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The top Japanese project cars you can fix on a budget


When most people think of the type of cars that make great restoration projects, they probably envision the rear-wheel drive mid-size vehicles that dominated both the street and drag strip in the 1960s and 70s.

Sure, these muscle cars – like the Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO or Dodge Challenger – have the styling flare and performance that every gearhead craves.

But they also come with a price, one that usually isn’t in the budget of the average do-it-yourselfer looking to do a restoration in the comfort of his or her garage.

Luckily, though, if you want an inexpensive project that will hold its value for years to come, look no further than these late-model Japanese cars, all of which are known to be reliable, durable and fun to drive.

1987-2005 Honda Civic

Any Honda Civic other than the economical sedan driven by soccer moms everywhere is generally perceived as the car that teenagers turn into ricers by modifying the exterior with unnecessary body kits and spoilers.

And it’s true that some people go to extreme lengths to make their Civics look as aggressive as possible without backing it up under the hood.

But that doesn’t mean that one that hasn’t been modified won’t make a great fixer-upper.

For starters, there are an almost infinite number of aftermarket and OEM parts available for next to nothing and the cross compatibility means you can swap out the engine from other models.

And the best part? You can easily find a manual transmission Civic with a VTEC four cylinder for under $3,000.

1989-2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse

In the 1990s, most Japanese car manufacturers were in a race with one another to make the most affordable, yet sporty two-door coupe. And while we got some great cars during that time, none came in as many trim levels as the first and second-generation Eclipses.

You could get the base model grocery getter, which was equipped with a 92-hp 1.8 L, the slightly more powerful GS, the GS DOHC with a 16-valve engine or the GS DOHC AWD.

But, if you wanted performance, you had to go with the GS Turbo or GSX, both of which featured a 195 turbocharged 2.0 L inline four.

And they weren’t popular just because it was Paul Walker’s car of choice in the first Fast ‘N Furious film (although it definitely didn’t hurt sales).

Though they’re not as easy to come by as a Civic, you can find an older Eclipse on Craigslist or eBay for around $4,000. Bonus points if you can score one of the turbo models.

1988-97 Toyota Land Cruiser

While older Toyota Land Cruisers may look like a knock off Land Rover, they’re anything but. These vehicles are the epitome of the 80s and 90s 4X4 trucks that just won’t die.

Sure, they’re getting up there in age and will probably need a basic tune up – and possibly some bodywork. But these things will run forever if properly maintained.

The first and second-generation Land Cruisers from the 1960s may be a little pricey, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to find a four-door version for under 56,000.

And at that price, you’ll have money left over to beef up the suspension and get better off-road tires.

Honorable Mentions

1989-2000 Mazda Miata

They say Miata is always the answer. And in this case, it’s the perfect car for anyone looking for an inexpensive roadster.

1993-2001 Acura Integra Type R

The Type R comes with a higher price tag than other comparable Acuras (it was branded as the Honda Integra in other markets). But with this type of speed and handling, it’s worth every penny.

1989-99 Toyota MR2

A good condition MR2 is going to be pricey and difficult to find, especially if it’s the 200-hp turbo model. However, keeping this car from extinction should be even more reason to find and restore one back to original condition