Even compared to five years ago, kei trucks are far more common in the US than they used to be. And if we were to look back 20 years, we'd note that the Japanese car scene was very different at the time, still focused on performance coupes and less focused on all types of other Japanese cars of the day, including sedans and station wagons.
The rolling 25-year exemption for foreign, non-conforming vehicles has made the categories of JDM cars stateside far more diverse when it comes to vehicle segments, with SUVs, station wagons, sedans, minivans, and kei cars having gained "market share" over the past two decades.
But something else happened, too: The tastes of those importing Japanese domestic market (JDM) cars have shifted from higher-priced performance models, to quite ordinary cars and trucks that can be bought on a smaller budget. It not longer requires a lot of money or even sourcing a car from Japan by yourself, as a number of importers have begun seeking out clean, 25-year-old cars and trucks and are bringing them into the country for resale.
One of the categories of JDM vehicles that has seen some of the most significant gains over the past decade is of kei trucks and vans of the 1980s and 1990s, like this Suzuki Carry 4WD. The Carry line actually dates back to the early 1960s, having debuted specifically as a kei model aimed at specific engine and size requirements, and have been sold in truck and minivan forms now spanning 11 generations. This particular Carry KC 4WD hails from the eighth generation that debuted in 1985, which also included truck and minivan versions. Sold under a bewildering number of badges in various markets, including both Ford and Chevrolet, the model seen here is a Suzuki-badged four-wheel-drive version, likely optioned with either a 543-cc or 547-cc inline-three engine.
So what is it like to actually own a kei truck?
We talked to the owner of one Suzuki Carry, though not this particular one, to find out what it's like to actually own one of these in US traffic.
"The range of comments I get is actually pretty wide," Alex tells us. "Most people ask stuff like 'How much horsepower's it got?' or 'How much can it haul?' Some want to know how much I paid for it. Another super common but super annoying comment is 'Why don't you get a real truck?' as if I needed something for landscaping and lawnmowers. And I have like a normal car too for everyday stuff. And sure enough, people making those comments will be driving some new truck and the bed would be completely empty and it's not even scuffed, so you know they just bought it to drive to work. They'll just have a bunch of fast food wrappers inside, but the bed's clean."
Do some people know what it is right away?
"I think some know it's Japanese, but they don't know the model or why it's so small," he says. "Some people think it belongs to the city, for sanitation or something. The other super common comment I get is 'Why didn't you buy like a new American truck with more payload?' And that's a super weird comment too, because they assume I was out to get a truck with the most payload out there and wound up in a kei truck. And people are like honestly dumbfounded I didn't get like new Silverado or something, because that's the only priority in a truck that they get. I just tell them 'I don't have a lot of stuff to carry, I just go to Costco with it.'"
And what about driving it in traffic: Is it as harrowing as it looks, being dwarfed by American pickups and even things like RAV4s?
"I'd say visibility has not been a problem to the point where it's been dangerous or anything," Alex tells us. "If anything, people see you more and they give you a wide berth. No one's been like super mean or forced me off the road or anything. Where I live we don't have a lot of roads where I could overtake slower traffic, but sometimes there's cars that are going slower than me and I feel like I could pass them."
What's been the most satisfying part of kei truck ownership?
"The coolest thing is when I'd just see another kei car in traffic or another JDM car," Alex says. "That's something that used to be almost impossible, but now I'll see a few each year I'd never seen before just around the area. That's the best part of it."