What is the Best Kei Truck to Export from Japan? (Part 4)
In this fourth article in our series on what is the best Kei Truck / Kei Van to export from Japan, I’d like to look now at the whole Kei Van thing. But first, I’d like to throw in my two cents worth on one of the most popular of all Mini Trucks: The Daihatsu Hi-Jet.
The Hi-Jet has had one of the longest production runs of any Japanese kei truck, having first come out as a light truck in 1960, and it is a favorite to export from Japan to the USA and to Canada. The guys that have them really like them and, although I have not driven a Hi-Jet off-road, I am always impressed right away by the feeling of quality when I drive a Hi-Jet; component quality and general build quality. Every test drive I’ve done around town in a Hi-Jet mini truck has been a pleasure.
The powerful little engine has good grunt, and the engine note is nice, too: warm and with good, responsive revving. I especially like the Hi-Jet transmission: it is generally smooth and firm with no watery feeling in the shift linkage. Naturally, each used kei truck will be different, one that has been very heavily used off road and poorly shifted by its previous owner may have a transmission that is prematurely worn and feels sloppy. But I myself have never driven a used Hi-Jet that was like that. Of course, this is a truck, not a sports car, and the clutch is firm and the Hi-Jet wants you to step in fully on the clutch when you make your gear changes; quick, snappy, half clutch gear changes are not what trucks like to do, and the Hi-Jet is no exception. These transmissions are built for strength, not sports. I certainly do like the trans on the Hi-Jet, and I also found the steering on the non-power-steering units that I have driven to be responsive and not too heavy, and the overall ride is nice and quiet (for a mini truck, that is).
Overall I guess I’d say that the Hi-Jet is just a bit more “poshy” than most of the other kei trucks I have driven. So, as a good bet to export directly from Japan when you are looking to buy a kei truck yourself, the Daihatsu Hi-Jet gets the thumbs up from me.
What About the Mini Vans?
The Japanese mini van is a great concept: Practical and economic, these small but highly capable vehicles are so useful. You can get in and out of very tight spots, as I have done many a time, and you can carry quite a load. If you’ve got the 4WD package, you can do pretty nearly the same off-roading that you can do in a 4WD Japanese kei truck. (Except that the kei van has more weight up top due to the very nature of the van body so, when you’re off-road on a serious incline to left or right, the kei van will tip over before the kei truck does. But more on this issue later.)
For many years I had a 2WD 1996 Subaru Sambar with the supercharged EN07 engine (the “Clover 4”) and the Sun-Sun Roof (like what you see on this Domingo, the 1.2 liter brother of the Sambar).
That was a brilliant vehicle. The little supercharged 660cc straight four had excellent low-end grunt from a standing start. It was geared very low in first, a 25.219:1 ratio, and I could haul pretty well anything in it. It never lacked power or get up and go. The wheel base was a very short 1,885mm (6.2ft.) giving me a tight turning circle of only 3.9 meters (12.8 ft.), and with the whole thing being only 1,395mm (4.6 ft.) wide, I could get my Sambar van into, and, more importantly, out of, amazingly tight spots.
I remember once in Kamakura, where we went to see the Great Buddha,
the traffic was all blocked up and I thought that I would just try one of the small side streets to see if I could get around the jam. Bad idea. That narrow little Japanese street narrowed further, and then narrowed again. I sweat. We ended up in a conglomeration of little back lots, each no bigger than a matchbox it seemed to me at the time. But the diminutive size, the tight turning circle, and the great view from the big front picture window coupled with the forward control seating position, meant that my Sambar could wiggle us back out of that cul-de-sac which would have trapped any larger or wider-turning vehicle forever.
The low-waisted rear windows on that model of Sambar (the V-KV series)
meant that I could see behind us very well and could go back just as far as necessary and not scrape the back wall of Mr Yamamoto’s house.
Now this thing about windows raises an important issue with regards to newer vs older Japanese kei vans: outward visibility.
Just the other day I borrowed my friend’s 2012 model year Suzuki Every van (DA64W chassis),
and I thought, since I’m in the middle of writing this series of blog posts about exporting kei vans and kei trucks from Japan, I’d make a special note of my impressions of the newer kei van vs my older Sambar van.
The first thing that I noted was how easy it is to climb up into the Suzuki Every. There’s a nice little step placed low and easy for your foot.
Next I noticed the many convenient things like the big overhead storage bins and various other pockets and holders and convenient details that the Suzuki has in proliferation and which my Sambar did not have to the same degree.
The Every is just much more modern. And it’s just a bit bigger, too. After October of 1998 all kei vehicles got bigger (see our spec chart here).
It’s built solid and there’s good power from the turbo-charged engine so that climbing up Mount Fuji to get up to where we live here is no strain for the Suzuki Every. My friend takes her mini van on the highway, too, and tells me that she never lacks power for whatever maneuver is needed.
Downsides? Well, the new Every van, like all newer-model Japanese mini vans, has some problems that are shared with the older units, and some that are unique to the newer vehicles.
All Japanese kei vans (all vans, really) have certain problems that are inherent in their design, namely: 1) they are tippy in sharp cornering at speed, and 2) they are very exposed, sometimes frighteningly exposed, to crosswinds on the highway.
I remember one time crossing the Fuji River bridge on the Tomei Expressway on a windy day in my Sambar. I had to slow down to 70km/h to avoid being blown off the bridge. The big highway truck behind me, which suddenly assumed monstrous proportions in my mind, was not pleased. And I was not pleased that he was not pleased and was right on my ass and breathing down my neck.
I thought that this exposure to cross winds was worse on my Sambar with its rear-mounted engine and thus light front end, but no, the front-engined Suzuki Every feels about the same. In the end they are both light, tall metal boxes.
And related to this problem was a feeling of tippiness in quick cornering. Now here my Sambar was worse than the Every because the Sun-Sun Roof added a fair amount of weight right up top. But, as I say, these are problems inherent to the design of vans generally and so you just learn to take it easy on corners and to pay attention to any wind warnings if you are planning a highway run.
Another downside of the newer Suzuki, and of pretty well all newer Japanese minivans, is the high waist line: the rear and side windows are not very big top to bottom due to body design guidelines for the incorporation of improved rollover safety. On the earlier Sambar vans the windows are deeper and you can see much better when backing up; especially when you have to back and turn. (Compare the side views of the two vans in the photos above.) In the new Every, I am less confident backing because I just can’t see out and down to the rear as well as I can in the older Sambar.
This is an important, practical reason why it may sometimes be better to buy an older used car than a newer model. (Now this is not just the used car salesman in me talking, guys. You know it.) If the import rules for your country (America, Canada, the UK, Australia, or Europe) say that you can only import older used mini vans from Japan, don’t sweat it. Some of those older models have distinct advantages over many of the newer, more regulated, designs. (This is one of my favorite topics to gripe about, the negative influence of many government regulations on car designs; but I won’t start on it now, much as I would like to rant and rave.)
Yep, the old Sambar mini vans and other Japanese mini vans (pre October 1998) have a number of good points, and I’ll give you one more for the Sambar. With the Suzuki Everys and with the old Mitsubishi Minicab van that I have driven (U19V, that was a sweet and cute little kei van),
the engine is up front under the floor between the seats. This layout gives definitely more engine noise and vibration than I found in my Sambar, which has the engine way back at the rear, behind the rear axle.
And that engine, that little supercharged straight four…What a fun little unit.
Gobs of torque and a very sporty, throaty sound. I loved it. The only drawback of it is one that is generally shared with small supercharged engines vs turbocharged units: it seems a bit “breathy” at high rpm and pull and power drop off sooner than with a turboed engine.
But no worries because, as we noted, these Japanese mini vans are high, boxy work trucks, you’re not buying one for hot dogging around town. A Japanese kei van is a workmate, a tiny but highly capable load hauler, and a good, reliable little friend. They are to be used within their natural design limitations. And for use within those limitations, I strongly recommend the older Japanese mini vans.
And, looking at the prices and conditions of kei vans available in Japan today, I think that right now (late 2019) we are in a bit of a sweet spot if you’re looking to import an early to mid-90s unit from Japan yourself. Good, clean units are going for reasonable prices these days.
I can't recommend JCD enough. Mathew was a fantastic person to work with. As a newbie to the Japanese auctions, I was quite naïve and had far too many questions. Mathew was kind, knowledgeable, and patient through the entire process. My Minicab arrived last week and I am quite pleased. I would not hesitate to work with Japan Car Direct again in the future. Thank you Mathew!! Jay A.
I purchased a suzuki carry from here.. They made the whole process so easy..fantastic communication,and I got what I wanted.. highly recommend using this company for your next purchase. 5 stars
IF YOU ARE OVERLY CAUTIOUS READ THIS I am over the top and I am aware of it. Matthew probably should get an award for dealing with me. I dig into everything and am used to fighting for fairness at auto auctions here in the USA - we own a small dealership. Early into my fist purchase (of many) Matthew earned my trust. He’s a rare breed: a true professional and exceptional at what he does. The world NEEDS more like him in every industry. Matthew is one of our most valued partners now, as we strive to bring JDM to Rochester and the Great Lakes. I’m a tough case, I openly admit, but he worked through my caution and I’m now very happy to purchase through him. Call me if you want, I’ll recommend Matthew to anyone. Drew
IF YOU ARE OVERLY CAUTIOUS READ THIS I am over the top and I am aware of it. Matthew probably should get an award for dealing with me. I dig into everything and am used to fighting not to get taken at local auctions (I own a dealership and believe strongly in integrity). Early into my fist purchase (of many) Matthew earned my trust. He’s a rare breed: a true professional and exceptional at what he does. The world NEEDS more like him in every industry. Matthew is one of our most valued partners now, as we strive to bring JDM to Rochester and the Great Lakes. I’m a tough case, I openly admit. Find me and call me if you want, I’ll recommend Matthew to anyone. Drew
I always wanted a Land Cruiser ! Mathew helped me find 2 beautiful trucks from the Japanese auction. Had them delivered to Freeport, TX last week. He was amazing to work with. Fast response time on bids, super easy to work with, he has a lot of experience and answered all questions promptly. Will be working with JCD more in the future to purchase more vehicles !
Very pleased with my experience with JCD. Mat helped me with my purchase of a Honda Beat and its shipping to the port of Baltimore. Everything was seamless and I would (and already have) recommended this company to several friends.
Thanks to JapanCarDirect for the opportunity, Yoshi took well care of my requests with a incomparable patience and fast follow up. Will definitely pass the word around !!! 👌🇨🇦🇯🇵
Fantastic service, helped me through the process of importing my JZX100 to the UK, Everything was clear and fees were low, worth every penny though, fantastic and couldn't have asked for more!
I just picked up my dream campervan from port and have to say that Japan car direct was with me the entire way. I felt so supported all my questions were answered and I could not imagine doing something like this without them. I highly recommend the whole team, trust them and would encourage anyone to use there services.
Mathew and all stuff JCD are best. I ordered 4 cars to UA. Support was 24H. The team did its best to solve my problems. They are really good. Now I can recommend them. Unique condition of the car. P.S. sorry but the photo was taken immediately upon arrival. Thank you again!
I just wanna thank Matthew and the whole team at Japan Car Direct, they always went above and beyond in making sure their clients are always happy and informed about the vehicles they are purchasing. I am still in the buying process but so far 5/5 definitely. I’ll keep everyone posted when I do find a car!
Do yourself a favor, call Mathew at Japan Car Direct. Let him take the worry about doing business over seas off your plate. Not knowing anything about importing vehicles from Japan, I spent countless hours studying and trying to figure it all out. The headaches were too much! After Mathew walked me through the process it was a piece of cake. We've already bought a couple and are now buying more with complete confidence. Thanks guys, much much appreciated.
Can not recommend these guys enough. I dealt with Matt, who was extremely helpful and patient with all of my stupid questions. The way they have the whole process is so convenient, especially with the live video translations of the auction sheets. I will absolutely be returning to them in the future.
Trustworthy group here! They made it easy from point a to b. So glad this was the first group I tried as I have heard horror stories about the import process. Highly recommended.
Yoshi and team were patient in helping me find the right car (green 2016 Prius 4WD) and get me through the process. Flawless service, prompt response to communications, on delivery the car was better than expected, very close to new looking. Their recommended partners for shipping and entry into NZ were on the ball too. Highly recommended! Pro tip: don't mess around; decide exactly what you want, then bid to win.