For all their detractors, Japanese car manufacturers have come up with some of the most "out there" cars of the last 30 years. It's little wonder that with production models that run from quirky little minicars, up to stupid powered monsters, there's a thriving Japanese car scene here in the UK
. And with big annual shows like Japfest and JAE, there's plenty of opportunity to meet up and compare metal.
But you don't have to blow £30k on an NSX or a GT-R to get in on the action.
There's plenty of fun, fierce and just plain odd Japanese cars out there for the budget-conscious.
Up to £1000
Mazda's entry into the 90s small coupe craze was the little MX-3. Built in Hiroshima and based on the Mazda 323 before it, the MX-3 had a unique selling point under the bonnet - a 1.8 litre V6
. The smallest capacity V6 ever seen in a world market road car didn't over endow the car with power - 135hp at best - but it was enough to make progress fun.
Have you ever wanted a McLaren F1 or Ferrari Enzo but couldn't afford the six figure sum? Well, the Toyota Sera is the car for you. Based on the much humbler Toyota Starlet, the 100hp Sera
won't quite hit the same performance benchmarks, but it does have the same butterfly doors.
Like the MX-3, the FTO was powered by a piddly V6, but with a 2.0-litre capacity and Mitsubishi's MIVEC variable valve timing, the little Mitsi could pack up to 200hp. Combined with a sweet chassis, the FTO had all the dynamics and pace of later, more well known front-wheel-drive Japanese screamers, but in a sexier body and without the scene tax those more illustrious badges attract.
Up to £2000
It's scarcely believeable that the rotary RX-8 is hitting prices under two grand, but a reputation for needing mollycoddling and a ludicrous fuel economy
have truly torn the hoop out of their residuals. If you can afford the 20mpg and put up with the finicky starting and revving requirements, you can get one of Japan's most truly unique and well balanced sports cars.
It's unlikely you'll ever see a bigger, small car than the Daihatsu Terios. Weighing in at barely a ton, the rugged looking Daihatsu comes with a 90hp 1.3-litre engine
. When new, Japanese buyers could've got an alarming 140hp turbo version and
permanent 4WD on some models, making it a bizarre blend of city car and offroader. And when was the last time you saw one?
Honda CR-X del Sol
In the 1990s, all of the major Japanese manufacturers were making small, fun coupes and each had its own unique selling point, but the CR-X del Sol managed two. The first was a screaming 1.6-litre VTEC engine which could produce up to 170hp in VTi trim. The second was the "TransTop
" - a folding metal hardtop now seen on myriad coupe-cabriolet versions of European manufacturers' hatchbacks.
Up to £3000
Honda Accord Type R
The Japanese excel at taking humdrum cars and making them sublime and there's no greater example than the Accord. The ordinary model defines dreary, but the Type-R is loopy
. The slightly larger 2.2 engine overcomes some of the criticisms about torque in VTEC cars and makes it a good all-round sports saloon. Watch out for the geeks though - they'll point out that the ATR isn't a Japanese car at all, with all examples built in Swindon and sold only in Europe!
The first-gen MR2 is one of the most iconic cars ever to come out of Japan, but good ones are rare and pricey. The second-gen got fat and added big power, particularly the imported turbo models, making for a tricky car in the wet
. This third gen model is an overlooked gem. Harking back to the original, Toyota went lightweight and gave it a peaky 1.8-litre VVTi, producing a car often compared favourably with the Mazda MX-5. If you're planning on camping at JAE though, you might like to take a second car - the MR2 has no boot at all
The 300ZX is a little overlooked in the classic Nissan line-up. Overshadowed in its day by the Skyline GT-R, it was remembered as the fat car that killed the Z badge until Nissan revived it with the 350Z. But the 300ZX gave big power figures - equalling the GT-R on paper with the declared 276hp
- and delivered it all to the rear wheels. With the Skyline's Super HICAS active rear wheel steering as standard, the 300ZX was brutal yet lithe and its unpopularity at the time makes it a good bargain buy now.
Up to £4000
The Stagea is a Nissan Skyline with an estate body - you could even get Stageas that were essentially Skyline GT-Rs. That's worth repeating several times; the same insane turbo engine, the same complex electronics underneath, the same Earth-shattering acceleration, only you can fit a wardrobe in the back
. There's nothing more you could possibly need to know, except how to pronounce it - any guesses?
There's almost nothing subtle about the Supra. It's a pumped-up, brutal piece of kit with a straight six and an optional pair of turbos - and that's before we get to the outrageous pantograph wing. With nearly 300hp on tap
and all of it produced from the rear wheels, it was a performance benchmark for coupes worldwide throughout its life. Though make sure you buy one sooner rather than later as the supply seems to dwindle each winter, for some reason...
And then at the opposite end of the scale is the Honda Beat. The Beat was designed, by Pininfarina
, as a two seat convertible to fit in with Japan's city car "keijidosha" (or "Kei car") laws. With a tiny, 660cc, three cylinder engine that buzzes to 8,000rpm mounted behind the driver, the featherweight Beat is one of the oddest car concepts ever put into production. Think of it as half of a Honda NSX.
Up to £5000
While hopped-up front wheel drive cars are all well and good (click here
for a great example), the S2000 showed the world what Honda could do with their VTEC engines in a car meant to go fast from the off. With up to 240hp from 2.0 and 2.2 engines strapped into the front of a striking convertible body, the S2000 was a sharp-looking MX-5 with teeth
. Earlier 2.0-litre models had a reputation for visiting hedges and ditches in the wet, but the later models were much improved. If you buy one, just promise us you won't buy an "S200 O" registration plate for it.
Just about the most niche car ever made, the "hateful" Figaro
adds what was apparently a much needed coupe option to the Nissan Micra line up. Based on the ancient 1st generation Micra, the Figaro was available originally only to Japanese buyers who won the lottery, but they've become increasingly popular in the UK. Yes, the prices for these are ridiculous, but if you buy a Figaro you'll be joining an owners' circle that includes Vanessa Feltz - what further recommendation could you want
By the 1980s, everyone else had given up on the rotary engine - even Mercedes stopped putting them in concept cars - but Mazda soldiered on and the result was one of the most breathtakingly pretty cars they ever made. Though questions remain over the engine's reliability - owners never want to hear the word "seals"
- the RX-7 is undeniably a superb package of power, looks and handling. As the successor car sacrificed the power for no better reliability, the RX-7 remains the rotary of choice.
Whichever car you go for, hit up the owners' clubs first - they can tell you common faults, how to spot a nail and, most of the time, have several well-known examples up for sale. Of course no-one said you had to be imaginative, and so regardless of your budget, you can just buy an MX-5