I recently spent the day at Carter’s Cars, a used car dealership in South Burlington, Vermont. This is because its owner is a bit of a car enthusiast and has begun filling the showroom with cars that weren’t originally sold in this country — so I went and drove them! I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. All of these unusual cars were imported from Japan — and as such, had their steering wheels on the right side. In my 20-year driving history, I have never driven a car with its steering wheel where the glove box is supposed to be. In general, it was easier to acclimate than I thought it would be — and, thankfully, I didn’t have any major "whoopsie" moments … but there are still some things to get used to.
First, there’s the embarrassing one. Getting in on the wrong side of the car. It’s a bit like pulling up to the wrong side of the pump. There’s no graceful way to get out, walk around the car, and get back in. Thankfully, I only managed to do that once.
The amount of stares and looks I got depended greatly on the car I was driving. The kei-car and kei-truck got many looks, while the big Honda sedan and Toyota coupe received much less attention. I’m going to attribute that to the fact that the cars didn’t look much different from the outside, so no one paid them any attention — while the funky, little-bitty ones are different enough to catch the eye of passersby.
Speaking of things feeling easier based on the car, lane discipline was harder in one car than the rest. I’ve spent the last 20 years making sure that my sight lines are based on my body being near the left edge of my lane, and it has served me well every day of my driving career — except for this one. This was something I was aware of going in, so I was more vigilant than I might otherwise have been. What I found interesting is that keeping my mind on my lane placement was much easier in the smaller cars than it was in the big one. I think that it boils down to the fact that the two kei cars were weird and different enough that everything felt out of the ordinary, so putting myself in the correct part of the lane was just another weird thing. Whereas the Honda Vigor was a normal car — and even a car that was sold in America with an Acura badge on it. That meant things felt relatively normal or familiar on the inside — so I kept forgetting that my butt was in the space more typically occupied by my lunchbox.
The one thing everyone would expect to be the hardest is shifting with your left hand. But that was much easier than I anticipated. The shift pattern is the same, so nothing is reversed except the hand you use. I won’t say that I was ready to tear it up at a track day with my left-handed shifting, but I didn’t bash my hand off the door even once.
Another small thing is that you have to become adept at quickly converting kph to mph. All of the cars from Japan use kph only, so the speedometer only shows kph. It’s not like the U.S. or Canada, where cars sold in each market show both. I hadn’t thought about this ahead of time, and it wasn’t until halfway through the day that I decided to try to remember a few key speeds. I didn’t get pulled over, though, so I couldn’t have been too far off!
I also drove four different cars, and none of them had working radios. The issue here is that in Japan, up until 2013, only used 76-90 mhz for radio signals, whereas here in the United States, we use 88-108 mhz. This means the only stations your Japanese import car can tune in to are between 88 and 90 mhz. I can’t think of any good stations in that range, can you? So make sure you budget for an aftermarket radio for your 25-year-old Japanese car.
Now for the part I’m sure you’re most curious about: what was the most difficult part to get used to? That would be the signaling. Had it begun to rain, using the wipers would likely have tied. That’s because in most traditional left hand drive cars, the turn signal stalk is on the left side of the steering column, and the wipers are on the right. In most Asian-market right-hand drive cars (including the ones I drove), the turn signals are on the right side and the wiper controls were on the left.
More times than I would care to admit, I attempted signaling my upcoming turn, only to clear the windshield of non-existent rain. Actually, it happened so many times that I was surprised by the frequency of it, but I think I’ve reached a conclusion as to why: shifting with my left hand was new and different, and I was expecting it to be new and different — therefore I was consciously paying attention to it. Meanwhile, using my turn signal is done almost unconsciously. My mind goes "I’m going to turn left, reach the left hand up and pull down on that lever … hey, why are the wipers on?"
In the end, it was great fun, and I’m thankful the guys at Carter’s were friendly and willing to let me spend the day there just so I could write about some cars. I knew that driving on the right was going to be a weird sensation — but it was easier than I figured it was going to be, except for those silly turn signals. I guess I’ll just have to drive them more! What a shame, huh?