buying an imported car

Fancy something more exotic?

Here's what to look out for, if you're looking farther afield

Imported cars may be cheaper, can sometimes have better equipment and you may even get your hands on an unusual model that's not available to the UK market. So why isn't everyone buying a car abroad?

Imports fall into two broad categories
  • EU imports / parallel imports – cars bought in other EU countries
  • Grey imports – cars built for non–EU countries
  • Whilst there are benefits in both cases, there can be disadvantages for the unwary.

Parallel imports
In the late 1990s, manufacturers in the UK came under pressure to reduce new car prices. An official report showed that prices for 'identical' car models were considerably higher here than in many other European countries.

Importing from across the Channel became popular as a result. It's less so these days though as UK–dealer supplied new car prices have fallen, narrowing the gap with European–dealer prices.

Even if you're not going to buy in Europe yourself, a lot of people have over the past few years with the result that there are now many parallel imports in the used car market.

Vive la Différence
Thanks to European Whole Vehicle Type Approval, all cars sold in Europe (including the UK) must meet the same minimum standards for crash protection, emissions, lighting, brakes, steering and so on. So you needn't worry that a car bought from a dealer in Spain or Belgium, for example, won't meet the same high standards as one bought through a franchise dealer in the UK.

You may need to watch out for the specifications though as an 'official' UK car spec may well differ from the EU version – a sunroof or leather trim may come as standard here but may be optional in Belgium for example.

Make sure you get the specification in writing and check that it matches the UK spec. You may be happy to accept a lower spec though, if the price is right.

UK dealers should honour a warranty, but the warranty period may be shorter than for a UK dealer sourced car.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT):

"Any new car that is sold within any member country of the European Union has a one year manufacturer's pan-European warranty, although some manufacturers have now extended this to two or even three years.

"The pan-European warranty will be honoured at any of the manufacturer's UK authorised dealers, but will not include an extended or dealer warranty, which can normally be purchased separately from your local dealer." Though looking through the European block exemption legislation indicates that a minimum two-years pan-european warranty may have been required since 2002.

The SMMT go on to say that it's very important to check the warranty provisions with the importer to ensure that you will receive the full benefit of the pan-European warranty. The warranty on a vehicle which is not imported through a UK authorised dealer may have commenced at the point of sale to the third party importer and therefore you may not receive the full period of the pan-European warranty.

Non–EU or Grey Imports
Japan is the most popular source for these imports. Many independent dealers now specialise in this area.

Buying Japanese can be a great way to get hold of a car that's:
  • built to a higher spec than the UK version
  • not available here at all
  • only available in the UK via a long waiting list
  • cheaper than the UK equivalent
Possibly the most well known of the grey imports is the Mazda Eunos, the Japanese version of the MX–5. Scan any of the popular classified–ad magazines and you'll see almost as many of the grey imports advertised as you will MX–5s, and you'll also see how the origin affects the price. The grey import will tend to be cheaper.

Be warned though, not all Japanese imports are easy to spot – we've even seen examples of Eunoses masquerading as MX–5s.

Japan's technical regulations are not the same as those that apply in the UK and Europe which means that cars must undergo modification and testing under the IVA (Individual Vehicle Approval) scheme to ensure that they meet appropriate safety and environmental standards before they are legal to use on UK roads. The Government's Vehicle and Operator Standards Agency (VOSA) operates the SVA scheme, and we recommend that you read the comprehensive information available on their website.

If you are considering buying a grey import, we recommend that you buy from a reputable dealer and only consider cars already modified for UK use and approved under the IVA scheme.

Reputable dealers will be members of BIMTA, the British Independent Motor Trade Association. Many will be able to offer servicing, repair and spare parts and all have signed up to BIMTA's code of conduct.

BIMTA also offers a 'Certificate of Authenticity' service which gives peace of mind that the car hasn't been registered as stolen prior to export, and that there's no outstanding finance on the car. A mileage check is included too.

Possible issues with grey imports
  1. Finance can be difficult:
  2. Crash safety levels/occupant protection may be inferior to EU cars
  3. Imported car insurance can be higher:
  4. The handbook and service history is likely to be in Japanese
  5. The recorded mileage cannot be guaranteed.
  6. You won't have an anti-perforation warranty:
  7. The brake balance might feel different
  8. The suspension might feel stiffer
  9. The gearbox ratios might be lower
  10. It may be harder to service and maintain the car, even from 'official' UK dealers
  11. UK dealers' diagnostic equipment may be incompatible making servicing difficult
  12. Some dealers may provide parts and servicing, but check before you buy
  13. Paints and galvanising, particularly on 4x4s, may not be so durable as they're made for other climates
  14. Repairs may not be easy – you may have to get parts such as body panels and electronic control directly from Japan
  15. The catalytic converter won't be as effective when run on UK fuel
  16. There are no manufacturer's warranties – although the importer/dealer may offer a mechanical breakdown warranty
  17. It will depreciate more than a UK model
  18. You may have trouble reselling privately

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