J, D, M… Few things could get gearheads in all corners of the globe as excited as hearing those three letters. The land of the rising sun is known for many great things, between its traditions and media. I dare say that Nippon’s automobiles deserve to rank just as highly for all their technical, cultural, and emotional achievements. And if you’re on a tight budget, cheap JDM cars are a thing, as well.
Of course, one might’ve expected that Japanese cars should be cheap, right? It tore up the Germanic and Americana status quo by offering practical, versatile, reliable, and economical wheels for next to no money at all. That’s how JDM conquered the world – by making great cars that most people could buy. But as of late, the classic JDM autos that waxed lyrical about nostalgia are getting pricey.
And I do mean, really expensive. Remember all the hero cars that you used to adore in Gran Turismo when you were a kid? GT-R Skylines and NSXs, as mere pixels on your PS1? Or, how about that iconic AE86 Trueno that conquered night-time drifting and tofu deliveries in Initial D? Yep, don’t bother, because they’re all getting pretty costly. But, are there any good yet cheap JDM cars out there, still?
What Does JDM Stand For
Before we look into our ensemble of cheap JDM cars, let’s first discuss as to what JDM stands for. It’ll be quite handy for those of you who might be curious but aren’t in the know. JDM is an abbreviation of Japanese Domestic Market. You may have heard this term getting thrown around a lot, especially if a Japanese-branded car is ever mentioned. However, there’s a chance that you’re using it wrong.
See, for a car to be classed as a JDM, it must be made with the intent of being sold exclusively in the Japanese market only. In other words, not all cars made by Japanese carmakers are necessarily JDM. For example, a car might be built, designed, and engineered in Japan by a Japanese automaker. But, once it leaves its shores and is sold in say, the US, it’s no longer a JDM. Rather, it’s technically a USDM car.
The boundaries tend to get rather blurry as to what is and isn’t a JDM car. Another example could be those cars that are sold in Japan and elsewhere. As such, there’s a JDM version of this particular car, like the Supra, and a non-JDM version sold in the US, Europe, and so on. Or, there’s a whole category for “true” JDM cars, which are only ever made and sold purely in Japan, and never once exported.
These include Kei cars and trucks or modes like the Toyota Century. All of which are vehicles that any foreigner might only get to experience if they’d import them through the grey market. So, hopefully, this brief explainer will help you distinguish between what’s JDM and what isn’t. Just to keep things here simple, we’ll be focusing on the half-half JDM cars that were sold in Japan and were also exported.
Best Cheap JDM Cars
So, here’s the criteria for what we can recommend as good yet cheap JDM cars that you should get if you’re in the market for one:
- Under $20,000 – I know that’s still a lot of money for most folks, but the car market is quite a bit insane right now. Nevertheless, there are still options that you can find for under $10,000. Or sometimes, as low as just $5,000 or less. Know that examples in the latter category might need a bit of TLC.
- Any Vehicle Is Fair Game – Most people associate JDM with sports cars and tuners. This isn’t the case in reality though, as JDM can exist in any shape and form. There are JDM SUVs, off-roaders, vans, or cutesy little city cars. Of course, our bias leans more toward a copious amount of performance cars.
- A Proper JDM? – As mentioned, we’re not going to be overly strict about going after the “pure” JDM cars, made and sold only in Japan. Importing cars over to the States is costly and complicated. With that in mind, we’ll also look at cars that have at least some relations to a Japanese counterpart.
With those factors taken into consideration, are there any cheap JDM cars out there that we’re willing to shill? Actually, there are a lot of them, so let’s take a closer look (in no particular order):
Cheap JDM Cars – Sports And Performance Cars
Starting off strong in the sports car category, as we have the Toyota MR2. But not just any MR2, as you’ll have to opt for the naturally-aspirated models, instead. Trim-wise, this would be the G as well as the G-Limited. Meanwhile, the turbocharged MR2 GT and GT-S are rapidly rising in value. Still, a non-turbo MR2 gets you a peppy little 2.0-liter engine, with just around 200hp. Don’t scoff just yet.
While it may not blow your socks off with sheer horsepower, the MR2 rewards you abundantly with deft athleticism. It’s small and lightweight, and that engine is mid-mounted, too! It won’t win you a plethora of awards in drag racing. But around tight and twisty corners, its dynamics will reward the driver with bucket loads of fun. Its racing-inspired roots truly make this a mini Ferrari to die for.
Toyota Celica GT-S
We should probably start off with the bad news first. The 7th-generation and final Celica is… Front-wheel-drive. There, I said it. Knowing this, quite a lot of enthusiasts have discounted its credentials as a purebred sports car. Personally, I think it’s unfair, as the Celica is more than capable of making mincemeat of any tarmac. This is especially so with the higher-end and sportier GT-S variants.
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Its race-inspired and Yamaha-tuned 4-cylinder is good for 180hp and revs to a mighty 8,300RPM. It then came with a plethora of impressive tech, such as variable valve timing. Although if you need a bit more power, Toyota’s in-house TRD racing division is more than happy to help. They offer a plethora of from-factory bolt-on kits like a racy exhaust, lowered suspension, and even a supercharger.
Of course, how can this be a list of cheap JDM cars without at least making some mentions of one of the most iconic sports cars ever? Yeah, it’s Miata time, and in particular, the earlier NA and NB series of the Miata. Most people probably already know what an MX-5 Miata is. But for the uninitiated, it’s Japan’s interpretation of a classic British sports car. Yet, the Mazda Miata is somehow even better.
For one thing, unlike a classic British sports car, the MX-5 is reliable and well-built. Crucially though, the Miata is absurdly fun to drive. You can chuck it around the bends, and it’ll oblige you with loads of smiles. Besides, some of the earlier MX-5s are just a touch over 2,200lbs. Better still, the engine’s in the front, and the power goes to the rear wheels. With the roof down, it’s a joyous thing to drive.
Acura RSX Type-S
One of the finest sports coupes of the 90s was no doubt the Acura Integra, especially the Type-R. So much so, that they’re pretty much impossible to purchase for a decent price these days. If you need an alternative, why not sample the RSX Type-S, instead? It wasn’t as successful at gaining a strong following as the Integra among the fans. Nonetheless, the RSX is still a fantastic car underneath.
Like the Celica, it’s front-wheel driven. Though, it’s a brilliant way to engineer a FWD sports car. The RSX Type-S had countless dynamic tweaks, like a sports suspension and bigger brakes. Then, there’s the engine, which was re-tuned to output a respectable 210hp. Altogether, with its high torque and low weight, the RSX is a properly enjoyable car to drive. Or, to hit the track for a spot of racing.
Just to cap off the cheap JDM cars that’ll light your hair on fire, I’ll now correct the lack of Nissans in this list by introducing the 300ZX. And, it definitely deserves a spot given its merits as an astounding all-around sports car. Although it hasn’t been as well-regarded among Z fans, the Z31 and Z32 both deserve high marks for their performance. The engine is an interesting conundrum to get past.
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Depending on which 300ZX you get, you’ll have to satisfy yourself with either twin-turbos or a more conventional naturally-aspirated form. Otherwise, they have excellent handling and performance, in addition to being more aerodynamic. It’s also a pretty handsome car to my eyes, and if you’d rather let a bit of air into the cabin, the 300ZX as a Targa top. Truly, it’s an underappreciated JDM jewel.
Cheap JDM Cars – Luxury GTs And Premium Cars
Specifically, the 3rd generation of the late 80s and 90s. I’d put this somewhere between a sports car and a grand tourer, as the Prelude is a good blend of both worlds. It doesn’t have as much power as most cars on this list, though. In fact, one of the lower-spec inline-4 engines could only muster just a smidge over 100hp. However, the Prelude starts to win you over once you toss it into a corner.
Some even refer to it as the baby NSX due to its handling chops. While it may look like grandpa’s old Honda, don’t discount its ability to put a smile on your face. Yet, it still carries the luxurious touches of a top-of-the-line Honda. It’s sleek, carrying that wedge-like slab of 80s design. Oh, and how could you not love pop-ups?! Or, spring for the beefier Prelude SI for more power and 4-wheel steering.
You’ll find the JDM-spec Soarer be offered in the US market under different names. First, it was sold as the Lexus SC300, before being updated to the SC430 later on. Regardless, these fall into the same sweet spot as the Prelude – a half GT and half sports car. It came with a variety of powertrains, that produced somewhere between 100 to 300 horsepower. Better yet, it’s built on a Supra platform.
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Yes, that Supra. Consequently, the Soarer handled corners pretty well considering how large it was. Agility isn’t their primary focus, as the Soarer was made for touring long distances in utter serenity. Hop inside, and it’s just as plush and comfy as you’d expect. Toyota-slash-Lexus also has a solution for those in un-rainy climates – the AeroCabin. Or as I’d like to call it, the Soarer with a folding roof.
You likely have never heard of Eunos before, haven’t you? Long story short, Eunos was Mazda’s own attempt at creating a high-end luxury brand. Think of it as their version of Honda’s Acura or Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti. Unlike those 3, however, Eunos died out pretty quickly, which is a shame. We needn’t have to look much further than the Cosmo to see that they had plenty of potential.
Furthermore, the Cosmo was actually Mazda’s halo car of the period. And, it introduced the world to the rotary engines that we know and love today. An early model of the Cosmo even became the first and only rotary-powered Japanese car to enter the 24 hours of Le Mans. In the real world, the Eunos Cosmo is more grand touring than a sports car. Nevertheless, it looks cool, and I really want one.
Cheap JDM Cars – Kei Cars And Microcars
Who said you needed a big and burly sports car to look cool, eh? The Suzuki Cappuccino is just 130-inches in length and weighs a lithe 1,600lbs. This is paired with a sprightly turbocharged inline-3 for optimal power. How much, you might ask? Well, just about 63hp from a tiny 657cc engine. Ah, you might think that the Cappuccino is slow. And yes, in straight lines, it’s as slow as you might think.
However, they’re incredibly agile and fun to drive at any speed or on any road. That lightness makes it feel like you’re driving a toy car, and it turns on a dime. The novelty isn’t superfluous, however. It’s insanely friendly to modify and tune, so you can theoretically extract a lot more power from its small engine if you need to. At the end of the day, it’s both cute and fashionably cool to be seen in.
Ah, but what if you’re not into cappuccinos? Well, Honda has the aptly named Beat, as a rival to the Cappuccino in the Kei sports car genre. It’s still deliciously small, cute, and innocent-looking. With its engine, it’s just as modestly proportioned as the Cappuccino, at a mere 656cc. It’s only when you try to peek under the hood that you realize the Honda Beat’s party trick – the mid-rear-engine layout.
In other words, that puny inline-3 sits just inches right behind your spine. By moving the engine back here, combined with its small and featherweight form factor, this transforms its dynamics. On a set of challenging corners, even mosquitoes take more effort to carve through a tight turn. Oh, wait until it starts singing, too. While it’s no V12, the beat’s puny motor revs all the way up to 8,100RPM.
While we’re here, we might as well round off the trio of Kei sports cars that made the world just that bit more cheery. Mazda wasn’t about to let Honda and Suzuki out-Kei them, so they had a bold plan. Why not make a Kei car which bridges that odd gap between cool and ridiculousness. Well, this was what they came up with, the AZ-1. Which, as you’ve guessed, was sold under their Autozam brand.
The AZ-1 had, among other quirky touches, gullwing doors. This way, you just know that you’re the coolest person in a mile-wide radius anytime you get in or out. Interestingly, Mazda got the AZ-1’s engine from none other than Suzuki. So, it’s a familiar 657cc inline-3 from the Cappuccino, but this time, it’s mid-engine. They even made a Mazdaspeed variant with a few more modifications, too.
Cheap JDM Cars – SUVs And Off-Roaders
How can you not instantly fall in love with a car whose name is as friendly and personable as Jimny? Though it may appear adorable, the Jimny is without a doubt one of the most capable off-roaders on the planet today. So, do you think only a Jeep Wrangler or Land Rover could trek over arduous terrain? Well, think again. The Jimny could do all that 10x over, yet remain reliable, and it’s much cheaper.
This is primarily thanks to the Jimny’s compact sizing. It’s a plucky little 4×4 in every dimension, that results in an off-roader that’s small and light. As such, it hops over rough landscapes with the poise and nimbleness of a mountain goat. Just point, and it’ll go anywhere you desire. Unlike most other 4x4s, the Jimny’s small inline-4 also makes it a cheap and economical car to run day-to-day, too.
Toyota Land Cruiser Prado
Speaking of, what if you want something a bit larger and more comfortable than the Jimny? Perhaps one that isn’t as barebones and utilitarian? If that’s so, look no further than the iconic Land Cruiser. Or as I’d like to call it, an SUV so tough and well-built, it’s practically indestructible. Before you get too excited, there is a spot of bad news, though. The OG Land Cruisers are just far too pricey.
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For a most budget-friendly option, the Land Cruiser Prado is a much easier pick. You can think of the Prado as a more civilized, urban-borne variant of the rugged Land Cruiser. With that in mind, it isn’t lacking the Land Cruiser’s legendary off-road capabilities, dependability, or macho looks. If anything, you can expect the Prado versions to be a bit cozier inside and has more luxury touches.
If there’s one thing that Mitsubishi can lay claim to compared to the Land Cruiser and Jimny, it’s the racing success. In its heyday, the Pajero won no less than an awe-inspiring 12 Dakar Rally wins. This here is the toughest and most brutal motorsport in the world, designed to kill both cars and people. Even through all that sand and dust, the Pajero ruled supreme amongst other SUVs and 4x4s in its class.
Due to its trial-by-fire experience in the African sun, this means that Pajero is insanely overbuilt. In its pedestrian and civilized form, the Pajero is known to last ages. Plus, maintenance, as well as the running costs, are manageable, too. Despite that, you get an SUV that’ll do just fine with the school run as it would off the beaten path. Plus, there’s the highly pocketable and cute Pajero Mini.
Cheap JDM Cars – Four-Door Sedans And Limos
Toyota Mark II
Of course, cheap JDM cars also extend to the world of four-door sedans. Despite how dull this genre can be, there are certainly plenty of interesting choices, such as the Toyota Mark II. It’s also known as the Cressida, to some people. It’s a mid-size sedan, with engines as small as 1.5-liters or as large as 3.0-liters. Performance is generally decent for a car of its class, but it’s at least long-lasting.
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As with any Toyota, durability is the name of the game. Even with lackluster maintenance, the over-the-top build quality ensures that you’ll run into fairly minimal issues. The interior is pretty comfy if you’re looking for an easy-going daily driver. However, the rear-wheel-driven Mark II does have one very naughty side… With a few mods and some tuning, it’s apparently a pretty good drift car.
We Americans had to wait at least a decade before the iconic Lancer came to our shores. For those 10 years, all we could endure was seeing an Evo jump and blitz its way across a 90s rally stage. Back then, it was a cult icon and still remains to be one of the most well-known rally cars of all time. With Mitsubishi’s clever all-wheel-drive system, the Lancer Evo could grip on any surface imaginable.
This is then combined with a truly robust and pliable engine, capable of throwing power down with ease. If that’s somehow not enough, there are the turbos. Once you give it time to spool all the way up, the Lancer Evo could handily outpace even supercars of its day. On top of that, the Lancer’s solid and reliable to run. In addition, it has 4 seats so others could enjoy that rally magic, to boot!
There’s something unassuming about the Legacy. Looking at it, there’s a sort of vibe that this is the car your boring professor would probably drive. This remains true for the most part, as the Legacy was designed to be Subaru’s range-topping model. In short, something luxurious and comfortable, perhaps aimed toward a more mature audience. You might’ve not expected what it can do.
Meet the Spec B, a sportier version of the Legacy that finally let its hair down. Thus, it’s a great pick when looking at cheap JDM cars – a true sleeper. On the outside, it looks just as restrained. But with the Spec B modifications, Subaru brought in stiffer shocks, larger wheels, and a 6-speed manual box. All in all, the Subaru Legacy Spec B is the Impreza WRX STI, but much more subtle and refined.
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