Second-hand imports from Japan: a buyer’s guide
Will your next car be a Mazda Bongo? Or a Ford Freda, perhaps? Buying cars that started life on Japan’s roads has a lot more going for it than their crazy names, writes Ray Castle of motors.co.uk.
It could be that you’re drawn to the exclusivity of a model that’s not available in the UK as a new car – Mitsubishi’s sleek coupe, the FTO (pictured, bottom), is just one you might pick. Or maybe you want your favourite with a higher specification than you’d see on a UK-market car. So you go for a Mazda Eunos (below), which we know as the MX-5 two-seater roadster.
The choice is broad but falls into three camps: MPVs, off-roaders and sports cars. The Bongo (pictured, above) and Toyota Estima are prime choices for the first of these, Mitsubishi’s Pajero the second, while the FTO, Subaru Impreza (pictured below, left) and the Eunos shape the third. There are many others, too. Amazingly, you may even find the occasional MGF sold new in Japan that’s come home to the UK later in its life. And, whichever you choose, one thing'll be beyond doubt - that the steering wheel will be on the 'right' side of the cabin: Japan drives as we do, on the left.
This far, we haven’t mentioned cost. But we should, because second-hand cars shipped from Japan are often lower-priced than their UK counterparts, even after shipping costs and value added tax are added.
Why are they cheap? Customers in Japan love to buy new and there’s a bias against second-hand. That means cars lose value even more quickly over time than they do here. If that’s not enough, Japan’s answer to the MoT test is stricter than ours and the older the car, the tougher it gets.
So owners swap their cars for new ones, creating a huge pool of vehicles sent to auction. Specialist dealers snap these up and export them to waiting buyers in the UK.
There’s more to the process than transport, though. The cars need a deal of work to make them road-legal for the UK. The speedos need converting to read miles per hour rather than kilometres, the car may need a rear fog lamp and also UK number plates. The last item mayn’t be as straightforward as you’d think. Japanese plates are far smaller and so an adapter may be needed so that UK ones fit.
That done, the cars must undergo testing under the government’s Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) scheme to ensure they meet environmental and safety standards. Once this is passed, the car is issued with a certificate and a matching windscreen sticker. Once applied, this won’t come off cleanly – to prevent fraud.
When buying, SVA is a must-have: you should check that whatever paperwork you see belongs with the car. If you buy from a dealer that belongs to the British Independent Motor Traders Association (BIMTA) the car should be road-legal. BIMTA covers a network of 100 dealers and each has agreed to a code of conduct – meaning you have come back if there’s a problem with the car’s papers. Members can also arrange to check the car’s mileage for you to see if it is correct.
So, if you’re decided on an ex-Japan import, what else should you think about? Plenty. For a start, the radio won’t be set to UK frequencies. Dealers specialising in imports should correct this for you before sale.
The service history, if it’s there at all, will be in Japanese as will the owner’s handbook. While Japanese drivers look after their cars better than we do, even though they use them less (covering low annual mileages), don’t expect useful proof of past care.
What’s more, fuel pumps in Japan have different-sized nozzles from here so the filler aperture may need changing. Again, this is something we’d expect the importing dealer to fix before sale.
The car’s engine management electronics and diagnostic system will be different, meaning that UK main agents for the make may not be able to work on your car. Happily, BIMTA garages should have the correct software, while there Japan-specific spare parts are easy to get hold of from specialists.
On some cars, window glass is thinner than on UK models, which may make things tricky if you need a windscreen replaced. The suspension may be set up more stiffly than on a UK model, giving a poor ride over our pitted roads.
Finally, unlike a UK-sourced car, an import won’t have an anti-perforation warranty. This is a pity because it is likely that it won’t have as much rust protection as a UK car, either. And there’s no easy fix for this. Effective protection can be applied but it won’t be cheap.
Buying a used car imported from Japan? Do it right, take care, shoulder the few potential problems and you’ll have a bargain. Better maybe than that even, you’ll drive something just that little different. Can’t be bad.
For more great car buying advice and to view and buy new and second-hand cars, click on to motors.co.uk. Surf the web using your mobile phone? Go to http://mobile.motors.co.uk/ or text ‘motors’ to 65056 and we’ll send you a link. If you’ve an iPhone, you can download the motors.co.uk app for free. Go to the ‘utilities’ section of the iTunes store.