The woman at the drive-through window was not amused with our right-hand drive antics.
“Hi, how are you?” she said through the little speaker by the passenger window.
“Um, hi, good thanks. Can you talk a little bit louder because I’m on the wrong side of the car?”
Stupid story short, I managed to get a disgusting cheeseburger via the drive-through window even though I was in a right-hand drive car. RHD: 1. Drive-through: 0.
Parking garages, I’ll admit, are a little trickier. You can either drive in backwards so you can reach the ticket machine (not recommended) or you can hop out and dash around the front of the car to the machine (less challenging, but safer). In this case I’d say the point goes to the parking machine.
But, those were the biggest challenge I faced during my week of RHD ownership. Imported RHD cars from Japan and Britain open up a whole new used market full of exciting, fun, rare, fast, unique, practical and even cheap vehicles. Plus, most Japanese cars that come here have very low kms and little rust.
You don’t have to be an enthusiast to consider one, but you should know what you’re getting into.
It never felt scary or hard. I could easily see a RHD car being used a daily-driver.
A couple years ago, Quebec put tighter restrictions on RHD cars, and PEI announced around the same time that it would introduce new legislation to effectively stop all future RHD imports there (See the PEI press release here.)
In both cases, safety concerns were cited as major reasons for the new restrictions.
Now, this opens up a whole can of worms. Several studies were done by provincial insurance agencies on the safety of RHD cars vs. LHD cars, but the methodology and findings were criticized by a study from a statistics lab at the University of British Columbia… which was commissioned by an imported vehicle owner’s group. So, it’s hard to know who to trust.
We decided we should see for ourselves what it’s like to pilot a right-hand drive car in a left-hand drive world. Is it difficult, dangerous, impractical, nonsensical? Of course, we’re not going to pretend one driver in two cars over the course of a week is representative of the whole population.
We make no claim that our findings in this wholly unscientific test are anything close to definitive. As great lovers of rare and obscure RHD cars (old Subaru STIs, Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Hondas, Datsuns, anything with a Lotus badge) we’re merely interested in if they can be practical in Canada.
Could you easily daily-drive one or would it be a pain in the arse or would your arse end up crumpled into the fender of a truck?
The RHD driving experience
The folks at RightDrive, a local dealer of RHD cars, was kind enough to toss over the keys to a couple of their new arrivals for us to test out for the week. The owner, Michael Kent, is therefore very brave – but what do you expect from an ex-drift racer?
A lot of his business is actually importing RHD Honda CRVs and the like for use by postal workers, so they can deliver the mail to rural roadside mailboxes without getting out of the car. Hollywood also loves to use RHD Japanese cars because they look so sci-fi and futuristic and unfamiliar to Western audiances.
It’s a niche business, but an interesting one.
As I pulled out of the parking lot of RightDrive in a toy-sized 1991 Nissan Figaro, the most alarming thing was just how small the thing was. Forget which side the steering wheel is on, this thing is so small it might as well be in the middle.
It’s just a bit of metal with a motor – but what pretty metal it is.
The Figaro has a 1.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder motor connected to a three-speed automatic transmission, so I didn’t have to worry about shifting gears with my left hand. The most difficult thing to get used to was actually staying in the lane. I found myself naturally drifting over to the left side to match the view up with what I’m used to seeing in a LHD car. I’d have to make an effort to keep the car centred in the lane.
I got more comments and compliments on that car than any Jaguar, Porsche, BMW or other press car I’ve driven. People give you the thumbs up as you drive past, and stop you at parking machines to ask about it.
In fact, I rarely managed to get in or out without talking to somebody.
And yet, I couldn’t wait to return the Figaro to RightDrive because I was swapping it for one of my teenage dream-cars: a 1995 Subaru Impreza STI Type-RA. Back when guys like Richard Burns and Colin McRae were winning World Rally Championships in bright-blue Impreza’s, the STI RA was the car to have, along with other alphanumeric specials like the ‘P1’ and ‘22B.‘
The RA was stripped out and ultra-light. Air conditioning was an optional extra. For ventilation, you got a little hand-operated flap in the roof.
Before I could access the power of the hand-built turbocharged flat-four though, I had to get over my fear of shifting gears with my left hand. First gear is at the top left, and fifth is now top right: a mirror image of what I’m used to. I envisioned embarrassing moments, trying to start the car in fifth accidentally. But, it wasn’t to be.
In fact, it was easy, intuitive. I never really had to think about changing gears; it might as well have been LHD. Learning to flick the signals with your right hand and work the wipers with your left proved more challenging. On more than one occasion I found myself waiting to turn left on a bright sunny day with the wipers on.
But, by week’s end it was second nature.
The Subaru’s turbo lag is brutal, but so is the acceleration when the turbine comes on strong. You get punched back into the bucket seat and pinned there as if you’ve been socked in the face by a punching bag. 275 horsepower? Feels more like 300. The steering is quick, and the car always feels ready to change direction.
The stiff springs are a big help there. As is the lithe curb weight. Grip levels are high thanks to the clever AWD system, but it can be overcome. And by that I mean this thing is eminently hoonable.
Little drifts are easily caught by the AWD system as it sends power to the front. All the driver has to do is countersteer and stay brave. Yes, it’s a little noisy inside thanks to the lack of sound deadening and yes it’s quite stiff, but it’s everything my childish brain imagined it would be way back when.
And how much is all this fun? Around $15,000.
Did it feel dangerous driving a RHD car? Well, no. It didn’t feel any more dangerous than driving a LHD car. I’m a thoroughly average driver, and I adapted quickly and intuitively. The hardest part was getting used to the reversed wiper/turn signal stalks, but it wasn’t an issue after a day or so.
It never felt scary or hard. I could easily see a RHD car being used a daily-driver. Postal workers and garbage truck drivers have long been using RHD vehicles on our streets without a problem.
Getting your RHD dream-car on the road in Canada
That said, there are some issues. Insurance companies may not want to cover these cars and you may be forced to use a specialist firm that charges a premium. Importation and registration can be a minefield if you’re doing it on your own for the first time.
Dealers will hunt down your dream car and ship it over here and sort out most of the paperwork, but again you’ll pay a premium for such service.
And, make sure you find a legit dealer. There are scammers out there who will take your money and run. Michael Kent said, “In order to process anything vehicle related, a firm must be a Registered Dealer – in Ontario, anyone selling a vehicle to another person that is not wholly owned by them must be registered with OMVIC, where business practice enforcement is very firm.”
What cars can you import to Canada? Kent from RightDrive explains: “Rules are fairly simple surrounding RHD vehicles – if the vehicle is older than 15 years of age [or 25 in Quebec], it is exempt from FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) crash safety standards and therefore permitted into the country. The same governance controls the 25 year compliancy in the United States.
There are few exceptions to this rule – primarily surrounding vehicles that may have been manufactured State-side and then exported to other countries, like certain Jeeps, Hondas, Subarus, etc. Even the [Nissan] Series II R33 GT-R [ancestory of today’s supercar-beating GT-R] is eligible in the United States fully legitimately, but with modifications to please the FMVSS and the NHTSA.”
And how do you keep your RHD gem running?
Most cars imported from Japan have very low kms and there’s rarely any rust. Although buyers still need to check over the car thoroughly. It can be a little harder to get parts if you buy something that never came to our shores (like the Figaro, for example), but you should be able to avoid major headaches by getting tons of pictures and a proper inspection of your car before you import.
And, finally, thanks to Michael Kent at RightDrive.ca for the loan of their vehicles.