The Ultimate Ranch Hand: ATV or Japanese Mini Truck?

The Ultimate Ranch Hand: ATV or Japanese Mini Truck?

As operators of a retreat property in Colorado that required us to travel some distance around the facility, we were faced with finding a more economical transportation mode than our pickup truck. Taking our cue from 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 past 15 years, the basic ATV has become a staple item on many large ranches, farms, and retreat properties. People who work on large property operations need to be able to get around their spread quickly and efficiently to make repairs, check on fences, crops, irrigation, and a host of other duties. In past 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 started producing recreational vehicles called ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), large property owners and businesses immediately saw the advantages of having a smaller utilitarian vehicle. The basic ATV could take a person out to a job site quickly, and could carry a small amount of tools or other necessities to do a job.

However, the ATV was not created to be the optimal utilitarian vehicle, but more of the optimal ‘recreational’ vehicle. With it’s narrow profile and 4 wheel drive capacity, the ATV was amazing suited for negotiating mountain trails, steep terrain, and getting someone back into the hill country effectively with a bit of fun thrown in. In a pinch, it could carry two people along with a rifle or fishing pole, and maybe a sack lunch.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the ATV was showing some limitations. Its inherent fun-factor design was great in getting a man out to a job site to check on something, but he wasn’t able to carry much more than a water bottle and a pocketknife. Some ATV manufacturers addressed this by creating small cargo carrying options. While that helped some, it really didn’t recreate the ATV into a vehicle that had much cargo carrying capacity.

And there were a couple of other not-so-small issues that showed the weakness of the ATV as the optimum ranch vehicle. Not only could it not carry much cargo, what it did carry, including the rider, were often left out in the weather. On days of rain or snow or cold, the ATV rider had to suffer through the elements, while his tools got wet.

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

A Better Alternative

Under the heading of “If I had known then, what I know now…”, we would not have purchased the ATV. While the initial ‘fun factor’ was pretty exciting, it soon became very aware of the above weaknesses of the ATV. But at the time, I 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 isn’t the case anymore.

Japanese Mini Trucks are smaller vehicles that seat two, have an enclosed cab with heating and sometimes air conditioning, and feature a pickup bed that has nearly the same carrying capacity as the larger Japanese trucks. Yet the entire vehicle is much smaller, and far more maneuverable around the ranch or farm property.

Also called Kei Trucks (“Kei” means ‘light’), the Japanese Minitruck has other features that make it excel over the ATV as a ‘ranch hand’. They are capable of achieving phenomenal fuel economy by utilizing a small, but potent 3-cylinder engine. The driveline configuration, which also comes in 4-wheel drive, is more standard in design, and thus is often more reliable and easy to work on over an ATV. Anyone who has ever placed their ATV in the shop for repairs can testify to the incredible cost of upkeep on them.

The purchase of a Japanese mini-truck most often needs to be done through a local importer, who brings these pre-owned vehicles over from Japan in containers. Kei trucks are generally not sold new in the US. And in most instances, the mini-truck is considered a farm vehicle as opposed to a road vehicle. But some states allow for 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 take to the store. But oh what a replacement it is for the ATV. I am amazed at its functionality to drive right up to a job site, carry adequate cargo, keep us warm and dry, and the incredible fuel economy and reliability. Typically, these trucks are made by major manufacturers such as Suzuki, Mitsubishi, and other well-known producers of vehicles in Japan.

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

In short, if I had it to do all over again, I’d forgo the ATV and would have bought a Japanese Mini Truck. If you spend more time working on your property than you do in recreation, look into the Japanese Kei Truck.

Once you know where to look, there’s a lot of information out there on the web. I found this web site at, run by Dan Buzzell in the Rocky Mountain area. There were a lot of photos of the trucks, as well as some helpful information.