Foreign car importing procedure

Hi Tom and Ray,

I wanted to follow up on an article that I read on - and no, I don’t go there regularly, a friend sent me a link to the article. For your reference here was what I read:

Dear Tom and Ray: I just returned from visiting my daughter, who is a Peace Corps volunteer, in Yeghegnadzor, Armenia. Now, my daughter is an adventuresome gal, and she?s become infatuated with the Lada Niva. It?s a very small but particularly utilitarian 4-wheel-drive SUV. She?s decided that to reward her for her service to humanity, I should procure one for her upon her return to the United States.

She?s scheduled to come home about a year from now, which gives me some time to research this and find a viable reason for telling her it can?t be done. She would like for me to make contact with one of her Armenian friends, have him find and buy the vehicle on her behalf and ship it to the United States. My alternative plan is for her to purchase the auto in Armenia, where she?s now based, drive it across Europe and ship it across the pond once she reaches the Atlantic.

Here?s my question: What would I need to do to the Niva to have it pass U. S. import standards? Would I need to bring two home?one as the primary vehicle and one as a parts car? or would I have ready access to parts in the States? Please help me out,


Tom: Well, your daughter obviously has bonded with the people of Armenia. That?s wonderful. And she clearly wants to take a piece of her experience there home with her?she wants a keepsake.

Ray: But it would be easier, and cheaper, if she just married an Armenian and brought HIM home, Chuck. Because there?s no way you?re ever going to get a Lada approved for road use in the United States.

Tom: If a vehicle doesn?t meet U. S. safety and environmental standards (and trust us, Chuck, this one doesn?t), the U. S. Department of Transportation requires you to either upgrade it and make it comply, or destroy it. Guess which option you?re going to be forced to pick?

Ray: Unless you?re the kind of guy who makes nuclear reactors out of balsawood in his spare time on weekends, you?re not going to be able to upgrade this thing to meet U. S. code. Even car companies have a hard time doing it. For an individual, it?s almost impossible.

Tom: Trust us, a wedding?s going to be cheaper, Chuck. No matter how many lamejun pizzas you have to come up with for the reception.

Write to Click and Clack in care of The Buffalo News or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at . Tom and Ray?s radio show is heard locally at 6 and 10 a. m. Saturday on WBFO-FM 88.7.


I don’t know if you are still able to contact this guy, but if so you might want to do so because your answer was not correct. At least not completely.

Actually, this man could indeed import a Lada Niva without the need to undergo the conformation process, which I agree would be almost impossible for this particular vehicle to achieve. Because the Lada Niva began production in 1977, the possibility exists to import and older model of this vehicle, say from 1977 until about 1985. This is because any vehicle that is 25 years or older does not have to conform to the NHTSA crash safety requirements and any vehicle older than 21 years is exempt from the EPA’s emission test requirements.

Therefore if this man’s daughter were open to an older Niva, it could be done, though at a cost. How much would vary of course, depending on a number of factors.

I am not even addressing the issue of quality of make, that is a separate discussion. This reply is limited to the notion of importing a Russian car without undergoing the conformation process, which is usually done through an RPI.

I know because I have done it. I have a Russian car in my garage.


It’s possible for an older model, but, why ???

I was in Bolivia years ago and the refinery manager I dealt with there had such a Niva. It had 300,000+ kilometers on it. However the manager had his own mechanic to make sure it ran well.

Some were imported into Canada years ago, and sold well initially becuase of price, $8000+ I think they went for. However they were short lived. The kind of mechanical nonsense Russian put up with in their consumer goods won’t fly in Canada or the US.

Agree with Tom and Ray, it’s probably less paperwork to marry an Armenian than to bring a Niva back to North America.

If the refinery manager was a local, having his own mechanic probably had as much to do with social status as it did anything else; but I don’t know the situation and cannot comment further. During my travels in the FSU I was amazed at how much social status still plays a part in their daily lives. And of course whem someone over there used the t erm “my own mechanic” or the like I was always weary of what that actually meant. Usually it was the same guy that everyone else used, so I was never sure where the exclusivity factor came from in such an assertion, but I digress.

I suspect that the difficulty with the Nivas in Canada had to do with parts availability as much as/more than anything else. I know that I experience this problem everytime I need/want to do something to my Volga. That said, I also know that it is only a matter of time before I will need to rip everything out and replace it with American ballpark equivalent components. Emphasis on ballpark. And I’ll do that only when parts acquisition becomes more of a hassle than it is worth/than I care do deal with. Not there. Yet.

If you, Tom or Ray think it’s less paperwork or less money to marry and “import” a foreign spouse into the USA, then you are all delusional. Like my Volga, my wife is Russian and so I can speak to this with authority. The paperwork was far less to import my Volga and the cost was less too, though not significantly so. And that was with a “cheap-o” wedding where only my family attended a small, outdoor intimate procedure. Had I gone the all-out-wedding route as Tom referred to, then the cost of bringing my now-wife to the USA would have also far exceeded the cost to import my Volga.

So no, I would disagree with this assertion that it would be easier to “import” a spouse than a foreign car, in this case a Russian car. Any argument to the contrary is based more on emotion than fact, but again, I digress. And having said that, please recall that my vehicle importation was of a car older than 25 years, so no conformity procedure was required. If your importation is newer, than yes, “importing” a spouse and paying for an elaborate wedding would be approximately equivalent in cost; financially anyway.

Initial post errata: sorry for my typo. When I wrote “RPI”, I actually meant to say “RI”, which stands for Registered Importer. Because my importation procedure was so simple, I did not even use an RI to complete the process. FYI.

Thanks for the detailed explanation. The refinery manager had on demand access to the mechanic because the mechanic was employed by the company. Labor is very cheap in Bolivia, and cars are expensive. I’m sure the Niva had a lot of locally reverse-engineered parts in it. The company’s machine shops were also available when needed.

The problem with Ladas and Niva jeeps in Canada was that the owners thought they could punish them the way they pushed their Jeeps and Broncos. With poor build quality (especially the electricals) and parts availablility, ownership of Lada sedans and Nivas became a chore. I know of one guy who had two Ladas and cannibalized one to keep the other running.

My reference to Tom & Ray suggesting marrying an Armenian was facetious, of course. They were under the impression that newer models would have to be certified to the latest US standards, an uneconomic propostion.

You might also be able to get away with claiming you’re going to use it as an off-road utility vehicle. Once it’s in the country, many states don’t care if the feds think a vehicle is or isn’t road legal. That’s how we get all those funny Japanese minitrucks running around here with license plates.

Another tidbit is that they actually sold Ladas in Canada for most of the 80’s and 90’s and I guess the Nivas have a bit of a cult following up there. That’d probably be an easier source than Armenia for picking one up.

EDIT: Oh, sorry… didn’t notice that further up.

I think there’s still a few running around, but they bit the dust quickly. Canadians, like Amerianns, drive a lot, and once a Lada or Niva got to 100,000 miles there were just too many problems.

A used Japanese car or truck was such a better deal.

I do remember the enormous downward slanting “glove box” on the Ladas; just large enough to hold 2 bottles of vodka.

A Suzuki Samurai might be a good quasi-reliable and domestically available equivalent.

Ah, that makes sense. I also noted low labor rates with high costs of living while in the FSU; something I never quite understood. Having a machine shop “in house” is a good thing in such a scenario, no doubt.

I can understand the poor build quality issue and can visualize someone driving their Niva beyond its capabilities. The electrics usually leave something to be desired in these cars, that’s generally true as well. Still, what I have noticed with my Volga is that I can “beat it up” but somehow it keeps on going. Not sure why really and of course I don’t “beat it up” much at all. With the inclement weather and incredibly poor road conditions in the FSU as a whole, the Russian car must be built to be rugged. Most are, but many fall short.

I have two RX7s myself and am looking to buy a third as a parts car; so while the Lada that refinery manager had was prone to contract problems, having a car that you cannibalize to keep others running isn’t that unusual. At least for an older car (in my experience), but that could just be me.

Anyway, interesting conversation. Thanks for the input.

@cdaquila–Why is this thread–whose last response was almost 8 years ago–showing up as a current thread?

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