It's been a long time coming, much longer than I'd ever thought, but it's finally here. My dream Subaru, a 1998 Impreza WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V-Limited, is not only in the country, it's in my garage. Better yet, it's road legal!
It was supposed to be here in March and I was supposed to spend the summer months driving in style in my right-hand-drive STI. But, as so often happens when awaiting a shipment from overseas, things didn't quite go according to plan.
If you haven't been following along, way back in November of last year I wrote Part 1 of this series, in which I detailed how I found, bought at auction, and stored my car until it had reached the age of 25, as mandated by US federal law. That milestone passed in March of 2023.
Gallery: Importing Your JDM Dream Car, Part 3
In Part 2, being of an impatient sort, I headed to Japan to inspect and drive the car in its element, taking it for a spin around Nagano and, for the first time, coming face-to-face with what it is that I'd purchased.
At the time, I was assured the Impreza would be on a boat before long and would be timed to land in the States right when it turned 25. In reality, the car didn't get to my home until June 6, and even that wasn't the end of the waiting.
The Supply Chain Blues
On the initial shipping delay, I was told that, with the easing of supply chain restrictions, Japanese production and exporting was picking up. And so, real cars destined for real people were filling up the cargo ships, leaving my little toy sitting at port.
Once the Subaru did finally arrive, it came in through the west coast. Seattle, to be specific. That's where my importer, Import Guys, is based, and I opted to let them handle the paperwork and the pick-up.
I could have had the car shipped into New Jersey and picked it up myself, but after reading a few horror stories about people spending multiple days at the ports with fists full of forms waiting their turns, I opted to let the professionals handle it.
Anyway, the car was stuck in the Seattle port for a few weeks, then shipping to New York took a few weeks, and then waiting on the Washington State title took another two full months. I finally got all the paperwork on August 1 and promptly made a DMV appointment for the morning of August 2.
License Plates In Sight, DMV Delight
I don't like DMV visits in general – I always feel like something will go horribly wrong, so I spend hours the day before making sure I have all possible paperwork ready, held neatly in a fresh folder. Given the weight of this situation, I was a bit more nervous than usual.
Upon arriving at the DMV, I was immediately told I'd brought the wrong paperwork. Perplexed, I started frantically filling out what sure looked to me like a copy of exactly the same form I'd filled out the day before. And indeed it was, it's just that the New York State DMV website's flavor of MV-82 was a few months out of date.
New form filled out, I handed this now-taller stack of papers to a kind woman at the DMV office, who this time gave a satisfactory nod. She started typing and typing, then typing some more. Eventually, she pulled out a set of plates and set them on the desk.
I confess to getting a little excited at this point. Remember, I purchased this car in May of 2021. For more than two years I've been waiting to put some plates on this thing and take it for a drive. And that time was about to be here.
Except that it wasn't. She tilted her head and looked confused at her terminal, then got up and walked to her manager's desk. Soon she was joined by another colleague, and then another. Four people were all engaged in stern discourse around my paperwork.
She came back over.
"So, why doesn't your car have a 17-digit VIN?" she asked.
"It's a Japanese car. I just imported it," I said.
She nodded, walked away, then came back a few moments later.
"But even Japanese cars have 17-digit VINs," she said.
"Sorry, I mean it's a car that I imported from Japan,” I replied. “It's a car for the Japanese market.”
"Okay," she said, and went back to the power-huddle.
She returned with a phone number written on a Post-it note. "Operations," it said.
She called and explained the situation and was given another number. She called that one, pausing mid-way through the conversation to ask: "Is this a mini-truck?"
"No, it's a coupe. A car," I said.
The conversations continued, then she was passed along to a third mystery caller somewhere within the New York DMV deep state.
"And this isn't a mini-truck?" she asked me, again.
"No, here, I'll show you," I said, and pulled up a picture on my phone, holding it forward as if this little picture of a blue car with gold wheels held even a single iota of legal significance.
She spent a few more minutes conferring while I stood there, gazing at the pair of freshly minted license plates that were just on the other side of a plexiglass divider. As close as I'd ever get to them, I figured.
It was done. I was legal. More accurately, my dream Subaru WRX STI was legal.
"So it's okay to do it?" she asked the person on the phone.
Affirmative received, she hung up and started typing again.
"I think we're done," she said to me, clicking away again on her keyboard. My heart soared. Then fell.
"No!" she shouted. A modal dialog had appeared on her terminal and was preventing her from continuing. She walked off to the manager's desk again, who came to the rescue, typed in an override code, and we were through.
It was done. I was legal. More accurately, my dream Subaru WRX STI was legal.
I was so elated that I didn't even cringe when I handed over payment for the eight-percent sales tax to my DMV angel. And she genuinely was an angel. The whole process took nearly an hour and, had I been assigned a representative with less patience, I'm sure I'd have been sent home empty-handed.
New Stickers And New Shoes
I wasn't totally done, as I still had to pass a New York State inspection, but thankfully that went by without a hitch. Since the car is more than 25 years old, the lack of an OBDII port didn't cause it any problems. The only patently illegal thing on the car as it arrived was the tires. The JDM tires did not meet DOT regulations. So, a set of Pilot Sport 4 tires, kindly provided by Michelin, solved that issue – and improved the handling and ride quality immensely over the decades-old rubber it came on.
Now that I have a road-legal, Japanese-market car, do I have regrets? A few. It's the most drawn-out buying process of my entire life, long enough that I went through three full phases of buyer's remorse, each more nauseating than the previous.
But, I'm thrilled to have the car now. Giving it a first bath in the driveway was a real treat. I still have a lot of work left to get the Subaru where I want it, but at least now I can finally stop worrying about whether I'd ever get the thing on the road and can move on to worrying about all the fun things that come along with operating a 25-year-old Subaru.
JDM Importing Pro-Tips:
- Verify current federal and state laws before you even think about trying to import something. Local laws can be opaque at best. For example, New York State currently bans the registration of kei trucks, but other foreign cars are mostly fine.
- Pick a budget and stick to it, leaving plenty of room for import fees, taxes, and shipping.
- Do all your brand research before you start looking at auctions. Become an expert on trim levels, options, and production volumes. You might only have an hour or two to pull the trigger on an auction, and you don't want to be left searching through shady VIN decoders.
- Don't fall in love with the tiny pictures of the shiny car. Read the auction sheet like a hawk. Every item mentioned is listed there for a reason.
- If you're storing a car in Japan, get all the details and verify to the best of your ability. If I hadn't personally gone to Japan I probably would have never known that I wasn't getting the storage I paid for.
- Be ready for damage during shipping. All four wheels on my car were curbed and scraped somewhere between Japan and New York. Guess who got stuck with the bill for getting them repaired?
- Don't be in any hurry. There are so many places along the way for things to get delayed. So, so many places...