Big burly American muscle cars and jacked up 4x4 pickups get most North American gearheads fired up. But some long for chirping turbos, exotic imports, and quirky foreign commuters. Unfortunately, a lot of really sick cars are illegal to drive in the USA and Canada. That’s right—you could go to jail for driving the JDM whip of your dreams.
Canada and the States have different safety and emission regulations from Europe and Asia, and any car not up to snuff isn’t allowed on North American roads. It seems crazy that Euro-spec body kits (which look way better) and mirrors at the wrong height (who needs those anyway?) make a car a crime to drive, but I guess the Feds know better. There’s a big, beautiful world of cars out there we're missing out on, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Any car that's at least 25 years old is exempt from show and display regulations, so any cars built pre-1993 could be yanked off the NHTSA’s banned list. That dumb fast late-'80s Porsche you’ve been after? It’s now a possibility. Here are 10 cars which are still banned, and 10 that are (happily) no longer banned. From drift missiles to limited run special editions, scroll down to see what you can and can’t rip around on North American roads.
20 BANNED: 2000 Lotus 340R
Only 340 of these special-edition Elises were built, with the sole goal of hitting a power-to-weight ratio of 340bhp/ton, hence the 340R moniker. Lotus got close, with the final model hitting the road with a ratio of 252 bhp/ton. This is almost half the power-to-weight of the Veyron, but the Bugatti costs millions of dollars and weighs almost 1,900 kilos.
The 340R tickles the scales at 700 kilos and sold for just under $50,000 USD.
People wanted this car. Badly. Every unit was sold before they even went into production. Sadly, only those in the UK can skip around the city in this radical roadster. Lotus has a strong racing pedigree, dominating F1 in the '60s and carrying this technology over to their road cars. Low power can be a great time. Going fast is fun, but not slowing down for corners is where the real thrill is. Lotus knows this, and the 340R delivers the goods.
19 BANNED No More: 1992 Schuppan 962CR
You can thank the world of endurance racing for this beauty. This car was inspired by the Le Mans-conquering Porsche 962, with a slight decrease in displacement being the only difference in the 962CR's drivetrain. The stats on this car frankly don’t make sense.
A 3.3L twin-turbo flat six cranks out 600 bhp, launching you to 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds and maxing out at 370 km/h.
The ultra-slippery body certainly lends itself to rocket-ship speeds. Can you imagine idling at a stoplight in this? This car is an absolute beauty, but it's incredibly rare and expensive. The MSRP was $1.5 million USD and only five were ever built. One was destroyed in a fire, so now there are four. Turn every drive into a Le Mans stint, just watch out for speed bumps, and maybe avoid drive-thrus.
18 BANNED: 1995 Audi Avant RS2
Two more years, hopefully, and then, it’s all ours. This Audi is a textbook example of the apple of many gearheads' eye—wicked quick wagons. Fat tires and high horsepower look best with four doors and a big trunk. Everyone knows this, and everyone should want this car. Too bad not everyone can get it. RS edition Audis are a collaboration between Porsche and Audi, so this killer wagon is of good steed.
The turbo five-cylinder makes 311 bhp, and this is put to the road through Audi’s legendary Quattro system, meaning corners and acceleration are a thrill.
Inside, Recaro bucket seats give an extra-racy feel. This is when the NHTSA’s ban really stings. It seems safe, has large mirrors, isn’t thaaat fast, so what’s the problem? We just want to look good while getting groceries.
17 NOT BANNED: 1987 BMW M6
If you listen closely when an M6 goes by, you can hear the Jaws music playing softly in the background. This angry German shark still impresses critics to this day, and thanks to its vintage, the M6 can now be enjoyed on North American roads. The inline six was developed from the power plant in the M1, a lethal motor. Making 286 bhp, the M6 rocketed to 100 km/h in six seconds and topped out at an electronically imposed 250 km/h. Vented disc brakes at the front and the rear meant the M6 was easy to stop, and independent front and rear suspension made it dig into curves. This is a gorgeous coupé, subtle but not slow looking and perfect for evening circuits around the city.
16 BANNED: 1994-2000 Fiat 126p
Fiats are usually carefully designed city cars, stylish cruisers for shopping jaunts in Milan. The 126p, or the Fiat “Polski,” is a golf cart with some glass. The higher-end model produced 26 bhp, coaxed from an inline two-cylinder motor, and it took years of upgrades before the car received frills like reverse lights and hazard blinkers. Extravagant stuff. The 126p gained popularity as the only affordable car in '80s communist Poland, and the tiny four-seater was used as a family vehicle. The 126p lost its hold on the market as foreign competition arrived, but it defined Polish vernacular. Fiat accepted the popular slang name “Maluch” (the small one) as an official name for the car in 1997. Between 1973 and 2000, 3.3 million 126ps were built, providing Polish drivers with a reliable ride. Let’s just hope they don’t need to reverse anytime soon.
15 NOT BANNED: 1990 Porsche Carrera 4 RS Lightweight
Take a stock 911, and tell factory Porsche mechanics to make it lighter and more powerful. That's exactly what the RS lightweight is, one of the cleanest generations of 911s taken to another level. The arcing lines of the roof and the hood run perfectly into the low and fat whale-tail wing.
By removing the catalytic converters and mufflers, the RS lightweight made 300 bhp, 40 more than the stock 911.
The lightweight moniker was supported by an aluminum hood and doors, plexiglass side windows, and a fiberglass trunk lid. The curb weight is 1,100 kilos, obscenely light for a car this powerful. Inside, Recaro buckets and a five-point harness ensure the racecar feel is complete. It was a crime to keep this Porsche off our roads, and it's fantastic you no longer have to be a criminal to drive one.
14 NOT BANNED: 1992 Mazda Cosmo
This is a big, fast boat of a car, and it's no longer on the NHTSA’s banned list. Mazda began production of the last series of Cosmos in 1990, putting the largest rotary engine they've ever produced in a bold bulky body. The Cosmo was so large, Japanese drivers had to pay an extra tax for driving an oversized vehicle. And it’s a coupé.
The 2L 20b was the largest-capacity rotary Mazda sold, and with twin sequential rotors, it cranked out 300 bhp.
Japanese regs kept the Cosmo limited to a 180 km/h top speed, but when given a free range, the Cosmo could crack 250 km/h—mpressive stuff for a big-bodied coupé. The Cosmo is a darling of the JDM scene, and tuners will be swooning over the relaxed import regulations.
13 BANNED: 2002 Smart Crossblade
As much as we all love cars, common sense still needs to come into play. Windshields are great, as are doors and roofs. As far as I know, a vehicle needs at least one of these three items to be considered a “car.” However, the Crossblade has none of the above. It was billed as a unique alternative to the standard Smart Fortwo, and the factory produced 2,000 of these special-edition “roadsters.” Never before has the word “roadster” been linked with 70 bhp, and it never should be again. Models online for resale have been used as wealthy individuals' “yacht” buggies—fitting, as a car with no protection from the elements and no space for luggage sounds perfect for short jaunts from docks to tropical port towns. I guess Mercedes knows every corner of the market.
12 NOT BANNED: 1991 Toyota Sera
Check out those doors. You could drive a Paseo or another boring economy car. Or, you could start each day by flipping up gull-wing doors on what inevitably feels like a spaceship. The choice is pretty clear. Since the Sera shares the same 1.5L inline four as other Toyota economy cars, it’s bombproof and fairly efficient.
Gordon Murray, the designer of the McLaren F1, claimed that the Sera’s doors were an inspiration for the ones on his beautiful project.
You can own supercar design features for a few thousand dollars, on a car meant to compete with Accords. Awesome. It also came stock with the “Super Live” Sound System, which sounds like a party. Commuting just got a whole lot cooler.
11 BANNED: 2004 Volkswagen Beetle (Ultima Edition)
Really? Banned? Maybe it’s for those ultra-slick bumpers or those classic chrome mirrors. Maybe the NHTSA is just trying to give breadbox Cruzes and Altimas a chance on the market. Look at this Bug—it’s gorgeous. It was produced in 2003 as a special order by Professor Wilfried Bockelmann, a high-ranking exec at Volkswagen. This was the last Special Edition Beetle, and along with the body kit, it came loaded with chrome interior details, an upgraded stereo system, and best of all, color-coded wheels. It’s all about matching. This swank kit cost $1,300 more than the standard Beetle, so you don’t have to lose your shirt for some vintage flair. This was also the last air-cooled Beetle produced, marking the end of 70 years of production. For die-hard Volkswagen fans and collectors, I’m sure this car being banned is a tough pill to swallow. Only another decade to wait!
10 BANNED No More: 1989-1993 R32 GTR Nissan Skyline
About time. This is really great news for a lot of people. I’m looking at those who like to go really sideways, really fast—of course, always on the track. After all, the race track is what this beast was designed for. It did an 8:22 around the Nurburgring and won five consecutive all-Japanese Touring Car Championships. As of 2018, you can cut laps at the track all day, throw out what’s left of your tires, tape up your cracked front bumper, and head home. This car was banned for being too damn fast. I’m sure the legislation sounds more official, but that’s what it boils down to.
A Nismo-developed drivetrain was helmed by a 276 bhp twin-turbo 2.6L inline six.
Ceramic turbos, multi-link suspension, and an intelligent all-wheel-drive system tie up a blisteringly fast package. And now, it can be yours, legally.
9 BANNED: 2012 Skoda Fabia Greenline II
While you’re out in your 926CR doing 300 km/h, make sure to report anyone you see in a Skoda Fabia. They're criminals. This eco-friendly compact car is a rebadged VW, and sports multiple fuel-saving mods. It has a drag-reducing spoiler and rides 20 mm lower than the stock model for a more aero profile. The motor automatically cuts and restarts at stops, and an energy-recovery system uses braking force to power the car's electronics. Lastly, Skoda has fitted the car stock with ultra-efficient rolling tires and lightweight alloy wheels and tuned the gearbox for taller, more efficient gear ratios. Pretty green, huh? All these eco features produce a claimed 83.1 mpg, so make sure to grab lots of snacks before road trips because you won’t be stopping often if you somehow end up driving this illegal car.
8 BANNED No More: 1958-1991 Pegaso Z-103
This sweet little kit car was produced by Spanish automakers Pegaso. The kit car is based off the Pegaso Z-102, of which only 86 were ever built. Pegaso primarily built trucks and heavy equipment and only dabbled in sports cars for seven years, between 1951-1958. After production was discontinued, various kit cars were commissioned for expos and individual customers. With kits being produced until 1991, some cars have modern internals beneath the classic exterior, making them a smart and stylish daily driver. The original Pegaso Z-102 design included large “weight-saving” holes in the frame and used the wheels as stressed chassis members. It looks gorgeous, but banning a swiss-cheese car doesn't seem like a terrible idea. Good thing the Z-103 mended these mistakes and is now eligible for import, as it's more than 25 years old.
7 BANNED: 2005 Beijing Auto Industrial Holding Rodedawg
What is this? The headlights and the windshield seem like a mutation of a Jeep, and from the wheel wells down, it’s a sorry sight. Rather than a front bumper, there’s a hull. I see a case for banning this freak already. It appears to have a four-cylinder diesel engine, which apparently powers the propeller as well. The interior is certainly going to be durable, and air conditioning and CD players may not be in the picture. After all, this is effectively army surplus, as these are identical to models used by the Chinese Army. To go with a weird car, there's a weird saga of attempted importation. A Government employee tried to bring the amphibious vehicles into the States, even getting Ice-T onboard as an endorsement. Predictably, US officials deemed the vehicle unfit for North American roads, effectively capsizing the Rodedawg’s chances in Canada and the USA.
6 NOT BANNED: 1991 Honda Beat
Looks like a convertible Civic, right? Wrong. The Beat is a mid-engined rear-wheel-drive pocket rocket. Although 63 bhp isn’t inspiring, individual throttle bodies for each of the engine's three cylinders means throttle response is precise.
Honda is known for high revving, naturally aspirated, low-displacement engines, and the Beat follows suit.
The motor is just on the other end of the car in contrast with its usual position. This sporty little whip was the last Honda to be approved by Soichiro Honda, and it was a fitting final move for Honda’s founder. In 2010, 569 Honda Beats lapped Japan's Twin Ring Motegi, setting the Guinness World Record for the largest-ever parade of Hondas. This runty roadster is what's known as a “kei” car, a tiny vehicle that's exempt from certain parking regulations in Japan. Rear-wheel drive, mid-engine, sharp styling, and easy to park—hard to beat the Beat.
5 BANNED: 2009 Suzuki Jimny
The tiny kid sibling of a RAV4 or a CRV, the Jimny is a micro all-wheel-drive off-roader. Sold as the Chevrolet Jimny in South America, the pint-sized truck tackles all terrains with durable suspension and chassis geometry conducive to sharp pitches and rock fields. The soft angles of the hood and the grille slots give the car a friendly appearance. It looks like it wants to have fun. The Jimny is limited to light off-road terrain by its narrow track and short wheel base, coupled with a tall ride height. But its having four seats means space for all your friends and weekend camping missions or light off-road excursions that are sure to be a blast. For brutal North American Winters, a lightweight agile all-wheel-drive car is a dream come true. If only it weren't illegal...
4 BANNED: 1997-2000 Honda Civic Type-R
Every once in a while, an automaker produces exactly what gearheads are after. With the Type-R, Honda looked at what the driving experience should be and translated that with their stock Civic. The body shell has extra welds for stiffness, and there's no radio, air conditioning, or power windows, all for weight savings. This was the first Honda hatch to wear the Type R badge, and Honda wanted to kick the line off with a bang.
The 1.6L four-cylinder was an early user of the legendary V-TEC system and put out 186 bhp.
This was wisely coupled with a limited slip differential and a tight-range gearbox for the full sporty experience. Don’t you just smile reading about this thing?
3 NOT BANNED: 1993 Jaguar XJ220-S
Just squeaking inside the 25-year-old clause, this British rocket held the title of the fastest car in the world at one point in the '90s. As if the standard XJ220 wasn’t already face-meltingly fast, the XJ220-S was built to go even quicker. It featured an entirely carbon body, built by the racing masterminds at Tom Walkinshaw Racing. With the weight reduced down to just over 1,000 kilos, the 3.5L V6 was tuned to 680 bhp to create a seriously staggering power-to-weight ratio. The long, sleek profile and tall rear wing scream fast, and the driver sits low and laid back in deep bucket seats. You probably won’t ever drive one of these, but if a missile goes by you on the street, it’s probably the XJ220-S.
2 BANNED: 2000 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Tommi Makinen Edition RD- RHD
Tommi Makinen has won the World Rally Championship four times, a feat placing him among the best in the business. Driving Mitsubishis for all but two of his wins in his rally career, the company went all in on the Makinen Edition Lancer. The stock turbo was replaced with a titanium number that spooled faster. The ride height was lowered for balance and aero, and a shorter, more aggressive steering rack was put in. The bright red paint was also exclusive to the Makinen Edition, as was a range of interior detail like Recaro Seats and a Momo steering wheel and shift knob. Quick dead stock and certainly not slower with an upgraded turbo, it’s a shame we can’t channel our inner Finnish rally freak on North American roads.
1 NOT BANNED: 1984-1987 Honda CRX Si
The better-looking cousin of the Civic, the CRX is a favorite of many Honda fans. Light, nimble, high-revving and sporty looking, the CRX is a classic example of Honda nailing the hot-hatch formula. Lucky for us, we can now enjoy this little ripper on our roads.
The CRX is a blast at 60 km/h, as the 1.5L aluminum four cylinders rev up quickly, and the stock suspension on the sporty Si editions was stiff and precise.
Built with an eye fixed on performance, the CRX received upgrades to its aero package throughout the three-year run of the first generation. A mistake in production meant Japanese Si edition motors were stamped "ZC," like the standard CRX motors, whereas the European Si engines were stamped "ZC1." This little mistake meant Japanese owners paid the lower tax associated with the smaller 1.3L. Good news for them and even better for us now that we can own one.
Sources: wikipedia.org; carmagazine.co.uk; jalopnik.com