The 25-year import rule is the bane of many American car enthusiasts. But, with time passing, here are some of the best JDM cars eligible for US import in 2023.
What is the 25-year import rule in the US?
The 25-year import rule – or to give it its full legal name, The Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act – is a controversial policy amongst American car enthusiasts. Actually, that’s being too kind – it’s universally disliked. The reason being is that it prevents enthusiasts from importing new vehicles and used cars that don’t comply with American automotive standards; a rationale which the governing bodies say is enforced to keep the public safe.
We’ve always considered that a bit of a stretch to be honest. If these cars are safe enough for drivers in other well-developed nations, why wouldn’t they be safe for Americans? Anyway, the result is that some of the overseas cars that American enthusiasts idolized as kids – particularly JDM rarities – are off limits until they hit the age of 25 years-old. And, if you decide to break those rules, your lovingly sourced pride and joy will be on its way to the scrap heap once it’s found by authorities.
The good news is that the nineties and early 2000s were (worryingly) quite a long time ago now, so many of the vehicles from Japan’s performance heyday are now legal, or will be legal soon. So, we’ve gone ahead and compiled some of the best JDM cars eligible for US import right now!
New for 2023:
Before we get into the overall best options, we thought we’d take a closer look at the class of ’98. So, here are a few of the Japanese domestic market vehicles that are now officially legal for import in 2023 for the first time. We’ll kick things off with the big headliner…
Nissan Skyline (ER34)
You probably saw all your favorite motoring outlets (including us, I hope) cover this news story earlier in the year. Yes, the much-heralded R34 Skyline is now officially legal for US import. But here’s the important factor – notice how I’ve not said the phrase ‘GT-R’ at all yet? Well that’s intentional.
You see, the 25-year rule doesn’t grant cars a blanket pass. So, although the early base model and GT-T ER34 Skylines arrived in 1998, it wasn’t until 1999 that the GT-R hero car rolled off production lines. So, sorry folks, you’re going to have to wait another year if you want the real Godzilla. That said, the lesser GT-T is still a commendable choice (not to mention cheaper – though expect prices to rise now that it’s legal). With an RB25 under the hood, and RWD, the ER34 GT-T might not be the same as the almighty AWD GT-R, but it’ll still serve as a great basis for a street, track, or drift project.
Mazda RX-7 (FD Series 8)
Now, I know what you’re thinking – it’s something along the lines of, “Hold on, the FD RX-7 was officially sold in America anyway”. And you’d be right. However, The US market only got the 1992-1998 Series 6 & Series 7 FDs. In reality though, the Series 8 is the one that you’d want.
Sold in Japan only, the Series 8 FD RX-7 underwent some considerable changes. The Type RB trim level cars were boosted up to 260hp, while the engines in the top line Type RS & Type RZ examples grew to 276hp. On top of that, the Type RS came equipped with upgraded Bilstein suspension, a longer fifth gear, and reduced curb weight. Meanwhile, the Type RZ added dynamic ABS, 17-inch BBS alloys and 10kg of weight-saving. Those of you hankering after a rare Spirit R will have to wait a little longer though, as that grey special edition arrived in 2002.
Want one? Have a read of our Mazda RX-7 FD buyer’s guide.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V
The Evo 5 was only around for one year – 1998, making it ripe for import. The American market didn’t get the Mitsubishi Evo until 2003, meaning the nation missed out on the first seven generations. This fifth-gen car is most commonly found in GSR trim, featuring a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-pot which produces 276hp and 275lb ft of torque. Having been bred from a competitive rally car, the Evo 5 is all-wheel drive, and has got plenty of performance goodies to help it on its way.
Its track width is larger than that of its predecessor, and it also came with bigger 17-inch wheels to help ease its new-found Brembo brake package into position. Meanwhile, a handful of engine modifications such as larger fuel injectors ensure that it’s that little bit beefier under the hood compared to the Evo IV.
Suzuki Jimny (JB)
Small trucks, vans and off-roaders are more popular than ever, and fans of these kei-style workhorses will be delighted to hear that the third-gen Jimny is now legal for US import.
This little fella is more rugged than you might think – it’s got a dual ratio transfer case with low range gears, giving it genuine off-road capability. That transmission is linked up to a diddy 660cc motor in most JDM examples (allowing it to comply with the Kei Jidosha tax class), but some 1998 third-gen Jimnys (especially the ones sold in Europe) can be found with 1.3-liter engines if you fancy a bit of extra grunt. Not that either option has much ‘grunt’ anyway; the larger of the two power units churns out just 80hp compared to the kei variant’s 65hp.
Still, the Jimny is very light, and very compact, so it doesn’t need bundles of power to be competent on lesser-trodden paths. For now, only the hardtop is legal for import, so if you want one with a canvas roof, you’ll have to hold station until 2024.
Nissan Stagea (Mk1 Series 2 / WC34)
Love a fast station wagon? Let me introduce you to the Nissan Stagea. The earliest examples of this JDM wagon have been legal for import for a few years now, but 2023 marks the first time that you can legally import a Stagea Series 2.
The Series 2 brought with it a few small changes, such as slightly revised front aero and light positioning. The interior is also a little different, but regardless it’s still as drab as you’d expect a ’90s Japanese car interior to be. That’s not the reason why you’d want one of these cars anyway. The core ingredients are what’s important. Under the hood you’ll find an RB25 motor with either a 2.0-liter or 2.5-liter capacity, resulting in power outputs of between 153hp-276hp depending on which trim level you choose. The higher-end variants even have AWD too, so it really is the Skyline’s more practical cousin.
So, those cars above are our top picks from 1998, but of course there are plenty of other JDM classics that are legal for import which came out in the years prior. Here are some of the best examples of other JDM cars already established as US-ready.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32)
The car that put the GT-R badge back on the map. First produced in 1989, the R32-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R was a game-changer. Its ATTESSA-ETS AWD system and 276hp RB26 engine was enough for it to be able to challenge much higher-end sports cars of its time. Plus, as Nissan had developed the RB26 engine for use in motorsport, the road cars were strong enough to handle at least 500hp without many (if any) major internal changes. In short, it was a car which upset the state of play in the performance car sector and marked the start of a new era for the GT-R badge.
If you want to learn more, make sure to read our Nissan Skyline GT-R R32 buyer’s guide.
Subaru Impreza WRX STi (Mk1)
The United States was deprived of the first-gen Subaru Impreza WRX STi, a car which went through multiple iterations over the course of the ’90s. It first launched in 1994 as a step above the regular sporty WRX and Type RA Imprezas, boasting 247hp and 270hp respectively, though those figures were gradually upped through engine mods until they reached the 276hp government limit in 1996. Or at least, that’s what Subaru told the public. In reality, like many of its rivals including the GT-Rs and Evos mentioned in this article, the true horsepower figure that these latter cars were churning out was notably under-reported…
By 1998, the Mk1 WRX STi had reached ‘Version 5’. This included updates such as forged pistons and slightly revised interior and exterior styling. I imagine Subaru fans will also be shouting at me that 1998 was the year that the company launched the 22B as well. Indeed, it was – and to this day, that rare widebody rally coupe for the road is still heralded as the greatest Subaru of all time. Thing is, those cars sell for six figures these days, so unless you’re mega rich, the regular WRX STi Mk1 is a much more realistic prospect.
You’ll often hear people refer to small, fun cars as ‘being like go karts’, and I can’t think of any better example of that than the Suzuki Cappuccino. This pint-sized front-engine RWD convertible is one of Japan’s quirky kei cars, meaning it has an engine which is only 657cc large. In practical terms, that translates to just 64hp. However, in a vehicle that weighs just 1,598 lb (725kg), that’s plenty to have fun with.
So, if you like the sound of a zippy little sports car with plenty of visual charm – which won’t cost you your license – then look no further than the delightful little Cappuccino. Alternatively, consider the Honda Beat or Autozam AZ-1 – two equally charismatic kei cars with a sporting flair.
Toyota Chaser (Mk6)
The Mk6 Chaser is almost like the Van Gogh of cars – its peak of appreciation has come long after its demise. Sure, Chasers were used as tuner cars back in the heyday of the Japanese modified scene, but in my opinion they’ve never been more popular than they are now. Naturally, that has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve only become legal for American enthusiasts to buy in the past few years, but across the board, the Mk6 Chaser has enjoyed a Western boom in popularity over the past half a decade or so.
Once you learn a bit more about what’s under the skin of this unassuming sedan, you begin to realize why that is. The top trim levels came with either a turbocharged 2.5-liter 1JZ, or the the 3.0-liter N/A 2JZ (aka, the base model A80 Supra engine). In short, that means that the Mk6 Chaser has bundles of tuning potential. They’re available with either a RWD or AWD drivetrain too, so whether you’re building a drift car or a time attack weapon, there’s a Chaser spec to suit. Being a luxury vehicle, plenty of them have automatic transmissions which is fine for a daily driver, but you can also get a 5-speed manual which will appeal to those with the intentions of tuning it.
For a car so special, it’s strange that people don’t speak about the Eunos Cosmo more often. I’ll cut straight to the chase, this badge-engineered luxury coupe is the only Mazda sportscar to leave the factory floor with a 20B triple-rotor engine fitted as standard. How’s that for a headline!
Not only that, but the 20B took support from a pair of sequential turbochargers, resulting in an *official* power output of the magic 276hp figure. There was a lesser specification of the Cosmo as well, which used the more familiar 13B motor, and that too featured twin turbos. The only major downside is the fact that you’re stuck with a 4-speed automatic transmission, regardless of which engine you choose. After all, this 2+2 coupe is more of a grand tourer than a sports car. Still, there’s a lot of ingredients to like if you’re feeling creative.
This supermini-sized coupe has one big party trick up its sleeve. Take a look at the picture above to see what I mean. Yep, this humble 110hp commuter car has gullwing doors. Now THAT is the kind of crazy that we love from the Japanese domestic market.
We’re not gonna lie, in its standard guise, the Sera hasn’t got much in the way of performance, but luckily you’re in the perfect place to learn about upgrades. Read about how to modify cars and tune their engines right here on Fast Car. Besides, if you’re able to get busy under the hood, the Sera’s featherweight 2050lb (930kg) mass means it could become quite a spritely little machine.
Honda Civic Type R (EK9)
The FK8 was the first Civic Type R that Honda officially sold on American soil, and now we’ve moved on to the new FL5. While those two cars are both brilliant in their own way, the US’ late arrival to the Type R party meant that it missed out on some of Honda’s best turn-of-the-century work. Launched in 1997, the EK9-generation Civic Type R is a bit of a legend, for one big reason: its engine.
The B16B under its hood features an early rendition of Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing tech; a trait which is almost comical when you’re behind the wheel. Given the EK9’s analogue nature, the transition into the ‘lift zone’ is incredibly pronounced – it’s almost as if someone’s pressed the warp speed button. Once you hit 6100rpm the car’s naturally-aspirated four-cylinder gains a heightened sense of urgency, and it’ll scream all the way up to an 8400rpm redline. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who like the style of ragged-edge driving it promotes will undoubtedly enjoy their time with an EK9.
Intrigued? Have a read of our Honda Civic Type R EK9 buyer’s guide.
Toyota Sprinter Trueno / Corolla Levin (AE111)
The AE111, whether it be the Sprinter Trueno or the Corolla Levin, is a car which simply doesn’t get enough love. Admittedly, it’s FWD not RWD like its AE86 namesake, but that alone doesn’t feel like enough justification for it to go unnoticed. Just look at what else it has to offer…
Let’s start with the engine. The top of the range BZ-R came with a strengthened version of the 20-valve 4A-GE engine. Stock, it outputs around 165hp, but tuners can get 250hp+ out of it – way more if you go down the forced induction route. In this platform, that’s certainly enough for a fun build. The BZ-R has plenty of other cool features too, like big brakes with ABS, a six-speed manual gearbox, and limited-slip differential. There aren’t many hidden gems left in the automotive world, but that’s exactly what the AE111 is.
Honda Integra Type R (DC2 JDM)
The United States did get the DC2 Integra, and – unusually – even the Type R variant. So, what’s it doing on this list then? Well, ultimately it’s a matter of taste.
If you were to forensically scan the USDM DC2 Type R compared to its JDM counterpart, you wouldn’t find very many differences. Admittedly, the JDM car utilizes a marginally more powerful version of the B18 engine, but we’re talking 197hp versus 195hp. Hardly anything to write home about. Plus, both engines benefit from that magical DOHC VTEC system, so you really aren’t missing out on much behind in the driver’s seat of a USDM car. However, there is one issue with the American car: the styling of its front bumper and headlights. Don’t be offended if you like the ‘four-eyes’ style of the USDM car, but personally, I much prefer the look of the JDM Type R pictured above. If you’re on the same wavelength as me, you can now happily import one without fearing the wrath of the feds.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (R33)
The poor old R33 Skyline GT-R has a lot of revered family members to live up to and, often, it doesn’t quite stack up in public opinion. But despite its perceived departure from the R32 blueprint, it’s still got a whole lot to offer.
For example, the ATESSA-ETS AWD system received a handful of upgrades which ultimately enabled it to react quicker to its environment. Plus, despite the increase in dimensions, the sleeker styling of the car meant that it was more aerodynamic than the R32 as well. The much-loved RB26 powertrain remained under the hood, but again, in slightly better shape than it had been before. For example, whereas keen drivers sometimes criticized the R32 for having weak oil pump auxiliaries, Nissan addressed this in the R33. Similarly, a strengthened five-speed manual gearbox arrived.
What I’m trying to say is that, beyond the dissenting noise, there’s a lot to love about the R33. Especially now that it’s at an age where every single example ever offered is legal for US import.
Want to know more? Check out our dedicated Nissan Skyline GT-R R33 buyer’s guide.