Market Spotlight

Five Japanese cars almost nobody cares about (but should)

by Rob Sass
17 March 2022 4 min read
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The 2000–05 Toyota MR2 (shown here in U.K.-spec) is one of the purest drivers' cars of its era, and you can still find one for less than $10k. Photo by Dean Smith

Even if you’ve been living in semi-quarantine for the last two years, there’s no missing the fact that nearly every flavor of interesting Japanese car has soared in value, many out of reach of most of us. 

But there is still hope. If you make a habit out of trolling the margins of the collector car space on Facebook Marketplace and what’s left of the auto listings on Craigslist, you can find what remains of the affordable underbelly of interesting Japanese cars that nobody seems to care about. Yet. Although most of these vehicles aren’t in the Hagerty Price Guide, we can track how many people are calling us about them for a quote on insurance. No surprise, the numbers are going up.

2003–04 Mazdaspeed Protégé

Courtesy Mazda

Mazda is probably the closest thing to a cult brand left after the demise of the last true cult brand—Saab. Quirkiness and Performance has always been in their DNA. It’s no surprise that this piece is dominated by cars from brand formerly tag-lined with “zoom zoom.” Stung by its inability to get the complete package right with the somewhat anemic Protégé  MP3, Mazda produced this, the Mazdaspeed Protégé, which upped the ante to 170 hp via a Callaway-engineered Garrett T25 turbo. Limited-slip diff, big brakes, and meaty for the day 17” wheels and tires added up to GTI chaser with Japanese reliability. No surprise, they’re rare in any condition, and most seem to be properly roached, but nice ones can still be found under $10,000. A perfect one with 24,000 miles has been for sale for quite some time at $16,000. That said, the average value cited by those calling Hagerty for insurance policies on a Mazdaspeed Protégé has more than doubled in the last two years, from less than $5000 to nearly $12,000.

2000–05 Toyota MR2 Spyder

U.K.-spec model shown. Photo by Dean Smith

There’s a reason why automakers don’t listen to enthusiasts. The mouthy ones who clamor for a lightweight, modestly powered, mid-engine sports car, and then don’t buy it when its available. The MR2 Spyder was a modern-day Porsche 914, an early Lotus Elise that didn’t hurt to get in and out of. It was comfortable, stiff for an open car, a superb handler, and decently quick for a car with under 140 hp (0-60 in 6.9 seconds). In its own way, it was probably even as quirky as the first-gen Mister Two, with its goofy bug-eyed visage.

And yet practically nobody remembers it. About $9,000 buys one in driving condition (a "#3" in Hagerty Price Guide parlance). JDM hipsters will pay more money for a right hand-drive Honda Beat or Suzuki Cappuccino. Will that last? Our colleagues in the U.K., at least, highly doubt it—they included the MR2 on their 2021 Bull Market list.

2002–03 Mazda Protégé 5

Mazda

Long-roofs are undergoing a renaissance. Not in the new car world, they’re all but extinct there, but among younger enthusiasts who don’t have a recollection of a time when wagons had fake wood sides, and back back seats. Euro wagons like E46 BMWs and Audi A4s are getting scarce, mainly owing to the fact that the annual maintenance costs of Euro wagons with 180,000 plus miles are petrifying. Not so for Japanese cars, and the Protégé 5 exists in a size category that the Europeans almost never catered to in a wagon, unless you feel like searching out an Opel Kadett wagon or somesuch silliness. No matter, the 5 was so much better. With the serviceable underpinnings of the nippy Protégé, you also got a hatch, decent cargo space, and all of the aftermarket upgrades available for the less inspiring sedan. Did we also mention that bright yellow and a five-speed manual were common? Salt-belt cars are all becoming terminally rusty at this point, but a nice Cali 5 with 175,000 or so miles on it still has plenty of life left in it for somewhere around $4,500—roughly the average value people cite when they call Hagerty for insurance on one. That makes it the least expensive car on our list.

1994–2000 Toyota RAV 4

Toyota

Hear us out on this one. A new RAV 4 is the essence of car ambivalent sense and sensibility.  But the first-gen (XA10) RAV 4 was something different altogether. Bare bones in a way that few if any vehicles are today, they’re virtual perpetual motion machines—most that you’ll see have more than 250,000 miles on them. Perhaps the most appealing variant is the clean-looking three-door with a five-speed manual transmission. While maybe not as appealingly boxy or off-road capable as a Suzuki Samurai or a Mitsubishi Montero, a clean, early RAV4 with a five-speed at this point is rare, and seems too nice for winter beater status even at the usual six grand or so asking price.

2003–2008 Mazda 6 Wagon

Mazda

Did we mention we like wagons? And Mazdas? Think of the Mazda 6 as an alternative to a B5 generation Audi A4 wagon, only without most of the cluster headaches that come with vintage Audi ownership, or sadly, the AWD option. What makes the 6 so appealing beyond the quite clean and competent styling is the fact that it was available with a 3.0 liter Ford-sourced Duratec 30 V-6 paired with a manual transmission option. While not exactly common, manual 6 wagons aren’t impossible to find, either.  Sadly there was never a Mazdaspeed 6 wagon option in the United States, but we’ve heard of people doing a drivetrain swap to make the wagon that Mazda should have built. Or if you can forego the handiness of a wagon, just snag a Mazdaspeed 6 sedan. Hagerty's insurance data do not differentiate between wagon and sedan, but 6 values have overall been stable around $9,000.


Rob Sass is the Editor-in-Chief of Porsche Panorama, the official publication of the Porsche Club of America. The opinions stated are his, and not necessarily those of the Club. 

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Comments

  • Michael says:

    I owned a Mazda 6 Wagon Sport with the 3.0L Manual. It had every option and rust is it’s downfall. It was fast, extremely comfortable with great leather, beautiful to look at and tons of space but rear quarter panel rust was impossible to keep at bay. Very sad and this is the demise of so many amazing Mazda cars.

  • CKRockett says:

    These are NEW cars (by my definition, anything mid-80s and up)! How about pre-510 Datsuns? I favor the ’67 RL411 1600/SSS model.

  • Jim McLean says:

    The cars that deserve attention are the 1987-90 Acura Legend coupes and similarly dated Lexus coupes.

  • Don Broadston says:

    Think you missed the 2005 – 2007 Subaru Outback XT
    250 turbo HP, my 2006 has 160K miles, 0 to 60 in 5.6 sec. Leather interior, Momo S wheel, sunroof, premium 6 CD sound, Limited Edition.

  • Harvey Brown says:

    You missed the late 80’s Supra’s; great looks and great performance. My 89 has 240,000 K and runs like a new car!

  • Beachiesus says:

    HMMMM….what about the Mitsubishi family???

  • Stephen Abbate says:

    Every time I see a jap car it reminds me of Pearl Harbor. No thanks.

  • John Dirigo says:

    Glad to see MR2 included on your list. I see many Miatas on a daily basis, but almost never see an MR2, other than mine, on the road. It is a wonderful little thing, handsomely cute, and so much fun to drive. It attracts comments regularly, and being a Toyota, is stable and reliable.

  • Tom Krueger says:

    What about the Honda 2000, great car.

  • Dr. Who says:

    I have owned two of the Mazdas, the Protege 5 and a Mazda 6 (V6 hatchback). We actually had two Protege 5s we bought from Hertz and they are fun to drive and handle well above their price. They are very reliable. The 6 is a nice car, but hold out for the hard to find manual. Aisin Warner refused to stand behind the 6 speed automatic some of which had faulty components. Many have been replaced.

  • JW says:

    Why, when discussing Japanese cars, why does the Nissan 300 Z always get overlooked? They were (and still are to some of us) great cars. I realize that the good ones are few, but I personally own a 1996 Z with only 5300 miles. Why not chart their value??

  • Bruce Stocker says:

    The blue Rav4 you pictured brought back memories of a ’97 Rav4 I drove over 10 years ago. Bare bones 4wd with a 5 speed, over 200k miles, original clutch and never missed a beat (just remember to check the oil). Sold it for $3000 and thought I did well!

  • Dennis WM @koolspyda says:

    The ZZW30, 3rd incarnation MR2 is exactly how the article as described, Its simplistic “pureness” was frowned upon when it debuted, unless one owned one and driven to appreciate. Not a pretentious ride, doesn’t masquerade about with many bells & whistles, hence the seemingly less idolised by mainstream

  • Robert Guenther says:

    Back in 1981 thru 86 I owned 2 Celica’s. 1978 & 79 GT hatchbacks 5 speeds. In 1990 I purchased a 1987 Celica GT convertible 5 speed… man did I appreciate them… my 87 I put 500k

  • Bruce McLaughlan says:

    I’m approaching 200,000 miles on my MR2 Spyder. It’s still a very spirited drive, a perfect Michigan Summer Day car.

  • Atomic Reverend says:

    I thought the point of this website was to showcase classic cars, I am not sure what constitutes a classic car in hagerty’s eyes but most of us would probably say 30+ years old. If they are still a somewhat common site on the road it’s pretty hard to consider them classic cars.

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