Simple. Cheap. Capable. Reliable.
A simple, traditional, (ladder-frame) truck body. Low running costs (good on gas and inexpensive parts). Good load capacity and off road ability (you’ll be amazed what it can carry and where it can go). Reliability (just goes and goes and needs little care or attention). That’s the Japanese Kei Truck (or Kei Van, for that matter).
O.K. So, simple, cheap, capable, and reliable are the key notes of what you’ll get when you import a minitruck direct from Japan. That’s what we all think of when we think “Minitruck.”
But there’s more. There’s more to the kei truck than just a solid little buddy you can take hunting, that you can use around the farm, and that you can use for your contracting business, be it anything from electrician, to general contractor, from curb cutter to appliance repair; especially if your jobs are in the city, where parking and maneuvering space are at a premium and you’d rather not have a full-sized pickup truck.
A mini truck like a Daihatsu Hi-Jet, the ever-popular Suzuki Carry and its mechanical twin, the Mazda Scrum, or (my personal favorite) the Subaru Sambar can also be adapted or modified to carry a variety of special equipment and special options that make it super useful and practical for a wide variety of specific duties and jobs. (We’ve got a quick survey of the most common models of kei trucks on our main site here.
And there is a convenient spec comparison table here.)
The Super Capable Scissors Lift
Now, for example, say you’ve got a contract on a small home renovation job downtown. Space is tight. You need to get up higher on the outside walls for whatever: some tuck pointing, trim painting, re-routing external lines, whatever it is. You don’t need (or want the expense of) a full-on scaffold around the entire property. You don’t want to be standing up on a ladder having Buddy hand up what you need and hold the ladder so you don’t go all tipsy. (And, of course, while Buddy is keeping your ladder from falling over and you with it all the way to the local hospital with a broken shoulder, he, Buddy, is not doing other, paying jobs on the site.) So, solve the situation with a kei truck scissors lift.
Totally excellent and practical. The whole bed rises up, you’ve got your tools easy to hand on the bed floor, and you’re not stuck in one awkward position with one hand always on the ladder and both shoulders and lower back aching after ten minutes of re-wiring or tuck pointing. The kei truck scissors lift does not take up any of your truck bed load space since the whole mechanism of the lift is actually under the bed itself. Nice.
Many uses for a scissors lift kei truck come to mind beyond contracting. How about tree trimming? Clearing clogged eves? And, check this out: A hunting blind:
I haven’t been able to find out who made this, but he’s right on!
And, sticking with the truck bed for the moment, there are many kei trucks that you can import from Japan that have a simple rear-dumping bed.
Sand for mixing concrete on site, gravel for laying down drives or for landscaping, top soil for gardening; don’t sweat it, just dump it with a kei dump. And, again, and especially for the landscaping guys, that narrow kei truck from Japan can wiggle in between the flower beds and garden statues and get right up to Old Mrs Higgens rose bed and you can dump as much manure there as you see fit to keep her prize David Austins blooming all season. Way better than hauling that stuff in bags or in the wheelbarrow. Nice.
And, still sticking with the truck bed, keep in mind that a kei truck load bed can be opened on three sides: rear, left, or right. So even with a non-dump kei truck, you can shovel anything out, left, right, or rear. Aaaaaand: there are kei truck dump beds that are designed to dump the load not only to the rear, but also to left or right if that’s what you need. I do have to admit that these little treasures are rare, however, but they are still: Nice.
Of course, if you can unload a minitruck from the left, from the right, or from the rear, you can certainly load a minitruck from the left, right, or rear. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear you guys saying: “No sh*t, Sherlock.” But, anyway, there you are. Kei trucks are super easy to load and unload.)
Four Wheel Drive
In addition to being able to easily load or unload pretty well anything on a kei truck you can also take that load pretty well anywhere. Many of the Japanese kei trucks available for export from the used car auctions in Japan, or from the second hand car dealers that we work with here, come with 4WD. And they are no slouches off road. I’m a Jimny guy myself, but I’ve got nothing but respect for the off-road capability of kei trucks. I’ve used them in muck and crap and rough stuff in the forest here and on my father-in-law’s farm (which he has, thankfully, retired from now) and they always get though. Sure, I’d recommend the Jimny for the real hard core off roading, due to its larger wheels and higher ground clearance, but you can trust your kei truck for most other work off road.
To give you a quick sense of how a mini truck will do off road, here is a video of a couple of guys goofing around off road in a kei truck with mudders on it.
With the older 4WD kei trucks that are now available for import into the USA, most, like the Daihatsu Hi-Jet, and the Suzuki Carry, give you a full low range and a full high range when you are in 4WD. And selection is by a lever between the seats.
With the Subaru Sambar, it’s a bit different. When you engage 4WD, you don’t get a separate full range in 4WD-low and 4WD-high. You have your basic five speeds forward but also a low-low 4wd first gear. I found this to be a very excellent system. I wrote a bit about it elsewhere on our blog here.
So, basically, these are your two types of 4WD systems on a kei truck: A transfer case that gives only 4WD in your usual 2WD gear range, but has an extra low first gear (Sambar), or a transfer case that gives 4WD in High Range and in Low Range (Suzuki, Daihatsu).
Unless You Are Honda
But Honda, with their “Real Time 4WD” Acty, are different. Hey, it’s Honda. They’re always different. The Honda system drives the real wheels and then, when it senses wheel slip, it sends some power to the front wheels and “shazam!” you are in 4WD. Some All Wheel Drive road cars do this. Some guys like it. Me? Well, I’ve made my comments about it here on our blog in an earlier post.
Another minitruck option that relates to four-wheel-drive is the locking (rear) differential. This is a kei truck option that I once wished I’d had on my Jimny. What happened was, I got caught up on a narrow logging trail and had two wheels in the air kitty corner and just spinning. Partly it was my own fault as I’d been a bit too hesitant and slow on that trail, but it was raining and the trail was the under-topsoil clay bed, so it was slippery stuff (hillside cedar forest). In the end we dug a bit and jammed logs under the wheels and got out. But if I’d had diff lock, I could have just pushed the button
and not even needed to step out into the rain.
The low ranges on minitrucks are like on Jimnys: real low. I’ve got a lot of praise for the ratios on the Carry truck and I’ve sung their praises in an earlier article you’ll find here.
So off road in a 4WD Japanese minitruck, you’re sitting pretty, pretty well anywhere.
(Note on Axle Lock: If you are confused about the axle lock option on Suzuki minitrucks, just have a look at Timetripper’s explanation here at Minitrucktalk. He explains it all very well. And Minitrucktalk is a total “go to” site for anyone looking to know more about minitrucks. You can spend hours on their site learning about these machines and sharing the experiences of the other members of their forum.)
For now, let’s wrap up the first part of this survey of Japanese Minitruck Options. In our next post on this topic we’ll look at the transmission options that are available to you when you do a self import direct from Japan. We’ll also look at a real nice body. A really beautiful idea.