Japan has been producing amazing works of automotive art since 1904. And since the 1960s, Japan has been one of the top three car-producing countries in the world. Unfortunately, many of their best and most innovative designs never made it to American shores. Sadly, if you want a cool car from Japan, you still can't buy one and ship it over. That is because the United States has a law that says a car that wasn't originally imported to the U.S. has to be over 25-years-old before it can be legally imported. The one bright side, there's a fresh batch of collectibles that become available each year. Interested in owning a ride no one else has? Then check out what Japanese cars you can now import.
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The Mitsubishi GTO almost got left off because it is the same basic car as the 1990–1996 dodge Stealth. Unlike the Mopar offering, though, it came in a twin-turbo version with four-wheel steering and active aerodynamics. They were also built in Nagoya, Japan for their domestic market and at a far superior quality level than what was seen in the U.S. If you liked the Stealth’s sleek design but wanted a real sportscar version of it that would make it around the block, one of these is the cars for you.
Becoming available for the first time this year, the Mitsubishi FTO was the smaller, quicker sibling of the GTO. Coming available stock with a 168 hp V-6 and 4-speed semi-automatic tranny, the 1994 FTO is sure to be a collector’s piece. That’s not to say it is without its drawbacks like only coming in righthand drive, which makes drive-throughs a pain, and if you wait three more years, you can have an even beefier 197 hp powerplant. If you love first-year models, though, these are a bargain at less than ten grand delivered docksides in the U.S.
In the early ’90s, Mitsubishi motors came upon the very American idea of winning on the track means winning on the sales floor, and so the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution was from its inception breed to be a rally racer. Based on the Lancer family sedan, it was given a turbocharged in-line 4-cylinder, all-wheel drive, and the body and frame were stiffened in every possible way. These cars were never intended for sale outside of Japan, but due to high demand, many found their way to Europe’s grey market through Ralliart dealer networks. Now you can legally bring the early models to the U.S.
These are cars you will love but have to be careful shopping for as there are those who would take advantage of the unsuspecting buyer. WRX ("World Rally eXperimental") models of the Subaru Impreza hit the market in 1992 but true STi (Subaru Tecnica International) models with their balanced and blueprinted engines, transmissions and suspensions didn’t appear until 1994. Earlier models are very likely WRX Type RAs, a stripped-down model intended for tuners and racers that have been built up to STi standards but not by actual Subaru racing technicians.
Destined to become a cult classic both in Japan and on the UK's grey market, the first Nissan Rasheen hit the showroom floor of the company’s Red Stage dealerships in November of 1994. Compact and boxy with styling reminiscent of cold war East Germany, the Rasheen was a fulltime four-wheeled-drive SUV that featured seating for five, five small Japanese people. Despite its narrowness, limited ground clearance, and 1.5 liter naturally aspirated engine, it did posse modest off-road capability and was considered excellent on slippery roads.
Most serious gearheads have at least a passing familiarity with the Mitsubishi Pajero. Still, few outside of Japan will know that there was actually a mini version of the iconic SUV built. A foot shorter, several inches narrower and powered by a 0.659 liter, in-line 4-cylinder motor, this tiny all-wheel drive was considered the king of the Kei-class of vehicles. Smaller than Mini Coopers, Kei is the Japanese classification for the tiniest highway-legal vehicles allowed and are limited to engines smaller than most street-legal motorcycles.
Sadly, the Nissan Figaro was only in production for a single year but happily, the majority of those produced are still in working order today. Intended as a limited edition from its inception Nissan originally meant to build no more than 8,000 units but expanded the run to 20,000, due to high demand. Considered masterworks of postmodern art, the front-wheel drive, fixed-profile convertibles were powered by a 1.0 L inline four-cylinder hooked to a 3-speed automatic transmission and rather than being sold through normal channels were awarded through a lottery system.
When is a Japanese car not a Japanese car; when it is designed by Ercole Spada and built-in Spain? That is the beginning of the story of the Nissan Mistral / Terrano II. Available as both a fuel-conscious gas burner and a diesel, the Terrano II entered production in Spain in the early part of 1993. In a strange turn of events, it soon became a big hit on Japan’s grey market, so Nissan introduced a right-hand steer version for their domestic market they called the Mistral. Either one is worth looking at, but the Spanish versions are slightly cheaper and much more plentiful.
The Nissan benchmark for performance both in its first generation and newer iterations the Skyline GT-R was most recently brought back to the forefront of public awareness when it starred in the original Fast and Furious films. While some of these were brought to American shores, you really cannot understand what the big deal is until you climb behind the right-hand steering wheel of one as it was meant to be. Dubbed "Godzilla" by the international motor press, these cars are capable of 12.7 quarter miles and 4.4s 0-100 mph numbers straight stock from the factory.
This car is kind of a cheat since it came and went before the 25-year rule came into effect, but they are too great to ignore and good luck finding one on U.S. soil that someone will sell. A 2.0L in-line six-cylinder with double overhead camshaft heads and six-pack carbs was hooked to a close-ratio 5-speed transmission feeding a limited-slip rear-end, making it one of the hottest sports cars in the world in 1967. With a sticker price of $6,800 when a Mustang was just 2K, it is easy to see why only 62 were ever registered in the U.S.
This was Honda’s first 100 mph car and truly showed why the company’s motorcycles were the top of heap internationally at the time. With a chain drive feed by a 791-cc engine that redlined at 10,000 RPMs, the S800 was, for all practice purposes, a four-wheeled motorcycle. Available as either a coupe or roadster, few of these cars were ever seen outside of Japan even after it was cleared to be imported to the UK. The company did eventually switch to a conventional drive-shaft with a live axle rear-end hoping to garner greater attention but had no luck.
If you love early European sportscar styling and Japanese technology, then you will fall in love with the Isuzu 117 Coupe. Designed by legendary Italian car stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro the car came with a wide variety of standard features including leather seats with headrests, camphor laurel wood-trimmed dash, and door panels, and FM radio with 8-track player. The drive train was no less stunning than the rest of the car being comprised of an inline-four, 1.6L DOHC with two valves per cylinder engine producing 120 hp, and from 1970 onward, a Bosch developed electronic fuel injection unit known as the Jetronic system.
The Mitsubishi Colt Galant was designed by Hiroaki Kamisago, who had studied at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, and incorporated many of the elements that he found popular in American muscle car culture; albeit on a smaller scale. Chiefly these included longer hoods, shorter deck lids with flared tails, twin round headlights, and pillarless side windows that rolled down. The “Hip-Up Coupé!” look became popular in Japan, as evidenced by its appearance in almost every manufacturer’s line.