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Philip Reed

If you drive your cute imported Nissan Figaro to a car and coffee meet, you’ll be bombarded with fans. Meanwhile, the rich person in front of you is all alone with his Ferrari because everyone has seen this car before.

Or so says importer Gary Duncan after selling these unique foreign cars, many from Japan, for decades at his dealerships in Virginia and Tennessee.

“It’s the aesthetics” that draw people to these cars, says Jim Simpson, a car designer and collector who has owned and restored dozens of Japanese cars and drives an early 1990s Toyota Sera daily. For little money you can get a car that you don’t see on every street corner,” he says.

Unlike German, English, or Italian collectibles, cars imported from Japan are more reliable, easier to maintain, and sometimes use interchangeable parts with available U.S. models, Simpson says. To top it off, you can have fun driving one for a few years and maybe even sell it for a profit.

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The 25 year rule

Once a car is 25 years old, it can be imported without meeting US safety and emissions standards (some states have additional restrictions). This opens up a niche market for budget-conscious collectors.

But before buying a Nissan Figaro or the adorable Honda Beat sports car, or the Suzuki Carry Mini-Truck, you should know that they are small – some are tiny – have the steering wheel on the right side and often lack the features we’ve grown accustomed to, like air conditioning.

Driving a right-hand-drive car on American roads takes a bit of practice, but you get used to it quickly, Simpson says. Since most of these cars are from the early 90s, they come with a manual transmission, which means you also have to shift gears with your left hand.

They are mostly fun second cars. Although many are inexpensive, they are not easy to insure or finance, and their age and size mean compromises in safety and comfort.

The appeal of ‘JDM’ cars

A popular niche for imported cars is the Japanese domestic market, or JDM for short. In Japan, older cars are subject to increasingly stringent tests that effectively incentivize owners to resell them. Since many of these cars are still in good condition and have low mileage, they attract American enthusiasts and collectors.

JDM fans run the gamut from Gran Turismo enthusiasts, anime fans (as designs often feature JDM cars), Japanese street racing fans, and racers looking for “exclusivity”, explains Steve Ellis, sales associate at Toprank International Vehicle Importers in Cypress, California.

While prices for the ultra-popular Nissan Skyline, which was never sold in the United States, were in the $30,000 range on Duncan Imports, a buyer aiming to spend $15,000 or less could choose from a range of vans, trucks and sports cars, even large sedans like the limo-like Toyota Century.

Even smaller Kei cars

A popular subset of the Japanese market is the “Kei car”, a class of vehicles created after World War II to get Japan’s automobile industry back on its feet. Kei cars have size limits and engines are limited to only 64 horsepower.

Although not very practical, Motor Trend claims that there is “an enormous amount of diversity, innovation and pure fun in the class”. Duncan says Kei car work trucks, such as the Suzuki Carry, are particularly popular right now because they fill a need unmet by modern household vehicles.

Still, these small cars provide a lot of fun for driving enthusiasts. Many of them are rear-wheel-drive, which provides better maneuverability, and their tiny engines respond with alacrity. “My [Toyota] Sera is a joy to drive,” says Simpson.

Buy an imported car

If you’re interested in an imported or JDM car, Simpson recommends shopping at a dealership that knows how to work with international shipping companies and customs officials. Here are some other considerations:

  • Before you buy the car, find a mechanic in your area that specializes in servicing and repairing the brand you want.
  • Check to see if parts are available for the car you are considering.
  • If you buy the car without seeing it, have it inspected by a local mechanic.
  • JDM cars do not have vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, which makes it harder to track their history. Instead, ask for the car’s “auction sheet,” which should list aftermarket modifications, paint, and any accidents or bodily damage.

Financing and insurance

There are a small number of insurance companies specializing in classic and imported cars, like Hagerty. Funding is a little more difficult.

Unlike buying from traditional car dealerships, who can easily arrange financing, buying an imported car may require the use of a harder-to-obtain personal loan. Here are some things to consider when buying and apply for a personal loan:

  • The interest rate could be higher than a typical car loan because an imported car is not easily appraised as collateral. You will get the loan based on your credit and debt profile.
  • Some lenders may want to know the reason for the loan when deciding your rate.
  • Try pre-qualifying for a loan to see what kind of rate is available to you.
  • If the interest rates offered to you seem too high, you can save for the car and pay cash.
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