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By Jamie Forgan

September 2000

JF_emina1_small.jpg JF_emina2_small.jpg

Click here for vehicle spec.

My experiences importing an Estima Lucida into South Australia.

The information appearing in this document is for preliminary and general information only and is not to be relied upon as being complete, accurate, or up to date and is subject to change.

Over the last 18 months, Japanese imports have become quite big in Australia. Licensed importers/dealers are popping up all over the place with all sorts of vehicles for sale. The Estima is not very common in Australia, although you will find more of them in the eastern states (especially Queensland) than other states like South Australia, my home state. The Estima, along with other foreign vehicles, can be imported into Australia through the Low Volume Import Scheme. For more information on importing a vehicle into Australia and the Low-Volume Import scheme, visit:

A Business Guide to Customs

Low Volume Compliance Plate Approval Scheme

My incentive to look for a people mover was the arrival of baby number three. All of a sudden our station wagon didn’t quite cut it and we had to find something that was big and comfortable. I liked the Toyota Tarago (the same as the UK’s Toyota Previa), but for the money I was prepared to pay, I could only get one, which had done over 100,000km. And that was typically for a 1991 model. There just had to be a quality vehicle out there that would suit us and was in our price range. That’s when I discovered the Toyota Estima, a Japanese import.

The Japanese imported Estima met my criteria in the following ways:

  1. It was a people mover (up to 8 seats)
  2. It was a modern shape
  3. I could get one with low kilometres (see Paul’s discussion about Japanese driving habits)
  4. It was relatively economical (with the 2.2 litre turbo diesel engine)
  5. I could get more bang for my buck than I could buying the local version (the Tarago), because it would be slightly newer and would have more features.

But there were a few issues that I needed to sort out before deciding to buy one:

  1. How would I get one?
  2. Was it cheaper than an equivalent Australian model?
  3. How much was it to insure?
  4. Could I get it serviced and were parts going to be expensive?
  5. Would it take long to get one?
  6. What were the running costs?
  7. What sort of condition would the vehicle be in?
  8. What about Finance?


How would I get one?

The first step was to establish how to actually get an Estima. I had three options:

    1. Buy one which had already been imported and was sitting in an dealer’s lot,
    2. Get an Importer to order one for me directly from Japan according to my specifications,
    3. Deal directly with an ‘exporter’ in Japan and take care of complying the car myself.


1. Buy from an Importer’s lot

At the time I was looking, there weren’t any Estimas being advertised locally (South Australia), although I did notice a couple of ads not long after I placed my order. If you decide to buy from a lot, make sure you get the vehicle thoroughly inspected by your local motor vehicle association. I’ve heard from people alleging that some importers buy cheap damaged (sometime seriously) Japanese vehicles, fix them up then sell them. These vehicles will tend to be cheaper than you can get elsewhere, so if you find the one you’re looking for and it’s considerably cheaper than all the others you’ve been looking at, be wary. These vehicles may turn out to be okay, but the danger with an imported vehicle is that if you buy a dud it can be expensive to make significant repairs (mainly for the body work). Make sure you get a couple of referrals to get an idea of the quality of cars that they’re importing and selling. Ask for customers who bought more than 3 months ago so that you’ll be speaking to someone who’s actually been using the car for a while.


2. Buy according to your specification

The next option is to buy according to your exact specifications. This means you contact an Importer, provide them with specific details of the vehicle you’re looking for and the price you’re prepared to pay, and let them find you something that matches. This means that you’re buying ‘sight unseen’. Not everybody’s comfortable with this approach so it’s important that you choose a reputable Importer who has a history of importing quality vehicles. It’s worthwhile here getting a couple of referrals to check the quality of their vehicles. It’s also important that you are familiar with the whole process, so make sure the Importer gives you a detailed run down on how their process works. I bought through an Importer called Adelaide Executive Motor Company (, which just happens to be owned by a relative of mine. Below is an outline of the process I experienced:

  1. You provide the Importer with your vehicle specifications and the price you’re prepared to pay
  2. The Importer sends your specifications to their Buyer(s) in Japan
  3. The Buyers look for a suitable vehicle in the huge auctions that are held weekly (or more often). Some buyers keep a small amount of stock, so it’s always possible that your vehicle will already be on hand. Buyer’s may or may not also be second hand dealers within Japan. Some Buyers purely source cars for export and not all Buyers have access to the same auctions. In Japan there is the concept of a ‘closed auction’ which is only available to Japanese nationals.
  4. If a suitable vehicle is found, the Buyer contacts your Importer, who then contacts you asking if you want to purchase. If you do, the Buyer will purchase the car and you’ll be required to pay the Importer a deposit. This deposit usually covers the cost of the vehicle plus the Buyer’s commission, as well as the FOB cost.
  5. The vehicle is then put onto a cargo ship for export to Australia. This typically happens once a week, although it may vary with different Buyers. The Buyer who supplied my Estima took cars to the docks each Thursday.
  6. After about two weeks, the ship arrives in Australia. At this point the second payment is required. This covers the cost of things like freight, GST and quarantine costs.
  7. The vehicle is then complied to Australian Design Regulations (ADR), detailed, inspected by the State Transport Authority, registered and handed over. At this point the final payment is made to cover the compliance and detailing costs and any other local transport costs that may have been incurred.


3. Deal directly with a Japanese ‘Exporter’

Paul has some good advice on doing this elsewhere on this website. If you’re fully conversant with the compliance and registration requirements for imported vehicles, then this will certainly be a cheaper option than going through an Importer. The biggest risk with this approach is that you have no recourse should there be a problem with the vehicle. In South Australia, a second-hand car dealer must provide a three-month warranty on any car they sell. This at least covers you in the early stages if the car turns out to have some obvious problems with it. As with all imported vehicles, it’s advisable to get an extended warranty on it so that you can get some financial aid in the event that something significant does do wrong.


Was it cheaper than an equivalent Australian model?

Whether or not the Estima is cheaper than a similar age Tarago will depend on:

  1. The exchange rate at the time it’s purchased from Japan. At the time of writing, the A$ is very low against the Yen. If I had bought my Estima now instead of a couple of months ago, I would have paid around $1500 more.
  2. The ‘grade’ of the Estima. Vehicles in Japanese Auctions are graded up to a grade of 5. Vehicles with a grade of 4.5 and 5 are like new and you typically pay top dollar for these. My Estima was a grade 3.5 and had a minor dent/scratch in one of the wheel flares, had various shopping-centre scratches over the bumper and a couple of scratches in the tinting film on the windows. In all other respects it was spotless.
  3. The features on the Estima. Japanese vehicles typically have options that aren’t available on the equivalent Australian models. For example, you can get an Estima with sonar parking aids, hot-and-cold boxes, TVs, etc, which weren’t available on the Tarago (years ’91 through ’99 – I’m not sure about the 2000 model). In general you should be able to pay less for an Estima that is younger, in better condition, has fewer kilometres and more features than an equivalent Tarago. My Estima had only done 60,000km, which is about half the distance travelled by most Tarago’s of similar age.


How much was it to insure?

Unfortunately imported vehicles are still expensive to insure in Australia. I managed to get insurance through a company called Shannon’s ( which is now owned by Royal & Sun Alliance) for around $900 for two nominated drivers over 25 (my wife and I). As a comparison, the equivalent Tarago insurance from my previous insurance company was $588 for two nominated drivers over 25.


Could I get it serviced and were parts going to be expensive?

This was my biggest worry because any savings I made buying an import could quickly be chewed up by the cost of having it serviced/repaired. Although I haven’t confirmed this just yet, the engine is supposed to be the same as the Toyota Hiace van, which is sold locally, which means easy access to local engine parts. Body panels will have to be imported from Japan as well as components like indicator housings, etc. For smaller parts, speak to your Importer (if you used one) because they’ll either be able to get them in for you (second-hand or new), or point you to someone who can.


Which model could I get?

Australia now has quite strict regulations on the vehicles that can be imported. Basically a company must have a Low-Volume Import Licence if they wish to import a foreign vehicle. One of the basic regulations in this scheme is that a foreign vehicle cannot be imported if there is an equivalent model commercially imported or manufactured in Australia. This means that the petrol version of the Estima, which is the exact equivalent of the Tarago in Australia, cannot be imported. Only the diesel engine Estima Lucida or Emina may be imported. Personally I think this is better any way because you get to own something that not many other people own, so the ‘wow’ appeal is much greater.


How long would it take to get one?

This will depend on the Importer you use, but typically from the day the car is acquired in Japan, it will take about 5 weeks to be delivered to you. This includes shipping to Australia, complying the vehicle, having it detailed and then registered for use on our roads. I live in South Australia and we used a company in Queensland who regularly complies Estimas. Consequently the Estima was shipped to them and then transported down to Adelaide.

If you order at a bad time (like I did) it could take 7 weeks, although this is unlikely. My vehicle was bought just prior to the O-Bon holiday, which delayed shipment from Japan for a week. It arrived in Queensland on a Sunday but on the Monday Customs decided to do a complete quarantine check on the entire shipment of vehicles. That delayed proceedings for another two days. Then a public holiday meant that the company that complies the vehicle couldn’t get it until Thursday, at which point they were told by Customs that some regulations had been changed and they now needed an original copy of the import approval documents. They weren’t able to start working on the car until the following Monday and didn’t have it finished until the Friday, which meant the Estima didn’t get put on the transporter until the following Tuesday.

Once the car arrived in Adelaide, it was detailed and then taken to the vehicle inspection department for an inspection and registration. The inspection is basically just to check that the car is the car it’s supposed to be. Engine specifications, make, model, year, colour, etc, are all checked. Once this was complete, I handed over the final payment which covered all compliance and detailing costs, walked over to the registration office, registered the vehicle and drove it home!


What does compliance involve?

Compliance involves modifying the vehicle to make sure it meets Australian Design Regulations and on the Estima normally takes around 5 days. The modifications that need to be done to the car vary with the make and model, but the Estima had things like tyres replaced, seatbelts replaced, new oil filter and oil and the convex-glass driver-side mirrors replaced with flat-glass mirrors.


What were the running costs like?

From all I have read so far, the diesel engine is supposed to be more economical than the petrol version, although I haven’t got around to establishing just how economical it is. The diesel accelerates well when you get the revs up, although it can blow a bit of smoke. An injector service reduces the amount of smoke it blows though. With the power mode turned on, the over-drive turned off and with the turbo kicking in, acceleration is really very good. Western Australia and Queensland are likely to be introducing reduced-sulphur diesel in the near future which will make diesel engines perform better and blow less smoke. Hopefully we’ll get the same in SA.


What sort of condition would the vehicle be in?

Fortunately I was able to view pictures of the vehicle before I decided to buy it (the Buyer had my Estima in stock and so took some photos of it with his digital camera). This showed that there was no body damage apart from a small ding on one of the wheel arches. Diesel engines are longer lasting than petrol engines, and with only 60,000km travelled over 8 years, it still had plenty of life left in it.


What about Finance?

Can you finance a Japanese vehicle? Yes, but how easy it is depends on how you finance it.



If you’re hoping to lease an imported Japanese car then you may have a hard time finding a Leasing Company in Australia that will do it. The difficulty in getting a lease stems from the fact that the Lease company’s only collateral is the vehicle itself. They purchase the car outright and then lease it back to you over time. If you default on the payments, then the only way they can get their money back is by selling the car. This is a more risky proposition with a Japanese car because their value in the future is not as easy to determine as a ‘local vehicle’.


Unsecured Loan

An unsecured loan is a loan in which you only have to demonstrate that you can meet the repayments on the loan (i.e. your monthly expenses plus the monthly loan repayments are well below your monthly income). This is probably the easiest way to finance your import if you don’t have cash available.