There is nothing quite like a convertible.
The feeling of wind in your hair is liberating. The feeling of a sunburned head is not, but it’s memorable nonetheless.
There’s a reason ‘convertible people’ like to drive convertibles.
Over the years, the Land of the Rising Sun has delivered us some superb convertibles that allow you to better enjoy the risen sun.
In this article, we look at X of the best JDM convertible cars of all time.
With absolutely zero apologies, I am also going to shoe-horn in a couple of targa-top cars (as opposed to legitimate soft or hard top convertibles) just to get some more superb vehicles on the list.
JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Marketand it means manufactured specifically for sale in Japan, and not for export to overseas markets such as the United Sates or Europe. A common misconception is that JDM refers to any Japanese produced vehicle. This is not right as it is just for vehicles that are produced in Japan with the intent of being sold in Japan, and not for export overseas.
Table of Contents
#1 – The Mazda Roadster (aka Miata, aka MX-5)
In writing this article, I decided to ask ChatGPT what it thinks is the best convertible car for somebody on a budget who wants a blend of timeless-good looks, reliability, reasonable running costs and overall driving experience.
Even AI knows that “Miata is always the answer”, although as we are talking about the best JDM convertibles we should say the ‘Mazda Roadster’ is always the answer (the MX-5 and Miata names being for export models).
Whether you are buying a JDM roadster, or a USDM Miata, or whatever, it doesn’t matter.
Mazda’s legendary sports convertible is the best selling sports car of all time … for good reason.
Across four distinct generations, Mazda has managed to consistently deliver one of the best “pound for pound” driving experiences on the road.
While the original NA generation is perhaps the most celebrated, each subsequent generation brings its own unique charms and advantages.
Read our Mazda Miata/MX-5/Roadster buyer’s guide here, and then do yourself a favour and go and buy one.
If you want an affordable convertible that is big on fun, the Mazda Roadster is the best option on the market from any country.
#2 – Honda S2000
No discussion of legendary Japanese convertibles could be complete without talking about the Honda S2000.
While Mazda’s convertible is definitely the winner in the sales and market share stakes, the S2000 arguably the more desirable car.
Combining razor-sharp handling (with the added bonus of being a handful at the limit) along with typical Honda build quality and perhaps one of the greatest engines ever fitted to a production car, the S2000 was a technical marvel in its time and is an increasingly desirable modern classic.
The S2000 still looks great over 20 years since its initial launch, and how could you ever tire of being able to ring out that epic engine to extract maximum power.
VTEC just kicked in, yo.
#3 – Toyota MRS (MR-2 Spyder)
Putting aside the first two generations of the MR2, which were available with removable targa tops (some people consider that to be a convertible, others do not) you mustn’t sleep on the third and final generation of the MR2, which was sold in the Japanese domestic market as the “MR-S”.
Although the MR-S/Spyder never came with a forced induction engine option, a well-sorted example will be a revelation to drive.
A low curb weight of under 1000kg for manual-equipped models, along with a fizzy, high-revving engine and excellent chassis combine for an enjoyable driving experience.
While reviews at the time were mixed for the MR-S compared to previous generations (particularly the legendary SW20 MR2) many motoring journalists, reviewers and owners seem to agree that the third generation car has the best overall handling, in terms of controllability, predictability and capability.
I must admit that I’m not 100% sold on the looks of the MR-S, especially compared to the retro 80s lines of the AW11/first generation or the still-futuristic-looking SW20/second generation. It’s easily the worst-looking MR2 generation in my view.
However, if you care about the best overall driving experience, then the third generation MR2/JDM MR-S might be the perfect Japanese convertible for you.
#4 – Mazda RX-7 FC Convertible
When it comes to the Mazda RX-7, it is the third generation (FD) car that hogs the limelight.
However, the second generation/FC RX-7 was a brilliant car in its own right.
Although it wasn’t the greatest sales success, the second generation RX-7 convertible deserves a place on the list for the fact that it is a rotary convertible. It wouldn’t matter if Mazda had chopped the roof off a Demio and stuck a rotary inside – a rotary convertible is a cool piece of kit indeed.
Unfortunately, American buyers of the USDM RX-7 convertible could only purchase a naturally aspirated version.
Outside of the United States, the convertible was available with a turbocharged engine.
Around 22,000 FC convertibles were built out of a total generation production run of nearly 250,000 – making this a rare car.
In terms of driving dynamics, it isn’t a patch on the ordinary coupe – cutting the roof out of a “normal” car has all manner of unintended consequences in the handling and rigidity department, and so I wouldn’t personally recommend the convertible if you aren’t fussed on whether or not the car has a folding roof.
However, if you want to cruise around in a piece of 80s retro cool with the wind in your hair, or you want to be able to go “roof down” with more than two people (rear seat passengers with legs need not apply) then the FC RX-7 convertible could be a great buy.
#5 – Honda City Cabriolet
I’ll say it now – if you value your body parts all being connected where they should be, then you probably shouldn’t buy an original Honda City, let alone a convertible one.
Easily the least safe car on this list (at least in terms of protection in the event of the crash) the Honda City Cabriolet is also the most left-field choice.
Designed by legendary styling house Pininfarina and introduced in 1984, the City Cabriolet enjoyed the underpinnings and bodywork of the undeniably cool City Turbo II hatchback – albeit not the turbocharged engine, with only a 65-ish HP naturally aspirated engine on offer.
The Honda City – in its various guises – was a sales hit in the Japanese domestic market during the 1980s. The interesting “Tall Boy” design allowed this subcompact car to be unreasonably practical and comfortable for its size.
One thing to note is that the City is not a kei car either.
The reputation of the City was forever bolstered by the introduction of the Turbo model, but across the range this car was a much beloved option for Japanese buyers.
This is not the car to buy if you like to drive on the ragged edge, nor is it the car to buy if you are prone to having other motorists crash into you, as the combination of pre-2000s JDM safety equipment, small size and lightweight construction (along with the inexorable growth in size of cars since the mid 1980s) are a recipe for disaster in the event of a crash.
Despite the downsides, the City Cabriolet was considered a stylish and well-equipped vehicle for its time, and even boasted a unique selection of pastel colour options that weren’t available on normal Honda City models. As you might expect, it is also an economical and and reliable vehicle to run.
What I love about the City Cabriolet is that it (along with the wider City lineup) captures the true essence of JDM motoring.
Most people associate JDM with fire-breathing performance monsters like the R34 Skyline GT-R/‘Godzilla’, or with luxury vehicles such as the Toyota Century. We like to think that every Japanese driver spends their downtime doing their best Midnight Club impersonation.
However, for the average Japanese driver, a car like the City (or any modern equivalent) is more likely to be the reality. In fact, a City is on the large size, being too large in both physical dimensions and engine displacement to be classed as a kei car.
#6 – Honda Beat
Fancy yourself a convertible JDM “kei” car that also does a good impersonation of being a proper sports car? The Honda Beat might be just the ticket for you.
Don’t think of the Honda Beat as a version of the S2000 from Honey I Shrunk The Kids or The Borrowers – the Beat came before the S2000, and is not only RWD but also mid-engined.
Built between 1991-1996, the Beat was the last car to be approved by Honda’s late founder, Soichiro Honda. It was also one of the top (little) dogs in a lineup of 1990s JDM kei sports cars, such as the Mazda/Autozam AZ-1 and Suzuki Cappuccino.
Powered by a 656 CC, three cylinder NA engine that pumps out a whopping 64bhp, the Honda Beat is hardly the last word in power. Top speed is about 120-130kph, depending on passenger weight and prevailing wind direction. 0-100 takes the best part of 14 seconds, which means you won’t be winning any traffic light drag races any time soon.
However, with micro-supercar handling thanks to its drivetrain layout, and a five speed manual transmission, this is a true driver’s kei convertible.
Reviewers and owners praise the excellent, go-kart like handling (typically using terms like “handles like it’s on rails” or “sticks to the road like glue”) excellent gear shift action in typical Honda fashion, and the enormous amount of fun that such a tiny package can bring.
I haven’t seen a Honda Beat for sale in some time, but would definitely consider one if the opportunity arose. In fact, it might be the perfect JDM convertible for me.
Here in New Zealand the government keeps dropping speed limits (for example, the speed limit on a popular stretch of twisty “driver’s road” near where I live has dropped from 100 kph to 80 kph – inner city speed limits might be dropping to 30 kph) so the lack of power and motorway cruising ability in the Beat is no big problem. Instead, I could enjoy driving a “slow car fast” and work the Beat’s epic little drivetrain hard, all while staying below the increasingly nanny-state speed limit.
If you fancy a more modern vehicle, then the Honda S660 might be the right choice for you, which is the spiritual successor to the Beat:
#7 – Nissan Figaro
If you are a sucker for all things retro, then the Nissan Figaro might be the JDM convertible for you.
Built in 1991 – with around 20,000 examples rolling off the production line – the Figaro combines many classically-inspired design elements resulting in one of the most distinct little cars ever built.
With a 1L turbo engine and three speed automatic transmission, this is not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination. That being said, reviews typically praise its comfortable and smooth-driving nature, as well as solid reliability.
However, if you like cars with personality and charm, then the Figaro could be your next purchase.
The Figaro is a “fixed profile” convertible, which means that some elements of the roof structure remain in place with the folding top retracted:
The Figaro is a true collector’s car now, with a passionate community of owners enjoying the retro-inspired looks and charm but with “modern” Japanese car reliability (the car is based on the Nissan Micra platform).
Something like a Mazda Roadster or Honda Beat will be a much more enjoyable driver’s car – but the Figaro takes the gold medal in the “retro charm” stakes.
What is your favourite JDM soft top car? Feel free to leave a comment below with any suggestions, as well as any corrections/additions to the content already here. It would be great to hear from you!