Japanese cars are renowned for their reliability and affordable price tags, but the automakers from the land of the rising sun sure know how to have some fun, too. Over the years there have been some legendary Japanese sports cars.
While Japanese sports cars have been around ever since the 1960s, they really started to gain traction during the 1980s. By the 90s, Japanese sports cars seemed to take over the market and held on to that position as we entered the new Millenium. The Japanese brands are still going strong today, pumping out lightweight, fast, and fun sports cars that would make you excited to get behind the wheel. Whether you seek fun, practicality, or breakneck speed, there’s a Japanese sports car for you.
The Acura RSX, also known as the Honda Integra DC5, is the fourth and last generation of the Honda Integra. Acura discontinued the RSX back in 2006, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes the company has ever made. The RSX Type-S version came with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder VTec engine producing 201 horsepower, more than enough to provide some fun. As an added bonus, it's really practical as well as far as coupes go.
Thundering performance and an addictive soundtrack make this an appealing driver’s car – especially when combined with big front-mounted V6, rear-wheel-drive, and macho, beefed-up looks. Some cars suffer from too stiff suspension, and correct tire choices are really important for the 350Z. It’s worth shopping around for the best car that you can find. Double normal prices are already being asked for mint condition ultra-low-mileage examples.
Based on the Honda Civic, the Del Sol was a true 1990s sports car. It had compact 1.5-liter and 1.6-liter engines that sent their power to the front wheels. It had a targa top and a fancy electrically operated retractable rear window. It's an entertaining vehicle with precise handling, good braking, and enough power to attack corners on curvy roads. Aftermarket parts are plentiful due to its Civic heritage.
If old school performance with a five-speed gearbox and rear-wheel drive sound like your idea of a good time, then the 280ZX is a great place to start. After all, it was Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year in 1979. While the value of these sports cars has grown tremendously the past few years, it’s still possible to find a good one for under $5,000. They also have excellent aftermarket support.
The 4th generation Supra prices have exploded in recent years, but older Supras like the 3rd gen. can still be had for reasonable money. The Supra offers Toyota reliability at supercar speeds. An excellent platform for touring in stock form, and there are plenty of aftermarket solutions if building a reliable cruise missile is more your thing. The Supra is over-engineered in the best way - with Toyota quality.
Prices are increasing, so if you want one of these 90s icons, now's the time to get it. Sadly, you won't be getting the 300 horsepower turbo version for 5 grand. While the standard 222-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 doesn't provide neck-snapping performance, it offers plenty of backroad cruising fun. The car handled like a dream and its swoopy interior offers plenty of space up front, making it a great grand tourer.
The last generation MR2 was a pure, unadulterated blast from start to finish. It turned on a dime, exhilarated with a raspy, throaty engine note, and it was a convertible. It was also a better driver's car than the Miata! So what if it looked a bit like a squished Porsche Boxster? From behind the wheel, you’d be smiling too much to care.
The RX-8 does come with some problems regarding its Wankel rotary engine. Its oil thirst doesn't seem like such a big deal when compared to its need for frequent rebuilds, which is a shame, because the 231 hp 1.3-liter really is an incredible power unit. The RX8 looks amazing, it's fantastic to drive and even vaguely practical - just make sure you find one in great condition.
The Integra Type R is the poster child of front-drive Honda fetishists everywhere. And not without reason: this is the best-handling front-wheel-drive car of the ’90s. However, Type R's have gotten more expensive the last few years, so you'd probably have to settle for a base version - or find one that needs some work. It doesn't matter though, they all look amazing and have lots of tuning potential.
In S14 form, the 240SX was criticized for being rather too bland in the looks department, offering too little visual drama to go with its sublime chassis that loves nothing more than some extreme tail-out action. Buy now before the prices go up though, as the 240SX’s drift-machine reputation will make prices skyrocket.
With so many around and a slightly sketchy reputation affecting these bugeye cars, the WRX is now becoming a real steal. With its turbocharged 2-liter boxer engine, that wonderful Impreza chassis, and four-wheel drive, it’s hard not to consider this one of the great performance car bargains of our time. Forgive it its looks, and there’s little else that can dominate a winding back road in slippery conditions quite like this.
The Dodge Stealth was also a rebadged version of this car. The 3000GT sold well in the United States, but not well enough to keep up production. It had a DOHC V6 engine that produced 219 horsepower, while the twin-turbo version had a 276-horsepower engine. The 3000GT was very technologically advanced for its time, which can sometimes translate into trouble as the car gets older.
The Mitsubishi Eclipse is one of the most popular JDM cars to modify - no doubt the green Eclipse driven by Paul Walker in the first F&F movie is partly to blame for that. The 1999 Eclipse GS is the last year of the second generation, which is arguably the best-looking and best-driving generation. These cars can be picked up for next to nothing now.
If you're looking for a cool toy, look no further: rear-wheel drive, lively handling, rev-happy engines, delightful manual gearboxes. And it's a convertible, making it the perfect summer car. Not only is this car Guinness Record-certified as the world's best-selling two-seat sports car, but it's also a popular choice for racers. Mazda claims that on any given weekend, more Miatas are racing than any other single type of car.
Our budget could actually buy a 2nd gen. MR2, including some highly suspect, hard-living Turbos, but why not go with the car which started it all, the 1st gen.? Crash damage and/or rust issues are the main problems - the main concern with all Japanese sports cars of this era. Take your time to find a good one and you’ll be treated to one of the greatest Japanese sports cars of all time.
The one you'll really want is the GT-S, which has a wing, and, more importantly, the 2ZZ-GE engine which revs to 8,000 rpm and pushes out 180 hp. This is the same engine that Lotus used in the Series 2 Elise, albeit with different software. In addition to the fantastic engine, the Celica has all the practicality of a hatchback. Another thing to keep in mind is the legendary Toyota reliability.
The Starion packs a turbocharged engine under the hood, and like the similarly-styled Porsche 944, puts its power to the rear wheels. They're a little tough to find for sale, but when they do pop up, prices start as low as a few thousand dollars for a well-used car, to tens of thousands for a pristine low mileage wide-body example.
You won't find the gorgeous third-generation twin-turbo RX-7 for under $5000. You'd struggle to find one for under $10,000, but you can get naturally aspirated versions of the first two generations for under $5000. Its rotary engine can be tricky to maintain, but it's so cool, you probably won't care once you get out on the open road.
The rear-wheel-drive Cappuccino Kei car was never officially sold in the US, but thanks to the import laws, they can now be brought into the country. There aren't many to be found under $5000, but there are some. Perfect for those living in a crowded city but still want the joys of Japanese sports car ownership.
It's easy to see why CRXs have seen an upswing in popularity in the last couple of years. The lightweight two-seater CRX Si aligned perfectly with the Honda engineering ethos: lightweight, compact, fun, efficient and reliable. There are endless aftermarket performance upgrades available, so you can turn this baby into one serious pocket rocket capable of leaving much more powerful machinery in its dust on twisty mountain roads.
Sources: Car Throttle, Motor1, Car & Driver