Most Americans go their entire lives seeing only boring U.S.-market cars in this country. If you’re lucky, you may see a few rare cars with Canadian or Mexican plates — but unless you’re near a border, you’ll probably only see vehicles that are legally allowed to be imported into the country.
That is, unless you live in the Washington, D.C., metro area. In the D.C. area, if you keep your eyes peeled while you’re stuck in the god-awful traffic, you’ll see all sorts of foreign-market cars.
For example, how about a Mercedes Vaneo?
Or Volkswagen’s Golf-based minivan, the Touran? (Not to be confused with the Routan, of course) Find a Volkswagen Golf for sale
Good News! The Dacia Sandero is here in the United States!
Some are more subtle. When I saw this car, I initially just thought it was a Golf SportWagen, until I realized it was actually a B8 European-spec Passat Wagon. (Apologies for the quality.)
I’ve also seen Audi A2s, Ford Kas and Mercedes A-Classes. When I first moved here, my parents’ neighbor even had what I think was a Peugeot 208 convertible.
So why are there all of these obscure foreign-market cars in the D.C. area? About half of the ones I see have diplomatic plates like the aforementioned Passat wagon, which makes sense. Generally, if you’re in the U.S. as a diplomat, you’re allowed to temporarily import a car into the U.S. without having to deal with emissions or crash-safety requirements. Considering the D.C. area is the seat of government — and the home of many, many foreign embassies — it makes complete sense to see these cars on the area’s roads.
But the origins of other imported cars are less clear. The Sandero, Vaneo and Touran were all seen with bone-standard Virginia plates. The Touran even had an American flag stuck on the tailgate. I did a little digging, and I found another exception for importing vehicles: If you and your family were stationed overseas as an employee of the U.S. Military or the U.S. Government, you’re allowed to bring back any vehicle that you purchased while you were there, as long as it’s your personal vehicle, imported for personal use only and not intended for resale. It’s also possible they were brought over by foreign diplomats and then sold to Americans, illegally, when their post expired.
Whatever the reason for their existence in the States, it’s a lot of fun to see these cars — and it helps mitigate the horrors of our commutes here. Follow me on Twitter, and you can see some of these rare cars as well (alongside pictures of my cats and other stuff I find interesting).