Are JDM Cars Better?

Here at Garage Dreams, we are big fans of Japanese cars.

From the humble Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, through to the likes of Nissan Skyline GT-R and Honda NSX, we love all of Japan’s automotive creations.

But what about Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars?

There are a number of vehicles that Japanese manufacturers have built over the years that were for “Japan’s eyes only”. These JDM-specific cars – as well as some JDM variants of normal cars – tend to have a bit of an aura of mystery and allure about them. In this article, we seek to answer the following question:

Are JDM cars better?

There are statements you will occasionally see online to the effect of “Japan keeps its best cars for their market only”. But is this true – are JDM cars genuinely better than export Japanese cars, and other types of vehicles?

In this article we are going to look at the arguments for and against claiming that JDM cars are superior.

If you’re not particularly familiar with JDM and what it entails, then read our guide here to the meaning of JDM. That is a more comprehensive run-down on the true nature of JDM. This article is more concerned with whether or not JDM cars are superior to their non-JDM alternatives.

Advantages Of JDM

Access To Unique Vehicles

One of the most appealing aspects of buying a JDM car is that it offers a pathway to something that is almost certainly going to be rare and unique compared to the usual cars on the road in Western countries.

Take a JDM car like the Toyota Crown Athlete. This is basically the same running gear as a Lexus IS350 (same gearbox, engine etc). However, the Crown Athlete is so much more interesting in the sense that it has a certain allure and uniqueness that you don’t get with the Lexus IS.

Toyota Crown Athlete – A quirkier Lexus IS350

If driving something special and unique appeals, then a JDM car could be a great choice for you.

JDM Cars Can Be Easier To Tune

Another reason why JDM cars are so popular and have a good reputation is for tunability.

While just about any car can be modified and tuned, Japanese cars – especially performance-oriented models like the Nissan Skyline, Toyota Supra, WRX STI etc – are famous for providing excellent tuning platforms.

The WRX STI is a good example of where JDM is better for tuning enthusiasts. The 2 liter engine fitted to JDM WRX STIs is generally considered to be stronger and more capable of taking modification (to a point) than the 2.5 liter found in USDM and export cars.

JDM Imports Are Often In Good Condition

One of the most appealing aspects of buying a JDM car is that it can be a great option to source a car in better-than-average condition. Japanese import vehicles are often in better condition both mechanically and cosmetically than you find when looking at a used vehicle that was sold new in your country.

Although Japanese imports sometimes get bad press because they tend not to come with service history, the truth is that Japan’s excellent road system and courteous driving often means that imported cars are in better condition than cars of equivalent age and mileage that were originally sold new.

New Zealand is a great example of this in action. Go to any car yard in NZ and look at a Japanese import vehicle versus a “New Zealand new” vehicle of similar age and mileage. The NZ-new vehicle will almost always be peppered with stone chips (owning to our poorly surfaced roads) and generally be in worse condition. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see Japanese import cars with 60,000+ miles that present in almost brand new condition (at least from a cosmetic perspective).

This doesn’t mean you can skimp on doing your homework and running a proper pre-purchase inspection. Make sure you consult our buyer’s guides if you are looking at buying a JDM car.

You Can Save On The Purchase Price Of Your Car

If you’ve read our article on why used Japanese cars are so cheap, then you’ll have a good understanding of some of the reasons why it is possible to pick up a Japanese car for such a great price.

JDM cars can often represent particularly good value for money when imported, as their slightly quirky nature and potential challenges re: parts availability etc mean that other buyers may overlook them.

If you’re a vehicular bargain hunter, then JDM can be a great way to buy for sure – especially if you plan on importing a car from Japan yourself.

Disadvantages Of JDM

Despite the advantages of JDM vehicles, there are some downsides to consider. The two main things to bear in mind are:

Parts Availability

One thing to consider when buying JDM is that parts availability can be an issue.

Let’s use the example above of the Toyota Crown Athlete versus the Lexus IS350. If you have a parking lot prang in your IS350, there will probably be plenty of spare bumpers, wing mirrors etc all available if anything like that is required to fix your car. However, the same cannot be said for a Toyota Crown, and sourcing body parts and trim could be a time consuming and expensive experience.

You really need to do your homework on any JDM car you are considering buying, as even cars that look to have the same mechanical spec (e.g. a USDM Integra Type R versus a JDM model) may have some different parts in the engine, suspension and so on. This has caught many JDM car buyers out in the past.

One of the editors here at Garage Dreams had two Mazda Sentias (first and second generation). The Sentia was – for all intents and purposes – a JDM vehicle although it was available in Australia as a Mazda 929. While the first generation Sentia provided itself to be reliable, the second generation example had a number of problems, all of which were costly to fix because of the fact that parts were hard to come by. In the end, it was killed by an independent mechanic that didn’t know how to do a proper timing belt change on the v6 engine that was in the Sentia (an engine. However, even Mazda themselves in NZ said it would be a tough job to do a timing belt change on the Sentia, as parts were hard to come by due to it never being sold new in the country, and the engine only ever being used in that car and a handful of other JDM curiosities.

Reduced Features/Safety Equipment/Creature Comforts

This is something that is quite common on what we call “JDM variants”. Take something like the humble Suzuki Swift (perhaps one of the best small cars you can buy from both a cost of ownership and also everyday drivability perspective). The roads here in NZ are awash with 2005-2010 Suzuki Swifts, many of them imported from Japan and some NZ new. The Japanese import Swifts of this era generally have just two airbags, whereas NZ new variants were often specified with side protection airbags as well.

Furthermore, there can be “language barrier” issues when it comes to things like infotainment screens. While many enterprising and clever individuals/businesses have developed over the years ways to replace, update or revise JDM-spec infotainment units and other displays, this isn’t always practical, possible or economical.

For example, in mid 2020 (just after the Covid-19 lockdown had ended in New Zealand) we were looking at purchasing a Toyota Crown Royal, which is a more luxurious but less sporty Crown Athlete. There was a specialist nearby – the only one we could find – who was able to offer a software-based revision to the Japanese infotainment system (which controlled the stereo and climate control) to make it work in English. However, due to supply chain issues he was no longer able to source the parts, and he had no reliable ETA.

If you are considering buying a JDM car, ensure that you are happy with the specifications and features that come with it. Don’t just assume they will be exactly the same as a domestic market version.

Translation Issues

Anyone who has purchased a used Japanese import car in markets like New Zealand (where ex-JDM vehicles are commonplace) will know this struggle.

On a JDM car, everything will be in Japanese … funny that.

This isn’t too much of an issue on older cars from the 1980s and 1990s where there is little in the way of complex infotainment or HVAC controls. However, on newer cars having everything in Japanese can be a real challenge.

A good example of this is the Toyota Crown mentioned above. The climate and stereo systems in that car were controlled by a touchscreen that was only in Japanese, and couldn’t easily be converted to English. Not a problem if you read Japanese fluently, but a potential nightmare if you don’t.

What many people will do is fumble their way around until they find the settings/controls that do what they want, and then remember how to repeat the process. You might also be able to get a full translation done – either DIY or by paying an expert.

We’ve even seen solutions like sticker sheets to cover Japanese language buttons with English translations.

Lack Of Service History

Although Japanese motorists generally do a good job of caring for their cars, it can be challenging to get decent service history from an ex-Japan vehicle.

Occasionally we see it, but most of the time the car will be shipped off with little-to-nothing in the way of service history.

This means it’s even more important to inspect thoroughly and buy based on condition. Also be wary of problem areas such as timing belts and transmission services.

Conclusion – Are JDM Cars Better?

The truth is that JDM cars aren’t necessarily better.

They are just different, and that difference should be celebrated.

Japan’s domestic car market is very different to those of other countries, and therefore the Japanese car makers have been astute in developing two “streams” of cars – those that are primarily meant for export, and those that make more sense in the domestic market (with the “middle ground” being often JDM variants of vehicles available outside of Japan, e.g. the JDM WRX STI versus the export version).

There are some advantages to buying JDM, from the simple fact of getting your hands on what is automatically a rare/unusual vehicle in your local market, through to having a wider choice of vehicles, as well as the legendary tunability of some JDM cars. However, there are downsides as well such as parts availability and the fact that some JDM cars will have things like integrated stereo/navigation/HVAC control systems that are all in Japanese and often a challenge to swap out or have translated.

We think that ultimately the question of whether or not JDM cars are better comes down to your needs, budget, and personal preferences.

If you value having something unique, or you want tunability, or if the whole “JDM culture” appeals, then JDM cars are going to be a good choice for you.

On the other hand, if you just want a car (and you care more about ease/cost of maintenance, creature comforts etc) then you may well be better off buying something else – even if that something else is a Japanese car that was made for export.

If you’re considering importing a car to your specifications, then make sure you read our guide here about how to import a car from Japan. It is packed full of useful information on how to locate, inspect and successfully import a JDM car from Japan.

We also have a number of buyer’s guides for popular Japanese cars, so make sure you check those out as well.

Finally, we welcome your feedback and input on this article. Do you believe that JDM cars are better? If so, why? Leave a comment below and we will do our best to get back to you.

3 thoughts on “Are JDM Cars Better?”

  1. Hey I’m hoping for contact info of the specialist that could possibly help revert the toyota crown infotainment system to English. I’m getting one myself. Appreciate your help.

    Reply
    • Hi Robert, great question – thanks for commenting.

      As far as we know there are fairly limited options for getting this done. It seems like there are some services that can assist in Japanese to English conversion if the Crown uses an HDD media/infotainment system. Here’s an example in New Zealand: https://www.trademe.co.nz/motors/car-stereos/other/listing-3042164091.htm?rsqid=037f9379715e4b3bb080e9bab3aa8f9d-001

      There are some limitations, however – namely that when you run the conversion you lose some features like the reverse camera backup lines disappear.

      Another thing to note is that the bluetooth in the Crown (presuming you’re looking at an S180?) only supports phone calls and NOT audio streaming, which is a bit of a shame. You can use AUX or also an AUX to bluetooth adapter.

      If you tell us your location e.g. Australia/NZ/USA/UK we will gladly help you track down a conversion solution and talk about it on our Toyota Crown buyer’s guide.

      Reply
  2. I love how you mentioned that most JDM imports are in great condition. My brother recently bought an old Nissan sports car and we are going to replace its engine to make it perform better. I’ll suggest that we start looking for replacement JDM engines this weekend.

    Reply

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