Best Japanese classic cars you can afford

Think of Japanese modern classics and you’ll probably have visions of legendary sports cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mazda RX-7, Honda NSX and Toyota Supra or hardcore rally replicas from the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer Evoloution stables. In reality, there are more widely available (and cheaper) ways to get a Japanese modern classic on your driveway.

Japan has given us some fantastic cars down the years and many charismatic models from the 1990s and 2000s are looking very attractive these days. Whether they entered the UK by official means of via the once flourishing ‘grey import’ route, there are some great options out there. Just be sure, as always, to do your homework and understand exactly what you’re buying.

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Set aside £400 and the world of Japanese modern classics opens up with some increasingly desirable cars appearing on your radar, cars like the Mazda RX-8. Idiosyncratic rotary engines aside, there’s nothing faster for the money than a cheap RX-8. 

There’s also some rally prestige on offer with the Subaru Impreza Turbo – a hero of the 1990’s and surely a strong investment, so long as you can find a tidy example. 

It’s not all rorty engines and performance, however, the Honda Beat typifies Japan’s sporty Kei car culture and the Suzuki SJ is a charming 4×4 with real off-road potential. What’s more, you’ll be benefiting from legendary Japanese reliability and build quality, meaning you should be able to enjoy these modern classics everyday without incurring massive bills.

Subaru Impreza Turbo

Years produced: 1992-2001
Price range: £1,000-£15,000
Rarity: ★★★☆☆
Maintenance: ★★☆☆☆
Investment: ★★★★☆

An Impreza Turbo is still one of the most enjoyable cars in the world on a B-road. When new, its low-slung boxer engine, turbo and four-wheel drive gave great performance that could be used all year round. As a bonus, it had five-seat practicality and typical Japanese reliability. The car became legendary.

But after being cherished in early life, the Subaru fell in with the wrong crowd, and there are very few Mk1 cars that haven’t been abused, crashed, stolen, rusted or been questionably modified. The survivors have emerged with classic status, and special editions such as the 1999 RB5 are the most prized. Prices of these can easily top five figures for a well kept original car. If that’s out of reach, make sure you do a lot of research, buy the best Impreza Turbo you can afford and simply enjoy driving an icon. 

Honda Beat

Years produced: 1991-1996
Price range: £1,500-£7,000
Rarity: ★★★★☆
Maintenance: ★★★☆☆
Investment: ★★★☆☆

In Japan, there are big financial benefits for buying tiny 660cc ‘Kei cars’. These have evolved into all sorts of styles, but the most interesting are the miniature roadsters. The Suzuki Cappuccino and Daihatsu Copen were officially imported to the UK in limited numbers, yet for us it’s the mid-engined Honda Beat that’s the most interesting and collectable. It was never sold here by its maker, but plenty of examples have been brought in by enthusiasts. If you’re tempted, buy the best you can afford, because parts can be difficult to find.

Suzuki SJ/Santana

Years produced: 1981-1998
Price range: £500-£6,000
Rarity: ★★★☆☆
Maintenance: ★★★★★
Investment: ★★★☆☆

To start with, the Suzuki SJ was bought mainly by fashionistas who’d been given the impression from eighties’ pop videos that ownership of this car would be one long holiday. In reality, it was a crude off-roader that was pretty awful to drive on the tarmac. Once SJs had fallen out of fashion, they were bought by farmers and off-road enthusiasts, who abused them and let the inevitable rot set in. The few survivors are now interesting curios that can be fun behind the wheel on a sunny day.

Toyota MR2 Roadster

Years produced: 2000-2006
Price range: £500-£4,500
Rarity: ★★★☆☆
Maintenance: ★★★☆☆
Investment: ★★★☆☆

Every generation of the Toyota MR2 can be considered a classic, but we’re concentrating on the final incarnation because it seems such good value at the moment, with prices settling at around £1,500. For that kind of money, you get a tidy drop-top two-seater with fun handling, thanks to its mid-engined configuration. Many have been killed by a nasty fault with the catalyst that sucks debris into the engine, though. Find one where it’s been fixed, or a post-2003 car.

Honda CRX

Years produced: 1988-1991
Price range: £3,000-£8,500
Rarity: ★★★★☆
Maintenance: ★★☆☆☆
Investment: ★★★☆☆

While the Honda Civic always had a bit of a reputation for being a pensioners’ car, the CRX was beloved by enthusiasts. It featured exotic all-round wishbone suspension, a rev-happy 1.6-litre powerplant (some equipped with VTEC) and a snappy gearchange. This was all wrapped in a stylish body and, because it was a Honda, it was reliable and economical, too. Rust, banger racers and modifiers have culled most of the CRXs, though, which means that good cars are becoming highly prized.

Mazda RX-8

Years produced: 2003-2012
Price range: £400-£7,500
Rarity: ★★☆☆☆
Maintenance: ★☆☆☆☆
Investment: ★★☆☆☆

A smart-looking coupé that’s practical, good to drive and has an exotic engine – so why are RX-8s so cheap? The answer will come the first time you fill up, because the Mazda will average 20mpg and it prefers expensive super unleaded. You’ll have to top up the oil (again, with the costly stuff) every 1,000 miles or so, too.

Repairs and servicing are similarly pricey, due to the Mazda’s unusual and complicated rotary engine. So why are we recommending one? Because if you just use an RX-8 for occasional fun or track days, there is no cheaper way to get into a car with this sort of performance and style. We spotted a 9,000-mile example for £7,495 at a dealer if you are wanting to invest – but we would rather pick up one of the many RX-8s that are available for around £1,200 – and just have fun while it lasts.

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