JDMs are some of the most fascinating cars you’ll ever see

JDM cars, or “Japanese Domestic Market” cars, are arguably some of the most desirable vehicles in the world. They’re not the fastest, most powerful and most expensive cars in the world, but the limited access to these rides, plus the fact that a lot of them are exceptionally built, has made JDM cars the darlings of automotive markets outside of Japan.

Maybe it’s because we don’t get access to them as much as we want. Maybe it’s because we’ve waited for so many of these cars to become available outside of Japan. All of these factors have played into the growing mythical status of JDM cars to the extent that, with most of them now available for importing, our fascination for these Japanese vehicles is now being met with the opportunity to acquire them. We’ve learned a lot about JDM cars over the years, and if you’re one of those who still need to get caught up on what these cars are about, here are some facts about JDM cars to get you started.

Not All JDM Cars Are Fast

When people start talking about JDM cars, the models that immediately come to mind are the Toyota Supras, Nissan Skylines, and Mazda RX-7s of the world.

It’s understandable to have these cars as top-of-the-mind JDM models. They represent the best of Japanese performance car engineering, and the following that these cars have received has lasted the test of time. But just because we associate JDM cars with fast sports cars like the Supra, Skyline, and RX-7, that doesn’t mean that all JDM cars are fast,

Here’s the truth: JDM doesn’t just refer to Japanese sports cars. They refer to all domestic-built Japanese vehicles that were exclusively sold in the local Japanese market. These models range from compact cars, kei cars, mid-size cars, and, yes, performance cars. The Honda Life Step Van qualifies as a JDM model, and it’s powered by a two-cylinder engine that produces a whopping 30 horsepower. Not exactly a showstopper on the road, huh?

There are more examples of models like the Life Step Van that barely have enough power to outrun a galloping horse, and yet, those cars are also classified as JDM cars.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a Supra or a Life Step Van: as long as it was produced exclusively for the Japanese market, regardless of how fast and powerful it is, these cars are tagged as Japanese Domestic Market vehicles.

Not All JDM Cars Were Built to The Extreme Quality That You See In Most True Imports

Just as a lot of JDM cars aren’t necessarily fast, just as many of them aren’t built to the standards that you’d expect.

Sure, it’s true that Japanese automakers usually introduced new designs and technologies in local-market vehicles before using the same technologies in global cars — Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management system, for example, was first featured in the local-market 2003 Honda Inspire before the tech was introduced in the global markets with the arrival of the 2006 Honda Accord — but that’s not necessarily the rule, or at least it wasn’t back in the day. A lot of less-heralded JDM cars were built with the same cost-cutting methods that helped make those cars affordable to the average Japanese car buyer. Look at the interior of a 1996 Suzuki X-90 and you’re going to have a hard time finding any material that isn’t made out of cheap plastic. The same can be said for a model like the plucky Honda City that had about as much luxury trim to it as a knock-off Rolex.

You Don’t Have to Spend a Ton of Money To Own a Cool JDM Car

1986 - 1992 Toyota Supra Exterior
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It’s true that the prices of JDM sports cars have increased in recent years, but that’s not necessarily the case for all JDM cars.

There are still a lot of these vehicles, particularly those of the performance variety, that you can afford without burning holes through your pockets.

Take the Toyota Supra Mk3, for example. Believe it or not, but you can actually buy one in the second-hand market for under $20,000. One specific unit that’s available on CarsforSale is priced at only $13,900 with almost 66,500 miles on its odometer. Compare that to the far more famous Supra Mk4 with similar mileage and the price of such a model doesn’t go below $50,000.

Mythbuster: The Truth About JDM Cars High Resolution Exterior
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There are certain JDM models like the Supra Mk4 that have become very expensive in the market, but for the most part, you can still score a cool and affordable JDM car, if you look hard enough for one. AutoTrader has a few examples of the Toyota Sera available for less than $10,000. If you want a classic hot hatch, the turbocharged Toyota Starlet from the 1980s can be purchased for around the same amount. The Toyota models are just two of the many examples of JDM cars that you can now buy in the used car market for less than the amount you’re going to spend on a brand-new signature Louis Vuitton bag.

Import Restrictions for JDM Cars Vary By Market

Most of us here in the U.S. have gotten used to waiting 25 years for JDM cars to arrive fully exempt from federal and emissions standards.

But the two-and-a-half decade wait isn’t a universal restriction that applies to all foreign markets. For us, it’s 25 years. For other markets, it’s different. Canada, for example, only requires a JDM car to be 15 years old before it’s allowed to enter the country. It’s a much easier deal over in Europe were car collectors can import cars from Japan, and they don’t even have to pay the typical 10-percent tariffs on Japanese vehicles and the three percent rate applied to car parts.

These taxes were essentially lifted after the European Union struck a free trade deal with Japan in 2017, paving the way for European car collectors to bring in JDM cars in their countries.

Granted, these vehicles still have to go through a lot of bureaucratic red tape and homologation processes to ensure their safety and compatibility on European roads, but, by and large, buying a JDM car is a lot easier in other parts of the world compared to America.

RHD Cars Are Difficult To Drive on U.S. Roads And Can Even Be Dangerous

For the record, it is legal to drive a right-hand-drive car in the U.S. There is nothing specifically mentioned in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards about the position of the driver, just that there must be standardized controls and displays. Even if there was something mentioned, vehicles over 25 years old — that applies to JDM cars — are NHTSA-exempt from the FMVSS.

Now, just because it is legal to drive a right-hand-drive car in the U.S., that doesn’t mean it’s easy to drive one. This is especially true if you’re driving in the U.S. where roads are designed for left-hand-drive cars. If you’re driving a right-hand-drive car on left-hand-drive roads, you’re positioned further away from all the central dividers on the road. That can get jarring, especially if you’re driving at full speeds.

Overtaking cars on two-lane roads can also be difficult because overtaking is only allowed on the left-most lane, which you wouldn’t be able to see if you’re driving a right-hand-drive car. Turning right can also be tricky because you’re basically hugging the corner as you turn. There are all sorts of difficulties involved in driving a right-hand-drive car in the U.S., and some of these difficulties can even lead to dangerous road predicaments.

Just Because It’s JDM Doesn’t Mean It’s a Sports Car

A lot of people get confused by this, and it’s understandable why.

Oftentimes, JDM cars are associated with models like the Supra, Skyline, and RX-7. That’s because people only bring up that term in the context of those sports cars.

But just like JDM cars aren’t all fast, not all of them are classified as sports cars, too. I brought up the example of the Honda Life Step Van in talking about JDM cars that aren’t particularly fast. But that’s just one car. There are a plethora of other JDM models that are neither fast nor are classified as sports cars.

The Suzuki Jimny, Nissan Cedric, Toyota Crown, Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, and Nissan Cima are all examples of Japanese Domestic Market vehicles. There are countless of other models that fall in the JDM category that aren’t sports cars. You have to remember that a lot of these models were built during what’s generally regarded as the golden age of the Japanese auto industry. Every Japanese automaker built anything they could think of. It didn’t matter if it was sports cars, sedans, kei cars, wagons, and even kei trucks. That era in the history of Japan’s auto industry was tantamount to an arms race, and a lot of the models that were built in that time were classified as JDM cars, regardless if they were performance-oriented or not.

Regardless of Their Lightweight Nature, Kei Cars Are Not Fast

We’ve mentioned kei cars numerous times here, but there might still be some of you who aren’t familiar with them.

In a nutshell, kei cars, or “lightweight automobiles,” are the smallest highway-legal passenger cars in Japan. They’re similar to A-segment cars in Europe, or “city cars,” as we often call them here in the U.S.

That definition should give you a good idea that kei cars aren’t fast, even if some of them look like they are.

Kei car regulations in Japan — yes, there’s such a thing — state that the three-cylinder engines that power these cars should be no bigger than 660cc. Power output is also capped at 63 horsepower so you can imagine what these kei cars can do — or can’t do — when you put them in a drag strip against traditional cars with bigger engines. Kei cars will lose all the time, even if models like the Honda S660, Autozam A-Z1, and Daihatsu Copen Robe all look like they’re world-beaters.

Your Japanese Car Probably Isn’t a JDM Car – Unless It’s Old and Legally Imported

So, you bought a 2001 Toyota Camry, thinking that it’s a JDM car. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s not.

Any car that was sold by Toyota — or any Japanese automaker, for that matter — in the U.S. market is not a JDM car. For your car to be a JDM car, it has to have been sold only in the Japanese market. Likewise, the model has to be older than a 2001 model by at least five years. 2020 is the 25-year cutoff that now makes 1995 JDM models legal to be imported to the U.S.

That’s the second part of this equation. Bringing a JDM car to America isn’t as easy as it sounds. An importer first has to secure a car in Japan. Once that’s accomplished, shipping the car to America needs to be arranged and all necessary paperwork needs to be filed. That includes shipping insurance, Customs forms, a bill of lading, a bill of sale, and an export certificate that’s translated into English, among other things.

A government-issued import bond is also required, ensuring that U.S. Customs will receive payment of all duties and fees. Passenger vehicles require a 2.5-percent duty while light trucks are slapped with a bigger 25-percent tariff. The car also needs to be steam-cleaned before it’s shipped. This is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirement that all foreign soil be removed from the undercarriage of a car.

Sourcing Parts for a True JDM Car is Difficult and Expensive

JDM cars are built for the Japanese market with parts and pieces that are sourced locally. If you’re importing a JDM car from Japan and it needs original parts, you’re not going to find those parts from your local dealer.

Chances are, you might even have difficulty sourcing those parts from aftermarket companies. It’s easy to assume that the cheap costs of a lot of JDM cars means that repairs would naturally come cheap too. That might be true in some cases, but for the most part, you’re going to have to shell out more than you expected for a lot of these parts, especially if they’re unique to the Japanese market.

You’re not only paying for the parts and pieces themselves, but you’ll also have to spend for shipping and import fees to bring these parts from Japan to the U.S. In some cases, sellers will also mark up the price of these parts on account of how difficult they are to obtain. That’s the price of buying and owning a JDM car. You might have saved a lot of money buying the car itself, but when it comes to repairing it, that’s where the costs start piling up.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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