The grass is always greener on the other side, they say and in our case, horses are faster and louder. As you already know, cars that weren’t originally sold in the United States have to reach 25 years of age to be legally imported, registered and used on the road.
Given that the global automotive market isn’t really global, each year unlocks a number of cars, from ordinary commuters to some extraordinary machinery. For 2021, the magic year is 1996 and here are some of the coolest cars that debuted on the international markets.
The definitive lightweight British sports cars got to the US shores only in 2005 as the 111R and the reason for that was its noncompliance with United States’ safety regulations. But, as the Elise got introduced in 1996, the original Rover-powered S1 can now be legally imported stateside.
Even though it was powered by a measly 118 horsepower Rover K-Series engine which turned out to be prone to a few issues, the S1 Elise was altogether an amazing great car, being only 1,598 lb in weight and designed specifically for extracting surgically precise handling. The introduction of the Elise was a pivotal point in Lotus’ history, making the original iteration a valuable modern classic. On the other hand, should one want it for its driving abilities, it’s also the lightest foundation for any further modifications.
One of the greatest injustices out there is that Renault made it to the US only as a forgettable LeCar, leaving all the fun to its native European continent. Fortunately, the majority of heated up R5s have long turned 25, the Clio Williams is available for import too and for 2021, there’s another amazing Renault joining the list of cars you could and should bring to this side of the Atlantic, especially if you believe the before mentioned Elise isn’t focused enough.
The birthplace of the Renault Sport Spider is in Dieppe, the same place where Renault developed its racing programme under the Renault Sport division. Given that Renault won five out of six F1 constructors titles between 1992 and 1997 as an engine supplier for Williams, it’s safe to say that the Renault Sport Spider came during the brand’s golden era in motorsports.
This trackday-friendly 2000 lb open top was built around a lightweight aluminum chassis and was powered by a mid-mounted 16-valve 2.0-liter F7R inline four from the famed Clio WIlliams hot hatch, pushing 150 horsepower to the rear wheels. The composite body is unlike any other sports car from the era, with a go-kart-meets-concept-car design, butterfly doors, tiny wind deflector as standard and an optional windshield starting from 1997. Originally, the Sport Spider was built for one-make racing, but in the end, around 1800 were made for track and street use.
The iconic R33-generation Skyline could be imported to the US starting from last year, but 2021 opens the possibility to import a rare commemorative, the GT-R LM Limited. It was unveiled in May 1996, coinciding with Nissan’s entry to the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans in GT1 class. In the end, only one out of two entered cars finished the race at 15th overall, but what the Japanese market got is a pretty sweet limited edition Godzilla.
Built in just 188 copies out of which 102 are V-Spec, the R33 GT-R LM Limited painted exclusively in BT2 Championship Blue with commemorative badging. The drivetrain didn’t differ from the regular R33 GT-R, but the LM Limited had an enhanced body kit featuring more efficient cooling ducts, a unique lip splitter and a carbon fiber rear wing with Gurney flaps for more drag.
Recently, these Nissans were changing hands for high five figure sums, with one example being sold for the equivalent of $82,710 at Silverstone Auctions’ The May Sale 2021. On a side note, if you’re thinking outside of the box, you can get the same RB26DETT and a lot of shared R33 Skyline mechanics for less cash if you go for the Nissan Stagea wagon in Autech 260RS version, also available to import starting from 2021.
We tend to look at British grand tourers as opulent and aristocratic cars, but the TVR Cerbera really begs to differ. With its wild design inside and out and a palette of oh-so-90s colors to make it pop, the Cerbera is a working class hooligan on wheels. When you add the name of a mythical three-headed canine, what you’re getting is a perfect antithesis to all those uptight Bentleys and Aston Martins.
Peter Wheeler’s disregard for modern safety features was the NHTSA’s biggest nightmare, so it’s no wonder the American customers never got to buy one. However, the inaugural 1996 Cerbera is now unlocked, so let’s see what it brings to the table besides the crazy mirror-mounted door buttons and MK3 Fiesta tail lights.
The Cerbera Speed Eight ditched the Rover V8 in favor of a bespoke engine, the all-aluminum, 4.2-liter 75° AJP8 V8 developed by Al Meling, John Ravenscroft and Peter Wheeler. This eight banger was basically a race car engine for the road, featuring forged pistons and connecting rods, a flat-plane crank and interestingly enough, 2 valves per cylinder. In a car weighing merely 2,425 lb, the 360 horsepower powerhouse guaranteed a thrilling fully analog ride, not always safe, but definitely worth the risks.
When talking about 25-year-old cars, our eyes are usually on European and JDM classics, leaving Australia flying under the radar. To do the land down under some justice, here’s a burning yellow Holden HSV GTS-R for your consideration. A rumor from way back suggested that all 85 cars were painted in this hue because they started their lives as a lot of unsold Holden Commodore taxis, but in fact, they were based on the high performing HSV GTS with some extra input from Holden Special Vehicle division.
The oh so yellow XU-3 Yellah body was adorned with an imposing rear spoiler and carbon fiber was used throughout: on the side skirts, front and rear bumpers and the wing. To erase any doubt that it’s a very special car, the GTS-R got blacked out three-spoke wheels and large graphics on both of its rear doors, courtesy of Ian Callum. The icing on the cake was the engine, a stroked version of the Australian 5.0-liter Holden 304 V8, now displacing 5.7 liters.
The increase in size came hand in hand with more go-fast goodies and the result was 288 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. For extra $10,000 over the $75,000 price tag, one could also get the HRT Optimised spec, giving the V8 308 horses and 332 lb-ft of torque, bringing the GTS-R a step closer to cars Holden Racing Team prepared for the V8 supercars series.
The US market got the first taste of Mitsubishi’s EVO magic only in 2003 with the introduction of the EVO VIII and even then, it was not on par with the EVO offered on other markets, leaving Japanese sports car fans stripped of the full EVO experience once again. Fortunately, the year 2021 unlocks the fourth iteration of this fine and capable JDM sports sedan, itself based on the sixth-gen Lancer, the CN9A.
The IV EVO was the first one to get active yaw control, making better use of its four-wheel drive system by directing torque individually between the rear wheels, but there was more. The aerodynamic package was more dramatic than ever with the front bumper dominated by huge fog lights, while the biggest improvement came under the hood. Thanks to the new twin scroll turbocharger, the 4G63T 2.0-liter engine got a power increase to 280 ponies.
The EVO IV came in two trims – the GSR (Grand Sport Racing) where active yaw control was standard, as well as ABS, power windows, Recaro bucket seats and OZ Racing wheels. On the other hand, the RS (Rally Sport) homologation special had a short-ratio five-speed transaxle, optional ABS, stripped down exterior and interior with plain seats ready to be swapped for racing buckets and 15-inch steelies fitted with the same purpose.
In the EVO IV, Tomi Mäkinen won the 1997 WRC driver’s title, giving this car some serious racing pedigree. Mitsubishi produced around 9000 EVO IV sedans from August 1996 to 1998, but due to its rallying nature, finding a surviving example in original condition will be a proper challenge.
Price range: $20,000 – $40,000
7. Nissan 180SX Type X NISMO
Nissan’s S platform series was hailed globally as an affordable rear-wheel drive sports car, but despite it being available worldwide, a limited number of variants got to be offered in the United States. The States famously lacked smaller turbocharged engines as this Nissan was offered only as a 2.4-liter KA24E-powered 240SX. Despite a considerably larger displacement, the 240SX produced less ponies than the JDM counterpart, making the 180SX a very tempting forbidden fruit.
The 25 year rule made the 180SX eligible for import and another variant you can get starting from 2021 180 Type X Nismo. This is a factory tuned top of the line S13 with a unique body kit, a 2.0-liter 205-horsepower SR20DET four-cylinder, limited slip differential as standard and four-wheel steering as an option. Finding a bone stock example won’t be that easy, but a devout S13 follower will certainly find a way to get one.
Before dismantling BMW’s conservative identity with his deconstructivist approach to design, Chris Bangle worked for Centro Stile Fiat, where he famously designed the Coupé. Now, this car debuted in Europe in 1993, meaning it has already been eligible for import for quite some time, yet not all of its variants came out right from the start.
What you’re looking at is the most potent variant of the Fiat Coupé, the 2.0 20V Turbo. Powered by a transversely mounted inline-five (yes, you’ve read that well), this front wheel drive 220 horsepower two-door could do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds and all the way to a top speed of 155 mph. In 1996, the Coupé also saw a minor facelift, with changes including leather door cards and a redesigned cockpit with a new steering wheel and an analog clock, a better fit for the nostalgic Pininfarina-designed interior.
This Banglemobile not only looks like a tense muscle, but it has the performance to back up the dramatic looks. As such the Coupé is perhaps the last exciting car to wear the Fiat badge. On top of it all, this piece of modern Italian sports car history is still affordable, so if you are a fan of compact and punchy European coupés, this could be the modern classic for you.
With the rally-proven Delta Integrale garnering all collector attention in recent years, there’s very little to pluck out when it comes to interesting late 20th century Lancias. But, what if we told you you can get the very same Lampredi engine in an alternative package?
Lancia Kappa SW is a Pininfarina-designed and built longroof, produced in only 9,208 examples from 1996 to 2000. In its debut year, it was powered by a palette of naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines. Alongside the 3.0 Busso V6, the 205 horsepower 16-valve 2.0-liter four cylinder turbo is perhaps the most interesting option as it was the same engine used in the Integrale.
Unlike the Delta Integrale though, the Kappa Sportwagon was front-wheel drive and it catered to buyers looking for comfort and luxury. That being said, it came wrapped in exclusive Poltrona Frau leather and it featured optional self-leveling rear suspension for a more comfortable ride even with the trunk loaded with, let’s imagine, fine Italian antiques. While the Kappa SW lacks sportiness compared to other cars on the list, it has a rich character, earning its place as a car you could bring overseas.
To finish the list off with a bang, we’re diving into the utterly obscure with a Swiss-made retromodern Talbot Lago tribute. The Rinspeed Yello Talbo was designed to mimic the teardrop-shaped 1938 Figoni & Falaschi Talbot-Lago SS both inside and out, but under the hood it hid a pretty potent powertrain. This charming one-off was powered by a supercharged 5.0-liter V8, good for 320 horsepower and a claimed 0-60 sprint in 5.5 seconds.
Apart from its nostalgic and whimsical design, Rinspeed gave this car a few idiosyncrasies. First of all, the car was developed with a swiss electronic music duo going by the name of Yello. Next, the interior was wrapped in blue leather, with door cards depicting dancing anthropomorphic rabbits, courtesy of Zurich-based En Soie studio. Finally, the steering wheel featured a clock that could be removed from it and used as a wristwatch.
In May 2019, the car was sold on auction for $135,781 and was spotted on sale in Germany later that year. Should it emerge again, it’s good to know you can buy it and legally import it, provided that you have a knack for outlandish creations.