Guys who are importing used Japanese Kei vehicles to the UK now (time of writing: early 2021) are winning big time. They are taking advantage of the opportunity to buy compact, “super mini” class cars that are very economical, very capable, and are tremendous fun. If you import a Kei to the UK this year, you are definitely “ahead of the curve”.
Ever since we moved back to Japan from the UK nearly twenty years ago, we’ve always had at least one Kei car. Sometimes both of our cars have been Keis. Because of where we live, we are a two-car family. Because I am a car nut, I’d like to be an eighteen-car family. Because I only have two small parking spaces, one of my cars must be a pre-98 Japanese Kei with its exterior dimensions of: length at 3,295mm max, width at 1,395mm max, and height at 2,000mm max; 130 X 60 X 79 in inches. (You’ll find detailed spec tables for Kei sports cars here, for Kei trucks here, and for Kei vans here on our site.) Yeah, I know, a Fiat 126 would fit its cute little self anywhere a pre-98 Kei car will fit, but almost all of those little classics available here in Japan are continental side drive (LHD) and in Japan we drive on the British side (RHD). In addition, although I’ve loved the small Fiats I’ve had (Uno and first generation Panda), they were never as reliable, or as fuel efficient, as equivalent Japanese cars, nor were they as cheap to run as the Japanese Kei cars I’ve had over the years. I hate to say it, but there is some truth in FIAT: Fix It Again, Tony.
When we came back to Japan we were desperate to quickly get our hands on something small and cheap that would carry four passengers and a good amount of luggage.
We picked up a little Daihatsu Mira.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Mira was a classic in the world of Kei hatchbacks because it did all the things that Japanese Kei cars are rightly famous for: it was indeed cheap to buy and run; parts were cheap, too, although it rarely needed any maintenance. And for such a small car, it had great interior space. We got the four adult seats we wanted and good luggage space. Very good luggage space with the rear seats folded down! I was amazed, actually.
The car had only one drawback, a drawback that was common on the Keis of the late 1980s, early 1990s: Not a lot of power from the normally aspirated (N/A) engines offered in the base models. Those little 550cc and 660cc basic engines were very simple, low compression units, with two valves per cylinder. They’d put out something like 40, maybe 45 ps max power (say 39 to 44 hp) and five and a half kg/m of torque. They lasted for ever, though, and with their compression ratios in the mid nines, they burned any type of crap petrol and never complained. But if you mated up one of those engines to a three speed autobox, like we had in our little guy, well….power was something we wanted more of when we had to climb up Mount Fuji with a full load on. (No surprise when you consider that an automatic transmission can suck up around 13% of your available engine power.) Around town, however, there was no noticeable shortage of power. (Now my little Mira was the bog standard base model and I’m happy to say that higher grade N/A Keis have much more power.)
That simple little used Japanese Kei car served us well, and it taught me some of the key points about Kei cars overall: 1) inexpensive to buy and run, 2) highly capable, 3) small on the outside but big on the inside.
Very soon after we had settled in in Japan, we realized that we needed a proper 4WD car. We had moved into an apartment on Mount Fuji where the winter snow can be very serious. Steep roads and deep snow took me to my next Kei car, A Suzuki Jimny, JA11.
A fantastic off road car he was! Fantastic! And decent on the road, too. Power issues? Nope. But I can hear you guys saying: “Hold on now, Dave, you just told us your earlier Daihatsu Mira was underpowered for hill climbing. Now a full-on four wheel drive has got to be heavier than a little hatchback.” Indeed it was. The Mira weighed only about 600kgs, while my Jimny weighed 870. But Suzuki solved that problem for me with this:
The Jimny JA11 had a turbocharged and intercooled engine and I never felt that power was lacking, neither on road or off. (And that turbo was only running mild boost.) I was so taken by my first Jimny that I bought two other used Jimnys over the following years. On our Japan Car Direct blog I’ve written about Jimnys, and also about my own great Jimnys, here, here, and here, and we now have a full Jimny page on our website here.
That’s where we detail all the main types of used Jimnys and their specs (except the new JB64 models) and tell you a bit about what we think are the best used Suzuki Jimnys for you to import from Japan these days.
All of my Jimnys hit those key notes of the Kei car: They were very capable cars cost me little to run. And even when I screwed up the turbo by failing to replace the thermostat on my JA11 – entirely my fault – the replacement turbo came at a very reasonable cost. Like I said above, Kei car parts themselves are usually on the cheap side.
My Jimny also taught me another key point about Japanese Kei cars: Many of them are stonking great fun! Off roading in my Jimnys was a hoot. I feel that they were even better than the stripped down Jeeps we played with back in Canada. (Any full on 4WD that weighs less than 1,000kgs has got to be fun.)
Since the time of my little base model Daihatsu Mira, the normally aspirated (non-turbo, non-supercharger) Japanese Kei engines have gotten much more powerful due to multi vales heads and higher compression ratios (almost all still burn regular petrol, however, yeah!). Horse power outputs in the mid to upper 50s became normal with correspondingly higher max torque outputs. My present Kei is non-turbo and I’m perfectly content with the power it has on tap.
Now, take one of these great little Kei hatchbacks, weighing only around 700kgs and having the nice, natural rigidity that is generally easy to achieve with the hatchback body type; stiffen the suspension, put wider tyres on it, give it dual overhead cam and four (or even five!) valves per cylinder, give it a higher blowing turbo and a bigger intercooler and you get something like what I had:
And you’ll get the fun that I had, too. My Kei sports car, a Mitsubishi Minica Dangan ZZ Turbo was perhaps the most fun car I’ve even owned. As light as a first series Lotus Elise (690kg) and with no power assist in the steering, the word “chuckable” fits that car to a T.
One of the best options if you want to import a used Japanese car to the UK has got to be pretty well any of the forced induction Kei hatchbacks. Most, like the Suzuki Alto Works and the Mira Gino or Mira TR-XX are turbo-charged, while the (very excellent!!!) Subaru Vivio RX-R is supercharged. I am so crazy about these cars and have had so much fun in them (whether my cars or my petrol head friends’ machines) that I have written extensively about them on our Japan Car Direct blog, and you’ll find those stories here, here, here, and here.
But just looking at having one of these Sports Keis in the UK, I’ve got to say it is a perfect fit for British roads. Britain is one of the main homes of the pure sports car and pure sports motoring (in fact, to my mind, “the” main home). Like Britain, Japan has the twisties and the tight spots, and so Japan, too, is prime territory for the development of pure sports cars (MX5 anyone?). I wish I’d had a car like a Kei sports car when I was in the UK, bombing around the back roads in Wales, especially, or just enjoying cruising at the nice high (and legal) speed limit of 70mph (112kph) that we had on our motorways there. And, unlike a roadster, a Kei sports hatchback carries a lot of luggage and four people, too! Ever so practical fun.
Now with all these delightful sports Keis and reliable little hatchbacks, are Japanese Kei vehicles all play and no work? Great for the family but no use on the farm? Far from it! Actually, the main volume of Kei cars that we at Japan Car Direct are shipping overseas, whether to the UK or to our other popular destinations, are actually work vehicles: Kei trucks and Kei vans, especially the trucks, often called “minitrucks.” Vehicles like the Subaru Sambar, the Suzuki Carry, or the Daihasu Hi-Jet. (You’ll find our reviews of the best Kei trucks to import from Japan here, here, here, and here.)
These Japanese minitrucks are, like the Kei cars we talked about earlier, small, light, highly capable, cheap to buy, and cheap to run.
In the US, Kei trucks are especially popular with hunters, and guys running their own landscaping businesses. In Britain too, landscapers and gardening services are beginning to import Kei trucks directly from Japan to the UK since it’s now a straightforward process. (Have a look on our site here to find out more about whole process itself, and here to learn about the specific rules for importing a used Japanese car to the UK.)
The company President here at Japan Car Direct, Scott, is an avid golfer. He’s also very sociable and will strike up a conversation anywhere, anytime, with anyone. He recently came back from a Saturday on the course and told me about chatting with the greenskeeper, the fellow in charge of keeping the fairways, turf, greens, bunkers, shrubs and trees all in good condition for the sport itself and also looking good to keep the whole golfing facility attractive and pleasing to the eye.
Scott ended up getting a bit of a tour of the maintenance side of the course and a good look at all the equipment they use to keep a golf course in good shape: the special fairway mowers, the tractors, the trailers, and other utility vehicles, even a weird little six-wheeled pick-up truck that looked like it could climb vertically up a tree if you asked it to.
“You sure need a lot of equipment to maintain to maintain a golf course, eh?,” Scott observed, and the grounds manager replied:
“We mostly use the Kei trucks. 4WD Kei trucks.”
“Really? Not for mowing, surely.”
“No, not for mowing, of course not.” That’s a specialist job for the fairways mowers. But for pretty well everything else, yeah. You see, some of the little tractor pickups we bought from overseas actually have load beds that are too small. They’re light, yes, and we need light vehicles to go over the fairways and not leave much of a foot print, but the Kei trucks have bigger load beds. They have an enclosed two-man cab, too, and that’s important sometimes, especially on rainy days. The Kei trucks are also light vehicles and so we just put wide tyres on them to reduce the turf footprint.
“The dump body option on a Kei truck is a total winner for us, too, obviously. Over the course of a year, we move a lot of dirt around. Gosh, we use our Kei trucks for everything and anything.”
So a Japanese Kei truck with wide tyres is just the thing for general golf course maintenance.
Kei trucks are being used more and more on farms around the world now. Of course, in Japan, they have been a farmer’s favourite from the first moment they became available. There’s a cattle breeding farm in the “Milk Road” farming area between my house here on Mount Fuji and the Asagiri Plateau and Lake Motosu where we go for days out. Now because this farm is on both sides of the main road, the farmer has a removable cage that he puts in the load bed when he uses his mini truck to move the calves (one at a time, mind you) from one field to another via a short drive across the road.
For sheep farmers in the UK, a good used 4WD Kei truck from Japan is an ideal piece of flexible farm equipment. With a hand built cage/enclosure in the load bed you can move your small to mid-size animals around with ease. Sort of like what these folks are doing with their goats here in this Sambar Kei truck.
And a Jimny would be a real big help on the muddy tracks of Wales’ upland sheep farms. Wales, where my family comes from, is a romantic land, but sheep farming there is no cake walk. It’s more of a mud walk.
A Suzuki Jimny to back up your border collie is a good idea any day.
In fact, it seems to me that, for general agricultural use as well as for general facilities and small road maintenance, a used Japanese Kei truck is a winner purchase no matter how you look at it. In the fisheries industry the simple construction (easy to hose down load bed!) high load capacity and small size make a mini truck perfect for dockside jobs of all sorts. For large facilities like distilleries and breweries, for which to UK is so justly famous (gosh I miss proper bitters and ales; what I wouldn’t do now for a bottle of Old Speckled Hen!),
the Kei truck is the perfect all round work truck. Its four wheel drive and low gearing and small dimensions mean that it can go pretty well anywhere on any industrial site in the UK. To find out more about some of the options that make Japanese Kei trucks even more useful on the farm or at the golf course, have a quick look here, and here.
And, of course, from the photos of the farm Kei trucks we’ve just been looking at here, you can see that setting up an animal cage in the load bed is a modification any farmer can do himself.
A clean, used 4WD Kei truck from Japan won’t cost you a lot to buy and import, and it will certainly cover a lot of your farming, agricultural, industrial, landscaping and work site needs (golf courses especially). That’s good, yes. And even better? A Kei truck is made to be licensed as an on road vehicle, unlike the six-wheel-drive vertical tree climber sort of thing that will go anywhere……anywhere except into town to the shops or down the road to the pub for a pint of Old Specked Hen.
If you are thinking of importing a used Japanese Kei vehicle to the UK, sign up here at Japan Car Direct and we’ll show you how it’s done and we’ll set you up with a good, clean low-mileage machine that will give you years of economical fun and reliable, practical service
Allows bidding on one vehicle at a time up to 1 million yen.
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