Japanese cars are known throughout the world for their quality, reliability, and value, regardless of how much you’re willing to shell out to buy one. Even though that’s a highly-regarded truth, there’s some myth in that statement. Not EVERY Japanese car is impeccable. Even among the big companies like Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, there are some hiccups every now and again.
Japanese automakers have also earned the trust of customers around the world by expanding their factories to countries outside of Japan. They've shown that their quality isn’t limited just to Japan—it can be transferred to other countries. Even so, after a certain age, many Japanese cars start to wear down and show serious signs of malfunctioning.
Sports and performance cars usually require a lot of maintenance just because of what they are and how they’re driven—but when you start to see sedans and hatchbacks and SUVs that have quality issues, it raises some serious causes for concern. And while most of these cars have been produced for 10 years or more, sometimes many more, it’s usually just a few bad apples that ruin the reputation for the rest.
But there’s still hope. For every problematic Japanese car out there, there are 10 more that are excellent automotive machines. So, here are 10 Japanese cars that you should avoid, and then 10 more than you should definitely check out.
20 1996-2003 Honda Accord - Avoid
It’s well known that Honda releases some of the safest and most dependable cars on the market. Hondas frequently rank as some of the best automobiles in terms of dependability, resale value, and safety. And if you’re looking to get a new Accord, you should be fine. But not all cars are created equal.
Simply put, you shouldn’t buy an Accord that was made between 1996 and 2003.
These late fifth- and all of the sixth-generation models are plagued with transmission failures. Usually, the failure shows up after the 90,000-mile mark, and it can be devastating and expensive. Replacements can cost close to $2,000. After a class action lawsuit because of these problems, Accords in the 2000 to 2001 range were given extended warranties, but many of those warranties have now expired.
19 2005-2010 Nissan Pathfinder - Avoid
The Pathfinder has been around since 1985 and has been a top-selling SUV ever since. They were one of Nissan’s first SUVs, built on Nissan’s compact pickup truck platform. They were once known as very reliable cars, but many of the third-generation R51 series cars have some serious problems.
The primary problem with these cars, like the ‘96-’03 Accords before them, are widespread transmission failures.
But their cause is completely different. Pathfinders of this era suffer from a defect in the coolant system, causing leakage. A leak in the coolant line then leaks into the transmission, causing damages that could cost upwards of $3,500 to fix. And the problems don’t stop there—these Pathfinders also have fuel-system problems and body/paint problems. It’s best to stay away from third-gen Pathfinders altogether.
18 2003 Acura TL (Automatic Only) - Avoid
The Acura TL is a mid-size luxury car from Honda, introduced in 1995 to replace the Acura Vigor. Production on the cars stopped in 2014, but it's only a single year of production that you have to worry about, namely, 2003. Like other Hondas, the TL has some transmission issues. But even then, it’s only the automatic transmission cars you have to worry about.
Honda’s poor transmission design on this car causes improper fluid flow, which leads to transmission overheating. Sometimes, this overheating happens at 50,000 miles, and sometimes, it’s into the 100,000s, but it'll most likely happen at some point. Some people blame the 3.2-liter V6 engine, but no one is sure. Just know that the 4-speed automatic TL’s transmission doesn't match the other qualities of the car.
17 1996-2001 Honda Prelude (Automatic, Mostly) - Avoid
The Honda Prelude is a sports coupe that was around from 1978 until 2001. This two-door car based on the Accord lived for five generations. The Prelude competed with the Toyota Celica, the Nissan Silvia, and the Mitsubishi Eclipse, eventually losing the race after being replaced by the Honda Integra DC5. But they’re still cool cars… all except the automatic transmission fifth-generation cars borne from 1996 to 2001.
For whatever reason, the gearshift is poorly made and grinds/malfunctions when going into fifth gear.
This problem even happens on some manual models but mostly on automatics. Unless maintained to a pristine level, your Prelude’s transmission will eventually fall apart, so it’s a good idea to just get a manual if you absolutely have to have a Prelude from 1996 to 2001.
16 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse (Automatic Only) - Avoid
One of the main cars that were responsible for putting the above entry out of commission is the Mitsubishi Eclipse, which was around between 1989 to 2012. This four-generation compact sports car is a favorite amongst modders and racers. But the 2001 model and the automatic transmission cars, in particular, had its fair share of problems.
As usual, it all comes back to the transmission. These 4-speed automatics have a manufacturing defect where the wave cushion spring that’s located in the tranny often breaks down, leading to disastrous transmission failures. After the breakdown, this two-coil piece will launch through the filter and into the pump gear, which causes the pump gear to break and shut off all of the Eclipse’s gears. It can happen on low mileage, too, which, as you can see, is quite a catastrophic problem.
15 2004-2005 Mazda RX-8 - Avoid
The Mazda RX-7 developed a cult following due to its style and finesse. But even those cars had their problems (I know this first-hand because my dad had an RX-7 that blew up in flames while parked due to an engine malfunction.) Its predecessor, the RX-8, never cultivated the same following, but it’s still a cool car… except for the 2004 to 2005 models.
Through its 10-year run (2002 to 2012), these two particular year models were known to burn through oil and fuel rapidly, requiring near-constant maintenance. Because of its rotary engine and the fact that rotary engines wear down quickly without maintenance, they were doomed from the start. What happens is the air and fuel mixture in the engine leaks from one combustion chamber to another, lowering compression and reducing engine efficiency.
14 2004-2013 Infiniti QX56 - Avoid
The Infiniti QX56, though built on the luxury brand of Nissan, was built to compete with the Range Rover, but it failed. After 2013, in a move we assume was done to cover up these issues and rebrand the car, the QX56 was renamed the "QX80." Up until then, though, this “luxury” SUV was chock full of problems.
Consumer reports claimed that the rotors on these cars could warp in just mere weeks and that the brakes had to be replaced every 2,500 to 3,000 miles (just about every oil change!).
The main reason the brakes suck so bad is because the car is massive, with a 5,600 lb curb weight, but was fitted with small brakes. After the rename in 2014, the cars got much better in quality, however.
13 2012-2017 Mitsubishi Mirage - Avoid
We aren’t sure of the exact date range of Mitsubishi Mirages that you should avoid, but we know it’s the second generation models (maybe all of them). The problem with these cars—which were produced first as hatchbacks between 1978 and 2003 and then as subcompact hatchback/sedan cars from 2012 to present—is that they have bad interior mechanics.
Even with a low price-tag of just $15,395 for the base model and with 37 mpg city and 44 mpg highway, Consumer Reports cautions buyers not to choose this car. They say that this three-cylinder car is noisy and has sluggish acceleration. U.S. News auto reviewers also stated that it had “drab interior and shoddy handling.” So, the interior, the handling, the acceleration, and the noise are all an issue… Not good, Mirage. Not good.
12 2009-2010 Nissan 350Z - Avoid
Known as the "Fairlady Z Z34" in Japan, the Nissan 370Z is a sleek, two-seater sports car produced from 2009 until the present and acting as the sixth-generation model of Nissan’s Z-car line. During its eight-year run, the 370Z has gone largely unnoticed in terms of complaints—all except the 2009 to 2010 models.
The main problem with these first-year cars (and which hurt future sales because it was their freshman and sophomoric efforts) came from a faulty steering-lock column. After people were left stranded on the road (or in their driveway), Nissan made a massive recall of the 370Z. But the recall wasn’t big enough, as many VINs were left out. So, what you can do is either, a) Call Nissan to see if yours is on the list of recalled cars, b) Check the VIN number and find out yourself, or c) avoid the “early years” 370Z altogether.
11 2000-2001 Toyota Celica GT-S - Avoid
Just like Honda, Toyota is usually known for its reliable, durable cars. The Celica is no different—since the early ‘70s, these cars have been pretty sweet rides, providing both reliability and style in one package. But the 2000 to 2001 models, the GT-S in particular, has malfunctions that should cause any diligent buyer to ask some difficult questions.
These seventh-generation Celicas, like the Infiniti QX56, has sluggish/acceleration problems. Their response time just isn’t right, and when you’re trying to drive a flashy sports car, that can be a big detriment. These problems can sometimes be fixed with a new oil pump and filter. Other times, the EVAP system needs to be replaced, which is a pretty big problem in its own right. All in all, the problems plaguing the Celica GT-S (2000 to 2001) are more of a nuisance than a serious problem, but it still causes reason to be cautious.
--- 10 Worth Every Dollar ---
10 2017 Mazda CX-5
The Mazda CX-5 is a great subcompact crossover SUV that was introduced in 2013 and is still in production to this day. It’s the first Mazda vehicle with “Skyactiv Technology,” which gives it a newly efficient engine and transmission, reduced emissions and fuel consumption, and a new, rigid, lightweight platform.
The 2017 model was also completely redesigned, giving it more room and more supportive seats, thus allowing it to seat four adults comfortably.
The cabin is sleek and upscale, the trim levels are equipped with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts, low-speed automatic braking, and a backup camera. And best of all, they start at just $24,045! This car will give you a smooth ride, nice handling, and a great, spacious interior. What’s not to love?
9 2017 Toyota Prius
Toyota’s full-hybrid electric car, the Prius, is quickly becoming one of the most common cars on the road. It’s been around since 1997, initially as a 4-door sedan, but since 2016, it's only been made as a 5-door fastback.
According to the EPA and the California Air Resource Board, it’s one of the cleanest vehicles in use in the USA.
The Prius has managed to cross over from the hybrid-vehicle category into the mainstream compact-car field, which is very competitive. But given its amazing fuel efficiency, huge cargo space, low noise levels, and the smoothness of its ride, the 2017 Prius is still hard to beat. It gets 54 mpg in the city and, on the highway, 50 mpg. The 2017 model has made its “Safety Sense” mode standard, which includes a rearview camera, forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. The 2017 Prius starts at $24,685.
8 2017 Mazda3
The Mazda3 is a compact car that was introduced in 2003, replacing the Protégé/323/Familia models. A performance-made version of the car called the "Mazdaspeed3" is also available. With over 4 cumulative units sold in 2014, the Mazda3 became Mazda’s “fastest-selling vehicle”—and for good reason: it looks and drives awesome.
The 2017 Mazda3 has fantastic handling and a sleek, high-scale interior.
Its fuel economy is also great. The cargo space has grown from the Mazda3 sedan to the hatchback model by 63%. It has a backup camera and other safety upgrades optional, including blind-spot monitoring, traffic-sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, and low-speed automatic braking—all the amenities a new car should have in this day and age. The 2017 Mazda3 starts at just $17,845, which is hard to beat.
7 2017 Honda Fit
The Honda Fit, also called the "Honda Jazz," is a five-door subcompact car that’s been around since 2001. As of 2013, 5 million units had been sold, making it one of Honda’s most popular cars that aren’t called "Accord" or "Civic."
The Fit is produced in 12 countries, and an all-electric version was introduced to the US in 2012.
It’s hard to find a better subcompact car than the Fit. It has outstanding interior room and great fuel economy, and unlike other subcompacts, 6-foot+ passengers can fit nicely in its front and rear seats. The rear seat also flips up/flat, to allow even more cargo space that other larger vehicles would be hard-pressed to match. Its only downsides are that it’s a bit noisy and doesn’t have that much power, but at a price of $16,090, we can hardly complain.
6 2017 Honda Civic
Honda became famous for building high-quality, small-sized cars, and the Civic is its flagship model in this regard. Since 1972, the Civic has been in production, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down. Currently, the Civic sits between the Fit and the Accord in terms of size. It’s offered in three different versions: a sedan, a coupe, and a hatchback.
The coupes and sedans have 2.0-liter 158-horsepower engines or the smaller 1.5-liter turbocharged 174-horsepower engine in the Sport Touring model.
The hatchbacks all come equipped with the 1.5-liter motor. Honda also offers all Civics with its “Honda Sensing” system, which gives forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and automatic emergency braking. The 2017 Honda Civic starts at just $18,740.
5 2017 Lexus RX 350
The Lexus RX 350 has been around since 1998 as the original mid-size luxury crossover SUV of Toyota’s upper-name brand. Four generations have come out to date, the first being compact and the latter three, mid-sized. The Lexus RX is the top-selling Lexus hybrid, with over 350,000 units sold.
The 2017 fourth-generation model was introduced with a “floating-roof design,” and a bold “Spindle Grille.” It’s also equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine paired with an 8-speed transmission. The car is comfortable, as it should be, with ample space for passengers. The 2017 models also come standard with the “Lexus Safety System” on all models, giving it forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep and lane-departure warnings, and even pedestrian detection. It’s a little pricier than other cars on this list, starting at $43,120.
4 2017 Toyota Camry
The Toyota Camry has been Toyota’s mid-size best-seller basically since its introduction in 1982. The Camry has been called Toyota’s second “world car” behind the Corolla since the introduction of the wide-body version in 1991. In the US, it's Toyota’s flagship vehicle (together with the Land Cruiser). And get this—except for the year 2001, the Camry was the best-selling passenger car in EVERY year between 1997 to 2016. (And that’s in the most competitive field, too.)
Given its success, it’s no wonder the 2017 model is highly lauded. These sedans come with the topmost reputation for reliability, safety, comfort, and roominess. And though the newest models come equipped with a 178-horsepower V4 engine, there’s also an upgrade option of a 268-horsepower V6 engine, for those who want a little more power. The 2017 Camry starts at $23,070.
3 2017 Honda CR-V
The Honda CR-V has been around in one form or another since 1997. It’s Honda’s compact crossover SUV and uses a Civic platform. The CR-V stands for “Comfortable Runabout Vehicle” in every country but Britain, where it stands for “Compact Recreational Vehicle.” The 2017 CR-V was completely redesigned, and it was a huge success.
Among other compact SUVs, the CR-V earned the highest accolades and ratings from U.S. News. Some of the highlights include its newly spacious cargo room and ample backseat space. It also has great handling and superb fuel economy, and advanced features offered include a suite of safety features. The CR-V is also relatively inexpensive, starting at just $24,045.
2 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The Mazda Miata began its life as a very cool convertible mini-sports car that people loved for its simplicity and minimalism (limited only by safety standard requirements) when it was first released in 1989. It’s grown up a bit since then, now being called the "MX-5 Miata" and has become the spiritual successor of small British sports cars from the ‘50s and the ‘60s.
The MX-5 Miata has earned great scores on quality, performance, and power, as well as being pretty inexpensive to own ($24,915, for those who are wondering).
Though an automatic version is available, the manual is super fun to drive, and it’s very agile and fuel economic. Though it’s known for its soft top, the 2017 model, called the "MX-5 RF," has a power-retractable roof option, too.
1 2018 Lexus LC
For our final car on the list, we deviate from the inexpensive, reliable cars and pivot to the luxury sportscar field. Exhibit A is the Lexus LC, an outstanding sportscar that outscores every other competitor on the field.
This car has always been about power, with a 10-speed automatic transmission on a 5.0-liter V8 with nearly 500 horsepower (or 3.5-liter V6 hybrid).
The newest LC has the highest scores in performance in its field, awesome handling, and a super posh and comfortable interior. The cargo hold is small, given that it’s a sports car, but unlike other competitors, it’s offered as a hybrid. This awesome-looking and awesome-driving car starts at $92,000, but if you can afford it, it’s worth it.
Sources: CarThrottle.com; CBSNews.com; Autowise.com; Cars.USNews.com