Spotting the next up and coming classic car can be tricky, but Japan offers plenty of options for those looking for something left-field from the Far East.
Whether it’s a peppy sportscar, luxury saloon or something altogether more unusual, emerging Japanese classics are interesting, intriguing and great value.
It shouldn’t be hard to find many of these cars in good condition and most are out there in decent numbers. Others are more esoteric, but don’t let that put you off bagging a Japanese classic as it shed used car territory for the sunny uplands of the classic car world. Here’s our pick of the best in ascending used starting price:
Subaru Forester S-Turbo (1999-2002) from £750
Making the most of the its rallying glory, Subaru launched the Forester S-Turbo in 1999 with a 168bhp version of the Impreza’s 2.0-litre turbo engine. That was down on the Japan-only STI with 250bhp, but it made for an endearing package that was still able to give hot hatches a fright so long as you didn’t mind some comical body lean through bends. All-wheel drive ensured plenty of grip and you still had all of the practical advantages of the normal Forester.
Many have led hard lives as rural hacks, so check the exhaust isn’t bashed to bits. UK cars came with self-levelling suspension as standard. Rear disc brakes become scored, but more of a worry if the engine’s big end bearings starting to fail. Listen for any knocks from the motor and smoke from the exhaust. If that’s not an issue, this is a rapid, versatile classic from just £750.
Toyota MR2 Mk3 (2000-2006) from £800
There aren’t many cars you’d want to be seen in or own that cost from just £800, but the third generation Toyota MR2 is definitely one. Granted, that rock bottom price will be for one that’s covered a fair few miles and would benefit from a little loving care, but it will still deliver the essential driving experience of this great little roadster.
Power came from a 138bhp, 1.8-litre mid-mounted engine, with five- or six-speed manual gearboxes or the clutchless SMT sequential manual. We’d stick with the normal transmission and the five-speeder is very strong, though earlier cars suffer from disintegrating pre-cats that can destroy the engine. Many will have been removed the eradicate the problem, but be wary of any car with its Lambda warning showing on the dash. Notchy steering means a new steering knuckle is needed, while rust in the rear subframe can take hold unnoticed behind the plastic cover. Check the condition of the hood, which can fray and split, but beyond that the MR2 is tough, great to drive and very reliable.
Honda Prelude (1996-2000) from £800
The fifth generation of Honda Prelude seems to be lingering in the limbo between used car and classic for longer than most of its contemporaries. That makes it a bargain for anyone looking to own a well-built, fine handling 1990s coupe. Some find the looks of this Prelude a little square-edged, but it can seat four and is comfier than many rivals.
The four-cylinder engines are tough and cheap to service, but stick to the manual gearbox as the automatics are troublesome and pricey to put right. Look out for rust on the boot’s lower edge, but little else goes wrong and you can find clean, presentable examples with an MOT from just £800.
Mazda RX-8 (2003-2012) from £800
Few cars have had to endure such a fall from grace as the Mazda RX-8. Yet, much of the criticism of this four-door, four-seat coupe is misguided and ill-informed. It centres around problems with the 1.3-litre rotary engine, which can become difficult to start and smoky, but almost always through neglect rather than any inherent flaws. It needs very regular oil checks and top-ups to keep the rotary tips in good health and many owners didn’t bother.
Find an RX-8 that has been properly cared for or had a new engine fitted and you’re on to a winner. The 189bhp model comes with a five-speed gearbox, but we’d head for the 228bhp version with a six-speeder that revs to an ear-tingling 9000rpm. Other things to watch for are failed coil packs and worn engine mounts. Don’t expect great fuel economy, but as a classic we can forgive the RX-8 this for the superb drive it offers at such temptingly low prices from £800.
Mitsubishi FTO (1994-2000) from £800
A tiny number of FTOs were brought to the UK with Mitsubishi’s blessing, but most are imported. Even so, it was a popular car for a brief period thanks to its sharp coupe looks and a sweet-sounding 2.0-litre V6 engine. Sadly, the performance never quite lived up to the noise, though the FTO handled well.
Most seem to have withered away, but there are FTOs out there from £800 ($1050), which is not a lot for a handsome coupe with that tuneful V6. You’ll need to look all over for rust as many were not well protected from the factory. Noisy engine tappets should be easily heard and so should worn rear suspension bushes. Check the brakes work smoothly as the front discs warp.
Toyota RAV4 Mk1 (1994-2000) from £900
Classic cars are often defined by being the first into a segment and the original Toyota RAV4 warrants that accolade. While the Suzuki Vitara gained a more lifestyle edge in its lifetime, the RAV4 was the first 4x4 deliberately aimed at the affordable, road-biased SUV customer. It also provided a good looking, great driving alternative to the average hatchback.
Available in more practical five-door or funkier three-door shapes, the RAV4 deserves its cult classic status and still makes a fine everyday driver. Make sure the cambelt has been changed at 60,000-mile intervals and there are no rattling noises from the valve gear. Rust shouldn’t be an issue and if it’s present, walk away and choose from one of the many decent cared-for examples out there from £900.
Lexus LS400 (1990-2000) from £1000
If you’re going to launch a new car company with a Mercedes S-Class rival, it had better be very good. Lexus didn’t bother with that and instead outdid its rival in every objective measure with the LS400. The 4.0-litre V8 with 241bhp was smoother, quieter and quicker than its German rival, while the auto ’box went from three to four to five speeds during the car’s 10-year lifespan.
Build quality that put every other premium maker to shame means these Lexus saloons last incredibly well, so expect and demand that everything works as it should. Timing belts should be changed every 100,000 miles and the transmission fluid requires an annual swap. After that, the only things that will spoil this elegant party are perishables like rubber bushes that are all easily available to restore this £1000 ($2500) saloon’s poise.
Daihatsu Copen (2003-2009) from £1500
If you’re idea of a classic is one with endearing looks, the Daihatsu Copen is for you. From just £1500 ($1950) you can enjoy the dinky proportions of this kei-class roadster and its fizzy 660cc turbocharged triple pot engine that serves up 67bhp. Not a huge amount of power, but it’s just enough in the Copen to have fun, while the later 1.3-litre engine is better suited to everyday use.
Much of the appeal of the Copen lies in its folding hardtop roof that offers wind in the hair fun and watertight use. Regular use will keep the battery charged and allow access to the electrically-opened boot. Make sure the 660cc engine’s spark plugs are properly tightened as they can work loose.
Mitsubishi Shogun (1991-1999) from £1500
As one of the few large 4x4s that could take the fight to the Land Rover Discovery, the second generation Shogun deserves its place in the emerging classic pantheon. Ruggedly handsome and able in the mud, it’s also a good family wagon in three- or five-door forms. Petrol V6s are smooth and quick, though very thirsty, while the four-cylinder turbodiesels are much more frugal but with a pay-off in poorer refinement.
Smart, cared for Shoguns can be had from £1500, which makes for a lot of very able SUV at not a lot of money. A Pajero import isn’t an issue if it’s correctly registered and the Pajero Evolution with its rally raid styling and 276bhp 3.5-litre V6 is already very collectable. Look for rust everywhere and sign of off-road abuse, but tidy ones will stand out readily from abused workhorses.
Mazda MX-5 Mk3 (2005-2014) from £1750
With the Mk1 MX-5 now firmly established as a classic and the Mk2 following suit, the smart buy is the Mk3. Its taut styling is complemented by a weathertight hood or folding Roadster Coupe hardtop, with the latter the better seller by four to one in the UK. Both are great to drive and ignore those who say the Mk3 lost its dynamic way compared to earlier models – it’s nonsense.
Unfortunately, the Mk3 also retained its predecessor’s ability to rust around the rear arches, sills and underside, so you need to get underneath for a close inspection. Mechanically, the third generation MX-5 is robust, so just look for a full service record. We’d take the 2.0-litre with manual gearbox from £1750 over the others, but the 1.8 is still fun. Less so, the automatic transmission.
Honda Accord Type R (1998-2002) from £2000
Prices are beginning to firm up for this Japanese Q-car, but you can still bag one from £2000. The best are more than double that, but all come with the sublime 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine that kicks out 209bhp at a stroppy 7200rpm. That’s enough for 0-62mph in 7.0 seconds, so you can still harry modern hot hatches.
The understated styling of the Accord Type R means it’s aged well and the handling also means it still puts in a great showing. You’ll need to check the anti-roll bar drop links are not broken, but they’re cheap to replace. The engine uses about a litre of oil per 1000 miles, so have a careful inspection of the dipstick for quantity and colour of lubrication. Listen for any rattles from the cambelt tensioner and leaks from the crankshaft seals. Earlier car’s gearboxes can crunch going into fifth and reverse, while rust can take hold on the sills, arches and front bulkhead.
Suzuki SJ (1981-1998) from £2000
The hardest part of deciding if a Suzuki SJ is the classic Japanese car for you will be finding one that hasn’t been doctored for off-roading. Even with 1.0-litre or 1.3-litre engines, these little 4x4s are superb at crossing rough terrain thanks to a low ratio transfer ’box, good ground clearance and light weight. On-road, they’re rather basic, but the soft-tops offer open air fun for four.
Corrosion will be the major problem to look for with any SJ as it can take hold pretty much anywhere. Find one that’s not rotten and you’ll also need to inspect for oil leaks and cracked cylinder heads on the engine. If that all pans out, reckon on spending from £2000 ($4000) for a decent SJ.
Honda Civic Type-R EP3 (2001-2005) from £2000
The EP3 generation Honda Civic Type-R hails from a golden age of diversity in the hot hatch class. In the early 2000s, you could pick from turbocharged, supercharged and normally aspirated contenders. Honda chose the latter and used its VTEC variable valve timing to extract 197bhp from the 2.0-litre motor. That peak power arrived at 7400rpm and the rev limit was 7800rpm, so it loves to be revved hard. It’s this that dominates the Civic Type-R driving experience, but it also handles nimbly and was generously fitted out, so using one as a daily classic now is perfectly possible.
When inspecting any Civic Type of this era, you need to know the engine oil has been kept topped up and routinely changed. Cam chains and tensioners can let go unexpectedly, so budget £650 for new items if they’ve not been replaced recently. The gearbox gets stiff when a new clutch is needed and the steering rack fails, so feel for any notchiness. A worn driver’s seat bolster is very likely, but easily sorted to smarten up a car from £2000.
Nissan Figaro (1991) from £3000
For a car built only for the Japanese market for one year, there are a surprising number of Nissan Figaros in the UK. Its popularity is largely down to the neat retro styling that includes a palette of pastel shades and folding fabric roof. Strictly a two-seater, the Figaro is an ideal urban gadabout thanks to all coming with a three-speed automatic gearbox.
Power comes from a turbocharged Micra K10 engine, but don’t expect too much performance as maximum power is 74bhp. However, as this and the rest of the Figaro’s running gear is based on the Micra, it’s reliable and cheap to fix. Rust is the biggest enemy, so look closely around the wheelarches, sills and every edge of the panels for signs of this and poor repairs. Take your time and you can find decent Figaros from £3000, helped by Nissan building 20,000 in that single year of production.
Mitsuoka Viewt (1993-present) from £3000
No need to squint or get a new prescription for your specs, this is not a Jaguar Mk2. It’s a Mitsuoka Viewt that cribs the looks of Jag’s rakish 1960s saloon and superimposes them on to a body built around a Nissan Micra. It started off using the K11 Micra and swapped to the K12 in 2005, and you can still buy them new in Japan.
All UK Viewts are imports, so make sure the paperwork checks out. Other than that, look for rust around the wheelarches and sills. The engines can suffer from rattly timing chains and routine oil changes are essential. Be sure the CVT gearbox engages smoothly and easily as fixing this can make a £3000 Viewt suddenly a very expensive dolled up Micra.
Lexus SC430 (2001-2009) from £4000
Wafting along on a summer evening, roof down and enjoying the drive is what classic cars are all about, and few do this better than the Lexus SC430. For the price of a ratty MGB, you could be sat behind the wheel of this 282bhp V8-motored luxury drop-top. Conceived as a rival to the Mercedes SL, the Lexus came with an aluminium folding coupe-convertible roof and rock solid build.
Unfortunately, the ride was also just as unyielding at launch, though revisions in 2002 and 2004 improved this. You’ll likely pay from nearer £5000 for a 2004-on example, but condition is key when choosing an SC430. Most owners are sticklers for servicing, but check it’s complete and comprehensive. Otherwise, the only things to look for are low coolant levels that can lead to blown head gaskets and creaky suspension that means worn rear arms. Also make sure the roof operates smoothly – it takes 25 seconds to transition from fully up to stowed under the rear deck.
Honda Insight (1999-2003) from £5000
If ever you needed a reminder that technology moves at a fast pace in the automotive world, the original Honda Insight is it. Two decades have passed since this diminutive coupe seemed so radical and far-fetched. Now, hybrids are commonplace, but the Insight was intriguingly different in 1999 because of its looks and mix of 67bhp three-cylinder petrol engine and 13bhp electric motor. At the time, 64mpg from a petrol car was astonishing.
There were compromises to achieve that economy, such as only two seats and low rolling resistance tyres that gave an overly firm ride. However, as a game-changer, the Insight is now attaining classic appeal and you can even replace the original battery pack with brand new, more powerful kit. Little else goes wrong to make this a future-proofed classic from £5000.
Isuzu Vehicross (1997-2001) from £7000
In a world now dominated by SUVs and crossovers, if you want to stand out you need to get yourself an Isuzu Vehicross. Pretty it ain’t, but it sure is distinctive and it’s also quite quick thanks to 215bhp 3.2- or 3.5-litre V6s borrowed from the Trooper range. All-wheel drive is standard and comes with a Torque On Demand system developed by Borg Warner for the car.
Inside, the Vehicross is much more conventional, though you have to be a fan of 1990s multi-colour fabrics to be in there for long. Four seats make it practical and very little goes wrong as the Trooper mechanical components are extremely hard-wearing. Finding one might be a challenge as only 1805 right-hand drive cars were made for the Japanese market, plus a further 4153 left-hookers for the USA. If you do spot a Vehicross for sale, reckon on spending from £7000.