It’s no secret that we in the US have missed out on more than a few great models over the years. Emissions and crash safety regulations have played spoiler to many, leaving us no choice but to sit and wait for the 25-year import rule to roll around. Now, for an entire generation who grew up on cars from the late nineties and early aughts, those 25 years are just about up, opening a huge opportunity for anyone with a couple of bucks and the drive for a new project/toy. But before you can get your hands on anything, you’ll first have to find what you’re looking for.
Searching across the pond isn’t rocket science, but you’ll need to be patient. The two options I’ve found to be easiest to use with good results have been the German site Mobile.de, and autoscout24.com. The former can be tricky to use as it’s in German, so Google Translate or a German-speaking friend will come in handy, but the listings are generally plentiful. The latter is in English and might just be your best bet for a Euro-spec vehicle. UK’s eBay is also full of enthusiast vehicles, and they’re generally less expensive, but most will be RHD, and that can be a hassle in the ‘States. With those search engines at your disposal, you’ll find your dream car fast.
1999-2003 Audi 8L S3
It’s hard to ignore the appeal of the PQ34 platform once you have experience with it. The VW GTI and Audi TT represent the best of America’s offerings, sporting a playful chassis and a gem of an engine in the 5V 1.8t. However, VAG offered more than those two across the shared platform, and soon you’ll be able to bring in one of the best-looking of its variants, the first-generation Audi S3.
With the Group A rally-inspired machines ruling over the affordable performance market throughout the nineties, it’s no surprise that Audi had to throw their hat in the ring. The likes of the Lancia Delta Integrale, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo had become rulers of back roads due to their small size, turbocharged power, and all-wheel-drive. Already producing a platform with all those qualities in one form or another, the S3 became the up-market fighter and complement to the VW GTI.
Under the skin, both models were very similar thanks to the PQ34 architecture, sporting the legendary turbocharged 1.8t inline-4 and a nearly identical front suspension. But, in true Audi fashion, the S3 put its power down to all four wheels through a Haldex-designed all-wheel-drive system and six-speed manual gearbox shared with the TT. Peak power figures for the early models (1999 models are the only importable ones next year) sit at 210 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque. Those are quite a bit higher than the 1.8t GTI, but that’s because their engines were significantly different. The S3 utilized the AMU engine—and the BAM afterward—and it featured a stronger engine block, forged connecting rods, and forged Mahle pistons that gave it a higher compression ratio.
But America already has that drivetrain in the Mk1 TT Quattro, and fcpeuro.com already sells all its parts. What we don’t have is the body. All Audi’s from the late nineties have aged well, and the S3 is no different; its relaxed and neatly designed exterior is free from any crazy lines or shapes, but it never needed any; it’s tight and simple. However, to separate the S3 from the A3, Audi changed the bumpers, bolted on larger wheels, and then pumped up its previously subtle fender flares to cover them. The complete package isn’t overtly aggressive, but you won’t be able to shake thoughts of spirited driving while looking it over.
If you want to fill your empty garage space with an 8L S3, I suggest you hop on Mobile.de or another European automotive search engine. Examples range from around $8,000 for a relatively cared-for but often-driven one to over $20,000 for a low-mileage, nearly new machine. Sure, that’s quite a bit more than the similar products already offered here, but none of them are an S3.
2000-2001 Porsche 996.1 GT3
It’s tough to encapsulate just how much the 996 changed the sportscar landscape upon debut and the following decades. Porsche’s all-new 911 quickly became the least beloved of the generations thanks to polarizing looks, an unreliable engine, and a plasticky, cheap-feeling interior. Only in recent years has it clawed back some dignity as its looks and quirks have finally come around to enthusiasts. Yet, within two years of the first fried-egg headlight, 1999’s 996 GT3 saw the birth of an icon that would define the next several decades of track-oriented supercars.
Today’s GT3 is a masterpiece of composites, direct-fuel injection, and active components, but the model’s relatively humble beginnings were much simpler than that. Porsche started with a Carrera 4 shell and stuffed it with bespoke suspension stiffer and lower than any 996 before, and a 3.6L naturally aspirated Mezger-derived flat-6 good for 360 hp at nearly 8000rpm. A heavy-duty Getrag-built six-speed manual with a mechanical limited-slip differential was the only means of putting power to the ground as stability and traction control weren’t offered. No paddles or sport settings either, just three pedals and the driver.
Inside, a pair of fixed-back Recaro bucket seats featured leather upholstery on standard cars and flame-retardant fabric on Clubsport models. Also included in the Clubsport package was a fire extinguisher, a Matter roll cage, deleted side airbags, a battery cut-off switch, and a six-point harness for the driver. All GT3s also came standard without A/C and radio, though buyers could have had them fitted at no extra charge. Altogether, it was nothing new for Porsche coming off the 964 and 993 Carrera RS models, but its use in the media and games like Gran Turismo cemented the GT3’s popularity among new enthusiasts.
Like prior motorsport-focused 911s, the GT3 was strictly for motorsports homologation, and its equipment was designed solely for that purpose. Unfortunately, that also meant all 996.1 GT3s became unobatnium in the US. The 996.2 GT3 made its way over and started the craze, but all we received from the early car was some body panels in the Aerokit package and a 10-spoke wheel design. Now, however, the genesis of it will be eligible for legal registration in all 50 states.
Before getting into import fees, shipping, and any brokerage costs, you’ll be looking at around $85,000 to acquire a well-kept example. It’ll have under 100,000 kilometers and be in good mechanical shape, but it likely won't be in any standout PTS colors—as with other 996s, Silver seems to be the most common shade. Therefore, it might not be as eye-catching as a new model, but it shouldn’t be any less compelling. Taking a step back to look at the complete package, you get a sense of how this car represents a hallowed era. Its Le Mans-derived engine utilizes modern fuel injection and some advanced electronics, but the rest of the car remains analog. It’s light and simple with road feedback that can be used as a benchmark for many; something lost in the adjustable dampers and rear-wheel-steering of the present. At a time when we’re hurling toward electrification, sacrificing feel for the sake of efficiency, the 1999-2000 Porsche 996.1 GT3 represents an ideal respite.
1998-2003 Mk3 Volkswagen Polo GTI
Although we like hot hatchbacks here in the ‘States, we have nothing on the Europeans. The humble hatchback is the way of life over there, where fuel isn’t cheap, and 2.0L makes for a big engine. For that reason, they have a whole market of models we never received, and now we can bring over the long-awaited dreams of many VW enthusiasts: the Mk3 Polo GTI.
As VW’s least expensive model, the Polo was a plucky but solid option for anyone needing cheap and reliable transport around a city. But the Mk3 saw that change as VW moved it up market and stuffed it full of goodies. Bits like electric exterior mirrors, central locking, airbags, and foglights became standard, pushing the Polo into new territory. VW continued to push the model where it hadn’t gone and eventually debuted the 6N Polo GTI in 1998. Powered by a 125 hp 1.6L 16-valve inline-4, it offered the most performance from any Polo up to that point, and with a curb weight of less than 2300 lbs, it was good for a sprint to 60mph in 7 seconds.
Unlike other Mk3 variants, VW offered the GTI in only the two-door hatchback body style. In VW fashion for the era, the styling is smart but sporty with revised bumpers, a chin spoiler up front, forged BBS wheels, and a host of fun colors from the VW pallet. Inside, the fun continued with a rather odd but era-perfect upholstery choice for the high-bolstered seats. The basic cloth material wore a black and red arrow down the center, with the number one in a negative stencil pattern at its start. The black and red treatment continues all over the interior with red stitching on the wheel and shifter, red insert in the door cards and rear passenger panels, and black floor mats with red piping. Overall, the Polo is a quirky, quintessentially Volkswagen model that will break the brains of most US enthusiasts the moment they see it.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in owning, you still may have a relatively tricky time picking one up. VW offered the 6N generation in late 1998 and 1999 until the facelifted 6N2 finished out the Mk3 platform between 2000 and 2002. Examples aren’t difficult to find, but there often isn’t an enormous pool to choose from at a time. Prices range from around $4,000 to a little over $10,000 before any importation costs. If you don’t mind a driver that needs a bit of loving, you can have one shipped here for under the five-figure mark and have something much more special than anything you can already buy here.
1998-1999 Mercedes CLK GTR
Even if you’re not a Mercedes fan, the CLK GTR should get your heart racing. Motorsports were in a bit of a changeover period in the mid-nineties as Group C regulations faded and manufacturers were left to look to the future. What emerged was one of the greatest eras of racing history, if not for its fantastic battles, then for the road cars it produced. At the heart of charge was GT-based racing, and the emergence of the McLaren F1 in the GT1 class sent many manufacturers scrambling to build a car to compete.
Porsche was the first to respond with their GT1, but Mercedes kicked in the door with their CLK GTR, taking back-to-back FIA GT Championship wins in ‘97 and ‘98. However, the entire reason the race car could dominate was predicated on the fact that the FIA required Mercedes to build at least twenty-five road-going models to enter the championship. Seeing the benefit of quickly having another challenger, the FIA allowed Mercedes to begin racing in 1997, but road-going models didn’t enter production until midway through 1998 before ending a year later. That means around half of the coolest Mercedes road cars ever made are about to become road-legal in the US.
So what is the CLK GTR, you ask? It’s a full-on race car for the road.
Starting with a carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb monocoque chassis manufactured by Lola, Mercedes took some inspiration from the standard CLK road car and spread that into their desired aerodynamic shape over the underpinnings. Those exterior panels—specifically, the rear clamshell, front clamshell, and doors—are all made from carbon as well. Underneath the rear bodywork lies the 6.9L Mercedes-AMG M297, an enormous V12 stroked to its final displacement by Ilmor., and a sequential six-speed gearbox. Although it couldn’t match the F1’s peak power figure, the GTR’s 622 hp and 539 lb-ft of torque was astronomical in 1998 and powered the 3175lb coupe to just about 200 mph. With those figures, you’d be right to expect a higher top speed, but you must take into account the entire car. The CLK GTR was specifically to go racing and sports a body-width rear wing and large front splitter, while the F1 was never intended for it, so its body is free of any aides.
As you’d assume, the suspension and brakes are similarly motorsport-inspired. The former is double wishbones at all four corners with dampers actuated by push-rods. In the rear, the suspension mounts directly to the transmission, which is a stressed member of the chassis along with the engine. Behind the bespoke center-lock wheels are carbon composite rotors clamped down by 6-piston calipers. Trust me, I can keep going, but plenty of other resources are out there if you’re looking for a complete history and breakdown.
At the end of the day, the CLK GTR is really only something we can dream of importing. Examples rarely change hands; selling prices are over $8,000,000 when they do. If you’re lucky enough to obtain one, you’re likely not worried about import costs or registration fees. So, with that in mind, do us all a favor and drive it everywhere on any occasion. We’d all be very grateful.
1998-2000 BMW M Coupé
BMW’s short-lived and oddly shaped roadster-turned-coupe was absolutely sold in America with an M badge. However, it wasn’t the same as European-spec examples. There are a few differences between the two variants, but it’s hard to qualify just how much a completely different engine makes to the quirky German.
The emergence of M division after the relative success of the M3 in touring car racing meant their handy work was extended to all sorts of projects. Chiefly among which was the E30’s successor, the E36. Seeing as touring car rules had changed, the new car would sport a straight-six but wouldn’t leave behind the motorsport magic. Gaining on experience from developing the M5’s S38B38, the new engine displaced only 3.0L (eventually growing to 3.2 by 1996) but nearly matched the M5’s peak output thanks to a revolutionary variable cam timing system called VANOS (Double VANOS specifically). Combined with individual throttle bodies, high compression, and aggressive camshafts, it was a rev-happy masterpiece that powered the M3 for a decade in one form or another.
Unfortunately, there was a problem for the world's largest automotive market: the S50 was costly and didn’t achieve American emission standards. BMW could’ve worked to make it US legal, but that would cost more money, and they were already worried that high prices would turn off US buyers. So, they took a non-M engine, swapped out some parts, and delivered something that only matched the Euro equivalent in displacement. Dubbed the S52, its 240 hp and 7000 rpm limit was a far cry from the 7500+ rpm, 320 hp of the S50, but there was nothing buyers could do. Now, however, options are less restricted.
Starting a bit earlier this year, the Euro-spec M Coupé has begun to hit its 25th birthday, allowing US enthusiasts to bring ‘em over and finally experience nearly three decades of waiting. Searching around the web, it’s relatively easy to find examples for sale across Europe in all sorts of colors, specs, and conditions. Unfortunately, like the American-spec cars, prices aren’t low; expect to pay around $50,000 for a quality example you could drive home from port. These days, that’s a significant amount of cash, though potentially worth it. The Z3 M Coupé, known endearingly as the “Clown Shoe,” is a supremely balanced, lightweight, analog sports car with a manual transmission, unmistakable looks, and a rabid following. You could spend your money poorly in many ways, but buying a Euro M Coupé isn’t one of them.
Within the coming years, more and more of the forbidden fruit we've lusted over will be eligible for importation. What's another couple of years of waiting at this point, right? In the meantime, follow along with our DIY Blog for more pieces like this, technical guides, and other great content. You can also head to our YouTube channel, where we regularly post helpful DIYs, build content, and more!
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.