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What Is a Kei Truck?

A Subaru Sambar Kei Truck.

Through the years, we’ve seen a collection of small vehicles come and go, including the earliest compact trucks from Japan and a handful of ultra-small cars, such as the Smart ForTwo and the Scion iQ. None of these models are available new in the U.S. today, but that doesn’t mean demand for tiny vehicles isn’t there.

Regulations limit the import of some vehicles, including the tiny Kei truck, a class of vehicle that has been popular in Japan for decades now. Built to satisfy Japan’s “light vehicle” statutory class, the Kei is as rare as a unicorn in the U.S., but they can occasionally be found. So what are these curious little trucks all about?

Mini Truck Specifics

A Kei truck (pronounced kay), also known as a mini truck, is a compact, right-hand-drive vehicle with standard rear-wheel drive and available four-wheel drive. The first models rolled out in Japan in 1949 and borrowed design elements from the three-wheeled motorcycle-based trucks of that era. Since then, Japanese regulators have allowed slightly larger versions to come to the market, but for classification purposes, no Kei can measure more than 134 inches long, 58 inches wide and 79 inches tall. suzuki carry

The largest engine size allowed is 660 cubic centimeters, which is about half the size of the smallest car engines currently available in the U.S. A Kei’s three-cylinder engines usually come paired with a 4-speed or 5-speed manual transmission, though newer ones may have an automatic. Typically, Kei trucks weigh no more than 1,800 pounds and have a payload capacity of 400 to 1,400 pounds.

EPA Import Regulations

Although new Kei trucks are not available for sale in the U.S., importing used ones from Japan is possible within certain regulatory guidelines. These vehicles can be found in trade magazines or through various online sites. Models such as the Suzuki Carry, the Honda Acty, the Subaru Sambar, the Mazda Scrum and the Daihatsu Hijet are among the mini trucks available.

Mini truck import guidelines are dictated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Before a mini truck can be imported, it must meet applicable EPA nonroad engine emission standards. It also has to be “properly and permanently” modified to a maximum governed speed of 25 mph (ungoverned, they can move as fast as 75 mph). In some cases, a certificate of conformity must be included as well, and all mini trucks must comply with the federal Clean Air Act (CAA). If the U.S. Customs discovers an imported truck doesn’t meet the requirements, the owner may be fined and the vehicle may be exported.

State Oversight

Once a mini truck is imported, the rules that govern it are left to the U.S., so you would need to work with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or a similar agency to ensure that any vehicle you choose is in compliance with local laws.

In some states, Kei trucks are restricted to off-road use, such as on farms, business campuses and residential properties. However, some states allow mini trucks to operate on public roads and reach speeds well above the EPA’s 25 mph limit, which requires that any speed governors be altered or removed. Though Kei trucks are street legal in Japan, they often lack basic safety components and other equipment necessary for road use in the U.S., including seat belts, an approved horn and lighting, and safety glass. Again, follow your state’s requirements to ensure compliance.

Final Kei Considerations

Kei trucks usually have 6-foot beds with fold-down sides for increased capacity, and you can use ratchet tie-downs to hold cargo in place, adding further versatility. Built purely for utility, most mini trucks are two-seaters with spartan interiors. Costlier models may come with extras like air conditioning, but make no mistake, these no-nonsense vehicles are about one thing: getting the job done as efficiently as possible.

If you’re in the market to import something quirky, look no further than this longtime JDM favorite.

Check out all the tools & equipment available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on trucks, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Matthew C. Keegan View All

Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.

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