Car Insights, Classic Cars, Collectors

The cost of importing cars from Japan

Importing Japan

Ever considered importing your own Japanese rarity? Mechanic Matt Meares talks us through the process and his striking uber-luxury Toyota Crown Hybrid … words and images from Iain Curry

Grey import cars traditionally have an undesirable reputation. They’ve come into Australia outside the usual full volume import process, dealers and workshops shy away from them and replacement parts often need sourced from overseas. Then there’s difficulty with insurance, and no local support for recalls or service campaigns.

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Think about the Takata airbag scandal for instance. Right, that’s the negative stuff out of the way, let’s consider the good. Most grey imports brought to Australia are from Japan’s used market and bought by enthusiasts. It’s how we’ve gotten hold of desirable performance and specialist Japan Domestic Market (JDM) vehicles that were never available here, or are significantly different to a model sold new in Australia.

As a result, our roads feature an eclectic mix of imports such as the V12-powered Toyota Century; tiny Suzuki Cappuccino and Honda Beat; people-moving Mitsubishi Delica and Nissan Elgrand and, of course, performance legends like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 300ZX.

Tall order

But what’s it like to bring one to Australia? How easy is it to live with a grey import, and what happens when things go wrong? Ideal to ask is 44-year-old Matt Meares, who recently imported this 2008 Toyota Crown GWS204 Hybrid from Japan. He’s also just bought an earlier 1997 Crown with Toyota’s famous 2JZ engine – albeit a non-turbo one – and is in the process of having it sent to Queensland.

“I definitely see importing from Japan as a viable source of good cars,” says Matt.
“It means more work than owning an Australian delivered car – there’s a lot less dealer support and fewer parts. But it’s manageable if you put the effort in.”

Importantly, Matt reckons a grey import is an ideal thing for an Australian mechanic to consider.

“It’s something I’d recommend to other car enthusiasts, but if they don’t know about cars and have to rely on others to do everything for you, I’d tell them to steer clear.
“But for a mechanic it makes good sense. They can research and do many jobs themselves, and mechanics are certainly used to finding parts.”

Before his current role with hydrogen energy specialist H2H Energy (refuelling hydrogen cars being a major part), trained mechanic Matt ran Kyusha Garage, specialising in classic Japanese cars. Kyusha means ‘old car’ in Japanese in case you were wondering. His passion is for interesting, rare and performance Japanese offerings from the 1970s onwards, and sought out his Crown as an efficient daily driver with strong street presence.

“I wanted a hybrid, and options in Australia were limited,” Matt explains.
“There were Toyota Corollas and Camrys, Hondas and weird Nissans, but nothing I really liked within my $20,000 budget. I wanted the 2008 Crown Hybrid as ones later than this had less powerful, smaller engines. This one’s the 3.5-litre V6, and positively for parts, it’s a common engine used in many Toyotas and Lexuses.”

Anything to declare?

Matt contacted an importer – there are plenty available – as you basically need a broker to bid on a car for you at a Japanese auction.

“They then organise ground transfer in Japan, getting it onto a boat then to a compliance workshop in Australia,” he explains. “They handle the logistics and you pay a flat fee.”

Ah, but how much are we talking? Matt walked me through what he paid, and it totalled $21,000 to get his Crown Hybrid in the Queensland traffic. The Free On Board cost (FOB) includes the purchase price of the vehicle plus all costs associated with getting it to a port – this was around $11,500.

Rough costs were $1100 broker’s fee; $1200 Japanese agent fee; $1900 international freight; $180 delivery to a compliance workshop; $240 stink bug treatment; $1335 GST on entry; $200 customs fee; $2200 compliance fee; and $800 for a safety certificate, stamp duty and rego. Every import needs new tyres, no matter the state of them, costing Matt another $900.

You’ll notice he’s since fitted 20-inch Tesla Model 3 Performance alloys. As you can see, costs aren’t as crippling as many fear, and if the car’s over 25 years old (like Matt’s soon-coming 1997 Crown) compliance is less intensive and costs only $880.

Start the bidding…

The Japanese auction system appears robust in accurately describing car condition, with Matt saying he was really happy with his Crown’s appearance.

“It was a Grade 4B – the number’s the exterior condition and the letter the interior,” he says.
“It starts at one, and anything less than three is really not worth importing.”

The Crown Hybrid’s like nothing you’ll see from Toyota Australia’s 2008 line-up. There are heated and cooled electric leather seats, radar cruise control, an 18-speaker premium sound system and ‘lace doily half seat covers’ which Matt remarks are quintessentially Japanese.

“It was modified when I bought it,” he says, “with full lip kit, aftermarket coilovers and different wheels. I could have bought one cheaper but I wanted these modifications, and the other costs would have all been the same anyway. I can take it to car shows here and people just don’t know what it is. I’ve debadged it which adds to the mystery.”

Matt explains you get a new 16-digit VIN plate when the car gets compliance (to meet Australian standards), and you must shop around for insurance. He used Shannons as traditional insurers rarely touch grey imports. What about maintaining this JDM Crown?

“Servicing’s not an issue as it has common parts with other Toyotas and Lexuses,” Matt says.
“Oil and air filters have been easy to get locally. “If it were more exotic, it would be more trouble servicing. But there are Australian websites where you can buy parts for imports, helping you find them in Japan.”

An interesting quirk is due to his Crown only ever being JDM only.

“It was never exported to any other market, so all the language menus are in Japanese,” he says.
“The switches are all in Japanese, it speaks to me in Japanese when I switch it on, and the in-built navigation has only Japanese maps. I speak some of the language so I get by, but others may struggle with the menus and buttons.”

Plenty of fish…

Matt says the Crown’s a brilliant daily driver, and his positive experience will likely lead to more imports. His incoming 1997 Crown is in mint condition and has travelled just 25,000km, but the FOB price was only $5600.

“I wouldn’t import from Japan if you’re in a hurry; the timeframe’s not guaranteed,” Matt warns.
“Mine took four months from purchase to driving it here.”

He says there’s a huge variety of cars for sale at Japanese auctions, and not just JDM stuff. Like everything there’s risk involved – you’re still buying sight unseen – but for those with mechanical abilities it feels a far safer bet, and one that could reap rewards.

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