exhaust systems, custom rims and performance tires, and some boastful stickers such as "Powered by Honda."
There are in fact many souped-up Honda Civics that actually are powerful, making them very effective sleeper cars. Sleeper cars generally appeal to people for the reason that it's cool to beat someone in a race when they think you've got nothing on them. Generally, most cars ridiculed as "rice burners" are inline four-cylinder cars with good fuel economy, although that economy seriously drops if the car is modified to produce excess power. They are almost always front-wheel drive, and are usually low in torque, but often relatively high in horsepower due to their ability to rev to high RPMs. Top-of-the-line Honda engines incorporate a technology called "VTEC," which in effect works with a modulating "phase" camshaft technology that can produce higher horsepower at high RPMs.
The Honda Civic SI is one of the most popular and effective cars in the genre. It is not to be found for the 2001 model year, but the previous model featured a very efficient 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine producing a maximum of 160 horsepower. This one hundred horsepower-per-liter efficiency is usually only obtained in import cars, specifically those from Japan, Germany, and Italy. However, the reduced engine displacement results in low torque at low RPMs, forcing the driver to keep the car constantly above about 4000 RPMs to be effective.
Generally, Japanese cars with six cylinders aren't labelled "rice burners." This is probably due to an inherent respect in otherwise jeering Americans who think four-cylinder engines are ridiculous. Cars like the Toyota Supra, Nissan 300ZX, and Mitsubishi 3000GT are generally not labelled "rice burners," but may occasionally be called "rice rockets" instead, because the labeler is actually impressed by their capabilities.
While truly powerful four-cylinders are rare, they do exist. The world record quarter-mile drag ET for a four-cylinder (a highly modified Mitsubishi Mirage powered by a highly modified previous-generation Eclipse turbo-four) is in the 7 second range, about 1 to 2 seconds slower than a 5000+ horsepower top fuel dragster. It is expensive but not impossible to bring many decent Japanese economy cars into the 10 second range, which is faster than the MacLaren F1, and far faster than any stock American car ever built. The potential ability to pull up next to a Corvette in a Honda Civic and actually win a race is what drives most enthusiasts to modify with such inspiration. The common American attitude of "no replacement for displacement" leads many people infuriated as new technologies constantly demonstrate the abilities of smaller engines. Unfortunately it costs so much that most of the time they never get beyond adding an intake and exhaust, which are essentially useless without other performance parts like a turbocharger, supercharger, or nitrous oxide.
If the Chevrolet Corvette had the efficiency of a Honda Civic SI, it would produce roughly 570 horsepower; currently the latest high-end version produces 385, which is not bad considering many 1970's models produced 160 with the same engine size. If it had the efficiency of the Honda S2000, it would produce around 684. Regardless, it still manages to beat the pants off of both cars, mainly because of its monstrous torque. Personally, I think the Germans have got the right idea. Their performance cars are generally six-cylinders with (often intercooled) turbochargers and four to five valves for each cylinder. They combine relatively high displacement (although never as high as American cars like the Corvette and Viper) and powerful technology (such as variable valve timing similar to VTEC and intercooled turbos).
The reason most economical Japanese cars have such small engines is that Japan is far more environmentally conscious than the US, and of course -- they're taxed highly for owning large displacement engines. Three-liter six-cylinders such as those in the Toyota Supra can be very expensive to own. There is also a huge market in America for these same cars, because we do have a few people who actually care (to a degree) about their impact on the environment, as well many who simply appreciate fuel economy combined with relative, inexpensive, and understated sportiness. There is no shame in owning a Honda Civic, but I think there is some shame in making it gaudy and obnoxious without actually beefing up the engine. If you're gonna relentlessly call attention to your ride, back it up with some power, y0. One time myself and three friends were cruising (sarcasm; I don't believe in driving for the sake of driving, although if I had a better car...) in my ridiculously weak 1990 Ford Escort LX, when we happened upon a "riced-out" 1999 Nissan 200SX. It had gaudy rims, performance tires, a loud-as-hell fart-muffler, and very tinted windows. It tried to taunt me into racing at the first light, which I found hilarious -- who'd prove anything by defeating my 88 horse gimp-mobile? But alas, it had more immediate torque due to a slightly higher displacement and more torque-oriented cam shaft technology. At the next light I gave him the nod and smoked him by a longshot from 0-30, then he creeped up as I got to 45, but I had to turn by the time we were going 50, and I know he probably would've won by 70 or so due to his far more multitudinous horses. In any event it was funny. My car stalled out from the unexpected exercise. I think he had an automatic. I had the mad manual-transmission skills. Here are some cars often labelled as "rice burners":
(generally the four cylinder)
(a very worthy platform)
Here are some fuckin' fast Japanese cars: