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Motoring: Japanese imports offer cheaper routes

The pros and cons of importing new and used cars from the Far East.
THE USED car market is turning Japanese. Over the past few years dealers and specialists offering cars from the Far East has increased several-hundred fold.

This has nothing to do with popping into your Nissan franchise for an old Sunderland-built Micra. It is actually due to independent dealers in Britain and Europe who are offering to supply new and used Japanese specification cars - vehicles with say trim options and alloy wheels.

There are three reasons why the UK has more Japanese imports: value, exclusivity and convenience. Cars are cheaper in Japan and subject to stringent three-yearly MOT requirements, which means they are sold off relatively cheap.

Even allowing for shipping costs, they still undercut equivalent UK specification examples by several-thousand pounds. A Mazda MX5 on the used-car market in the UK, for example, will not go for less than pounds 8,000-pounds 9,000, whereas a Japanese version, badged as a Eunos Roadster, can start at pounds 6,000.

Specifications are likely to be higher as Japanese summers demand air conditioning as a minimum. British buyers are no doubt interested because Japanese models have right-hand drive and have never been officially imported.

Manufacturers claim that ensuring a small batch of usually high-performance models - which complies with official approval regulations for sale in the UK - is prohibitively expensive. Therefore the only way to get behind the steering wheel of a Toyota Lexus Soarer, Subaru Impreza WRX or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is to buy a grey import.

The disadvantages are few but include radios unable to pick up many British FM radio stations, incorrect engine emissions and lower car-security levels.

ABS, the country's leading vehicle inspection and valuation service, has appraised so many grey imports that it recently released a technical- information sheet detailing exactly what to look for. Technically a vehicle more than three-year's-old will have to pass an MOT and will need its kilometer speedometer changed to miles-per-hour.

Indicator side repeaters may need to be installed, light cover colours changed; a dim-dip facility fitted and the rear-fog light repositioned or fitted. Numberplate mountings are often too small for rectangular UK plates and although Japanese emissions' regulations are more stringent, engine modifications may be required due to the differences in fuel content.

Also the original distance recorder may be missing and replaced by a zero mileometer and if import duty and VAT has not been paid UK buyers may find themselves liable.

As the maximum speed in Japan is 55mph, the suspension setting, tyre ratings and brake compounds may not be able to cope with high-speed motoring.

If there is any service history it will be written in Japanese. It is, however, possible to trace imported cars to Holland or Dublin where they may have been stored before being auctioned. Ireland's temporary registration system effectively avoids Europe's approval laws which requires strict technical standards for official imports.

From there, a UK buyer could import a vehicle side-stepping approval requirements. Windsor Motor Auction, north of Dublin, holds several weekly sales as does Mototec, near the port. At least there it is possible to see the cars as they are, which can include transit damage.

It is possible to undercut a UK dealer price by anything from pounds 1,000 to pounds 5,000. However, if a buyer's bid is successful there are no warranties. Arranging insurance and registration takes up to a week which means two trips to Dublin. So there are risks. Alternatively you can buy in the UK. One specialist dealer has been trying to improve the image of the trade and all independent retailers by forming the British Independent Motor Trade Association (Bimta).

Roland Dane has a vested interest, his company Park Lane has been operating for more than 12 years through offices in the Far East, Ireland and the UK. It is said to be the UK's largest importer of new and used vehicles. Through Bimta, Dane is fighting against a recent Department of Transport decision - brought on by lobbying manufacturers keen to protect their market - which limits importers bringing in more than 50 cars of any one type in a year.

"The market has to be more open," Dane says. "At the moment we are restricted which ultimately means less of our money goes to the exchequer, whilst those in Holland and Ireland continue to benefit."

So will these cars continue to be imported? "Of course. The public wants these cars as they are fed up with high UK prices. There is something very odd about a British-made Primera which sells for pounds 16,000 in the UK, but just pounds 10,600 in Japan," Dane says. There is a lot to be said for turning Japanese. But just like buying any used car, it pays to be careful.

Park Lane: 0142-054 4300, Bimta: 0192-524 4120