The auto industry isn’t the only thing that’s shrinking lately. By most expert accounts, most new vehicle equipment brought to market in the next three to five years will be smaller and more fuel efficient. Those same prognosticators say sales of full-size pickup trucks will continue to shrink, then level off, restabilizing at half the volumes we saw just a few years ago.Where does that leave those of us who like the flexibility of a pickup, yet are also worried about fluxuating fuel prices and problematic big V-8 fuel economy? One alternative may be in the form of mini-pickup trucks from Asia running two- and three-cylinder engines on mini-pickup and work van platforms.
As recently as last year, some companies imported a few of these models into the U.S. with mixed sales results. Although they can run comfortably at speeds at or near 50 and 60 mph, most are limited to off-highway use.
But that could be changing. We recently had the chance to drive one of these “little trucks” at a local Ford Fleet and Commercial dealership in Fontana, Calif., and found it to be an interesting surprise.
From the moment we opened and slammed the door of our 2008 test unit, we knew this was a different type of vehicle. This particular model was an MUT brand or K-Class minitruck from the Japanese market. We liked the buslike seating position and the tremendous amount of visibility, mainly because of the short hood. In fact, the engine — a 59-cubic-inch four-cylinder — sits underneath the front seats, giving the driver and passenger an unobstructed front view just past the front bumpers.
Because of the engine location, we felt a good amount of vibration and eventually a good amount of heat coming up through the floor. The 0.97-liter I-4 produces about 50 horsepower and 55 pounds-feet of torque, which may sound quite small, but as we zigzagged through the parking lot and industrial neighborhood, it was plenty of power to move the 2,000-pound vehicle. (Two-door models are about 300 pounds lighter.)
The MUT’s engine is mated to a standard synchromesh five-speed manual that will take you back several years, when searching and grinding a few gears was the norm, but the gear slots and shift lever felt solid. As you might imagine with a small two-wheel-drive vehicle and rack-and-pinion steering, the feel of the vehicle was quick and sharp. It will turn on a dime and cut a tight 16.5-foot turning circle. The front suspension is a simple double A-arm setup with coil springs, and the rear is even simpler with a stout live axle and leaf springs. And because these vehicles are designed to work hard in tight spaces, payload numbers are typically right around the vehicles’ weight. So our quad-cab model is rated to carry just under 2,000 pounds, but we’re guessing that’s a conservative number.
What’s not so impressive is the ride quality when you reach higher speeds, around 45 to 50 mph. We found plenty of noise and rattling, and when we jumped on the brakes, braking was unnerving. Although we didn’t do any quantifiable track testing, the brakes felt soft and mushy, and stopping distance seemed considerably longer than we expected. Maybe this isn’t too surprising, given the small drum brake sizes and puny 165/70R13 tires.
Also, we found the engines must be tuned and biased for stop-and-start cycles because in the 30 miles we clocked on our short-course test drive, we calculated that we used about two gallons of fuel, giving us an unscientific 15 mpg. Not great, but maybe 150 miles per tank isn’t so bad for a small-mile work truck that will never be used for cross-country motoring.
Overall, the vehicle doesn’t look like it will fill the niche below midsize or compact pickup trucks anytime soon, but there seems to be some value and fun factor here. Since this quad-cab model might just fit in the bed of a full-size heavy-duty pickup truck — granted, with a few modifications — we can imagine the ATV and side-by-side bed-toy crowd getting very clever with a vehicle like this. And the fact that it’s strong enough to practically carry itself when called for payload duty is an impressive achievement.
These MUTs could become popular on ranches or with the 4x4 trail crowd as well, and if fuel prices shoot up again and prices for electric vehicles stay high, there may be a place for more of these mini work trucks on the job site.
Our test unit was being sold by the Ford dealership right around $7,500, but not any of the major players in this segment in Japan (such as Suzuki, Daihatsu, Honda, Subaru, Mazda, and Mitsubishi) plan to bring these trucks to the U.S. For now, the internet is probably the best way to find the best deals. We also recommend contacting your local department of motor vehicles to find out your state’s exact restrictions and licensing terms.
Model: MUT two-wheel-drive minitruck
Price: $7,500 (estimated)
Engine: I-4, single overhead camshaft, electronic fuel injection
Displacement: 970cc / 59 cid
Bore x stroke: 2.62 by 2.83 inches
Power: 48 horsepower
Torque: 55 pounds-feet
Transmission: five-speed manual
Top speed: 60 mph
Suspension: Independent front suspension, coil springs; live axle, leaf springs
Steering: rack and pinion
Turning circle: 16.4 feet
Wheelbase: 100 inches
Dimensions (inches): 157 by 58 by 74
Track width, front/rear (inches): 50.4/50.8
Curb weight: 2,038 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating: 3,997 pounds
Payload: 1,950 pounds
Weight distribution, empty: 51/49
Weight distribution, loaded: 37/63