There are several rugged, dependable 4×4 trucks that we never got in the US. Or, in the case of something like the Toyota Hilux, we got a slightly ‘plushier’ version. Luckily, many of these off-road icons are now old enough to import. While their older designs do mean living with fewer modern features, their simplicity and smaller size are an antithesis to today’s often-enormous pickups. That’s likely why stripped-down small off-road SUVs like the Suzuki Jimny are so popular. But there’s one kind of off-road 4×4 truck that people often overlook: the kei truck, aka the mini truck.
What is a kei truck?
Kei trucks fit into the broader kei car category. These types of vehicles, as Autotrader and Petrolicious explain, were created in Japan following WWII. The Japanese government wanted native automakers to make inexpensive, frugal vehicles to get the country’s people mobile. The term “kei car” comes from the Japanese term kei jidōsha, or “light automobile.”
Whether kei car or kei truck, they were and are built to a stringent set of regulations. According to Jalopnik, the engine can’t be bigger than 660cc (0.67 liters) and can’t make more than 64 hp. However, the engine can be turbocharged, and many are. A kei truck also can’t be longer than 11.2’ long, wider than 4.85’, or taller than 6.5’. Basically, think of a kei truck as a bigger ATV with a pickup bed.
It’s the kei truck’s size that really makes it stand out. A tow truck bed absolutely dwarfs something like the Honda Acty. You could practically carry one in the bed of an F-150. But just like the Suzuki Samurai showed, being small is sometimes a good thing.
Is a kei truck actually a good work truck?
Kei trucks were designed for work. In Japan, they’re used as fire trucks. In the US, these mini trucks area used to help with groundskeeping and farming. Some are converted into mini dump trucks, and quite a few have been used to plow snow. Owners regularly use them to haul motorcycles and mountain bikes.
And Petrolicious reported that one Jeep designer bought a Honda Acty to commute and haul things like furniture, bricks, and Home Depot purchases. The designer has actually run into a police officer who uses a kei truck as a farming truck.
Can it actually go off-road?
Kei trucks were also commonly sold with four-wheel drive. And yes, people do in fact take these tiny pickups off-roading.
True, their small stock wheels do limit ground clearance. But companies like 4Sons Off-Road can lift a mini truck and install off-road tires, or even replace them with tank-like tracks. These trucks’ weight helps them scramble over rocks, and sink less in the snow than a bigger truck might. And their small size makes them more agile, with a tighter turning radius and less risk of getting caught on rocks or trees.
Unfortunately, owning a kei truck does mean dealing with some compromises.
What are the drawbacks?
Kei trucks may be light and small, but that comes at the expense of crash protection. Their engines are mid-mounted, and they don’t come with front or side airbags. Meaning, the crumple zone is essentially the driver’s and passenger’s knees. Kei trucks also only have 2 seats, unless modified like Ai2 Products’ off-road Suzuki.
Kei trucks were meant to be fairly basic and cheap to run. Their engines are roughly as fuel-efficient as a motorcycle’s, but they’re not powerful. Top speed is maybe 60 mph—fine for city-driving, not really useful on the highway. Which is fine in Japan, where they usually stick to cities, but it’s not really ideal in wide-spread American cities.
The mini truck’s simplicity also extended inside. Some very basic ones didn’t come with a tachometer; shift points were determined either by ear or by points marked on the speedometer. The windows are manual, and some didn’t even offer FM radio. It’s also rare to find one with A/C.
However, all that being said, there are people who off-road in similarly-equipped Jeeps. And kei trucks are allegedly very reliable, especially for 25-year and older trucks.
How much does a kei truck cost?
If you are interested in a kei truck, there are a number of importers and modifiers in the US that deal with these trucks. And because these trucks have been finding an audience here, there are even parts suppliers to make maintenance easier.
Prices vary, especially because it is technically legal to bring over a brand-new mini truck for off-road use, according to importer Bokei USA. But if you want to import and legally register one for the street, most cost between $5000 and $10,000.
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