You don’t need to be keen-eyed to have noticed an increasing number of imported JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Toyota Estimas on UK city streets. If you drive one, you’ll know why.
For the unfamiliar, the main reason is space & cost: When you have 3 or more kids, your choice of cars goes from pretty much anything down to a handful of 7+ seater models. The UK lacks the larger SUVs and MPVs found in North America, so over here most parents go for a 7-seater SUV to retain some creature comforts or a cost-effective mid-sized MPV like the Volkswagen Sharan or Touran. Without exception, all result in the same sort of issues on a family road trip if all 7 seats are occupied: there’s not enough boot space for everyone’s luggage (you’ll notice the adverts almost always quote boot space in 5-seat mode, as they’re pitiful in 7-seat mode) and/or those in the rear-most seats are squished for legroom. You can avoid these issues by going one step up to the Volkswagen Caravelle or Mercedes V-Class, but they are pricey and over-large: they’re essentially large vans so you won’t get them through the 6’6″ barriers on some narrow residential roads, and you’ll find it harder to fit them into parking spaces in town.
The Toyota Estima somewhat miraculously ticks all boxes: all 7 seats get full adult legroom, and you get substantial boot space which’ll take multiple large pieces of luggage without needing Tetris expertise. It’s also narrow enough to fit through those 6’6″ barriers and short enough to fit in regular car-sized parking spaces. Toyota used to sell these in the UK up until 2006 under the “Previa” model name, but stopped as they were unable to match the low prices of locally-produced Volkswagen Sharan & Ford Galaxy models. Post-2006 they continued to be produced in Japan and for other Asian markets; and the standard spec of models produced since then are pretty high: they feel premium to sit in and even lower-end ‘X’ models get cool features like electric sliding doors you can operate from the keyfob (this might sound unnecessary, but it’s a godsend when your hands are full carrying a young kid and shopping!)
Most importantly you won’t be spending too much: you can find decent older ones around £7,000, and even nicer newer ones around £15,000. Top-spec models have all the features you’ll see in the newest cars, including adaptive radar cruise control. There are some dealers that specialise in importing Japanese MPVs and have dozens in stock at any one point, but we’re also seeing an increasing number of regular dealers dipping their toes into Japanese import market.
So what should you look out for?
Things you won’t get
I considered this an absolute requirement when kids were younger due to the ease of cleaning. However, these are almost impossible to find on Japanese imports: leather seats are not desirable in Japan (e.g. the top-spec Toyota Century features wool seats) so it’s rare that you’ll find a JDM model with them, unless it has been re-upholstered. If you have messy kids you may want to consider re-upholstering, but take care to ensure features like heated seats still work. It may be easier to get a seat protector for the seat that the messiest kid sits on!
Turn signals in the ‘usual’ place
Turn signals will be to the right of the steering wheel. If you’re used to driving regular UK/European market cars, it might take some getting used to. I kept triggering the windscreen wipers during my first week!
Hybrid or petrol-only?
The hybrid version uses a 2.4 petrol engine and is 4-wheel drive (with the rear wheels driven only by the electric motor) featuring more advanced stability control, whereas the petrol version is front-wheel-drive only but offers 2.4- and 3.5-litre engines. The hybrid has a definite advantage with city and suburban driving, but doesn’t make much of a difference on motorways above 50mph. If you mostly do motorway driving and travel outside of times with heavy traffic, I expect you will not see a significant enough advantage to the hybrid – that said, UK petrol prices are high so you may still appreciate the small differences! You will note that some importers solely bring in the petrol-only versions – to avoid the hybrid issues I mention below – but a quick check on Auto Trader shows loads of hybrids for sale.
There is no difference to boot or passenger space with the hybrid version; rather the hybrid battery occupies the space between the driver and front passenger seat and from inside the cabin just looks like a big centre console. Assuming you don’t need to walk inside the car between the driver row and the rear, this also creates a nice barrier from the rear passengers 😉
Check the hybrid battery’s health – but expect it to be poor, and factor in replacement cost
You’re pretty much guaranteed to have a hybrid battery problem once you go past 7 years of age, but this shouldn’t put you off if the car is otherwise good: rather you should factor this in and negotiate accordingly.
A deteriorated battery will mean poorer fuel economy at best, and at worst will result in the hybrid-electric system turning off completely when you least expect it – which will result in a bunch of car systems turning off including stability control and cruise control. You can reset the onboard computer to get the functionality back, but the poor fuel economy won’t go away. It’s not a cheap repair: a new battery will set you back close to £3,000 including installation at an independent hybrid specialist (you can get a reconditioned one for around £1,000 but they’re not worth it).
The best thing to do is to get hold of an OBD2 adapter, plug it into the car (the port is below the steering wheel and looks a bit like the old TV SCART sockets) and use the diagnostics on the Dr Prius smartphone app to get a reliable report of the hybrid battery’s health.
If you can’t do this, you can get a less reliable indication of hybrid battery health by looking at how it charges over a quick test drive. Speed up to around 40-50mph and then brake with ‘medium strength’ (not too gently but not too harshly either; you want the car to slow down using its electricity regeneration apparatus instead of the brakes). The energy meter to the right of the speedometer goes up in blue for energy use, and goes down in green for energy recovered to charge the battery. The energy recovery should max out (going down to the full 5 bars) when you brake, and should stay down 4-5 green bars until you slow down below 20mph. If this works, it doesn’t necessarily the mean the battery is in full health but at least it won’t be close to death. If the energy recovery indicator doesn’t max out, it’s a definite sign of a problem with the hybrid system which in almost all cases will be down to a knackered battery (being the only part that significantly deteriorates with use).
Hybrid power perks
If you get the hybrid, you get two plug points (accessible from the middle row and another in the boot) which provide a whopping 1500 watts of power at 100 volts: more than enough to run gaming laptops if your passengers are so inclined; it’s also enough for a travel hairdryer but ensure you get a 100V one (North American type). You will need adapters as these are two-pin US-style sockets, and you may need to use ‘kettle’ leads to avoid the plug socket’s flap getting in the way.
Car dealers who don’t know what they’re doing
Car dealers have realised they can make a great margin by importing JDM MPVs, so you’re seeing more and more of them get into the business, but not many know how best to amend JDM cars for UK drivers. There’s not that many changes required to pass UK MOT: changing the speedometer to miles (instead of kilometres) is the obvious one, but putting in fog lights is also critical. Some will remove one of the reversing lights (you only need one) and put the rear fog light there. I think this is the nicer and less obtrusive option. Some will cut out a small rectangle in the bumper and put it there – I’m not a big fan of that one, but it can look decent if done with care.
Dealing with the car’s AV system is where it can get tricky however.
Car AV system – replacing the Japanese head unit (or not)
The more features the car has, the more important the AV head unit in the centre of the dashboard is. I would recommend getting a car with the original Japanese head unit intact – and you’ll note many of the specialist Japanese MPV importers don’t mess with this – especially if the car has features like parking sonar or wrap-around cameras that rely on it. That said, given these head units were meant for the Japanese domestic market (JDM), they often don’t have an English-language option. You could learn a bit of Japanese, or you could replace it.
If you intend on replacing it, you should be able to get appropriate adapters to connect the reversing camera and steering wheel controls with an aftermarket head unit – I put a Sony one in, which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – and (this is a bit harder) you may be able to get a separate device to connect to the parking sensors so you can still benefit from the beeps when you get too close.
I have seen dealers put in Android tablet head units specially made for the Estima – which are cheap to get from Alibaba in China – that look great by providing a huge screen, but perform really poorly at the basics like music and sat nav. Don’t be misled! The one I got had an old version of Google Maps, wouldn’t connect to the App Store, and constantly popped up error messages during navigation.
Getting an English-language manual
If you can’t read Japanese and aren’t willing to rely on Google Translate for everything (Sod’s law will ensure you’ll have no internet when you need to read the manual), you’ll probably want to ensure you have a manual in English language. If the dealer doesn’t provide one, don’t fret – JPNZ sells translated manuals and you can get them on Amazon.
Don’t worry about things you don’t need, but make sure the important stuff works
You’ll see plenty of cars boasting TV screens for rear passengers. Assuming all your kids have smartphones, you’re unlikely to ever use these screens. Just get them noise-cancelling headphones. If you’re getting an older/cheaper model and the electric doors aren’t reliable, you can simply turn them off and open them with the handle like normal.
Don’t skimp on air conditioning however; even if we rarely get days hot enough to use it, you will need this to de-mist the windscreen quickly. Makes sure it all works – depending on what part has gone wrong you could be spending £1,000 to fix A/C – and negotiate accordingly if it doesn’t work.
What about the Toyota Alphard?
The Alphard is the ‘luxury’ version of the Estima, so most of what you see here will apply. There’s a couple of things to watch out for however: some are executive carriers that aren’t 7-seaters, and instead have 4 seats combined with other features like large tables more suited to those passengers. Also some of the luxury features from the Japanese market might not translate well to UK consumers, e.g. do you really need electric curtains?
The only downside to getting a Japanese import is higher insurance; if your insurer covers it, they’ll treat it as a special case as the car is unlikely to be on their database of models. Expect to pay around £600 annually even if you have a long no-claims history.
Parts availability and servicing
You should have little issue here – some Toyota dealers will service JDM models, even if they don’t advertise the fact, but you’re better off going to your local independent hybrid specialist who will know as much (or more) about JDM models and will charge less. Parts are easily available from Toyota (all the independents seem to get their parts from Toyota Europe!) and you’ll find consumables like wiper blades at reasonable prices online on eBay and Autodoc among others. Part shops may not carry original Toyota parts but you should have no issues finding Denso parts from Japan.
I would love to hear your experiences with JDM Toyota Estimas and if there are other things a prospective buyer should look out for. Please let me know in the comments below, especially if you’ve found cheaper insurance!