12 Affordable JDM Cars That We Recommend

As more cars from Japan's golden era are becoming eligible to import Stateside under the 25-year rule, average values for the segment are on a one-way trend upward. JDM, or Japanese Domestic Market, cars are among the hottest trends in the current car market, with the most in-demand models shooting up double-digit percentages in value every year (via Hagerty). It might seem next to impossible for cash-strapped enthusiasts to get their hands on a tasteful JDM classic, but even with the market rising, there are still plenty of affordable models out there for every kind of collector.

Look past the usual raft of Supras and Skylines, and Japan's biggest manufacturers have a wealth of cool lesser-known, or lesser-appreciated vehicles in their back catalogs. Whether you're looking for a low-mileage garage queen or a low-cost project, there are plenty of options out there for less than $20,000, and a few for less than half of that. Granted, the rarity of a few of these cars means they'll require a little more effort than average to actually buy, but if you can find one, they're all well worth the money.

Toyota MR2

There are very few, if any, mid-engined cars on the market that are cheaper than the Toyota MR2. The third generation of the roadster boasts sharp steering, a comfortable cabin, and a peppy engine, says Parkers, and since it packs a frugal 1.8L engine, it won't cost much in fuel either. It's also built with Toyota's signature high build quality, and it ranked second place in our list of the most reliable convertibles on the market.

That mid-engine layout gives the car a naturally better handling profile than many other cars of its age, and it's backed up by a light curb weight that, combined with the low driving position, makes the car feel significantly faster to drive than it is. Much like a Mazda Miata, the MR2 offers a cheap and accessible way for drivers to enjoy themselves without worrying about getting to speeds that will lose their license, although it's worth keeping in mind that this is strictly a weekend toy only. The car's midship layout means that luggage space is practically non-existent, so it's quite impractical to daily drive even by sports car standards.

Suzuki Cappuccino

Kei cars are a unique segment that has remained popular in Japan for decades thanks to reduced tax and running costs over a standard-size vehicles. They're small, lightweight, and feature engines of no more than 660cc in capacity (via MotorTrend). Most Kei cars are what you could call 'functional' rather than interesting, and offer little value to foreign collectors other than being novelties. However, Kei sports cars are a different matter altogether, and the Suzuki Cappuccino is one of the best examples of these miniature performance cars. The Cappuccino was built as a rival to the Honda Beat and Daihatsu Copen, and it was produced between 1991 and 1997, according to Auto Express.

With a classic front-engine, rear-driven layout and a feather-light curb weight of less than 1,600 lbs, driving a Cappuccino is like having your own street-legal go-kart. It's so small that Auto Express reports you can choose your own line within your lane on the road, something that's all but impossible in larger, more modern cars. Its relative lack of power and tiny size means that it won't be pleasant to drive on the highway, and taller or larger drivers might struggle to fit comfortably within the tight cabin. However, as far as quirky JDM cars go, there are few things that beat a Cappuccino. The car was never officially sold in the States but a few examples have made their way over anyway, and it can just about be found within the $20,000 budget.

Nissan 350Z

The 350Z, or Fairlady Z as it was called in Japan, was unveiled at a time of great uncertainty for Nissan. The collapse of the Japanese economy had pushed the company to the brink of bankruptcy, and it had entered into a partnership with French automaker Renault in a bid to stay solvent (via Britannica). The 350Z was designed to take the Z line of sports cars back to basics, abandoning the tech-heavy, high-priced approach that had seen the 300ZX axed without an immediate successor (via MotorTrend). Instead, the 350Z focused on the basics: a tried-and-tested 3.5L V6 engine, excellent handling, and a low asking price.

A review from Car and Driver at the time of the car's release points out how much better value the 350Z was than its rivals: it was only a few thousand dollars more than a Toyota MR2, yet it boasted around double the horsepower. In fact, it was only a few horses shy of the base-spec Porsche 911 of the era, which cost over twice as much as the 350Z. Suffice it to say, the relaunched Z car was a big sales success, and it's this popularity that's helped keep resale prices reasonable today. As a bonus, all those shared parts used on the car make it one of the most reliable sports cars on the market, so maintenance costs shouldn't be an issue either.

Toyota Crown

Toyota recently announced it was launching the Crown back into the U.S. market as a weirdly-styled hybrid after more than 50 years away from the United States market, but throughout that time it's remained a firm favorite at home in Japan. First-to-fourth generation Crowns were officially imported to America until 1971, but the Japanese-market car is now in its fifteenth generation, so there are plenty of variants for enthusiasts to pick from (via Japanese Nostalgic Car). Their success is partly due to the fact that they've never deviated much from their original formula: big, plush executive cars with rear-wheel drive and (usually) plenty of poke under the hood.

Crowns from the '80s and '90s are rare to find for sale in the U.S., but a handful can be found for sale through specialist importers. To take an example, Duncan Imports of Virginia currently has two Crowns for sale at the time of writing, one for $12,900 and the other for just $8,900. If a Crown still isn't fancy enough, the flagship Toyota Century limousine can also be found from the same dealer within budget, although its V12 engine and complex construction mean that maintenance will likely be considerably more expensive.

Mazda MX-5 Miata (NA)

It would be criminal to publish a list of great affordable Japanese cars without mentioning one of the best-selling sports cars of all, the Mazda Miata. While buying one of these won't win any prizes for originality, there's a good reason why the little roadsters have remained endearingly popular for decades now. They combine all the best values of a good cheap sports car into one: light curb weight, a low asking price, and handling that'll always put a smile on your face. We've ranked the NA Miata as one of the best Mazdas ever made, and it's made even better by the fact that it can be picked up so cheaply.

It's not quite as easy to find an old Miata in good condition as it once was – they do suffer from rust, and plenty have been lost to accidents or poor-quality modifications over the years. However, a quick glance down any popular auction site will prove that there are still plenty of examples available for $10,000 or so, with even lower-mileage examples still being available within the $20,000 budget.

Nissan 370Z

The Nissan 370Z first went on sale for the 2009 model year, boasting a 26 horsepower boost and lighter curb weight than its predecessor, the 350Z (via NBC). It stayed in production mostly unchanged until 2020 when it was retired in preparation for the 2023 Z. By the time it reached the end of its life, most reviewers agreed that the car was past its best, and couldn't keep up with its modern competition either on the track or on the backroads.

Its unusually long production run has had one big benefit though: as there was essentially unlimited supply available for the car until 2020, demand has been comparatively low, and that's helped drive resale prices down. It's now one of the best-value used sports cars on the market, with prices starting at just under $15,000 for higher-mileage examples. Buyers who want a ten-or-so-year-old sports car with over 300 horses and old-school, analog handling will be hard-pressed to find anything better, at least from any Japanese manufacturer.

Nissan Figaro

Perhaps one of the weirdest JDM exports of the 1990s is the Nissan Figaro, which at first glance might look several decades older than it is. One of the last creations of Nissan's Pike Factory division, the Figaro was built as a retro-modern oddity that took design inspiration from the 1935 Datsun Roadster but featured all the latest technology inside (via Autocar). Previous Pike Factory cars had proved immensely popular in Japan, and Nissan capitalized on this by building 20,000 examples of the Figaro, all of which quickly sold.

Autocar reports that although they were never officially sold outside Japan, Figaros became very popular in Britain, and over 6,000 examples ended up being imported out of the original 20,000. Thanks to the 25-year import rule, they couldn't be imported into America until a few years ago, but now a few of them have made their way over and can be found just about within budget. They're not very practical and they're certainly not very fast, but there are few cars that will draw quite as much attention as a Figaro in its price bracket.

Honda Del Sol

The Civic-based Honda Del Sol was billed as a direct successor to the revered CR-X, and although it lost a little of the lightweight magic that made the latter car so special, it's still a great affordable sports car in its own right. With its unique targa roof and inline-four engine plucked straight from the Civic range, the Del Sol was both cheap to run, but unique enough that it stood out from its rivals like the Nissan NX 2000 and Mazda MX-3.

The Del Sol was more suited to the city than much of its competition, with anti-theft devices and lights to remind drivers of open windows, reports the New York Times. It was also at home as a commuter car, with a comfortable interior and some of the most generous storage space in its segment. It wasn't the fastest or most thrilling to drive, with one review describing it as being for people who might find the Mazda Miata "a bit too hairy-chested." Nonetheless, it picked up a niche fanbase, and thanks to its Civic underpinnings, there's a big aftermarket out there for any drivers who want to put a few more horses under the hood.

Toyota Celica

If spending five figures on your new Japanese sports car is out of the question altogether, the Toyota Celica offers one of the cheapest ways to get your hands on a vehicle from the Land of the Rising Sun. The seventh-generation Celica (the last one before the nameplate was axed) can be found for as little as $5,000 depending on your location, and finding one in decent condition under $10,000 should be no trouble at all. It covers all the main bases for an affordable sports car: it's fun to drive, economical to run, and boasts suitably lively handling when you put your foot down, reports Whatcar.

It's also arguably one of the best-looking cheap sports cars of its era, with a unique silhouette that's less cutesy than the similarly-priced Mazda Miata or Audi TT of the same era. Like many small sports cars, the Celica isn't very practical as a daily driver, as the small rear seats can at most hold a few bags of groceries or a small child. As well as boasting a low asking price, the Celica also benefits from Toyota's famed reliability, with reports suggesting you can expect 250,000-300,000 miles out of a well-maintained example.

Nissan Stagea

Skylines are still some of the most iconic JDM cars of all, but the premiums that the nameplate now commands can make it almost impossible to find a reasonably priced example in good condition. One way around this is to instead buy a Nissan Stagea, a Japan-only wagon that shares many of its internals with the Skyline, but can be found without the huge markups. The car was first introduced in Japan in 1996, and at present, only 1996-1997 models can be imported under the 25-year rule. That makes the Stagea a real rarity, with only a few examples registered Stateside at present.

Those that are can often be bought for under $20,000 – for example, a 1997 Stagea with an RB25DE engine is currently listed for $16,250 at the time of writing. While it might look closer in styling to the R34 Skyline, the first-gen Stagea is actually based on the R33, and both cars shared the same engine options (via JDM4All). That means there's a choice of RB20, RB25, and RB25DET engines, making 130, 190, and 235 horsepower, respectively. Although of course, anyone familiar with the tuning capabilities of the Skyline will know how easily those figures can be increased.

Subaru BRZ

The BRZ might be one of the newest cars on this list, but it's just as affordable. A high-mileage used example should cost no more than $15,000, and for that, you get a car that's around ten years old and still looks modern thanks to the first-generation car's long production run. In fact, the second generation car only debuted in 2022, and it's arguably even better than its predecessor, but it costs more than $20,000 so it's not eligible for this list.

The original BRZ is still an excellent sports car, with engaging handling and a comfortable enough cabin that it's easy to use as a daily driver. Some drivers might find it a little lacking in the power department, but that's something that can be fairly easily and cheaply solved through aftermarket parts. Even when it's bone stock though, the BRZ is arguably one of the best affordable sports cars on the market right now, and a great entry point into Japanese sports car ownership.

Nissan 300ZX (Z32)

The Z32 Nissan 300ZX is still arguably one of the best Z-cars of all, sporting cutting-edge design and flagship-worthy performance. From its smooth, sleek looks to its innovative HICAS four-wheel steering system, the 300ZX took several big leaps forward both for Nissan as a manufacturer and for Japanese sports car design in general. Suddenly, the boxy proportions and pop-up lights of '80s JDM cars looked very old-school, not to mention the fact that the new Z car could leave all of them in the rearview mirror on the track.

However, the Z32's high asking price limited its sales success in America and meant that it was discontinued in 1996 without a direct successor (via CarSalesBase). This relative rarity has caused prices to climb rapidly in the last few years, with Hagerty reporting that the average value for the car went up by 27% in 2021 alone. Sales data from Bring a Trailer proves that it's still possible to get 300ZX for under $20,000, but it's not as easy as it once was. Prices have continued to rise throughout 2022, and anyone lucky enough to find a low-mileage, well-maintained example within budget should see a healthy return on their investment within a few years, assuming prices continue to rise.