Best cars & vans

Best Japanese modern classic cars

From rally car brawlers to elegant luxury limos, Japan is the source of some quirky and hugely desirable modern classic cars

Think of Japanese modern classics and you’ll probably have visions of legendary sports cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mazda RX-7, Honda NSX and Toyota Supra. In reality there's an abundance of Japanese classic cars you can pick up now that could prove to be a shrewd investment. 

Japan has given us some fantastic cars down the years and many charismatic models from the 1990s and 2000s are looking very attractive these days. Whether they entered the UK by official means or via the once flourishing ‘grey import’ route, there are some great options out there. Just be sure, as always, to do your homework and understand exactly what you’re buying.

We've managed to whittle down a list of Japanese modern classic that are sure to rise in value in the future. There’s some rally prestige on offer with the Mitsubishi EVO VIII -  which will surely tug at the heartstrings of any rally enthusiast. There's also some Japanese luxury in the form of the LS 400 - a car that catapulted Lexus into the premium car market thanks to it's mix of reliability and comfort. 

Honda Civic Type R (EP3)

  • Price range: £2,800-£16,500
  • Our pick: Civic Type R
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 197bhp
  • Years produced: 2001-2005

Exciting to drive, but with decent practicality, affordable prices and bombproof reliability, the Civic Type R is a great starter classic. At the heart of its appeal is the 197bhp 2.0-litre engine, which revs to a heady 8,500rpm, with a screaming soundtrack to match. 

The Honda also handles sharply, with bags of grip, while the slick six-speed manual is one of the best in the business. The ride is firm and the steering lacks feedback, but for hassle-free old-school thrills the Honda takes some beating.

Honda NSX

  • Price range: £45,000-£140,000
  • Our pick: NSX 3.2
  • Engine: 3.2-litre V6, 290bhp
  • Years produced: 1990-2005

Honda went for bold when it came up with the original NSX, which had Ferrari and Porsche directly in its sights. By combining beautifully balanced handling with a howling 274bhp V6, the mid-engined machine was every bit as thrilling to drive as its rivals. Yet it was also surprisingly practical and as simple to drive as a Civic hatchback, making it far easier to live with than the exotic competition. 

As a result, the pioneering machine is considered a solid gold classic these days – and it has the prices to match. The earliest cars are the purest and most sought after, but later models with a more powerful 3.2-litre engine and six-speed ’box are the best. 

Lexus LS 400

  • Price range: £2,800-£18,000
  • Our pick: LS 400
  • Engine: 4.0-litre V8, 250bhp
  • Years produced: 1990-1994

When Toyota decided to take on the European luxury car elite in the late eighties, it created the incredible Lexus LS 400. Featuring a whisper-quiet 4.0-litre V8 engine, a pillowy soft ride and an impeccably built interior that melded the latest technology with traditional luxury, the Japanese machine knocked BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar for six when it wafted into showrooms. 

While buyers took a while to shake off the badge snobbery, the brilliantly engineered LS 400 helped lay the foundations for the brand’s current success. Original cars are getting scarce, but a few thousand should secure you a well cared for example.

Mazda 6 MPS

  • ​​Price range: £5,500-£10,000
  • Our pick: 6 MPS
  • Engine: 2.3-ltr 4cyl petrol turbo, 256bhp
  • Years produced: 2006-2007

Some cars are all mouth and no trousers, but the 6 MPS speaks softly and carries a big stick. Its sensible styling hides the heart of a sports car. 

Powered by a 256bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre, the fast flagship can blast from 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds and onto a top speed of 149mph. It also has poise as well as performance, the electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system combining incredible agility with confidence-inspiring all-weather grip. The only real problem is finding one – it was a rare car when new, and it’s even more scarce now.

Mazda MX-5 Mk2

  • Price range: £800-£10,000
  • Our pick: MX-5 1.8i S
  • Engine: 1.8-litre 4cyl, 138bhp
  • Years produced: 1998-2005

The world’s top-selling roadster is one of the greatest sports cars for buyers on a budget – and the Mk2 MX-5 offers the best value of all. It lacks the cute looks of the original and the grown-up appeal of later cars, but it’s just as fun and costs thousands less. 

There are 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre engines, plus numerous special editions. However, corrosion can be a killer and you should steer clear of modified versions. But take your time, and you’ll find a pampered example with a fully stamped service book.

Mitsubishi Evo VIII

  • ​​Price range: £20,000-£45,000
  • Our pick: Evo VIII MR FQ 340
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl petrol turbo, 340bhp
  • Years produced: 2003-2005

Think of Mitsubishi, and no doubt the worthy and efficient Outlander PHEV SUV springs to mind. Yet it wasn’t that long ago the brand was more famous for its thrilling, rally-bred Lancer Evolution. There were 10 versions of the supercar-slaying saloon produced, but it’s the Mk8 model that delivers the best blend of speed and value today. 

With its turbocharged 2.0-litre engine and hi-tech four-wheel-drive system, the Lancer is lightning quick and hugely involving on twisting B-roads. Finding a standard, unmodified example won’t be an easy task, but if you manage it, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best road racers of all time.

Nissan 350Z

  • Price range: £3,500-£20,000
  • Our pick: 350Z
  • Engine: 3.5-litre V6, 296bhp
  • Years produced: 2003-2009

It’s hard to believe that the same company responsible for the mundane Micra also delivered the dazzling 350Z. Launched in 2003, the bold Nissan coupé combines concept-car looks with old-school rear-wheel-drive thrills and hairy-chested muscle-car performance. 

Its 3.5-litre V6 delivers as much as 296bhp in later cars, while its precise steering and hefty six-speed manual gearbox are a driver’s delight. Despite its exotic specification and entertaining driving experience, the 350Z is still a Nissan at heart, so it’s reliable and relatively cost-effective to run. And with prices starting from as little as £4,000 for a good one, it’s a solid-gold bargain to boot.

Suzuki Swift Sport

  • Price range: £1,700-£5,000
  • Our pick: Swift Sport
  • Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl petrol, 123bhp
  • Years produced: 2006-2010

If you can’t stretch to an Impreza, but still want a rally-bred replica on your drive, then look no further than the original Swift Sport. Developed to compete in the Junior World Rally Championship, the racy Japanese hatch features a specially tuned, high- revving 123bhp 1.6-litre engine and lowered and stiffened suspension. 

The ride is firm, it’s noisy on the motorway and the interior is a little cramped, but point the Swift’s stubby nose through a series of corners and it serves up bags of grip and responsive handling, making it huge fun. Typically sturdy Suzuki build quality means it’s durable, while well kept examples start at little more than £2,000.

Toyota GT86

  • Price range: £9,500-£31,000
  • Our pick: GT86 
  • Engine: 2.0-litre flat-four, 197bhp
  • Years produced: 2012-present

While rival manufacturers were chasing ever-greater power and even more grip for their high- performance cars, Toyota and Subaru went their own way with the GT86 and its BRZ twin in 2012.

Designed to be fun to drive in all conditions, the compact coupé features a simple recipe of a responsive naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine, a manual transmission, rear-wheel drive and relatively skinny tyres. 

Even at moderate speeds the cars are thrilling to drive, with agile, adjustable handling that never fails to raise a smile. They are also surprisingly practical, reliable and cost-effective to run. 

Here, the GT86 edges the BRZ thanks to its greater availability, and with Toyota’s all-new GR86 arriving soon, there’s never been a better time to buy.

Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon

  • Price range: £8,500-£32,000
  • Our pick: Land Cruiser Amazon V8
  • Engine: 4.7-litre V8 petrol, 232bhp
  • Years produced: 1998-2007

It’s said that nothing lasts forever, but whoever coined that phrase had clearly never owned a Toyota Land Cruiser. Unstoppable regardless of terrain and as tough as old boots, the rugged off-roader is as dependable as the sun rising in the morning. Most desirable of the lot is the Amazon, which combines the rough-and-tumble 4WD appeal of the standard car with a leather-lined interior and the option of a powerful 4.7-litre V8. 

High running costs and slightly vague handling are the Toyota’s downsides, but if you want an imposing and luxurious modern classic SUV that will always get you to your destination, look no further.

Modern classics on Auto Express...


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