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Driving on the other side of the vehicle

Give it a flowery blue-green paint job and David Bowick's 1992 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon could pass for Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Give it a flowery blue-green paint job and David Bowick's 1992 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon could pass for Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine.


It even has the obligatory doggy presence: five Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, which David and wife Vanessa race on weekends in dogsled competitions around Ontario. Their amateur dog team warranted an unusual support vehicle.


"We bought some land near Minden which is only accessible by a rough trail," Bowick says. "We were looking for a 4×4 van with a smaller carbon footprint, something smaller than an all-wheel-drive GMC Savana with a V8 engine."


Trawling the Internet, he stumbled upon an odd-looking minivan for sale in the Toronto area. Bowick discovered the little Mitsubishi concealed a 2.4 L four-cylinder turbodiesel engine under the driver's seat, as well as four-wheel drive.


"We bought it because it offered all the right features. Nobody makes a light-duty, four-wheel-drive diesel van for North America," he says.


There were a couple of hitches: having been built for the Japanese market, the steering wheel was on the right-hand side of the dashboard, and the Mitsu was 15 years old with almost 100,000 km.


Bowick bought it without hesitation, joining a minuscule but growing number of consumers taking advantage of a loophole in Canada's importation laws to buy an older Japanese or European model exempt from federal safety rules.


While Canada's Registrar of Imported Vehicles (www.riv.ca) carefully screens late-model domestic and imported vehicles brought in privately, it leaves vehicles 15 years and older unscrutinized.


Michael Kent of RightDrive.ca, a used-car dealer in Vaughan that specializes in right-hand-drive (RHD) imports, suggests the public need not worry about unsafe cars flooding the market.


For one thing, these imports must pass an out-of-province mechanical inspection before they can be plated. In Japan, the vehicles were subject to mandatory bi-annual inspections, called Shaken, to ensure they're well maintained and roadworthy.


Thanks to Shaken – and the fact the average Japanese motorist drives about 9,000 km annually – many of the vehicles that make it to 15 years are in remarkable condition.


"We're setting up a display in our showroom with two 1990 Nissan 300ZXs – one Canadian-market car and one from Japan – and we'll cut them in half to show how well preserved the Japanese cars are," says Kent. "I've seen five-year-old Canadian cars that don't look as clean underneath."


It's a touchy subject with Japanese-market car enthusiasts because there's a perception that Canadians are being duped into buying 15-year-old junk at inflated prices. Bowick, who paid about $11,000 for his van, disagrees.


"The age of the truck is not a factor when the mileage is so low, especially for a diesel," he says.


Having owned his Delica for two years, Bowick says the trucklet has proven to be "super reliable."


One downside to owning a car that's so far from home is that some parts are not readily available. Bowick's van was sidelined for four months while waiting for a new windshield. He can get many parts in a week from specialists like RightDrive.ca, while online forums provide maintenance and repair tips.


Since opening three years ago, Kent's import business has been growing like a bonsai – slow and steady. Initially it served fans of eclectic sports cars, such as the Nissan Skyline, but tastes have broadened to include diesel-powered trucks, utility vehicles and diminutive Kei-class minicars.


"The demand seems to find us," he says. "Canada Post is a huge customer, since their rural carriers need right-hand-drive vehicles to do their routes. The Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 is a big hit with them."


A recent trend has seen business owners, who are weary of buying big, gas-guzzling vans and pickups, warming to the idea of acquiring small Japanese trucks.


David Farnell operates Real Food for Real Kids, a catering service that makes premium, all-natural meals for child-care centres and schools in the GTA.


He employs a fleet of vans and 12 drivers to whisk the hot meals from his Dovercourt Rd. kitchen to the centres quickly. Farnell used to rely on GMC Savanas and Ford Econolines for the task, but grew tired of the big fuel and repair bills.


"The fundamental problem with North American commercial vehicles is that they're built to the lowest possible price point, which means they're cheap and low quality," Farnell charges.Driving on the other side of the vehicle


"When I worked in France, I saw that Citroen, Fiat and Toyota were making more expensive – but much more efficient – commercial vehicles that business owners could rely on. They're willing to pay more in return for lower operating costs."


Back in Toronto, Farnell began buying diesel Dodge Sprinters – until he spotted the Toyota Hiace 4×4 diesel vans Kent posted on his website. At $15,000 each, he could afford to buy three Hiaces for the price of one new Sprinter.


"From a branding perspective, the Hiace has been great. Everyone stops to ask about them," says Farnell, who had his painted in the Real Food company colours. At 10 L/100 km (28 m.p.g.), they use half the fuel an Econoline does.


A nagging question involving RHD vehicles in Canada is one of safety; specifically, how do drivers adopt to right-hand-drive in a left-hand-drive world?


Farnell trained his drivers on the Hiace and he says they came back raving about the experience.


"They learned it was super easy to parallel park in the city and they were better aware of cyclists, since they're right over their shoulder," he says. "Though it takes a little time to learn how to negotiate left and even right turns properly."


Farnell says where it gets tricky is passing a bus or truck on a two-lane highway. Sitting on the right side of the cabin, it's more difficult to gain a clear picture of what's coming at you in the other lane.


"But I don't want my guys doing that. They're in a small diesel van filled with food trays."


Still, the safety question continues to be raised.


Quebec became the first Canadian province to temporarily ban imports of right-hand-drive cars this year. No one can import a personal vehicle designed to drive on the left side of the road (present owners are exempt, as are commercial trucks).


The government-run automobile insurance board says it wants time to evaluate the safety of the 3,000 RHD vehicles on its roads. An Insurance Corporation of British Columbia 2007 study claimed that RHD vehicles had a 44-per-cent higher risk of crashing over a four-year period than comparable left-hand-drive vehicles.


Kent, like many RHD owners, criticizes the study. The Imported Vehicle Owners Association of Canada (www.ivoac.ca), formed to advocate on behalf of the RHD import community, maintains that right-hand-drive vehicles driven in left-hand-drive jurisdictions pose no risk, at least statistically.


Countries such as Great Britain and Japan have large numbers of RHD and LHD vehicles co-mingling with no ill effect, the IVOAC argues.


Supporters fret that Quebec's move to ban RHD cars will spread to other provinces, and that the federal government, which oversees the importation of goods, will follow an industry recommendation to raise the 15-year exemption rule to 25 years in line with the U.S.


Gary Moriarty, RIV's deputy registrar of imported vehicles, is not convinced. "Persistent rumours aside, there is no change to the 15-year rule in the works at the federal level," he says. "The numbers are anecdotal, but I believe the importation numbers are stable. I don't believe any other jurisdictions are planning on following Quebec's lead."


"Currently there are no plans to ban right-hand-drive vehicles in Ontario," confirms Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Bob Nichols. But he adds that the province would like to have the ability to flag and track RHD vehicles, presumably for the purpose of gathering reliable safety data.


In other words, RHD motorists are going to be watched carefully.


All of this posturing doesn't faze David Bowick. But like fellow RHD fan Farnell, he hopes that the influx of RHD vehicles will signal to auto manufacturers that Canadians are crying out for a greater variety of vehicles.


"I feel if enough people demand these vehicles, then domestic manufacturers will have to make them, too," says Bowick.


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