My First Foray Into Car Shopping, Japan Style

January 22, 2011

Having lived in Japan off and on for several years now, and having relied first on public transportation, then on a bicycle, I finally graduated last year to motorized transport in the form of a Honda Today scooter, a Honda Today “F”, actually, although nobody at the dealer could tell me either what the “F” stands for, or how the Today F is different from the standard Today. In the end, I went for the Today F because I liked the color.

It is suitable for only one person, preferably someone smaller than I, but it is perfectly wonderful transportation in and around the city. Traffic in Tokyo moves at a crawl, for the most part, and that is fine, as a fast crawl is about all this scooter can manage. It positively sips gas, though, and I have to fill it up only once or twice a month, which costs a whopping three bucks each time. Still, one thing I cannot do either by convenient public transport, bicycle, or even by scooter, is visit the small off-the-beaten-track villages that line the coastal areas and the foothills of the Japan Alps, two locales I have been itching to explore. So, I think it’s time for a car. This is a decision that has been a while in the brewing, as I am only just getting comfortable driving on the left; even now, though, every brain cell on duty is shrieking at me to “GO RIGHT!” in bold italicized capital letters. You have a lot more room for error on a small bike than in a car; if you inadvertently get onto the wrong side of the road, you can simply stop, lift the bike onto the adjacent sidewalk and wait for the opposing traffic to pass, a task that is exponentially more difficult with even the tiniest car.

Still, if I am going to step up to the plate and buy a four-wheeled vehicle, a purchase plan would be in order, as I don’t want to be easy game for the first pastel-jacketed, white-loafered Japanese car dealer dude trying to flog an unappreciated back-lot hoopty to the unsuspecting gaijin. I have given some amount of cogitation as to just what sort of vehicle would meet my requirements. Basically, I want a car with the room of a minivan, the power and handling prowess of a Mustang GT, the gas mileage of a Prius, and a folding top for those sunny seaside days.  That doesn’t seem too much to ask. Oh, and if I could have it for about $5000, and with fewer than 50,000 miles, that would be a plus. Special bonus points would be awarded if the car was a model unavailable stateside.

A quick look at the classified ads shows some interesting possibilities. First off, although no cars met all my specs (and no car ever would) it seems that virtually every car fewer than ten years old has fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer; in fact, most have fewer than 50,000 kilometers! Basically a car is a weekend and holiday transportation device here; after all, when you can take the train anywhere in Tokyo (like to work, for instance) for three bucks or so, why would you take a car? Gas would cost more than the aforementioned three bucks, and parking could easily run another eight bucks…an hour! And that assumes that you can find a space. So, the upshot of all this is that there are just piles of cool used cars here (easy-on-gas convertibles, even) in lovely condition, and with “low, low actual miles”. Here are a few prime (and one not so prime) examples; click on the pics for larger images:

2002 Peugeot 206CC (Coupe Cabriolet, a convertible with a hard top); 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles); leather; a/c; automatic; $5000-ish.

2002 Opel Astra Cabriolet; 68,000 kikometers (42,000 miles); leather; a/c; automatic; $4700-ish.

2000 Alfa Romeo Spider; 44,000 kilometers (26,000 miles); 5sp; a/c; leather; $5000-ish.

1991 Nissan Figaro, while not exactly a true convertible, nonetheless pretty darn close; wins the Miss Congeniality contest hands down; 77,000 kilometers (48,000 miles); $6000-ish, but there are plenty of others that squeak into the $5000 range.

And then there is this one, an ultra-rare (gee, I wonder why?) Suzuki CV-1 powered by a (get this…) 50cc engine, the same size that propels (and I use that word loosely) my small Honda scooter. This little jewel has only 1724 kilometers on it, and it can be yours (or mine) for only(!) $3500.