The forbidden fruit we'd love to sampleOn the last day of 2015, the most important question for the dawn of a new year is this: What pieces of forbidden fruit have hit the magical 25-year mark for legal importation into the US? 2016 will be a robust year for these special import vehicles, with plenty of Japanese domestic market cars mixing with an array of European high-performers and city vehicles. Check out the complete list.
We love a kei car, and few of them can match the pure charm of the Suzuki Cappuccino. The diminutive two-seat roadster has the perfect blend of early 1990s style, and is powered by an adorable turbocharged, 657cc, three-cylinder engine. The Cappuccino is the car you buy if you think the MX-5 is too much vehicle.
Fiat’s return to the Cinquecento nameplate came in 1991 when the Type 170 replaced the ancient 126. It was a more modern car, featuring a front engine placement, fully independent suspension, and even a galvanized body. Bizarrely, you could get a longitudinally- or transversely-mounted engine in the same chassis – a novel arrangement. They're not pricey, so get one of each!
Toyota Aristo S140
Why buy an E34 BMW M5 when you could get the first Toyota Aristo, the car that would become the US-market Lexus GS? But the JDM Aristo had something its Lexus twin never got: the twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter, straight-six 2JZ-GTE. Yes, the Toyota Supra's powerplant in a Giugiaro-designed sedan. You want an Aristo.
Mitsubishi Pajero / Hyundai Galloper
Mitsubishi debuted the second-generation Pajero SUV for model year 1991. At the same time, Hyundai kicked off production of a rebadged, first-gen Pajero called the Galloper. That makes this the rare case where you could import both a first and second-gen vehicle from the same model year.
Audi S2 Coupe
By 1991, the Ur-Quattro was long in the tooth. The S2, based on the 80-series Audis, was its functional successor. Its 2.2-liter, five-cylinder engine was a carryover from that ancestral rally legend, but made 230 hp in this application. Smother and slipperier than the old coupe, it brought Audi performance into the 1990s. It's still a great driving car, and surely some American Audi nuts are itching to get their hands on the never-officially-imported coupe.
You'd have to be a real Mazda nut to appreciate the special-ness of the AZ-3, but that's okay. The Autozam brand produced some of the weirdest and most wonderful Mazdas ever, like the AZ-1. The AZ-3 is mechanically identical to the MX-3, down to the tiny K-series, 1.8-liter V6. But the Autozam badging adds real JDM cred, and perhaps the respect the MX-3 never got on these shores.
The first Seat Toledo rides on the same basic platform as the Mark II Volkswagen Golf. That’s well and good, but it's the Giugiaro styling really sells it. The five-door liftback is, like so many Seats, a handsome little thing. While its powertrain is pedestrian, its form factor is very utilitarian. Since major VW bits swap around like Legos, a Toledo could be the basis of a really unique American build with upgraded power and styling like no other VW on the road in your hometown.
Mazda RX-7 FD
Finding an unmolested third-generation RX-7 here in the United States is a difficult task. That’s why you should look to Japan in 2016, when JDM examples of the rotary-powered icon will be legal to import into the US. You can even get one with the rare, ill-fated Efini branding from Mazda's luxury marque experiment. The sequentially turbocharged rotary is largely the same, but plenty of JDM-only trim levels and special equipment make a Japanese import the way to go.
Audi 80 Avant
The incredible RS2, a super-high performance variant built in collaboration with Porsche, won't be available for a few years. Until then, the regular 80 Avant, never offered here, offers some interesting powertrain choices – gasoline and diesel, in inline-four, -five, and V6 flavors – and an handsome alternative to the BMW E30 wagon.
The French do two things well – they build big, funky, ridiculously comfortable sedans – and tiny cars that are surprisingly fun to drive. The 106 is the latter. If this French hatch fascinates you, though, it’s important to note that you can’t get into the really fun part of the range – the Rallye and GTI – until the early part of the next decade. Still, if you’re looking for a small car with Gallic character, you could do worse than the 106.
Bigger and funkier than the 106, the ZX’s Bertone styling looked good whether you went for the three- or five-door hatchback. There wasn’t really a high-performance version to buy (or even wait for), but handling was improved by neat features like passive rear steering. It was also a versatile car, with a sliding rear seat to adjust legroom. The ZX featured a massive range of both gas and diesel engines for potential importers to choose from.
As far as nouveau British roadsters go, the TVR Griffith is tough to beat. With a 240-hp, 4.0-liter V8 under that long hood – at this stage, the classic Rover engine, not the later TVR in-house design – not to mention some very handsome lines, the Griffith is still a massively desirable car with performance figures that look positively modern. If you're worried about rust, the body is fiberglass, and the tube-frame steel chassis isn't too hard to fix or replace.
Gran Turismo 2 players should remember the Venturi Atlantique. Think of it as the French Lotus Esprit. It's PRV V6 engine is more famous as (inadequate) motivation for the DeLorean DMC-12, but Venturi fixed the power issue with a pair of turbos. In 1991, the Atlantique made 260 hp, a healthy enough figure to get it in the low-five-seconds to 60 mph range. Jeremy Clarkson loved it, but it sold badly at the time. Be more like Clarkson.
This is a mid-engined, Pininfarina-designed roadster with individual throttle bodies. Does that sound like a Honda to you? In the glory days of the Japanese Bubble Economy, the idea of making tiny city cars into exotic, fun sports cars (and expecting people to shell out for them) caught on. The Beat was arguably the best of the breed, but AZ-1 and Cappuccino owners will vehemently disagree. Ultimate Honda devotees itching for minimalist, tiny sportscar excitement should start scouring the Japanese classifieds for these.
This very 1990s-GM-looking car held the title for fastest sedan for a long time, but it (and the Opel Omega upon which it was based) never made it stateside. Like the Toyota Aristo, there’s a twin-turbocharged straight-six under hood, but unlike the 275-horsepower Toyota, the Lotus gets 377 hp – a monumental amount at the time. It's manual gearbox was parts-bin, sure, but from the legendary Corvette ZR-1. Think of it like a European Chevy SS from 25 years ago, with Lotus badges. Cool, right?
Have you ever wanted a 25-year-old car that looks like a 60-year-old car? Lots of people have since the Figaro went out of production, which is why it has a huge cult following inside and outside of Japan. Finding one is going to be tough, prices are high, and performance is pedestrian (or, to be more fair, "period-correct"). The lovely, friendly, almost cartoonish body covers up a very normal Nissan March, sort of a Versa of its time. Few cars exude such effortless charm. Don't get one if you're shy.
Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione I
As homologation specials go, the Lancia Delta Integrale is hard to beat. While you’ve been able to import one of these turbocharged five-doors for a couple years now, 1991 will mark the first time American consumers can import the even rarer Evoluzione. With more power, a wider track and fender extensions, and some interior tweaks, the original Delta Integrale Evo was the final homologation car for Lancia's Delta rally program. The motorsport pedigree and unmistakable boxy silhouette make it a highly desirable icon.