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Japanese Domestic Market Vehicles in the Bahamas

Left-side driving and steep duties make for a unique vehicle fleet

I love international travel. From the food to the people to the music to the vehicles, it’s a feast for the eyes, ears, nose, and palate. I enjoy learning all the ins and outs of the business practices as well as the laws and culture in each country, especially when it comes to automobiles. It had been nearly four years since my last trip to the Bahamas, and there’s been some serious changes during that brief period of time regarding what vehicles you see on the road.

The Bahamian government recently passed a law that all used cars imported into the country must be less than 10 years old. Many pre-owned cars used to come from the U.S., but now most are sourced from Japan. There’s some logic here, even before looking at the financials, because the ex-British colony drives on the left. Therefore, the right-hand-drive cars from the Land of the Rising Sun make practical sense.

After talking with some locals, I learned that there are brokers in Nassau—the capital and largest city in the Bahamas—that specialize in importing cars from Japan. Trust Company Ltd in Japan is one. Its website has a plethora of cars. Take a look! It’s fun to shop for proper JDM—Japanese domestic market—automobiles. I should know as I’ve now wasted a large amount of time doing just that.

Cars start at only $95. Yes, $95. As I write this column, there’s a 2011 Suzuki Alto with about 99,000 miles for  $260. Sure, it only has a 658-cc engine (0.7 liter), but it has four-wheel drive (more on that later), air-conditioning, and a spare key. Plus, you can purchase the small hatchback and get it to the port in Nassau including basic shipping insurance for a mere $1,415. It’s a mid-level “Trust Recommended” car—very good condition with no mechanical or electrical problems—and the tires are in good shape. Try finding a car less than 10 years old in the States in good condition plus shipping to the Bahamas for that kind of dough. All that’s left once the car arrives at port in the islands is paying the taxes and fees on the Bahamian side.

And therein lies the reason why purchase price is so, so important. Import duty on automobiles coming into the Bahamas is a rather crazy 65 percent, and that’s added to the total price including shipping. You also must pay 7.5 percent VAT (value added tax) and other fees including a 1 percent administration fee. So, we’re talking a total price for the Alto of more than $2,500. While that may not sound like much money, remember that we started at only $260.

To put that into perspective, there’s also a very cool 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado on the Trust website. The Prado is the much better looking, Toyota-version of the Lexus GX 460—sadly, not offered in the U.S. It’s only covered some 620 miles and looks like a decent deal at only $43,000. But add in the shipping, duty, VAT, etc., and you’re looking at nearly double that—around $80,000. That’s roughly what the Toyota dealership in Nassau is asking for a brand-new Land Cruiser Prado, which comes into the Bahamas through regular channels and includes a full warranty.

I spent about a week in the Bahamas helping a friend with some vehicle business. Most of my time was spent on Eleuthera, an amazing, near-unmolested island that’s 112 miles long and less than a mile wide. My transport on the island was a slightly-used J150 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado with a torquey 3.0-liter turbo diesel. The Prado (and Lexus GX 460) shares its body-on-frame chassis with the 4Runner and FJ Cruiser. It was very comfortable on the aged, pothole-filled Queen’s Highway, which runs the length of the island, and was extremely capable for exploring the rough, sandy side roads that lead to miles of undeveloped beaches. The rugged but posh SUV also returned nearly 30 mpg during my adventures.

You really want four-wheel drive on the island. The main roads are fine for a conventional front-wheel-drive car, but the truly beautiful areas are off the beaten path. You also don’t want too thirsty of a vehicle, as fuel is some $5 a gallon. Actually, everything is expensive on the island, as nearly every item needs to come in by boat or plane.

Now before you start following my crazy brain and dream of owning a fleet of used JDM cars in the Bahamas, keep in mind some further hurdles and headaches. If you aren’t a Bahamian citizen or don’t have a work permit, it’s not easy to register a vehicle. Some Americans I know have registered and insured cars in a Bahamian friend’s name. Also, replacement parts aren’t cheap, and the network for repair work, especially on an outer island like Eleuthera, isn’t fantastic.

None of that has stopped me from hunting for a funky Japanese car to keep in Eleuthera—for fun, of course. I found a rather cool 2013 Suzuki Jimny (Samurai) with only 6,800 miles for $9,200. It has a body-on-frame chassis with a low-range transfer case—a perfect combo for exploring the gorgeous Lighthouse Beach at the southern tip of Eleuthera. Still, I’d want to find an older, cheaper example, and I’m sure I’d much prefer the bigger, 1.3-liter engine versus the 0.7-liter setup.

One more thing. Hybrid and electric cars only carry 25 percent import duty in the Bahamas. See what you can find in the world Japanese cars on the Trust website—hybrid, electric or conventional—and add them to your fantasy Bahamian garage.