The Ultimate Ranch Hand: Japanese ATV or Mini Truck?

As operators of a Colorado retirement property that required us to travel some distance around the facility, we were faced with finding a cheaper mode of transportation than our van. Following the example of other farmers and ranchers in the area, we blindly made an expensive purchase of a new ATV. It was a decision I would later regret.

Over the last 15 years, the basic ATV has become a staple on many ranches, farms, and large retirement properties. People who work in large property operations need to be able to get around their extension quickly and efficiently to make repairs, check fences, grow crops, irrigation and many other tasks. In recent years, the vehicle of choice was the basic pickup truck. It was reliable and could carry enough supplies without making multiple trips.

When companies like Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and others began producing recreational vehicles called ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles), large owners and businesses immediately saw the advantages of having a smaller utility vehicle. The basic ATV could get a person to a job site quickly and could carry a small number of tools or other necessities to get a job done.

However, the ATV was not created to be the optimal utility vehicle, but rather the optimal ‘recreational’ vehicle. With its narrow profile and 4-wheel drive capability, the ATV was incredibly well-suited for navigating mountain trails, steep terrain, and effectively getting someone back into the hill country with a bit of fun. In a pinch you could take two people along with a rifle or fishing rod, and maybe a sack lunch.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the ATV was showing some limitations. Its inherent fun factor design was great for taking a man to a job site to check something out, but he couldn’t carry much more than a water bottle and a razor. Some ATV manufacturers have addressed this by creating small cargo hauling options. While that helped some, it didn’t really recreate the ATV into a vehicle that had a lot of cargo capacity.

And there were a couple of other not-so-small issues that showed the ATV’s weakness as the ultimate ranch vehicle. Not only could it not carry much cargo, but what it did carry, including the rider, was often left outside in the weather. On rainy, snowy or cold days, the driver of the four-wheeler had to suffer the inclement weather while his tools got wet.

Perhaps the ATV’s biggest disappointment was its fuel economy…or should we say, the lack of fuel economy. When we bought our ATV for retirement, I was excited to start saving money instead of driving the truck all over the property. What a disappointment to discover that our little ATV couldn’t get any better gas mileage than our old Toyota truck. In fact, it was worse. Many ATVs are heavy, tipping the scales around 800 pounds. Add a passenger and some cargo, and now you’re asking a ‘one banger’ to propel over a thousand pounds on little gas. It’s not going to happen.

a better alternative

Under the headline “If I had known then, what I know now…”, we would not have bought the ATV. While the initial ‘fun factor’ was exciting enough, the ATV’s previous weaknesses were soon realized. But at that moment, he knew of no other alternative.

But recently I became aware of what is called the ‘Japanese mini truck’ or Kei truck. The term Japanese mini truck only meant one thing to me…your basic Toyota or Nissan type ½ ton pickup truck. But that is no longer the case.

Japanese mini trucks are smaller vehicles that seat two people, have an enclosed cab with heating and sometimes air conditioning, and feature a van that has almost the same cargo capacity as larger Japanese trucks. However, the entire vehicle is much smaller and much more maneuverable on the ranch or farm property.

Also called Kei Trucks (“Kei” means “light”), the Japanese Minitruck has other features that make it stand out from the ATV as a “ranch hand.” They are capable of achieving phenomenal fuel economy using a small but powerful 3-cylinder engine. The driveline setup, which also comes with 4-wheel drive, is more standard in layout and therefore often more reliable and easier to ride than an ATV. Anyone who has ever put their ATV in the shop for repair can attest to the incredible cost of maintenance.

Buying a Japanese mini truck usually has to be done through a local importer, who brings these used vehicles in from Japan in containers. Kei trucks are generally not sold new in the US and in most cases the mini truck is considered a farm vehicle rather than a road vehicle. But some states allow their use on the highway.

Think of a Japanese mini truck as a replacement for an ATV, not a replacement for the truck you use to drive to the store. But oh what a replacement it is for the ATV. I am in awe of its functionality for driving to the job site, hauling the right load, keeping us warm and dry, and the incredible fuel economy and reliability. These trucks are usually made by major manufacturers such as Suzuki, Mitsubishi and other well-known vehicle producers in Japan.

Newer models feature fuel injection, air conditioning, and some significant upgrades over older vehicles. Most units come with a 5-speed transmission. Some feature a rocker bed or other options that provide incredible utilitarian value on ranch or farm property.

In short, if I had to do it all over again, I’d give up the ATV and buy a Japanese mini truck. If you spend more time working on your property than recreation, look up the Japanese Kei Truck.

Once you know where to look, there is a lot of information available on the web. I found this website at, run by Dan Buzzell in the Rocky Mountain area. There were many photos of the trucks, as well as useful information.

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