5 underrated Japanese cars petrolheads secretly dream about

by | Apr 23, 2022 - 1:30PM | Cars

Nissan 300ZX rear section, hero image

The moment you start calling yourself a ‘petrolhead’, you’re almost automatically obliged to like Japanese cars.

It’s a bit of a cliche but there’s a good reason: Japanese cars often provide the same excitement and sporting credentials as their European counterparts.

But they’re usually cheaper or, at the very least, more attainable.

When you say “Japanese” and “cars” in the same sentence, most people think of the Toyota Supra, the Nissan Skyline, the Honda NSX, the Mitsubishi Evo and the Subaru Impreza.

But you’re only just scratching the surface.

You could easily compile a 100-point list including nothing but Japanese sportscars – but for the sake of brevity, let’s start with these five underrated classics.

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1. Toyota AE86 Trueno (1983-1987)

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Let’s start with the Toyota AE86 Corolla Levin Sprinter Trueno, but most people simply call it the ‘Trueno’.

It is a cultural icon in Japan, mostly because it was the main protagonist in the Initial D anime and manga, and the ‘D’ stands for ‘drifting’.

Toyota made several different versions between 1983 and 1987 but most people remember the coupe, powered by a N/A 1.6-litre engine, delivering 128 and 110 lb-ft of torque.

It doesn’t sound like a lot but the car weighs less than 1,000 kg.

There are a lot of models in the market, ranging from $4,000-5,000 and all the way up to $20,000.

2. Nissan 300 ZX Z32 (1989-2000)

Ideally, we all want a Skyline in our garage but the Fast & Furious franchise made it so popular – especially the R34 model – that we now perceive it as totally impossible to get.

That’s because it is.

So what do we do? We go for the 300 ZX, because it’s the next best thing.

First launched in 1983, the 300ZX is the great-grandad of the 350Z and it was available as a 2-door convertible, a 3-door coupe and even a Targa.

The first edition was discontinued after three years and replaced with the one you see here, which is also the one that generally springs to mind when we talk about this vehicle.

It’s powered by a 3.0-litre V6, available both without and without turbo-charging (twin-turbo), delivering 300 hp in its range-topping form.

Unlike the Skyline, which you can only buy if you sell a kidney these days, the 300 ZX is still vaguely affordable: a pre-owned example in good condition will ‘only’ set you back around $15,000-18,000.

And one more thing: it’s called the 300ZX but everyone in Japan calls it the ‘Fairlady Z’, which sounds a lot better for some reason.

3. Mitsubishi FTO (1994-2000)

If you’re having a conversation at the pub and you mention the FTO, people around you will either think you’re messing with them with random acronyms or, if they know their cars, they’re going to fall in love with you.

You need to be a proper, bona fide petrolhead to even know what the FTO is and that’s why car people love it. The name, by the way, stands for Fresh Touring Origination.

It’s a 2-door, front-engined (!) sportscar vaguely related to the Galant. Imagine that.

Mitsubishi gave it two different engine options: a more conservative 1.8-litre I4 and a pumped-up 2.0-litre V6 available with 168 hp or 197 hp.

It isn’t the fastest car in the world, or the most powerful, but it is also one of the most affordable JDM cars ever, because you can find it for under $10,000.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is it is relatively rare, so it won’t be easy to find.

4. Mazda RX-8 (2003-2012)

If you have money and want to support local businesses, buy a Mazda RX-8: workshop owners and gas stations owners in your town will absolutely adore you.

The RX-7 is the Wankel-powered car we all want, but most people end up buying the RX-8 simply because it is much easier to find and cheaper.

The problem with the RX-8 is there’s nothing cheap about it once you’ve bought it.

It is fantastically expensive to run – you’re gonna need a lot of motor oil and a lot of fuel – and hilariously unreliable.

BUT, if you can (afford to) gloss over the various issues and the running costs, it is a wonderful car: it’s seamlessly fast, smooth and comfortable.

There are four different models, all powered by the same 1.3-litre rotary engine with different power outputs and the most common one (by far) sends 231 hp to the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual.

There’s more good news: precisely because everyone knows how unreliable this car is, it is easy and cheap to find in the pre-owned market, you can find decent examples for under $10,000.

5. Toyota MR2 W30 (1997-2007)

Everyone knows about the MX-5 but some people want to think outside the box and that’s where the Toyota MR2 comes into play.

It’s basically the same thing – sort of – but cooler. Sort of.

The third (and so far last) MR2 is the one to get. It was unveiled at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show as a lightweight, no-nonsense 2-door convertible. It was basically Japan’s answer to the Lotus Elise.

Speaking of the Elise, the MR2 is actually powered by the same (slightly modified) 1.8-litre I4, it only produces 138 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque but then again the car only weighs 996 kg.

You’re spoilt for choice if you want to buy one: you can find examples in good condition for well under $10,000.

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