What Is An Import Car?
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Opinion

What Is An Import Car?

If you worked on domestics in the 1990s, the engines still had pushrod valvetrains and automatic transmissions with just three speeds. But, innovations like distributorless ignition and port fuel injection systems were often more refined and robust than some imports.

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Andrew Markel

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When I started working on cars in the 1990s, repairing import vehicles was far different than domestics. If you looked under the hood of a Nissan pickup, it might have eight spark plugs for four cylinders. In 1990, Toyota put an engine on its side and placed it under the passenger seat of a minivan. Volkswagen even made a V6 with a single cylinder head.

If you worked on domestics of that era, the engines still had pushrod valvetrains and automatic transmissions with just three speeds. But, innovations like distributorless ignition and port fuel injection systems were often more refined and robust than some imports.

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Many general repair shops would turn away imports because of their lack of repair experience, vehicle intricacies or special tool requirements. These shops could afford to ignore imports because they made up a small percentage of the vehicle population back then. Much of the time, import owners were stuck going back to the dealer when they needed work done. If they were lucky, their local IRF might refer them to an import specialist.

Over the past 25 years, the way cars are assembled and how components are sourced has changed. We have seen suppliers consolidate and become global companies. Also, many OEMs have sold off their parts manufacturing operations. These shifts in business have changed the DNA of not only the import repair community, but also those who work on domestic vehicles.   

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Traditionally, supplier selection was internal or was aligned by the country of origin. German manufacturers used suppliers like ZF, Bosch and ATE. Asian vehicle manufacturers used suppliers like Denso, NGK and Aisin. American OEMs used Delphi, TRW and Dana. That has all changed. For example, the Hyundai Genesis has a transmission made by ZF, a TRW steering rack and Delphi fuel injectors.

This trend is almost universally seen under the hoods of most entry- and mid-level sedans. When you remove the plastic engine covers on today’s four-cylinder engines, it is becoming harder to determine if the engine is import or domestic. Most have twin cams and direct injection high-pressure fuel pumps on the valve cover. Most share the same wiring connectors for sensors and actuators made by Deutsch, Kostal and other global connector suppliers.

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I am not saying all cars are comprised of the same parts in different combinations. There are still unique components and systems that set OEMs apart. BMW has the Dynamic Drive system that uses an active anti-roll bar. Subaru is unique with a boxer engine mated to an all-wheel-drive drivetrain. VW has made the dual clutch transmission work in almost all of its vehicles. GM still makes the best pushrod V8 in the world.

Where the unique import vehicle DNA continues to evolve is on high-end offerings. During the past decade, German automakers have been fighting each other to see who can make the most power using V8s and turbochargers. Likewise, Japanese luxury nameplates are creating SUVs that are the most featured-filled vehicles on the market.

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Has the import game changed for shops? Yes and no. There are still great opportunities for technicians and shops who specialize in repairing unique import vehicles. But, the battle for the “bread and butter” import work on the market is up for grabs.

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