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Nature is healing, and pickup trucks are getting smaller again. The move to smaller trucks is proving to be quite popular with American truck buyers. The impossible wait times for the Ford Maverick are enough to prove the point. But you may have seen another, smaller, stranger pickup truck on the internet, or maybe even around town that you don’t recognize. Kei trucks are cheap, tiny pickup trucks from Japan that are being imported in droves. 

The 2023 Ford Maverick Hybrid on a gravel road
2023 Ford Maveick Hybrid | Ford

What are Kei trucks? 

The “kei” class is a section of the Japanese car market that helps people in Japan save money on not only fuel but also taxes. The Kei car/truck class must adhere to strict size specifications in order to qualify for certain tax breaks in Japan. 

This Honda Acty is also known as a Kei truck. These represent the cheapest pickup trucks you can buy in America.
Honda Acty | Wikimedia Commons

Kei trucks stay under about 11 ft long and typically have less than 75 hp and top out around 60-70 mph, depending on the make and model. Driven by tiny motors, these trucks often come in 4WD configuration. Many companies manufacture them, and the list includes models like the ​​Daihatsu Hijet, Subaru Sambar, Suzuki Carry, Mitsubishi Minicab, and Honda Acty. 

Unlike the trucks we are used to here, Kei trucks, or mini trucks as some call them, are pretty different than the pickup trucks we are familiar with. For one, they are tiny. In fact, they are much closer in size and feel to a UTV or large side-by-side than a typical American truck. Again, these are the cheapest pickup trucks; they stay cheap by staying simple.

What makes Kei trucks so good? 

While some might see their size and small engines as a handicap, the reality is these tiny, stripped-down utility trucks are made perfect in their “weakness.” I once drove a Suzuki Jimny (JDM Samurai but smaller) through Moab on a five-day off-road excursion. The lightness of the mini truck made every obstacle fun and bouncy. Boulders or other troubling trials on the trail that might have been nerve-racking in a bigger truck suddenly became light and approachable. There was a feeling of toyishness to it. I had this almost unconscious notion that if we got stuck, we could just pick it up and set it right again. 

Again, the size of these trucks is their strength. Because they are so small and basic with tiny engines, buying a Kei truck is easily the most affordable option for a pickup truck. Even crazier is the fact that, despite their size, most have a 6 ft bed. This means a truck you could buy for between $5k-$10k has a longer bed than the Ford Maverick or the Santa Cruz for a fraction of the money. 

One of the other fun aspects of the Kei class is that they come in a wide variety of configurations. There are trucks, cars, vans, and three-wheelers. Each of those main varieties has even more sub-categories. Kei trucks or mini trucks can come with lift beds, tray beds, six wheels, safari roofs, a variety of decals, 4×4, 2×4, and so on. The diversity of these strange little trucks is unmatched in the automotive world. 

Are Kei trucks reliable? 

Adding to the appeal, these tiny Japanese engines are famously stout and reliable. Many of these little beasts even come with diesel powerplants. People praise the Kei trucks for their resilient reliability and strength. Even though the Suzuki Carry ( a popular kei truck model) only has a 1.5-liter making 95 hp, it still has a proper low-range 4WD that can pull like you wouldn’t believe. 

How much do Kei trucks cost?

Given the wide variety of configurations, the prices can also vary. However, most Kei trucks will fall between $5k-$10k. Quite a bit less that a Ford Maverick.

While Kei trucks are the cheapest pickup trucks, they don’t make them here. So they have to be imported. However, there is no shortage of Kei trucks that have already been imported and are for sale. Dig around Craiglist or Facebook Marketplace long enough, and you’ll find some. There are also a growing number of dealers who import and sell these trucks by the dozens. Japan Car Direct is one such company. 

There aren’t really any automotive equivalents to the Kei trucks. They are 100% driven by utility. They are unique in this way. As such, the small trucks are getting more popular here. Where else can you get a road-legal 4×4 pickup truck that is strong and reliable for less than $10k these days? I’ll save you the trouble of googling – you can’t.