The 25 Most Pointless Cars To Import In 2021

The 25 Most Pointless Cars To Import In 2021

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

There are many outstanding and excellent cars introduced in 1996 that are finally becoming legal to import. But there are yet many more that only a lunatic, an oddball, a champion of the every day would bring to America for the first time.

Thanks to the 25 Year Rule, there are only two ways to get cars into the country that weren’t originally sold here: You can federalize them, a tricky process that the Nissan Skyline can’t quite pass but the original Smart somehow breezed through, or you can wait 25 years and everything is good as gravy. For 2021, cars from 1996 are now kosher.

Before I dive into the list of the cars, I must say that it is put together with inspiration from friend of Jalopnik Jamie Kitman, who has a fleet of fantastic and strange imported vehicles. And also a 1981 Austin Mini Metro, a completely plain, normal, middle-of-the-road 1980s hatchback sold in the United Kingdom but not the United States. He even got his in beige. Why he brought it over I can never understand no matter how many times he explains it. But I am glad he did, and it’s a joy every time I see this sweet small car gleaming here in the U.S.

The list itself will be mostly alphabetical, but I will have to start with one outlier that I could not put anywhere but the front of the line.

I will also say that in putting together the cars for this post, I dug up an almost-equally large list of unexpectedly wonderful cars to bring over, vehicles that you definitely should import even though they don’t turn up on the usual lists of Lotus Elises and Mitsubishi Evos. Not that you shouldn’t import an Elise, but I’m getting distracted.

Now, please enjoy this expansive collection of normal, plain, uninteresting, un-outstanding vehicles that no person in America has any good reason to import. I hope everyone gets over here at some point.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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Toyota Cavalier

Toyota Cavalier

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

The Toyota Cavalier deserves an article of its own, explaining why the company most associated with bulletproof reliability and peerless build quality sold the diamond in the crown of General Motors’ 1990s mediocrity. The important thing is that the Toyota Cavalier does indeed exist, with sales in Japan starting in 1996. Incredibly, tens of thousands of these cars were built and exported over there during the course of its production run, as its Japanese Wikipedia entry notes.

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Chevrolet Vectra

Chevrolet Vectra

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

This is a strange one because the Vectra of this generation debuted in 1995 as Opel and Vauxhall twins. However, Wikipedia includes an incredibly obtuse piece of racing trivia that reveals the Brazilian-market Chevrolet Vectra to be just our item. “The release of the second generation of the Chevrolet Vectra in Brazil happened at the same time of the IndyCar series in Brazil,” as the Vectra Wikipedia entry reads, without any given citation. “GM made a deal to use the Vectra as a Medical and Safety car for the race.” How are we to know that this indicates a 1996 debut of the Chevrolet Vectra and not 1996? Amazingly, if you look at the 1995 IndyCar schedule, there was no Brazil race, and in the 1996 Brazil race broadcast, the Chevrolet Vectra is clearly visible as the safety car. I know! Unbelievable.

This is altogether more than I ever wanted to know about the debut of the Brazilian version of the mid-1990s Vectra, an otherwise unspectacular car that had interesting door mirrors.

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Chevrolet Corsa Sedan

Chevrolet Corsa Sedan

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

This one is a little suspect, as sources differ on whether or not this Brazilian-designed sedan version of the Opel Corsa (sold initially only as a hatchback) came out in 1995 (according to Curbside Classic) or in 1996 (according to the car’s Brazilian Wikipedia page.) All I can say is that I’ve only been able to turn up this 1996 brochure page for the sedan, but no sedans in any 1995 literature or Brazilian for-sale listings. Why I have spent any time trying to decipher this is unclear!

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Citroën Saxo

Citroën Saxo

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

The fun thing about Citroën is that even its most ordinary cars have something extraordinary about them. They want to make a sensible family car for the 1950s? They make a front-wheel-drive fastback that can drive on three wheels and looks like a flying clam. They want to make a luxury coupe for the 1970s? It gets three-quarters of a Maserati engine, hydropneumatic suspension, and front-wheel drive. It’s like the engineers at Citroën can’t help themselves!

This is not the case for the Saxo, which was basically a Peugeot 106, without the cool Rallye version. These cars are exceptionally light, so if you do import one I applaud you.

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Daewoo Prince

Daewoo Prince

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

This took a few takes to track down, but as noted on the car’s Korean-language Wikipedia page, the Daewoo Prince was facelifted in 1996, and now thankfully legal for import! This is a Korean-built version of the mid-1980s Opel Rekord E, which explains the strangely boxy shape. It also means it is indeed rear-wheel drive. I fear that the sportiest version was a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 145 horsepower and a five-speed, though ads of the time showed it outrunning physics:

I would say this car might actually be mis-categorized and should probably be on the unexpectedly wonderful car list, but there is a slightly better version of it that’s going there.

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Fiat Marea

Fiat Marea

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Debuting in September 1996, it is difficult to even begin to describe the Fiat Marea in terms of its own characteristics. It had no extraordinary features, engines, design details, or special editions. It is part of a dead genre of European midsize sedans that seemingly only exist to confuse American tourists.

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Ford Mondeo

Ford Mondeo

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Unlike the Marea, the strong revision of the Mondeo in 1996 was extraordinary. The car’s styling was bold, in that it looked like an angry jelly-belly. As dramatic was its look, so boring was its customer base. The Mondeo was exclusively a normal person’s normal family car. Look at the guy Ford put in its own press photo. Haha, he laughs. Flowers! I never ordered these? He could not be more unadventurous. Importing a Mondeo like this would be like cosplaying as a side character in Office Space.

We sort of could buy it here in coupe form as the Mercury Cougar, which is about as interesting as it got.

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Ford Taurus Ghia

Ford Taurus Ghia

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

In researching this list, I was surprised to discover that there is an Australian corollary for our Pontiac G8, only significantly lamer.

In 1996, Ford exported the front-wheel-drive Taurus to Australia to be sold alongside the rear-wheel-drive Falcon. Interesting as it was, the car ended up several grand more expensive than domestic models with the same kinds of engines and performance, as Australia’s Drive noted some years later, and the car was a total dud. I am intrigued by its strange face, which looks like a Mazda MX-3. I am not alone, apparently.

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Hyundai Santamo

Hyundai Santamo

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

You may be hurriedly screaming at your screen that Hey! That’s a rebadged Eagle Summit! You are so close to the truth.

This is actually a Hyundai-built version of the slightly larger Mitsubishi Expo. The Eagle Summit was one of the American versions of the slightly smaller Mitsubishi RVR, also sold here as the Mitsubishi Expo LRV, the Dodge Colt Wagon, and the Plymouth Colt Vista Wagon.

The English-language Wikipedia entry that details this vehicle includes the line, “According to the corresponding article on Korean Wikipedia, the Hyundai Santamo name was an acronym, meaning ‘SAfety aNd TAlented MOtor’.” This description is indeed on the car’s Korean Wiki entry, but I can only assume this is a joke backronym retconned into existence either by eager PR agents or bored Wikipedia editors.

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Lancia Ypsilon

Lancia Ypsilon

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

We in America think of Lancia as a proud company with a rich history of fascinating, strange, innovative cars. Go to Europe, though, and Lancia exists almost exclusively in the form of the Ypsilon. It’s just a normal Fiat hatchback that looks funky, and doesn’t so much as register as coming from the company that made the Fulvia, B24 and all the rest. It does look cool, though, and if you import one, email us.

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Lancia Kappa Estate

Lancia Kappa Estate

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Please forgive me for including this slightly out of alphabetical order, as I feel like the Ypsilon really does a better job at locating the modern disappointment of Lancia in your mind.

The Kappa was basically an Alfa Romeo 166 but with worse suspension, even though the 166 was based on the Kappa that preceded it by a few years, as Autozine recalls. The estate version of the Lancia debuted in ’96, so if you like your practical vehicles to come from 1990s Italy, be my guest and bring one over.

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Mazda 121

Mazda 121

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

If this car looks like a Ford Fiesta, it is! Mazda tried to become more independent from Ford in the 1980s and engaged in a rapid expansion project that almost nuked the company as a whole. Winning Le Mans and making a stillborn Lexus competitor with a V12 isn’t cheap!

By the mid-’90s, Ford had pulled Mazda pretty tightly back into the fold, and the 121 was pretty much just a rebadged Fiesta built on the same production line. As far as I can tell, the Fiesta came out in ’95, the 121 in ’96. Differences between the two cars are slim, as noted by Le Soir, translated by Google:

On the road, how to recognize, regardless of the different acronyms, a Mazda 121 from a Ford Fiesta? The Xedos-style chrome grille and two-ply hood are unique to the Mazda, as are the side, rear and bumper protection bars, wheel trims, moldings and seat covers. Conversely, the two airbags and the seat belt pretensioners are standard equipment on the only Fiesta. Mazda has instead retained, on all versions, a tachometer, two speakers and above all a three-year warranty and roadside assistance.

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Mitsubishi Magna

Mitsubishi Magna

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

There was a desperately cool version of the Mitsubishi Magna, which was an Australian-developed variation of the Mitsubishi Diamante. This is not that car. It’s just an Australian Diamante.

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Opel Sintra

Opel Sintra

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

The funniest part about the Opel Sintra, a European version of the U Body minivans we got like the Chevy Venture, is that Opel did a full run of press photography here in the States. It was built here but never sold here, but I guess Opel thought Europeans should associate it with us.

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Renault Mégane Classic

Renault Mégane Classic

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Renault started selling the rather straightforward Mégane in continental Europe in 1995, but sales in the UK started in 1996. That is to say, those of you who foolishly rushed to import a Mégane sedan last year and are all rolling up to your favorite French car meet in it once we get our vaccines, well, you will be utterly stunted upon by those of us who waited the year to get our right-hand-drive versions.

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Renault Mégane Scénic

Renault Mégane Scénic

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

The Renault Espace is one of the great vehicular designs of the modern era, bringing one-box minivan design to Europe, with outstanding packaging and space efficiency. Love an Espace.

In 1996, Renault came out with a smaller version of the Espace, based off of the Mégane that debuted the year prior. I’m going to be honest, there’s not a lot to say about a middle-of-the-road midsize minivan such as the Mégane Scénic.

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Renault Safrane (Facelift)

Renault Safrane (Facelift)

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

The Safrane debuted in 1992, part of an even faster-dying segment than the mainstream midsize mid-market sedan in Europe. The Safrane was a full-size mid-market sedan from a non-luxury brand, basically just a long box with a PRV V6 in the front. As discussed in our incomprehensibly in-depth video on the PRV V6, there was one interesting version, the Safrane Biturbo, which got a twin-turbo version of that engine along with all-wheel drive.

But the Biturbo’s production started in 1994 and ended in late 1996, so these have been perfectly legal here. The 1996 facelift, however, got no twin-turbo variant and was just a plain, boring, sedan that happened to be French.

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Rover 800

Rover 800

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It is a complete coincidence that probably the closest British equivalent to the Safrane is alphabetically beside it in this list. The 800 was another large-ish European sedan, and its germination was a strange one. These cars were a mishmash of Honda engineering and British design, part of a history of the Japanese auto industry trying to slide past import restrictions placed on them by Western countries in the 1980s. We got these things in America as Sterlings until 1991, as Hemmings notes. They continued on in Europe with some mild success, including a facelift and engine change for 1996.

There are some dedicated fans of these things, and I encourage you to read about Roadwork UK’s 1987 825.

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Seat Alhambra

Seat Alhambra

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Wow. We are in some hot shit now, huh. Alright, so for most of its existence, Volkswagen was just Volkswagen. Up to the mid-1970s, it barely made more than one kind of car. By the mid-1980s, however, VW began expanding and started roping in a number of other brands from across Europe. Today, the Volkswagen Auto Group owns a dizzying number of marques, including taking over Porsche in 2012, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Bugatti in 1998, Škoda in 1991, and SEAT in 1986. Already in the early 1990s, VW was struggling to figure out how to balance all these brands, and that shows in 1996's SEAT Alhambra. Why did the proud and creative Spanish car company get, basically, a rebranded version of the exceptionally plain VW Sharan, jointly-developed as the Ford Galaxy? We may never know.

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Toyota Carina E

Toyota Carina E

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I guess I should ask if it is fair to include the basic Toyota Carina in here as it debuted its seventh generation in 1996. Like the Magna, there is one very fun and interesting version of this car with a place on my weird and wonderful cars to import list.

It’s just that if you don’t import the one with the very cool engine, you’re just left with an astoundingly bland midsize car that anyone in America will simply mistake for a Mazda 626 and move on.

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Toyota Conquest Tazz

Toyota Conquest Tazz

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You might recognize this as the generation of Toyota Corolla that came to the States in the late 1980s. Incredibly, this same basic car was sold in South Africa until 2006. It started out as the Toyota Conquest, but Cars.co.za recalls that it relaunched in 1996 as the Toyota Tazz. The Tazz you debuted as the lowest-spec version of this car possible. It got a four-speed manual and not much else. South Africa’s CAR Magazine tested one at the time, noting that its three-valves-per-cylinder 1.3-liter made 55 horsepower and covered a kilometer in 36.2 seconds, which seems exciting.

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Toyota Picnic

Toyota Picnic

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Introduced in Japan in 1995 as the Toyota Ipsum, the export version called the Picnic made it in the following year. Please enjoy Britain’s motoring programme Men & Motoring desperately try to find anything interesting to say about this six-seater, meant to “fill the niche” between larger MPVs and tighter sedans. Toyota called it a Family Fun Vehicle.

Crossovers do this job now, and I hope in 25 years we also look back on them and laugh.

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Toyota Starlet

Toyota Starlet

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The one and only Starlet we got in America was a neat, rear-wheel-drive mini hatchback beloved as a super lightweight platform for a fun and interesting car. Those ’80s Starlets are popular rally and drift cars the world over. Hell, even the Bubble Era Starlet that we didn’t get had a cool and overpowered GT Turbo version that put a zillion horsepower to the front wheels.

The final Starlet, though, had lost pretty much all of its previous little bits of charm, and was basically just a hatchback version of the Toyota Paseo. The Yaris came after this if it gives you any idea of its trajectory.

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Toyota Windom

Toyota Windom

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Your eyes do not deceive you; this is a mid-1990s Lexus ES, the third generation of that model. This is, however, actually the second generation of the Japanese version of that same car. This is to say, it is the Toyota version of the Lexus variant of the Camry of the time.

Now, the Lexus ES300 that came before this one was actually available with a five-speed manual and was a genuinely hilarious car. This one was auto-only and is dutiful if unexceptional.

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VW Polo Playa

VW Polo Playa

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Photo: All Photos Sourced From Each Vehicle’s Respective Manufacturer

Since this car is called a VW Polo, you might think that it is a VW Polo. This could not be further from the truth. This is a SEAT Ibiza, rebadged and sold in South Africa starting in 1996. The SEAT Ibiza did share some parts with the Polo, but was actually based on the Mk3 VW Golf that debuted in 1991.

If you import one simply because its name is “Polo Playa,” I salute you.

This concludes our list. I hope it brought to your attention a greater sense of the incomprehensible and strange brand of boredom produced by the global auto industry, capable of churning out all kinds of individual and yet unremarkable cars in markets all over the world. I hope it gives you a little bit more excitement when you see a Chevy Lumina or Celebrity on the road, to think of the glee and joy that would be felt by a car nerd in Germany or Sweden were they in your shoes.

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Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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