If you've liked our Facebook page, you’ll have seen plenty of banter flying around between owners of Japanese cars and their Euro- and US-owning counterparts. But whatever your opinion of them, nobody in their right mind would disagree that the Japanese have been at the forefront of automotive innovation for years. And despite their huge popularity, you'll be glad to hear that you can go out armed with no more than £5,000, and come back with one of these Banzai engineering marvels. But which should you choose? Here’s our top ten.
Pros: Understated good looks; power; traction
Cons: Driving experience considered a little bland, despite power
Pros: Great looks, immense performance, T-top, rear-drive
Cons: Weighty, expensive to run, thirsty
Pros: Simplicity, poise, roofless thrills, sharper than an MX-5
Cons: Not fast in a straight line; pre-facelift engines have a tendency to implode
Pros: Manic rotary engine, sharp looks, huge fun to drive
Cons: Rotary drawbacks
Pros: Power, poise, grip, value
Cons: Odd looks, bland interior, image
Pros: Cornering ability, immense fun, distinctive looks
Cons: Not all that quick in a straight line
Pros: Tail-happiness, great engine, values sure to rise, strong equipment levels, excellent reliability
Cons: Drab interior
Pros: Exceptional grip, huge power, little else that’s as quick point-to-point, massive potential for upgrades
Cons: Thirsty, the least handsome Impreza, naff interior
Pros: Insane power and cross-country ability; better looks than Impreza
Cons: Worse interior than Impreza; expensive to maintain
Pros: Supermodel looks, superb engine, brilliant chassis, unburstable reliability; convertible roof
Cons: Lack of low-down torque; can be snappy
We've had our say, so now it's up to you. Vote below and feel free to add to the list in the comments.
10. Mazda 6 MPSAsk someone to think of a fast Japanese car, and the Mazda 6 MPS probably won’t be the first thing they think of. It probably won’t even be the fifth thing they think of – but that shouldn’t put you off. Understated and underrated though it might be, the 6 MPS was a devastatingly potent bit of kit, offering 256bhp from its 2.3-litre turbocharged engine. But unlike its little brother – the 3 MPS, with which it shared an engine – the 6 offered all-wheel drive, giving it the ability to put all that power down. Plenty of aftermarket tune-ability and cracking looks make this one to grab while you can.
9. Nissan 300ZXThe 300ZX was big in every way: big power, big weight, big girth, and just… well… big! That said, it handled sweetly and offered a massive 300bhp wallop from its 3.0-litre twin-turbo engine, making it one of the performance car bargains of the ’90s. Inside, a swoopy interior with plenty of space (up front, at least) made it a great grand tourer, and the T-top roof even meant you could get the wind in your hair if you fancied it. The only problem? Its complexity. With two turbos, two intercoolers and that V6 crammed under the bonnet, access was tight to say the least, and any big jobs need an awful lot of labour time. If you can stomach that, though, aim for a good, solid UK car like this one.
8. Toyota MR2Yes, the one that looks like it’s trying to imitate a Boxster. But why? And indeed, why not the earlier turbo, or the Mk1? Simple, really: the Mk3 MR2 was the best of the bunch. No, it couldn’t offer the outright shove of the Turbo, and nor did it feature the retro charm of the original, but the Mk3 was a pure, unadulterated blast from start to finish. It turned on a pin, exhilarated with a raspy, rorty engine note, and best of all, it was a full convertible too. Contentiously, too, it was an even better driver’s car than the MX-5. So what if it looked a bit like a squished Boxster? From behind the wheel, you’d be smiling too much too care. This one looks a cracker.
7. Mazda RX-8The RX-8 would finish so much higher in this list if it wasn’t for the inherent foibles of the Wankel (any excuse to say that word legitimately) rotary engine. Its prodigious oil thirst seems trifling next to its need for frequent rebuilds and propensity to throw its toys out if you turn it off when it’s cold too often. Which is a great shame, because when it’s working it’s an utterly beguiling power unit, and it’s mated to an utterly beguiling car – great looking, fantastic to drive and even vaguely practical, of sorts. But for its caveats, in other words, the RX-8 is a great car. Its one saving grace is that prices are low enough to mitigate the cost of that engine these days – bag a good one like this, own it for a year, look after it, and if you’re lucky, you might just get away with the bargain of the century.
6. Toyota Celica GT-FourThe GT-Four is oft forgotten in the annals of rally-inspired performance heroes, but it shouldn’t be. Four-wheel-drive and home to a stonking 239bhp engine (or 252, if you go for a Jap import model), it was blisteringly quick. So much so, in fact, that back in the day, Clarkson rated it just as highly as his beloved Cosworth, choosing the Escort in a twin-test only because it came in a good deal cheaper than the Celica. Today, though, the roles are reversed – with the Ford flying high around the £15,000 mark, a Celica can be yours for considerably less than five. Sounds like a bargain to us.
5. Honda Integra Type RAh yes, the poster boy of front-drive Honda fetishists everywhere. And not without reason: many people count this as the best-handling front-drive car of the ’90s. And with a screaming VTEC engine to back up that tremendous chassis distinctive looks clothed in white paintwork – before it was fashionable – the Type R was a complete package. Ultimately, though, its peaky 187bhp powerplant didn’t give it all that much straight-line oomph, which is why it doesn’t rank higher in this table – but buy one, and you probably won’t care when you see how it goes around corners.
4. Nissan 200SXIn S14 form, the 200SX was criticised for being rather too bland in the looks department; for offering too little visual drama to go with its sublime chassis, cracking 197bhp engine and extreme tail-out proclivity. Nissan fixed that with the scowling S14a, and the good news is that a solid S14a can still be had for less than £5,000. Buy now before the prices go up, though, as the 200SX’s drift reputation is such that it won’t be long before values are skyrocketing!
3. Subaru Impreza WRX STiYes, it had to be here, didn’t it? With so many around and a slightly naff reputation affecting these bug-eye cars, the WRX STi is now becoming a real steal. But with 260bhp, giving 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, plus of course that wonderfully pliant Impreza chassis and four-wheel drive, it’s hard not to consider this one of the great second-hand performance cars of our time. Forgive it its looks, and there’s little else that can dominate a B-road in slippery conditions quite like this for the cash…
2. Mitsubishi Lancer GSR Evolution VI…with the possible exception of this. It’s nowhere near as new as the Impreza, and the interior’s even more plasticky – but the Lancer was always the cooler of the two cars, and the slightly sharper tool. This one looks nicer than a bug-eye Impreza, too, and with those mods the owner’s claiming a whopping 350bhp. No slouch, then. This is simply a whacking amount of car for £5,000, and it’ll be able to do things nothing else on this list can. And for that reason, it just pips the Impreza to second spot.
1. Honda S2000There are few cars quite as polemic as Honda’s little two-seater, thanks to its distinctly on/off power delivery and reputation for swapping ends rather suddenly. But treat it with respect and the S2000 offers so much – a truly intoxicating engine; a cracking interior with deeply cool LED instruments; fantastic, pointy looks; a communicative chassis; and a deeply enjoyable noise. Among Japanese cars, when the sun’s out and you’re staring down the bonnet at a sinuous B-road, there are few better places to be. That you can these days buy one for less than£5,000 makes this one of the finest times to be alive.
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