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Should you buy a used car imported from Japan?

A used car which was only sold on the Japanese market can be an interesting choice in the UK. What are the pros and cons?

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A used car which was only sold on the Japanese market can be an interesting choice in the UK, and some European makes are now shipped from Japan. What are the pros and cons?

They’re different

Scour the ads on sites such as eBay Motors for ‘Japanese Import’ and you’ll most likely get a slew of people carriers with unfamiliar names such as the Nissan Elgrand, Toyota Alphard hybrid, Toyota Estima and the Honda Stepwagon.

Once learnt, some are unforgettable such as the Mazda Bongo Friendee which has a cult following in its camper van guise, or the 1990s Nissan Figaro, a tiny pastel-coloured convertible which looks like a 1950s car (and has a thriving club and a number of specialists). It belongs to a Japanese car class called ‘Kei Cars’ which had to be very small to get city parking. Other tiny cult classics are the Honda Beat and Mazda AZ-1, but these are very much collector cars.

The people carriers are the most popular imports and several dealers specialise in them. Many buyers like the space and versatility they offer with seven or eight seats and a lofty height but not too wide (Japanese width restrictions). The Nissan Elgrand is particularly luxurious and has leather seats and a six-cylinder petrol engine (albeit thirsty) with an automatic gearbox.

The Mazda Eunos sports car will be more familiar it is essentially the same as the first version of the Mazda MX-5, except that unlike the European car it could be had as an automatic. There are plenty of Eunos MX-5s for sale in the UK. The Mitsubishi FTO (1994-2002) was a Japan-only coupé which was a once a popular UK import but numbers for sale in working order are few.

The Nissan Silvia was made until 2002 and is a major cult car (especially for ‘drifters’, and several generations of the Nissan GT-R have been sold in the UK since 2007 and there are also a number of imports, called the Skyline GT-R from Japan.

Nissan Figaro
The Nissan Figaro has become a cult classic

Some say they are better cared for

Apart from getting something unique, Japan is one of the few world markets other than the UK that drives on the left, so the steering wheel is on the same side as ours, on the right.

It is said that Japanese people treat their possessions with more care than other culture and this extends to cars, sticking to the service schedules and driving fewer miles as public transport is of a high standard. They can become quite fond of their cars as they get older.

The majority of European MPVs of the 1990s have long since been scrapped or the survivors will be disintegrating as they go, but there are plenty of imported Japanese MPVs from the early 2000s still in good condition.

The Japanese equivalent of the MOT test is called the Shaken. Three years from first registration comes the first safety and emissions test then every two years a further Shaken test.

It’s not that the test is so tough compared to our MOT but that the older the car is, the more expensive it gets. The year five test generally costs around 100,000 to 150,000 yen (currently about £600 – £900). So, some people sell their cars before the test to save the money and spend it on a new one even if the old car has been well cared for.

Cars over 13 years are subject to an automobile tax and weight tax. The automobile tax is about 15%, and the weight tax is about 30% higher, and it will go up further after 18 years.

These higher costs provide a ready market for imports of cars up to 20 years old to the UK and currently the weak value of the yen to the pound also plays a factor.

Japanese imports are often advertised as ‘rust free’ and to a certain extent they are less likely to be rusty because Japan don’t use salt on the roads in winter apart from the coldest parts of the country. The flipside is that corrosion protection is for Japan-only cars is not to the same standard as Europe so owners are advised to check for extra rustproofing before winter.

Buying and running a Japanese import

Do your homework, because there are downsides. Many of the Japanese cars have Facebook groups and clubs you can join. If you buy from a dealer, find a well-reviewed specialist which sells lots of the same type of Japanese import.

Importing yourself can be done but requires work. Many businesses advertising in the UK will import you a car to order. There are huge internet auctions of used Japanese cars and these firms will bid on your behalf.

They then put them through the required import paperwork, checking them over and converting them to British specification. Now, with the healthy demand for any used car, European cars are returning from Japan – especially BMWs and Audis. It can be hard to spot these from the outside, but they will generally have a higher specification.

According to advice from My Car Import, if a personal import  is under three years old you’ll need a Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) test. Basic IVA applies to personal imports and involves a visual inspection and other tests to make sure the vehicle meets the necessary standards.

If it is under ten years old but older than three years old, you’ll need an IVA test and an MOT test. If it is ten years or older it will only need an MOT test. Speedometers will need to be changed to read in MPH not KPH.

Some insurance companies won’t insure imports, as Japan-only models will not have been analysed for repair costs and been given an insurance group.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI)-funded Thatcham Research takes the basic details only that are available from the DVSA/ DVLA documentation, assign an ABI code, and then add to the data file made available to insurers. The vehicle itself, based on the DVLA records, will have an indicator that it is an import vehicle. The insurers will then make decisions on how to rate those vehicles.

However, there are a number of insurance companies who specialise in Japanese imports and Quote Searcher is a UK broker which will provide quotes for imported cars.

Moneysupermarket.com also provides insurance quotes for imported cars but it does caution that ‘car insurance policies for imported cars tend to be higher in price than policies for conventional UK-bought cars, usually because it can be harder and more expensive to source spare parts, making these vehicles more costly to repair’ and that ‘imported cars are often built to a higher specification than conventional cars. Because they can be driven faster, the likelihood of accidents is higher.’

The spare parts market is well served for the cult Japanese sports cars but for more everyday Japanese cars which were not sold here, many parts will be unique. These can be ordered by a specialist. “Servicing an imported vehicle is usually approximately the same cost as servicing a UK spec car,” says Jamie Willis, Autodata’s technical support manager, providing technical vehicle repair advice and instruction to both independent and franchised garages.

”The majority of the parts are the same as their UK variant unless they have an engine which is specific to, for example, Japan. Only then do the issues occur and supply and demand rule comes in, plus a repair will take longer and cost more.

“The main issues around imported vehicles is usually identifying them. They are not always very easy to identify and there can be problems cross referencing these cars to a variant in UK licensed repair data that service and maintenance companies use.”

Although a 20-year old Japanese import will be better kept than a UK-market car of the same age, there won’t be much in the way of service history during its Japanese life – or at least if there is paperwork it’ll be in Japanese.

Look for bills spent in the UK and that important replacement such as drive belts (see our service history feature) have been replaced. Lastly, they won’t take the current E10 petrol but will run happily on premium unleaded.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.