The 22 Most Pointless Cars To Import In 2022

The 22 Most Pointless Cars To Import In 2022

There are many great cars that are about to become legal in the United States. These are not those cars.

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Every year, thanks to the 25 Year Rule, a new crop of cars becomes legal to import in the United States. Good cars. Wonderful cars. Cars that were too amazing to be sold in the American market. And also these things.

Let me begin by saying that, depending on which state you live in, any car may be pointless to import. There is a rash of state DMVs enacting their own efforts to block imported cars from getting registered, and I encourage you to read our developing coverage on the subject.

I will also add that this list continues to be dedicated to our freelancer and my buddy Jamie Kitman, who is writing our running history of gasoline and all of the lies, cheats, war profiteering, and corruption at the heart of it in this country. It was Kitman who imported nothing less than a 1981 Austin Mini Metro, in beige. He has repeatedly told me it is an absolutely wonderful car, one of the best he owns in his stable of already wonderful old cars. He maintains it was a great deal, and something that he cherishes and adores. I believe him, and I also have to mention that it is a beige British hatchback from the 1980s. It is very much not the car that everyone else is rushing to buy, let alone go through the trouble of importing.

So, keep that in mind as we look over all of these cars. They are not Mitsubishi Evos. They are not even Mitsubishi Pajero Evos. But they might be the perfect car for one of you out there.

Mostly this is a celebration of all the car that manufacturers wished Americans never knew about, or never had the resources to bring something so ordinary over.

I’ll keep this list mostly alphabetical, except for one that I had to kick up the line.

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SsangYong Chairman

SsangYong Chairman

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Now, this might look like a Korean copy of the 1990s Mercedes S-Class. What you are actually seeing is much more strange and interesting. Thanks to a technical partnership between Mercedes-Benz and the Korean manufacturer famous for some very intriguingly-styled trucks, SsangYong got to make an executive car based on the contemporary E-Class. What SsangYong’s infamous styling department did was, actually, too good of a job, as this Korean news report details:

It seems that Mercedes-Benz of Ssangyong Motor, a technical alliance ship with SsangYong Motor, is very concerned about the recently released high-end large passenger car Chairman SsangYong.

This is because, in appearance, it closely resembles a Mercedes-Benz model, and the performance does not fall behind that of a Mercedes-Benz, and the price is only half of that of a Mercedes-Benz model.

As a result, Mercedes-Benz is taking measures to contain the Chairman, such as requesting Ssangyong to change the appearance of the Chairman and requesting restraint from exporting the Chairman to advanced markets such as the US and Europe, where Mercedes-Benz cars are exported.

In fact, Benz requested Ssangyong to change the appearance of the Chairman, saying, “It looks too similar to the ‘New S-Class’ we are developing,” when the initial model of the Chairman was first unveiled at the Ssangyong Motor Research Institute.

So SsangYong made an old E-Class look so much like the new S-Class that Mercedes asked SsangYong not to export its car anywhere it cared about. As such Americans have been ruefully and bitterly denied the ability to buy an excellent SsangYong Chairman until now!

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Chevy Trans Sport

Chevy Trans Sport

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This entire list, I believe, could be made up of strange rebrandings of General Motors vehicles. This one is one of GM’s course-corrected boring 1990s minivans that came after the weird 1980s dustbuster minivans. In America, we got the Chevrolet Venture and the Pontiac Trans Sport (among others), while in Europe the Chevrolet Venture was sold from 1996 as an Opel and the Pontiac was sold as a Chevrolet. I will never understand this! The General works in mysterious ways.

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Citroën Saxo Electrique

Citroën Saxo Electrique

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I am sorry that already in this list we are sneaking into the territory of cars I would actually love to import. There are a bunch of quickly-forgotten electric cars that Europe got in the 1990s. I think the first of this batch was the mid-’80s Citroën C15 électrique, the next big one was the ‘92 Ford EcoStar van, and the last of the big ones was the ‘98 Citroën Berlingo électrique, also sold as the Peugeot Partner Electric. Varying sources claim that the electric versions of the Citroën Saxo and the Peugeot 106 were based on those latter vans, however the e-Saxo predates it. Little coachbuilder Heuliez put together a couple thousand of these things starting in 1997 according to this French news site and French Wikipedia. I could go on about how you could get a Citroen AX with an electric drivetrain some years before that but my brain hurts.

Performance is what one might call “dismal” or perhaps “perfectly adequate for modern living” depending on your willingness to live with a car good for maybe 20-something horsepower. I don’t know exactly how much range it gets, but I can say that owners of the similar e-Berlingo assert that its claimed 60 miles was ... optimistic. Count on 40, shoot for 60. Wow, this was wordy! I gotta move on.

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Daihatsu Applause (Facelift)

Daihatsu Applause (Facelift)

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This is one of those cars that British car writers used to love ragging on, saying that its overly-cheery name masked an otherwise dreary vehicle. It’s a relic of the era that also gave us the Daihatsu Charade and Charmant. This amounted to what was basically bullying, and for a while I wasn’t sure there were any Daihatsu Applauses even around in the UK anymore for people to fairly judge.

As it turns out, a few of these things (facelifted in 1997) for you to import for yourself! I have a real soft spot for Daihatsus, which I always think of as sturdier Suzukis, equally fun. This old Fifth Gear review of the smaller Charade of the era will tell you all you need.

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Daihatsu Terios

Daihatsu Terios

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You know what? Let’s do another Daihatsu. This is the successor to the Rocky, and I am sure that a number of you reading this are already leaping at your screen howling “YES, YES, ALSO SOLD AS THE TOYOTA BLIZZARD. IT REPLACED THE TAFT!!” Nice try, suckers! That was the Daihatsu Rugger that was sold in export markets that were not the United States as the Rocky. The Daihatsu that was sold as the Rocky in the United States and Japan was a size larger.

If you’re wondering what this is like, picture a first-generation Toyota RAV4, only narrower and tippier.

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Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia YZQ6390

Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia YZQ6390

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Though this is the most foreign car on this list, the one that even I had never heard of until I started searching the Internet for cars that debuted in 1997, it’s actually something we’re pretty familiar with in America. The Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia YQZ6390 is really just a Kia Pride, which was the same as the original Ford Festiva. (I once tried to tackle a comprehensive history of the Mazda 121/Ford Festiva/Kia Pride but it was too daunting of a task for me, and I settled for something easier. I wrote a full history of Amati instead.)

CarNewsChina neatly describes this little hatchback:

The Pride was made in China from 1997 until 2003 by the Yueda-Kia joint venture, known today as Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia. The joint venture made the sedan and the hatchback. The sedan was designated YQZ6390 and the hatch YQZ6370.

The Chinese name was 普莱特, Pulaite, a sound-translation of ‘Pride’.

The China-made Kia Pride was powered by a ‘B3E’ 1.4 liter four-cylinder petrol engine with 75hp and 120nm, and mated to a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Top speed was 140 kilometers per hour and 0-100 was gone in 10.4 seconds.

Sure, you could just re-badge a Kia Pride, but where’s the fun in that?

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Fiat Palio Weekend

Fiat Palio Weekend

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Americans love to stereotype Italian cars as thrilling, soulful, flawed but charming. These Americans have not seen the Fiat Palio, also sold as the Palio Weekend (a station wagon) and the Siena (a sedan). I’m going to be honest, I did actually get this car mixed up in my head with last year’s 1996-debut Fiat Marea, but that was a midsize car and the Palio was merely almost identical but slightly smaller. It’s hard to describe any distinguishing characteristics of the car. It has a series of engines. It has wheels. It has some metal and plastic to keep the rain out.

These cars were actually part of a larger Fiat plan to become a more serious, global company. Bummer!

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Hafei Baili HFJ7090

Hafei Baili HFJ7090

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Now, the car industry will tell you that what you need is a new car. A brand-new car. A car with the most up-to-date technology, most powerful engines, most advanced design. This is what the car industry tells you, but it’s not what it always sells you.

Here, for instance is a car the sold in 1997 as a knockoff of a car sold in 1991 based off a car sold in 1988. That is, this Hafei Baili is a knockoff of the Daihatsu Tico, a van version of the Suzuki Alto kei car. From CarNewsChina:

The Baili was a knock-off copy of the Daewoo Tico. It was made from 1997 until 2004. To complicate things a bit: the Baili was also made by a company called Anhui Anchi, a subsidiary of Hafei Motor, that car was called the Anchi Baili. For this story we focus on the car at hand; the Hafei Baili (哈飞百利) HFJ7090. Hafei by la ways means ‘Flying Happy’.

I think the little spoilers are my favorite part. I adore them!

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Honda Domani

Honda Domani

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I am as shocked as you are that this is actually the second-generation Honda Domani. It’s a Civic, but not! It has a different face, and that’s pretty much the whole story, as JapaneseClassics explains:

The Honda Domani is a unique twist to the Civic that we’re more accustom to seeing here in the US. While mechanically identical to the EG series sedans marketed here in the states, the Domani has it’s own JDM specific styling.

Now, the English-language Wikipedia makes an oblique reference to the car having some roots in Honda’s tie-up with Rover, but doesn’t go into depth. Thankfully, Japanese Wikipedia is more verbose:

The European and British Civic 5-door hatchbacks and station wagons (aero decks) , which were produced and sold from 1995 to 2001, have the same design as the Domani in the first half of the exterior and interior except for the bumper. Is a joint development with the British Austin Rover Group (ARG) , which had a partnership at the time, and has a sister relationship with the Rover 400 series, which was built on the basis of the European-spec Civic 5-door .

There’s a lot to be said about the history of Honda’s relationship with Rover, maybe contrasting it to Nissan’s plan for UK market sales, but I’m not sure who would read that story. Who is the audience? Former Rover engineers? Financial Times readers? The Economist?

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Hongqi CA 7220 EL1

Hongqi CA 7220 EL1

Hell yes, now here’s some good shit. Hongqi! The pride of the Chinese auto industry! Today, President Xi Jinping gets ferried around in an opulent retrofuturistic superlimo from Hongqui, its own design based on Hongqi’s extraordinarily rare 1960s and 1970s luxury cars. Hongqi in the ‘90s was a bit more tumbledown, with a mix of Audi chassis and engines from Chrysler. For one year only, you could get this stretched version of the Audi 100 with a Chrysler 2.2 leftover from an earlier deal to make Dodge 600s. I’m sure many of you out there are nodding right now “Ah yes, the Dodge 600. The one with the fender vents. Got it. Yep.” According to CarNewsChina, this is one of the rarest of the Audi-based Hongqis.

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Hyundai H-1

Hyundai H-1

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A fool buys a Hummer H1, the most inefficient vehicle that you can put on the road. A certified brain genius instead chooses to import a Hyundai H-1, which is one of the many kinds of anonymous vans sold in countries where gas is not dirt cheap and people buy space-efficient vans for passenger use instead of large and wasteful pickups. The H-1 is the export model of the Starex, which replaced the Grace, which was a Mitsubishi.

This is not a small vehicle (it’s about as long as a 2000s Ford Explorer) but Korean Wikipedia notes that these things made do with a whopping 83 to 118 horsepower, depending on diesel or gas. Korean Wikipedia also tells me that “Released in March 1997, it was developed as a passenger bus that improved the disadvantages of Grace, such as having a bonnet.” There may be some things lost in translation.

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Lancia Kappa Coupe

Lancia Kappa Coupe

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I will also be honest that this is another car that I would absolutely import into the United States in a heartbeat. Introduced at Geneva ‘97, this is the coupe version of the Lancia Kappa, another step down in quality and strangeness for the company that gave us the Fulvia, the Aurelia, and a bunch of other gems of automotive strangeness. Hell, even the Delta was a real step down in weirdness for Lancia being mostly a Fiat, but let’s not get into it too much.

This is basically a European Chevy Monte Carlo, with front-wheel drive and a couple different four-, five-, and six-cylinder engines. The 20-valve turbo 2.0-liter inline five was the hottest engine and topped out at 150 mph, according to this ancient Italian cars fan site, which would almost make it worth the trouble of owning a 1990s Lancia in the United States.

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Mitsubishi Space Wagon

Mitsubishi Space Wagon

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We actually got the two predecessors to this car as the Mitsubishi Expo and the Colt Vista. These were like mini-minivans, complete with a third row of seating. Now, we would stick some plastic cladding on these, call them “compact crossovers” or something and they’d sell just fine, like a Chevrolet Trailblazer or a Honda HR-V.

For whatever reason, Mitsubishi gave up on the concept for us in the midst of its Eclipse-and-3000GT era, so we missed out on this rather bland-looking generation. You could get ‘em with AWD, a manual transmission, a viscous limited-slip diff in the back, and the 4G63 engine you’ll find in various tuner Mitsus, though I’m not sure all at once like the older Resort Runner. Wait, maybe you should import one of these things.

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Moskvitch 2142

Moskvitch 2142

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There is some debate as to which of the final Moskvitches were produced in 1997 or 1998. According to this wonderful old Russian car history page, production of the more economical 2141 five-door hatchback started in ‘97, but production of the longer “Prince Vladimir” 2142 executive limousine did not start until 1998. Russian Wikipedia disagrees, claiming that there was an early run of 2142s at some point in there, though pretty much all production at this time was done “in small batches,” “periodically,” and “not quite properly.” Russian Wikipedia further warns any potential collectors that, “To date, this model is represented by preserved and restored copies that were collected from 1996 to 2002 from components produced in different years and, possibly, prototypes or their components created during the work on the car in the 1980s, early 1990s.”

Performance was minimal, with small four-cylinder engines offering around 115 HP to the front wheels. That old Russian car site is rather cheery in its description:

“Moskvich-214241" (“Prince Vladimir”) - a five-seater passenger car of the 1st group of the middle class, designed for operation on roads with a hard surface of the 1st and 2nd categories at an ambient temperature of -40 ° C to + 40 ° C.

All sources do agree that the factory-built coupe was not made until some time later, so you will have to wait for that one.

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Nissan Cefiro Wagon

Nissan Cefiro Wagon

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I am a huge fan of the A31-generation Nissan Cefiro, which was as close as Nissan got to making a four-door Silvia for the Bubble Era. If I could swing a rear-drive manual A31 with the tiny 2.0-liter six-cylinder RB20DET turbo, I would!

This is not an A31 Cefiro. This is the A32 Cefiro, which we got in the States as the Infiniti i30, a car that was not exclusively sold in Forest Green with gold badging, it just feels like it was. What we didn’t get in the States was a wagon version, which Japan got from ‘97 on.

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Opel Blazer

Opel Blazer

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I really sweated which version of the European-market Chevy Blazer I should include on this list. You could get a three-door, left-hand-drive Blazer ZR2, different perhaps only in some amber turn signals. Actually, wait, you got power-folding windows, too, as we noted in our rather extensive report on the car.

Still, it’s the Opel-badged version that catches my eye. I am fairly sure I saw one the last time I was in Germany, though it’s hard to tell. It could have been a fever dream, or whatever kind of dream you get drinking too much coffee and eating too much chocolate cake on a warm German afternoon.

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Peugeot 306 Break

Peugeot 306 Break

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For reasons beyond me, the Peugeot 306 is not described in “generations” but “phases.” This means I get to say that it was in 1997 that the Peugeot 306 entered the sinister “phase 2" of its operation.

In any case, the 306 got an update in ‘97 including the addition of a station wagon to the lineup. While I do really love the cult-status 306 GTI-6, there is very little to say about the standard 306s. Describing one to Americans is like trying to describe a Chevy Lumina to Europeans. There’s just not a lot “there” there.

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Perodua Nippa

Perodua Nippa

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This was the UK’s introduction to Malaysian cars, and it was the cheapest car you could buy new when it made it over to that country in 1997. Here, for instance, is a wonderfully over-enunciated Top Gear review of the thing at the time:

Again, though this was a new car for the UK in 1997, it went on sale a few years earlier in Malaysia, and it was based on a car that debuted a good many years earlier than that, the Daihatsu Mira kei car of 1990. Buying a Perodua Nipa to get your hands on a Daihatsu design would be like buying a Yugo to get your hands on a Fiat engine.

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Renault Kangoo

Renault Kangoo

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Thanks to the Ford Transit Connect, American yuppies are now familiar with the versatility and practicality of Europe’s compact vans. Ford was far from the only player in that scene, though, and Europeans got the wonderfully-named Renault Kangoo as well. Basically, it was a van version of the perhaps flimsy and anonymous Clio city car. This does mean that you can swap in Renaultsport engines and all the other parts that made the Clio a king among hot hatchbacks in the time, and if you attempt any of these swaps, do contact us and tell us how it’s going.

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Toyota Corolla Sedan

Toyota Corolla Sedan

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We are going to be diving deep into the Wikipedia rabbit hole for this one. You see, in 1997 America got the new Corolla sedan. We built it in NUMMI factory, which has since become Tesla’s Fremont plant. In Japan, however, you could get all kinds of weird Corollas. Coupes, hatchbacks, all-wheel-drive wagons, just about anything. Pretty much all of the Japanese-market Corollas of the time look like the American ones, though, I have to say.

The only Corollas of this time that looked particularly different from the American ones were what Toyota sent to Europe, Australia, and a couple other export markets. These were the ones with bubble eyes like you’d find on a Subaru, and these are the ones that competed in the World Rally Championship. Importing a three-door Corolla with this kind of face is a move that any car nerd of the ‘90s will recognize.

But in these export markets you could also get a Corolla sedan, one that looked almost exactly like the one you got in America, but with the European rally face. Only a real whacko would go through all the work of importing a whole Corolla just to get a weird front and rear clip on it. I would salute them.

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Toyota Aristo

Toyota Aristo

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This is the car on this list that most defies lived reality of car enthusiasts. That is, this is the car that will be assuredly most-imported of anything on this list. I’m sure plenty of you out there have already queued up Aristo imports, googling shipping container rates and cussing out your computers.

The thing is, this is almost exactly the same car as we got in America as the Lexus GS, only with right-hand drive and some entertaining drivetrain options. It’s nothing you couldn’t modify a Lexus GS to be. (I know a couple of these cars personally.) Going through the trouble of importing a real Aristo or making one yourself in the States is a bit of a coin toss. That is, unless you’ve seen that one video of the Friends Racing car. Then you’re probably hooked.

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Volkswagen Citi Golf Sonic

Volkswagen Citi Golf Sonic

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By 1997, VW was in the process of transitioning from the Mk3 to the Mk4 Golf, with the Mk3 Trek coming out early in the year and the first Mk4s at the end of it.

In South Africa, however, VW was still busily selling the Mk1 Golf as the “Citi Golf” to whoever would buy one. It would continue to do so into the 2000s.

To keep things spicy, VW made all kinds of limited-edition trims and special editions, and 1997's was the Citi Golf Sonic, as SA-car blog NamWheels recounts:

Citi never stood still, not just from a marketing and special-edition perspective. Between Sonic and Wolf, CTi and R-Line, the evergreen version of Volkswagen S.A.’s Golf Mark One received better engines, drive train upgrades, extra features and a new dashboard to keep it fresh for the buyers and ahead of the pack.

That pack included, in no particular order, Toyota’s Tazz, the Fiat Uno, Mazda Midge, Chevy Spark, Ford Tracer/Laser, Peugeot 206 and Renault Clio and a few other regurgitated cheapies. The Citi not only outsold most of these rivals but trumps them in total sales and production years. It even beat the S.A.-built VW Beetle production figures.

[...]

[T]the Sonic, a “playful” Citi Golf with a choice of 1.3 or 1.6 engine, alloy wheels, lowered suspension, third brake light, roof-mounted aerial, silver dials and a radio/tape combination

Again, we don’t really need all-new cars. We’re just told we do.

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