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How to Live #Vanlife the Japanese Way

Automobile logo Automobile 10/28/2019 Frank Markus
a truck is parked in the grass: Toyota Hiace Craftplus 1© Automobile Magazine Staff Toyota Hiace Craftplus 1

Van life—or #vanlife these days—was a big deal in the U.S. in the '70s. Remember those port-hole windows, shag-carpeted interior walls and ceilings, stripe jobs, and "If this van's a rockin'…" stickers? There's none of that extroverted nonsense in Japan, but mono-space one-box vehicles are everywhere there, and some of them manage to exude a bit of personality—and nearly all would be perfect for a camper-van conversion of some sort. Here are some of our favorites we spotted while recently attending the wild and wacky Tokyo Motor Show.

Nissan Elgrand & Toyota Granace

a car parked in a parking lot© Motor Trend Staff

Remember the Nissan Quest minivan? It departed our market (or was it the other way around?) after 2017, but it lives on in Japan as the Elgrand. Right about now, you Quest owners may be wondering what it would take to graft this handsome face onto your family steed for a little JDM coolness, am I right? (Answer: probably more than your van is currently worth). Meanwhile, Toyota rolled out its Elgrand competitor at this year's show, dubbed Granace, a name that hints at its step up in luxury—as signified by its prominent grille and posh leather interior.

a truck cake sitting on top of a car© Motor Trend Staff

Toyota Hiace Craftplus & Nissan NV350

a close up of a car© Motor Trend Staff

There was at least one van at the Tokyo show that paid homage to American hippie-van culture. Parked out on a mall between two show halls and situated near a bunch of food trucks, the Toyota Hiace shown at the top of this post was kitted out by Japanese upfitter Craftplus. Check out the wooden cabinetry, flooring, and steering wheel…and that leaf-pattern upholstery! Beats shag carpeting any day. The rooftop tent should also keep campers out of reach of the Asiatic black and Ezo brown bears that live in Japan. Craftwork sells similar upfit kits for the Hiace's chief forward-control competitor from Nissan, the similarly styled NV350, which is sometimes called Urvan. Nissan introduced this new Black Gear appearance package at the show.

a car parked in a parking lot© Motor Trend Staff

Suzuki Hustler

a red and black truck parked in a parking lot© Motor Trend Staff

Okay, this one is really trying hard to look less like a kei-class van and more like an SUV, with its longer-than-normal hood and SUV stance. And indeed it's very much a sibling of Suzuki's mini-me Wrangler/Discovery kei-ute, the Jimny. Check out these unusual-for-a-kei-car features: standard live-axle rear-wheel drive with optional all-wheel drive and a center differential lock plus hill-descent control. Sure, the ground clearance is less than Jimny's and there's an independent control-arm front suspension instead of the Jimny's twin live axles, but the Hustler has to be the second most believable SUV in the kei class after the Jimny. It even offers knobby off-road tires, albeit skinny 17s. And there's even a version in pink!

Nissan Dayz & Mitsubishi eK X

a car parked in a parking lot© Motor Trend Staff

Note the striking similarity between these two kei-class vehicles that just arrived on the market earlier this year. Kei cars must fit within a strict 3.40 x 1.48-meter (133.9 x 58.3-inch) footprint with two height classes. They qualify for much lower taxes, hence about 30 percent of Japanese car sales are kei cars. (The bestseller is the Honda N-BOX, which we recently drove.) NMKV, a Nissan/Mitsubishi joint venture, developed and builds both of these badge-engineered boxes. They offer a hybrid option, LED headlamps, a 9.0-inch nav system, a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, and, on the Nissan, the ProPILOT Assist smart-cruise/lane-keeping system. They both also feature a rear bench seat that can slide through 9.4 inches of travel to apportion rear leg- and cargo room as needed. We might take some convincing of the Nissan's fitness to wear its "Highway Star" badge, however…

a yellow and black car© Motor Trend Staff

Honda N Van & Daihatsu Tanto

a yellow and black truck sitting on top of a car© Motor Trend Staff

Honda's N Van and Daihatsu's Tanto share no common architecture or manufacture, but each offers the interesting feature of having no B -pillar. Both the front and rear doors can be opened and closed independently. Honda and Daihatsu chose to illustrate different ways of exploiting this feature: Honda set up a large toy vending machine in the huge opening between the A- and C-pillars. Daihatsu showed off its handicap-assisting Welcome Seat Lift feature. The passenger seat swivels around and then extends out and down to aid transition to/from a wheelchair. (Daihatsu's range of "welfare" vehicle options also includes a Welcome Turn Seat that merely swivels without extending and lowering, a Power Crane to assist stowing a wheelchair in back, and a Sloper model with a rear wheelchair ramp).

a person standing in front of a truck© Motor Trend Staff

Mitsubishi Super Height K-Wagon & Nissan Serena (& '60 Plymouth)

a green truck parked in front of a car© Motor Trend Staff

Okay, one's a tall kei-class car and the other's a proper minivan, but they both seem to be channeling the tailfin look of a 1960 Plymouth. I mean, look at how the bodywork kicks up at the D-pillar! Mitsu's K-Wagon is aimed at families with small kids, as the sliding rear side door is easier for them to work than the eK X's hinged ones). The Serena offers an e-Power series-hybrid powertrain, with a powerful electric motor driving the wheels as a 1.2-liter engine generates electricity, running at an optimal speed and returning 62 mpg. An interesting feature usually found on trucks and SUVs: the Serena's power running boards.

a black car on display© Motor Trend Staff

Read More

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This Company Wants More Kei Cars in America

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a car parked in a parking lot: 1960-Plymouth-1.jpg
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