Whether you’re looking for cheap transportation or get warm and fuzzy thinking about a project car, there are plenty of affordable opportunities to meet your automotive needs. In this article, we’ll explore, in no particular order, some of our favorite budget-friendly import cars from Japan.
Honda Accord: Fifth Generation (1994-1997)
Accords have been roaming American roads for 45 years, so, of course, our list is going to include Honda’s stalwart mid-size sedan. Although there’s a V-6 option, stick with the four-cylinder engine as it has a stronger reputation for reliability and sips less fuel. Look for an EX model, in either sedan or coupe form, as this trim level includes anti-lock brakes, 15-inch wheels, and a slightly more powerful VTEC four-banger. See if this four door 1996 Accord has what you’re looking for.
Mazda Miata MX-5: First Generation (1990-1997)
Combining British roadster styling with Japanese engineering and reliability, the Miata made a splash when it was launched at the end of the Reagan administration. Despite a tiny-for-its-day 1.6L four-cylinder engine (factory rated for 115 horsepower), the lightweight Miata body made for an engaging top-down driving experience. Electronic fuel injection helped keep things reliable, and the overall simple nature of the Miata makes DIY wrenching a breeze. Aftermarket parts are readily available, too. Try your hand at fixing up this 1996 Miata MX-5.
Subaru Forester: Second Generation (2003-2008)
Looking less “stationwagony” than its Outback counterpart, the Forester joins SUV practicality with Subaru’s robust all-wheel-drive setup. While not an off-road traveler, this compact car can handle its own in reasonable amounts of mud or snow. Beginning with the 2004 model year, Subaru added an XT trim level with a zippy turbocharged engine. For 2006, the XT’s turbo powerplant was upgraded to a healthy 230 ponies. The one chink in Subaru’s armor was an issue with leaking head gaskets that were commonplace in the brand’s 2.5L flat-four engines produced during this timeframe. So keep this in mind during your search. This 2008 Subaru Forester in the 2.5X Premium trim might be the perfect budget SUV for you.
Acura TSX: First Generation (2004-2008)
Marketed in Japan and Europe as a “Honda Accord”, this compact front-driver came to the U.S. as the entry-level sedan for Honda’s luxury division, Acura. Only available with a 2.4L four-cylinder, the 197-horsepower engine won’t set any speed records but is still an enjoyable ride, especially with the standard six-speed manual. A no-cost automatic was also available. The TSX’s interior reveals its simpler Accord roots as same-year offerings from Lexus and Infiniti feel more upscale. Some 2006 models experienced power steering problems, so keep in this mind during your search. If funds permit, we’d suggest looking for a 2007-2008 TSX, which enjoys a slight horsepower bump from earlier years. Take a look at this 2007 model at our Raleigh, NC location.
Toyota Celica GT: Seventh Generation (2000-2005)
The Celica GT is often forgotten about among sporty car shoppers because Toyota shelved the nameplate after this seventh generation. Sleek styling gives the Celica GT a look that is still contemporary even 20 years after its launch. Depending on the year, factory horsepower ratings range from 140-180 hp. The 1.8L four-cylinder connects to the front wheels via a five- or six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Aftermarket performance upgrades are readily available as well. Focus on 2002-2005 Celica GTs, which bypass the engine problems that popped up with some early model years of the seventh generation. There are plenty of seventh generation Celica GTs to choose from in our inventory but the glossy red paint on this 2001 model truly stands out.
Nissan Maxima: Fifth Generation (2000-2003)
Nissan has always marketed the Maxima as the brand’s flagship sedan. So, buyers get near-luxury features and performance at a mainstream price. Yes, they’ve promoted the Maxima as a “four-door sports car,” but we’ll forgive this as marketing overreach. The fifth-generation marks a sweet spot for bargain hunters. This is a front-drive, six-cylinder-powered sedan with decent interior space and a good reputation for reliability. Factory rated at 222 horsepower along with a seven-second 0-60 time, this era Maxima offers respectable performance and luxury-level features, depending on the trim level. For 2002, a new and larger engine provides an increase to 255 horsepower. Also, look for same-year Infiniti I30s, which are just rebadged Maximas. This 2003 Maxima GLE is a great place to start your search for the best fifth generation Maxima.
Isuzu Trooper: Second Generation (1992-2002)
If you don’t mind having to search once in a while for replacement parts, the second-generation Isuzu Trooper is a unique vehicle for the budget-friendly shopper. A rarity in today’s unibody world, this body-on-frame SUV provides massive interior space wrapped in attractive packaging. The Trooper also has serious off road capabilities. Beginning in 1998, newer model-year Troopers also benefited from a BorgWarner all-wheel-drive system with a torque-on-demand feature. The vehicles tend to enjoy a runs-till-the-wheels-fall-off reputation but have the transmission, a known vulnerability area, checked out before any purchase. Acura rebadged the Trooper as the TLX for 1996-1999. If you have your heart set on a second generation Isuzu Trooper, take a look at this 2002 model.
These are some of our favorite budget-friendly imports. Did we miss any that you love? Be sure to let us know in the comments. To get one of your own, be sure to register and sign up for a Copart Membership.