How to shop for….an import car

Covered mag, presented by
  • | by Kristian Dando

The UK is pretty well served when it comes to choice in the car marketplace, but there’s plenty of tantalising stuff from abroad that never makes it into the manufacturers’ showrooms - from subtle performance monsters that will give the flashiest European supercars a run for their money to eccentric cult oddities and gargantuan 4x4s. However, its possible to get your hands on them through the imports market.

There are two sorts of imports – ‘parallel’ imports are foreign versions available at home, while ‘grey’ imports are cars which aren’t available over here. The latter is what we’re primarily interested in with this feature, although there are certainly appealing aspects to a parallel import . Take Mazda’s MX-5 roadster, or Eunos, as it was known in Japan - examples of these can often be much cheaper than equivalent UK cars.

The thing is, buying and running an import car throws up all sort of issues that buying a car that was intended for the UK won't. For instance, imported cars don’t include warranties, and parts might well be very difficult to find. When you get round to buying them, they can be very expensive. They also need to be registered with the DVLA and usually need to have modifications which make them legal to drive in Britain - get the information straight from the horse’s mouth here.

With a bit of foresight and a realistic attitude, you can snare a brilliantly individualistic car which won’t cost the earth. We’ve put together this brief guide which will help you navigate the pitfalls of buying and running a car from far off lands….

Beasts from the East

Japanese cars are some of the most appealing imports. For a starters, they’re right-hand drive, so they’ll be much easier to drive on British roads. But J-Spec cars are built to significantly different laws to our own. For instance, rear fog lights are not a prerequisite, the tyres are quite different, and the radio will be set up for Japanese frequenies. “A quality importer should ensure this work is completed/rectified, so it should be less of an issue for the second or third UK owner,” says used car expert at Auto Trader, Stuart Milne.

Then there’s the rather important matter of the vehicle’s history.” The service history and other paperwork is likely to be in Japanese, making it difficult to see what work has been done, and when,” says Milne.

To play it safe, it’s advisable to pick up your Japanese car from a dealer which has a proven track record in importing cars from the far east.

Yanks A Lot

Lantern-jawed American motors are popular with UK motorists, despite the steering wheel being on the wrong side for our roads. There are some serious practicalities to think over before you commit to a left-hand drive vehicle. “Left hand drive might not suit everyone – it makes the car feel even bigger – and overtaking and accessing ticket dispensers in car parks is difficult,” says Stuart.

‘Gas’ is much cheaper in America, too, meaning that what might seem in the realms of liveable fuel economy over there will be bank balance-crushingly expensive in the UK. “A big five litre engine will struggle to achieve more than 20mpg,” says Stuart.

The insurance factor….

You’d be forgiven for thinking that an imported car might be far more expensive than a UK model, or something similar – but it’s not necessarily the case. “On the whole, there’s not that much difference,” says Dan Clarke, of insurance firm Adrian Flux, which was one of the first firms to specialise in insuring imported cars from Japan during the early 1990s. There are, however, factors to consider. “Parts are an issue – windscreens in particular can be difficult to get hold of,” he says. “Policies may have endorsements which will give cash in lieu of parts – for instance, if a body panel needs to be made from scratch. But this isn’t particularly common.”

With the right cover, and realistic expectations – for instance, you might have to wait a while for spares or parts to arrive – you shouldn’t have too much bother.

Japanese cars in particular are popular with modifiers, so the usual rules about being straight with your insurer about what tweaks have been made to the car apply.

Join our club

A great way to get some insight on a prospective import buy, and to obtain parts, spares and general advice is through an owners or enthusiasts clubs and friendly internet forums. Seek them out.

Use your head

As tempting as an imported car is, make sure you’ve not rushed into any decision. “Don’t buy with the heart. A problem car can cost a fortune to sort – even more than a UK car,” says Auto Trader’s Stuart Milne “Make sure you know what it’ll be worth when you come to sell – imports can depreciate much faster than UK cars.”

For further tips on shopping for a used car, check out's handy three part guide....Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Five famous import cars

Honda Beat

This two seater was a fine example of Japanese 'Kei' car – a category of small vehicles which benefited from favourable tax and insurance rates.

Nissan Cube

This wonderfully odd vehicle was actually sold in the UK for about a year, but didn’t shift enough units to justify the expense of Nissan continuing to ship it over from Japan.

Nissan Skyline GT-R

A veritable technical tour-de-force when released, the spirit of the Skyline lives on in Nissan’s current highly-acclaimed GT-R.

Chrysler Viper

Chrysler’s market research department was  probably on to something it decided that the rowdy Viper was a bit too much for UK tastes. However, the double-stripe motif that the Viper rocked (itself a tribute to the Shelby Cobra) have been adopted – not always with brilliant results – by legions of British hatchback warriors.

Hummer H2

Believe it or not, the gargantuan Hummer H2 - discontinued by GM in these rather more austere economic times - was a relative tiddler compared to the positively vast H1, as driven by the erstwhile 'Governator', Arnold Schwarzenegger.