Buying information

Imports from Japan

This section is a no-nonsense "how and why" guide to buying your car from Japan - or buying a 'grey import'

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what mitsubishi say | what owners say | what's on offer? | why so cheap?
difficult? | other jap connections | making a purchase | payment
shipping | legality | modifications | what else? | the future

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Firstly, what they say (Mitsubishi UK)

Originally, this was Mitsubishi's statement regarding Grey Imports -
"There is no such thing as a World Car. Mitsubishi produces vehicles to meet the regulations of the country exported to. The EC requires 54 tests (eg. Brakes, noise, emissions, etc.) so unless the vehicle is of EC spec it's 'buyer beware'. Grey imports are only required to need the standard of the country in which they were designed to be used. The Colt Car Company (CCC) doesn't have any information on vehicles they have not imported to the UK or any technical information on grey imports. We are also unable to assist with servicing and product recalls on these cars as we do not have the relevant data. Product liability rests with the country or individual that imported the vehicle into the United Kingdom"

HOWEVER, Mitsubishi and the Colt Car Company have turned around on this statement and are now selling grey imports through main dealers!

What we say (as Japanese imported FTO owners)

Personally, I can not believe that CCC have turned around so completely on their original standing. I personally think that they have realised how huge the import scene is and have decided "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!".

I think that CCC were very guilty of scaremongering in the early days but as I say, the import scene has just exploded and it's like trying to police the Internet - impossible.

What's on offer

The choice such hot machinery as the Mitsubishi FTO (what else!), the EVO and the Skyline GT-R, Subaru Impreza WRX is already known to British enthusiasts. But that's not the end of the story. Other winners include the Soarer Coupe and Lexus GS3000 turbo and the Galant 4wd from Mitsubishi. All are well specified and offered at prices so low it's easy to see why official importers refer to the overpriced British market as 'Treasure Island'. And if that wasn't enough, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car as well.

Why Japan's so cheap

It's the structure of the Japanese market that makes cars so much cheaper than similar models in the UK. They depreciate even more quickly too which makes it even better for buying second hand,. The high depreciation is mainly du to the rigorous 'sha-ken' test which takes place three years after first registration and every two years after. This 'super MoT' usually costs £750 or more! For a three year old car that has lost half it's original value of £6,000, this overexpenditure might be worthwhile. But as the years go by, the 'sha-ken' becomes more of an issue for car owners in Japan, making used cars far cheaper for anyone who has plans to export.

How difficult is it to import from outside the EC (ie. Japan)?

Japan has its own quirks too, one of which is a law that obliges the potential new car buyer to prove they have a parking space before they can purchase a car - the departire lounge ast Tokyo's Narita airport does not qualify J. There are ways around this barrier but without trade contacts and fluent Japanese most perple will never discover them. As a result, if you are not aquainted with Japan and its language you will have to work with export agents (see Q&A section) who will set up the whole transaction for you, In reality this is just as well, Organising for a vehicle to be de-registered, transported to the docks and shipped to the UK is best left to the professionals - it also means you can concentrate on finding the right car.

Other Japanese connections

Car owners in Japan are totally in the hands of motor traders when they want to sell. Cars change registration when they change ownership (unlike the UK), with the process handled by a government official who is only allowed to deal with registered motor traders. So Japanese motorists can either trade in their cars or sell them at auctions where the only people allowed to bid are registered dealers. Japanese car auctions are gigantic. Everyone attending gets a detailed list of all entries and shuttle busses ferry potential bidders around the huge compounds. Every car is unlocked with the key in the ignition to allow the engine to be fired up. There is also a single sheet report detailing the vehicle's age, mileage and specification, together with service history and engineer's notes on any problems. These reports are so thorough that many dealers buy without looking at the cars. They rely instead on digital photos and report forms displayed on screens in auction halls. Technology is used for bidding too. Registered motor dealers sit at desks and simply click buttons to enter bids. In some cases they don't even bother to attend the auction as traders can bid from anywhere in the world via the Internet.

Making a purchase

Most private UK buyers cannot be bothered with the time, travel costs and complications of attending auctions in person. It's far easier to order a car from one of the many businesses that have sprung up in the unofficial imports industry. These are either exporters based in Japan or grey importers located in the UK. Before choosing which company to use, it's necessary to understand what is involved.


If an overseas company is unable to offer cast-iron security for a deposit, look elsewhere. Established motor import agents in the UK are a much safer proposition - particularly members of BIMTA. Most will prefer to sell a vehicle already in stock. Buyers who insist on a special order have to pay a deposit - £1,000-£1,500 is common, but it will be higher if the vehicle is in a hard-to-sell-on wacky colour or specification. Extra care is required on used cars. Insist on a full inspector's report with details of any extra spec and every blemish. Some dealers/wholesalers offer a full money-back guarantee on all cars if they do not match the report exactly. Payment of the full amount should not be made until after the vehicle has got SVA/MoT certification and is ready for registration.


Cars can be ferried in secure containers or on roll-on-roll-off ferry like ships. All but the most valuable cars will be safe enough this way (that's how official imports get to the UK), though minor knocks do occur. More common are blown engines - revved hard after a cold start - and petty thefts, either on board or in dockside compounds. Losses only hit one or two percent of cars but insurance is essential. Shipping and insurance costs depend on vehicle size. An MR2-sized car is around £900 but a big off-roader will be nearer £1,500.

Arrival in the UK

Buyers who can show passport stamps, air tickets and hotel receipts to prove that they have ben to the country from which the car is bought have no difficulty bringing a personal import into the UK. Those who can't have to go through an elaborate pantomime - instead of coming direct to the UK (where the Treasury would benefit 10 per cent tax payable on any goods brought into the EU), personal imports arranged by agents have to enter cia another EI nation. The personal importer is obliged to take a day trip abroad to prove they owned and used it in another EU state. The agent's price will normally include a flight/ferry ticket to make this simple. Check whether the cost includes transport to and from the airport/ferry terminal. With this formality out of the way, the vehicle can be shipped over where it faces dock-handling feed of around £65 and comes under Customs' glare. Imports face a VAT bill of 17.5 per cent on the total price of the vehicle - including all other costs incurred. Expenses incurred in foreign currencies, such as the car itself, are assessed using the exchange rate on the day the car is imported, inless you've proof of the rates used.

Getting it legal

Before a vehicle can be registered it's necessary to prove it roadworthy and legal. This is where things get a bit messy. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions rationalise the law with limited success during 1998. It introduced a test to ensure that every vehicle not covered by Type Approval was roadworthy and legal before registration for use on public roads. Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) tests would last between two to four hours at 16 special testing centres around the UK and cost £165. This helped personal imports, as it recognised that vehicles which had been type approved in Japan or the USA were safe for occupants and other road users - provided certain modifications were made.


The modifications required for SVA testing are fairly straightforward. Various companies are now familiar with replacing speedos (kmh to mph), headlight adjustment, fitting restrictor necks inside the fuel fillers to allow unleaded fuel only and fitting rear fog lights (unknown in Japan). They will usually offer to remove the speed limiter restricting all Japanese market cars to 112mph. Where it can be more difficult is if the car has been modified with the fitment of a big-bore exhaust (which may exceed the SVA noise levels) or smaller wing mirrors. The vehicles facing the biggest obstacle are off-roaders with spare wheels mounted on the back door. This blocks rear visibility and the rear lights and usually obliges official importers to fit extra lights in the rear bumper. It's no good simply taking the spare wheel off the bracket (the SVA testers aren't stupid) but removing the bracket and plugging the holes is sufficient to prove that visibility is not restricted. Putting it back on after the test makes the vehicle technically illegal, but is a very common practice. The examination for an MOT (applicable on cars over 3 years old) is less rigorous but a rear fog light and an mph display on the speedo are essential. Watch out for lazy importers who will attempt to alter the speedo on the cheap. Simply sticking a new mph face on the existing kmh speedo is usually illegal, but this leaves the odometer unchanged and will clock up another mile for every kilometre the car is driven. The indicated mileage would be roughly a third higher than it should be.

What else do you need to do?

Make sure you get your car fully undersealed, if the dealer has not already done so. Also, while an import is being modified for an SVA or MoT, it is common to fit a waveband adaptor to the car radio. However the wavebands for Japanese car radios are far more restricted than radios for Britain, so the choice of stations will remain limited all the same. Importers of Japanese cars are best advised to budget for a new, UK-supplied stereo, as well as a new car battery to replace the weaker Japanese-fitted item. The other big item which is strongly advised must be the replacement of the tyres. Differences in runner compounds between UK and overseas markets are invisible to the naked eye, but can have a dramatic effect on handling. If the car is more than two years old or there are doubts about its pedigree, inspection by a specialist company is recommended. It's the same service people use when buying a new car, although companies are now used to checking out imports too. Last item on the check list must be what warranty cover you can get from various companies (see the Q&A section). Like most insurers, they are very nervous about covering cars that are totally unknown in the UK, but are otherwise happy to see a warranty that's just as good as anything you could get from a franchised dealer.

The Future

With unofficial importers now able to offer service, parts and warranties, the official importers have got problems. Particularly since the new Minister of Transport has suggested that removing the limits on SVA tests (currently there's a quota on cars that can be imported by an unofficial importer) would benefit buyers by increasing competition. When that happens, the official importers will have to lower their prices - maybe by 15 per cent or more!