Supra! Skyline! RX-7! The JDM heroes are universally loved and, usually, universally expensive. So, what if you want to experience the best of JDM, like maybe one with one of the most legendary engines ever, but you only have a bento budget? Well, buckle up, because we have 9 amazing JDM icons that you can actually afford. Let’s go!
If you’re reading this, you’re in luck, because thanks to the 25-year rule on imports, we here in the States are finally able to get the cars from Japan’s golden age. And that’s great because lots of the cars on this list never even made it to the USA. They just hate us, I don’t know.
Nissan Pulsar GTi-R – Silvia Served Family Style
This is the Mona Lisa reimagined as a rally car. It’s called the Nissan Pulsar and comes in a few configurations. You can get it as a small sedan, a coupe, or a five-door hatchback. But you don’t want those, you want the three-door hatchback GTi-R.
Why would you want a quirky little hatch from Nissan? Because of the turbo’d SR20DET under the hood. That’s right, this little hatch is really a Silvia pretending to be practical. Nicknamed “Baby Godzilla,” the Pulsar GTi-R was built for rally racing, and it is legitimately fast even when it’s stock.
You know all those guys bragging that they turbocharged their Civic Si? The GTi-R is that but on steroids. They’re a handful to drive because they have a short little wheelbase, weigh nothing, and make way too much power. It’s pretty much totally awesome and I want one.
You want one too? Good news! Unlike the Nissan S13 or Skyline R32 from the same era, the Pulsar GTi-R can be found for less than $15,000. In an era where an anemic old Civic EK sells for the same damn price, why wouldn’t you buy a hyper-hatch instead?
Pulsars are a bit obscure outside of Japan, though, so they may become hard to find. I was able to find one here in the States for sale, imported, and ready to go for around $18,000. So, either you could get a slightly used WRX and look like everyone else, or be driving a rally car sleeper that no one has ever seen Stateside!
This next car, which is a really good-looking car up there with the RX-7, was available basically everywhere except the USA, so they are staying pretty cheap. From Mitsubishi, it’s the FTO.
Mitsubishi FTO – Forgotten Beauty
Fun to drive. That’s what everyone says about them. Heck, Japan even called it the “Car of the Year” when it debuted in 1994. And in the mid-2000s, AutoTrader Britain called it the “Best Used Sports Car.” That’s pretty high praise for a front-wheel drive car. You can argue in the comments about whether or not a front-wheel drive hardtop can be a sports car, but what you can’t deny is that it’s a really pretty car.
It was offered with three engines, but trust me, you’re going to want the MiVec option which packs close to 200 horses in its stable that came in the GP and GXP models of the FTO. The United States never got the FTO. We got the Starion, which was like the weird precursor. But the “Fresh Touring Origination,” or the FTO, never made it. Maybe they didn’t think the name would do well.
Either way, thanks to the 25-year rule, you can get them now and they are cheap. I’m talking under $10,000 if you opt for the weaker, pre-facelift FTOs. Or, if you want the ideal FTO, a GXP made after 1997 with a five-speed, you’re still only looking at around $16,000 delivered to the good old USA.
If you really need rear-wheel drive, though, and you’re like most people and definitely can’t afford a Supra, how about the next best thing?
Toyota Soarer – Budget Supra
It’s called the Toyota Soarer, which is an awkward name for a car. Now, we did kind of get the Soarer in the States. We only got the third generation, and we called it the Lexus SC300. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic car, just ask Tavarish, but the one that you really want is the genuine JDM article. Why? Because unlike the SC300 and SC400, the Japanese Supra-based Soarer was available with a 1JZ-GTE twin-turbo powerplant coupled to a manual transmission. The same motor that’s in the Mark 3 Supra.
Officially, the Soarer made 279 horsepower. Every major Japanese sports car from the era made 279 horsepower, though, because of the “gentleman’s agreement.” Maybe we’ll talk about that in another article. Let us know in the comments if you want to know more about that.
Anyway, that 1JZ is legendary in the tuning scene. It’s a staple of budget, high-horsepower JDM engine swaps in the drifting culture. It isn’t quite the monster its younger brother the 2J is, but a JDM Soarer with the 1JZ-GTE will be a hell of a lot of fun to build power out of.
The best part, though, is that people are totally sleeping on these on the import scene, meaning you can pick one up for fairly cheap. I’ve seen them for around $9,000, but for a good example you can expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,000, which is an amazing deal for something that’s basically a low-budget Supra.
You know how else to get Supra performance without Supra prices? Just grab one of its competitors like the Nissan 300ZX.
Nissan 300ZX Z31 or Z32 – Corvette Killer
We talk a lot about the Nissan Z cars because they’re awesome. The 350Z is still just straight up one of the best sports car values out there, but its older siblings, the 300ZX Z31 and Z32, have aged like a fine wine. A young Squidd actually owned a Z32, and while they’re incredibly difficult to work on, I honestly believe that they feel better to drive than a lot of JDM cars from the golden age. The interior is pure fighter jet and they’re almost as fast. You don’t earn the nickname “Corvette Killer” if you’re slow.
Now, you can just buy a USDM 300ZX, but this is a list of JDM heroes, and we know you want to impress people by having to go through a drive-thru backwards. If you just want to go fast and cruise around in your own personal fighter jet, you can pick up a twin-turbo with a slushbox for under $10,000, or the ideal spec Z32 with a five-speed for anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000.
You’ll notice those $10,000 and $15,000 numbers a lot because that’s sort of the sweet spot between “not worth importing” and “more than you can afford, pal.” That includes the next car on our list, an all-wheel drive, lightweight car with an incredible rally pedigree that’s not a Subaru. It’s the Toyota Celica GT4.
Toyota Celica GT4 – Group B Memories
You may know the Celica as a mythical beast that Scotty Kilmer worships, or as a strange-looking early-2000s Type R wannabe. Stateside, we only got the front-wheel drive, slow version of the Celica. Outside the USA, though, there was the Celica GT4. The Celica GT4 is not just some wannabe Civic, it’s an insane fire-breathing rally car complete with all-wheel drive and a big old turbo under the hood, and it was winning on the WRC stage.
Plus, it’s got those awesome quad headlights because this car was designed before car companies were afraid to take risks. It’s insane how fun Toyota used to be in the ’80s and ’90s before they got watered down with “Beige Camry Syndrome.”
The great news is that the ST205 generation, which is the one you want, is now available for import. Just act quick. Like we said before, they are around $15,000 right now, but once people remember that they exist, I think the price is going to skyrocket.
But wait, $20,000 isn’t cheap! I need something that I can get after using some Ideal Money ideas. Don’t worry, Mitsubishi has your back with the GTO.
Mitsubishi GTO – Japan Featuring Italy
There’s two paths you can go with the frankly beautiful GTO. You can import a real GTO, which will get you mad street cred, but this is one of the rare times I’ll suggest just getting the USA market version, and it’s because they are so damn cheap.
In the USA, these cars were sold under two names: Mitsubishi sold them as the 3000GT, and due to some shady deals, you could also get them as a Dodge Stealth. Grey imports are a fun topic we’ll look at some time, but right now, just know that during the ’80s and ’90s, lots of cars labeled Dodge were really Mitsubishis.
That’s fine, and I bet if you check Facebook Marketplace right now, there’ll be one that needs a little work for less than $10,000, and a great one for less than $20,000. If you do need that right-hand drive, good news, you can get really clean examples out of Japan for around $15,000 to $20,000.
Sure, the GTO, or the 3000GT VR-4, was the loser of the JDM power wars, but we’re talking about a car that stood toe to toe with other heroes like the Skyline and Supra, and most of them are rotting under a car cover at the bottom of someone’s to-do list. It’s a little sad, and you should definitely go rescue one.
Just be aware that the reason they never became as popular isn’t because they were slow, it’s because they are probably the single most miserable car to work on that has ever existed. But if you have the will to keep up on them, go for it. You’ll be preserving a car for future generations to enjoy.
Speaking of swoopy, supercar-inspired designs, did you know that Subaru made their own wedge car?
Subaru Alcyone SVX – Fighter Jet
It’s called the Subaru SVX, and Doug DeMuro called it the “weirdest Subaru ever made.” I think they look awesome. The continuous glass is supposed make it look like a jet, like you’re going to slip behind that RX-7 and shoot a heat seeking missile at them. That’d make Rush Hour fun.
The biggest problem with the SVX, or Alcyone if you want to be fancy, is that it wasn’t fast. Sure, it looks fast, but the flat-six motor struggled to make 200 horsepower, and there was no manual option! When all of the competition was making “279 horsepower,” it was easy for the SVX to get left behind.
It makes a perfect modding platform, though, because you can find them for between $5,000 and $10,000 all day, and no one will be able to resist asking you about it. I mean, just look at it!
Moving to the next car, have you ever looked at the Miata and thought, That’s cool, but could it be smaller? Apparently, Suzuki did, because they produced the super-tunable Cappuccino.
Suzuki Cappuccino – Adrenaline Latte
Like the Autozam AZ-1 and the Beat, the Cappuccino is a kei car. But unlike other, more boring tiny cars, the Cappuccino is a classic turbocharged, front-mid engine, rear-wheel drive sports car that’s also the about the size of of a Hot Wheels car, which is hard to tell if you’ve only seen one as the license car in Grand Turismo. So, make sure you test drive one before bringing it over to make sure your gut clears the steering wheel.
And what does it take to put yourself into one of the cutest fast cars ever made? About $10,000. But, let’s be honest, a Miata is a better value, but a Miata will never match the personality. And in a world where standing out is better than fitting in, a nice Cappuccino is a great thing.
After a refreshing shot of espresso, you’re probably ready for something a little more powerful, and a lot more fun to drive. What about a Skyline that you can actually afford? It’s called he A31 Cefiro.
Nissan Cefiro – Do You Even Drift?
The second generation Cefiro has all the right letters and numbers: RB20DET, five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and all with a very convenient four doors. You know how everyone always talks about how much they want a rear-wheel drive four-door sedan? Here it is.
You just have to be careful when buying them because, just like the Skyline, the Cefiro has about a million different configurations. You don’t want to spend a ton of time and energy to get a four-cylinder automatic version, and you definitely don’t want one after 1994, when they became the front-wheel drive Maxima. Talk about a major downgrade. Sorry, Vince.
The best part is that an R32 sells every day for $40,000 to $50,000, but you can get a Cefiro for less than $10,000. And you should, because while all your buddies are crying into their pillows because the last unthrashed S14 finally hit the barrier, you’ll be sliding by with your friends in the backseat for half the price.