For guys who are thinking of buying a Japanese kei truck, or kei van, one of the first questions that comes up is: “What is the best kei truck / van?”
This is not an easy question to answer. One guy will just say: “Suzuki is the best. End of story.” The next guy will say: “Daihatsu Hi-Jet all the way!” And then a third fellow will give his opinion; “Subaru Sambar with the supercharger RULES!!”
Hmmmm. The fact is that pretty well every Kei truck is basically a good vehicle. Some will have features that you prefer to have (or, maybe, features that you would prefer to be without), others will have features that you simply must have (like a dump body, for example).
In an ideal world you could test drive every single kei truck and you could then narrow down which ones are best for you. But this is not an ideal world. (Oh, no! I’m beginning to sound like my father. When I was a kid and came to him with my silly ideas and dreams, I would hate it when he said that. “This is not an ideal world, son.” I would hate it so much that I would, mentally, block my ears to what he would say after: “So you’ve got to find some workable work around. It’s got to be workably workable.” And he would smile. He liked to play with words. I would grind my teeth and go off in a huff. I did that for years.)
So when it comes to the problem of choosing the best kei truck to export directly from Japan, test driving as many kei trucks as you can is great, of course, but hearing and reading the opinions of other guys who have owned, or who have driven, various kei trucks (and kei vans) is definitely a wise move too.
Of course, I haven’t driven or owned all of them, just some of them, so what I’m writing for you here about kei trucks and kei vans is just my take on these machines as I have dealt with them and driven them.
Kei Trucks Have Generations
The first thing that comes to my mind about kei trucks and kei vans is how good they all are. The whole concept of the Japanese Mini Truck (and Japanese Mini Van) is an excellent one and it has clearly stood the test of time. Almost all of these vehicles have gone through a number of generations by now (2019).
Take my favorite Subaru Sambar. It came out way back in 1961. All the first Sambars had a 360cc, two stroke engine. And you got only two cylinders. They were not the fastest things in the world, but, gosh, they were cute.
And, once in a while, you might get extra lucky and it would come with a cute girl, as in this old publicity photo.
Later the Sambar got a bigger, 550cc, engine, this time a four stroke unit but still an inline twin.
I’ve driven these fourth generation 550cc Sambar kei trucks and, although they are older now, they are good little mini trucks. Don’t be put off by thinking: “It’s only 550cc. It’s only two cylinders.” The fact is that these little old guys grunt, and their 4WD with “Extra Low” will pull you out of pretty well anything. (I’ll talk more about this feature later when I review a newer, fifth gen, Sambar.)
With the fifth generation
and sixth generation
we are into thoroughly modern kei trucks with 660cc, four cylinder engines. And with a very effective super charger, if you want it.
The seventh and eighth generation Sambars are actually Daihastu Hi-Jet trucks. Tenth generation Hi-Jet in the case of the present Sambars. So you’ll see what I’m saying: these kei trucks have gone thought multiple generations: ten, and counting, in the case of the Daihastsu Hi-Jet. Looks like a pretty successful concept to me.
We have an overview of the generational differences that you’ll find with Japanese mini trucks on our main website here.
Kei Trucks I Have Driven
So let’s have a look at some of the kei trucks I have driven: A 2000 Suzuki Carry, a 1996 Daihatsu hi-Jet, a second generation Honda Acty, a third generation Acty, a 1987 Subaru Sambar, a 1994 Subaru Sambar, my own, and very loved, 1996 Subaru Sambar Diaz Van, and others.
You can import vehicles like these now from Japan to the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia (in the case of the 1987 550cc Sambar), and the European Union. We are always sourcing good units at good prices from the Japanese used car auctions and from the Japanese used car dealers that we work with here. Finding a good, clean 4WD kei truck in Japan is not a problem, and deciding which one you want is the fun part. I hope that what I have to say about the kei trucks that I have driven gives you something at least to get your teeth into as you start to look seriously at importing a kei truck yourself direct from Japan.
My First Japanese Kei Truck Experience
My first experience with a kei truck in Japan came about because my father-in-law here retired.
Now, you’ll ask me: “What’s the relationship between mini trucks and retiring in Japan?”
Well it goes like this: In our part of Japan, in the countryside of Shizuoka Prefecture (and, I’m willing to bet, in the rest of the Japanese countryside), when a fellow retires he immediately buys a kei truck. If he does not have a kei truck, he’s not fully retired and the other fellows feel sorry for him. And he feels sorry for himself: “I’m Japanese. I live in the countryside. I’m retired. I don’t have a kei truck. WOE TO ME!”
So you basically do it like this: shake hands with the boss on your last day, accept a small good-bye bonus, go straight to a kei truck dealer, give him the bonus money (that’s why the boss gave it to you in the first place, he doesn’t want you to feel unfulfilled after putting in forty years at the company) and drive out with your new white mini truck.
(Of course, some guys are smart and buy a good used kei truck and save a pot of money and still get a good vehicle. I advocate this as the better deal; and that’s why I sell used kei trucks. Simple.)
So Dad picks up this kei truck, a Honda Acty, a second generation model with the 660cc E07A engine.
Now Dad can join the “Kei Truck Troops.” These guys will descend in a squad onto a field, forest lot, or onto a roadside verge and start trimming the weeds, cutting the braches, and generally maintaining a piece of land that is associated with their countryside district or region. Every member has a gas-powered weed trimmer, a selection of saws for trimming branches, and shovel, and……..a white kei truck. This is how the men in my area retire. They are very active retirees. A Japanese kei truck is for the active man, retired or not: hunter, farmer, tradesman, and more.
The Honda Acty
(I Drive My First Kei Truck and Get Told Off)
So I finally got to drive a Japanese kei truck. My father-in-law sent me to pick something up in town, I don’t remember what. But I remember how that little Honda engine just revved right up the moment I barely touched the accelerator pedal: VROOM!
The Honda E07A in line three cylinder is a happy and balanced little unit and it just loves to rev. And it revved for me. And then: “What the heck you doing?!?” shouts the father-in-law. “No need to rev the crap out of it! Incompetent ! I just got it. You’re lucky I let you even touch my kei truck.” And so on.
But, in truth, I was surprised at the response of the Acty’s engine: very sprightly little unit. But, hey, it’s a Honda. You talk Honda, you talk revs.
Now, my father-in-law, mechanically, he’s a doofus. He neglected his Honda Actys (he later bought a 1999 Acty with the extended frontal impact protection).
He rarely changed the oil, he never warmed them up before driving off (and HE always over-revved!), he shifted harshly, and he backed into an Estima van in the drugstore parking lot.
Those Acty trucks were utterly reliable. They never broke down. And they got great gas mileage.
I guess that, if I had to come up with a complaint about the Acty trucks I’ve driven, I would say that the interior feel of the third gen Acty was a bit cramped for me in that some of the interior plastic panels and such felt a bit too close and “in my face.” And, once or twice, taking a too sharp, too quick corner on a gravel back road, I noted a bit more of a tendency to oversteer than on other kei trucks that I have driven.
And, as far as Honda’s “Real Time 4WD” system goes, this is really a matter of preference. The Honda system is always “on” with power usually going to the rear wheels and only (and smoothly) going into 4WD when the rear wheels start to lose traction. I prefer making the choice of going into 4WD myself, but if you want your kei truck to do that for you, then the Honda Acty is the mini truck that offers that function.
In my next post we’ll look at the Suzuki Carry and the Subaru Sambar. Both real kei truck winners.