Turning Japanese? Imports from the Far East are growing in popularity - even with UK car makers.
JUST IN case you hadn't noticed, the new and used car market has gone rather grey recently. In the past 12 months, the number of "grey", or unofficial imports from the Far East, has turned into a positive deluge. Experian Car Data Check claims that the number on UK roads now exceeds 500,000.

Certainly the forecourts of Britain have been turning Japanese. A glance at the number of advertisements for specialist grey import dealers multiplies every day. The facts are that Japanese market cars are cheaper than UK models and better equipped. Not everyone has been happy about this trend, particulary the official importers. There have been stories about the problems of getting parts, the differing specifications, safety implications and sky-high insurance premiums.

A recent high-profile court case concerned a grey importer who had rebadged a Toyota Soarer as a more prestigious Lexus, which is practically what Toyota do on exports to America anyway. The successful prosecution led Graham Smith, managing director of Toyota GB, to say: "We welcome increased consumer choice, but buyers must be extremely wary when considering a grey import for many reasons, including safety and higher insurance costs."

By definition, dealers in such cars are not part of a manufacturer's authorised dealer network system and cannot offer the reassurance of warranties, after-sales back-up or even, it seems, a truthful description of what the car is. So what is the truth?

A grey import is a vehicle that was not built for sale within the European Union. In practice it has not met European Type Approval regulations for safety and emissions. A personal import is a car which has been used by the buyer in a country outside the UK. This procedure is commonly used by grey importers to avoid the government's quota of just 50 models. Although the personal imports do not have to meet strict type approval regulations, they will have to pass the pounds 165 Single Vehicle Approval test introduced in May 1998. To be road legal for the UK requires, among other things, that the speedometer must read in miles per hour and that the vehicle complies with emission regulations.

The most common way for second-hand cars to be imported is via the European Community. Firstly the car is bought in Japan and legally exported with a CCR (Certificate of Cancelled Registry). Delivered to a European destination such as Eire, Holland, or France (not the UK), it is then registered for use in that country and taxes and VAT are paid.

The buyer of that car then collects it and once it is driven into the UK any necessary conversion work is carried out. An MOT is acquired if the car is over three years old. Then it is ready for UK registration, getting a number plate, V5 registration document and road fund licence. Easy? Certainly Automobile Buyers Services (ABS) think so. ABS, an independent vehicle inspection and valuation company, admits that a buyer could even travel to Japan, or Dublin.

A less-complicated option is buying privately from the pool of existing imports. This is no more risky than buying any used car. Certainly the most dependable route is buying from a reputable dealer who is a member of the British Independent Motor Trader Association (BIMTA). Indeed Roland Dane, chairman of BIMTA, who also runs the import company Park Lane, believes that the import market in the UK now has a much firmer base. He observes: "Gradually we are weeding out the bad and inadequate operators."

Typical of the increased professionalism is GT Imports based in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The firm recently opened offices in Tokyo and Rotterdam and has appointed experienced buyers in Japan to locate hand-picked cars for the UK market. Mr Beswick says: "Recent scaremongering in the UK media about the threat of grey imports in the established market is not in the consumer's interest. Our cars are produced in the same factory and under the same conditions as the UK ones. The main difference being that UK models are more expensive and the specification is lower.

"Because we fully understand the concerns of the UK buyer in selecting an imported performance car we have developed a comprehensive `hassle- free' package. "This includes a full two-year warranty and roadside assistance, special finance packages, low-cost insurance and even a buy-back guarantee. We have produced a detailed fact sheet outlining all you need to know about buying a sports import."

As for costs, take the real-life case of a 1991 Toyota MR2, imported from Japan by a specialist firm, Japonicar. Costing pounds 8,500 from Japan, taxes paid, as opposed to pounds 9,995 in the UK, once insurance and an approved security system were included, the savings amounted to pounds 1,240. This was on a car which already had pounds 2,000 worth of extras over and above the standard UK model.

Insurance should not be a problem. Privilege, the Leeds-based insurance firm, suggests there should be a small loading to reflect the fact that the car is an import, as repairs might be slightly more expensive. Otherwise cover should not be a problem, as insurers are now much more familiar with the types of models coming in.

Not only that, manufacturers are changing their mind about this market, realising that there are profits to be made from parts and servicing.

GT Imports, 01484 517070 www.ukcarimports.co.uk; ABS, 345 419926; Japonicar, 0171-486 6808; Park Lane 01420 544300