The Top 10 Most Honorable Japanese Pickups

The Top 10 Most Honorable Japanese Pickups

Whether you're a dedicated domestic loyalist, a fan of import trucks or an impartial buyer looking for the best rig for the money, there's no denying that Japanese pickups have had an ever-lasting impact on the American truck market.

Here's a look at the Top 10 Japanese pickups that, for better or worse, influenced and paved the way for the import and Detroit-built trucks that followed. For that, we honor them.

No. 10: Honda Ridgeline

Honda Ridgeline

Love it or hate it (there’s no in-between), the Honda Ridgeline did what Japanese pickups have consistently done over the years: Break new ground in terms of form and functionality.

The midsize, unibody Ridgeline came to market in 2005 with controversial slab-sided lunar-lander looks and all-wheel drive. It did away with conventional leaf springs in favor of an independent rear suspension that gave it great ride comfort and enough room for an in-bed lockable trunk – the first in a pickup. The Ridgeline also featured a dual-action tailgate that folded down or off to the side, like a door, to allow unimpeded access to the cargo box.


No. 9: Toyota Corona Pickup

Toyota Corona Pickup

Toyota isn’t known for its car-based pickups in the U.S., but a few of its Corona utes found their way from Japan to Hawaii in the 1960s. There, they gained a reputation among American servicemen stationed in the Pacific as cheap but tough and versatile little runabouts.

The Corona was equipped with Toyota’s 2R four-cylinder 1.5-liter engine, rated at 74 horsepower, and a four-speed manual transmission.


No. 8: Mazda Rotary Engine Pickup

Mazda Rotary Engine Pickup

In the 1970s, a pickup with a piston-less engine was a completely foreign concept to American truck buyers raised on eight-cylinder domestic trucks. Buyers were just getting used to four-cylinder pickups, thanks to the gas crisis hitting their wallets. Mazda surprised everyone when it introduced the Rotary Engine Pickup.

The Mazda REPU sold in the U.S. from 1974-77 was based on Mazda’s popular B-Series line of small trucks. The REPU featured a two-rotor, 1.3-liter Wankel engine rated at 110 hp and paired with a four- or five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. When other pickups were running out of steam at 5,000 rpm, the REPU was just getting warmed up; it could hit well over 7,000 rpm. Combined with a super-short 4.63 final drive ratio and gobs of torque, the REPU was the street-performance pickup of its day, yet it could haul up to 1,400 pounds of payload.

At about 16 mpg, the REPU wasn’t as fuel-efficient as other trucks in its segment, and Mazda discontinued the truck when the gas crisis killed sales. Only about 15,000 were built and sold.


No. 7: Toyota Stout

Toyota Stout

The first true truck Toyota sold in the U.S. was the 1964 Stout. It was larger than the Datsun 320 pickup it competed against, but its bigger dimensions handicapped its 85-hp, 1.9-liter four-cylinder pushrod engine. It didn’t help that it wasn’t stylish-looking either.

Its successor, the Toyota HiLux, would gain a reputation for being faster and stronger, but the Stout was the first step Toyota took toward making the best-selling small truck in the U.S.


No. 6: Toyota T100

Toyota T100

Just as the Stout was the precursor to Toyota’s success in making tough and reliable small trucks, the Toyota T100 was the company’s first step toward building a full-size pickup. Unfortunately, it was also plagued by many of the same market challenges the Stout had failed to overcome decades earlier.

The T100 struggled even before the first truck was built. The idea was caught in a tug-of-war between Japanese executives who thought building a full-size truck was a huge risk and American staff who believed they needed an entry in this critical vehicle segment. The result was a compromised pickup that was smaller than half-tons from Chrysler, Ford and GM, and was only available with a V-6 at a time when American full-size-truck buyers wanted V-8s. It was also relatively expensive, imported from Japan and subject to the 25 percent "chicken tax" on foreign-built pickups.

The 1993 Toyota T100 was only available in a regular cab version that could seat three people. Its 150-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 was panned for its weak acceleration and lack of power. Toyota tried to respond to its critics and lack of buyers by adding an extended cab version in 1995, but it never climbed above 38,000 sales. Still, the T100 pointed the way later trucks from Nissan and Toyota would follow - full-size and built in the U.S.A.


No. 5: Subaru Brat

Subaru Brat

Sales of domestic coupe-utility pickups, like the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino, were just starting to slip when Subaru’s Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter went on sale in 1977. The car-based Brat was built for people who wanted to mix their active lifestyles with fuel-efficient hauling. It featured part-time four-wheel drive that could be shifted between two- and four-wheel drive on the fly. It also featured iconic backward-facing seats behind its regular cab that allowed two passengers to experience the same ride as the cargo.

The Brat’s four-cylinder, horizontally opposed 1.6-liter engine was rated at 67 hp and was only available with a four-speed manual transmission.

Former President Ronald Reagan owned a 1978 Brat that he used to tend to his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can't get more red-blooded American than the Gipper.


No. 4: Nissan Hardbody

Nissan Hardbody

The Nissan Hardbody was Nissan’s sixth-generation pickup sold in the U.S. The Hardbody was the successor to the Datsun 720, and it became well-known for its tough truck styling and dependability.

The Hardbody went on sale in 1986 and was one of Nissan’s best-selling products, averaging 100,000-plus sales annually during its run. The Hardbody was also one of Nissan’s first pickups to be built in the U.S., which allowed it to avoid the so-called “chicken tax” that added a 25 percent tariff to pickups imported from Japan and other countries.


No. 3: Nissan Titan

Nissan Titan

Nissan became the first Japanese automaker to build a truly competitive full-size pickup when it introduced the 2004 Nissan Titan.

The Titan met about 80 percent of half-ton buyers’ needs with its 300-hp, 5.6-liter V-8, an advanced five-speed automatic transmission and a choice of extended cab or crew cab configurations. It quickly gained a loyal following, but later years' sales were hampered by reliability issues with early trucks.


No. 2: Fourth Generation Toyota Truck / HiLux

Fourth Generation Toyota Truck

The Toyota truck that really cemented Toyota’s spot in the hearts and minds of American small-truck buyers was the fourth-generation HiLux -- or simply the Toyota Truck, as it was called in the U.S.

The 1984-88 Toyota Truck and its famed 2.4-liter four-cylinder 22R and 22R-E engines gained untarnished reputations for reliability and durability at an inexpensive price. With aftermarket wheels and a light bar, the Toyota Truck was lusted after by guys who saw Marty McFly drive away in one in “Back to the Future.”

Toyota still lives off the goodwill the Toyota Truck generated for the brand.


No. 1: Datsun Pickup

Datsun Pickup

Nissan was the first Japanese automaker to sell a pickup in the U.S., at a time when the roads were filled with big American cars and trucks. V-8 engines were the norm, and the worth of a car was often measured by the size of its tailfins.

Onto this scene emerged the tiny Datsun 1000 compact pickup -- the first truck of its kind. Although the Datsun 1000 only featured a 37-hp, 1.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a quarter-ton load capacity, it was a precursor of better things to come. In 1960, its engine size increased to 1.2 liters, and its horsepower nearly doubled to 60.

A new Datsun 320 pickup hit American shores in 1961, but it was the introduction of the Datsun 520 pickup in 1965 that led to a sales jump of then-historic proportions, from a few hundred units per year to more than 15,000. In its first year, the Datsun 520 pickup became the top-selling imported pickup in the United States -- a title the company held onto for more than a decade.


No mention of the 89-95 Toyota Pickup which won Motor Trend Truck of the Year in 1989, which was also the first Motor Trend Truck of the year as well? Also won of the best looking, and most competant 4x4's still out there?

My first pickup I owned was an 86 Toyota 4x4 with the IFS and 22R engine. That truck would just keep running even with 33" tires and later 35" tires. I really liked that body style and someday might try and re-build one as a project.

I also owned an 86 2WD standard cab longbox and an 85 2WD with 32" tires underneath and the rare 4-speed manual transmission.

Since the 86 was a solid truck for me I have stuck with the brand and a little history where Toyota sold the industry's first 4x4 back in 1979.

I have also owned a 97 Taco before and now have an 2005 Taco X-Runner as my daily ride and race truck. When it comes to small and midsize trucks, Toyota is the way to go.

Toyota did not sell the industry's first 4x4. Ford, GM, and Dodge had 4x4s long before 1979.

I have read the reviews of the Pilot about the only "new ground" things listed are the bed box and the tailgate design. Seems about as new ground as Ford's step up tailgate bumper. Beyond that it seems like a better designed Explorer SportTrak or lesser Avalanche which both came out before. The midgate now that is an example of a ground breaking design. This car does not seem very worthy of the rest in the collection in here.

My first car was a red 1990 Toyota SR5, with an extended cab, 5-spd, 4wd, 22R V-6 and 33" BFG mud terrains...THAT was a truck!

Hey Mike, this top ten list is awesome. You really went old school to fill out this list. Where is the Toyota Tacoma, I bout one used with a little under 100K in miles for $2000, I thought that was pretty honorable. You can post this to our site and link back to your site. We are trying to create a directory for top ten lists where people can find your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

My one and only Japanese Pickup was a Ram 50 bought new in February 1988. I only drove it 113,000 miles over the next 16 years and it succumbed to rust. When I had to let it go I was very sad but, my wife said you always wanted a full size so, go get one. Replaced it with a short bed 2004 Ram 1500 with the 3.7L and sure-grip axle. Nothing special but serves the purpose.

I think he ment first 4x4 on a Japanese Small Truck. We know Dodge was building the power wagon all the way back into the 1940's and jeep before that.

My first import vehicle of any kind is my 05 Titan, its been a great truck over the four years I've owned it, and hopefully will Nissan will continue to build it so I can buy another in a few years.

"Toyota did not sell the industry's first 4x4. Ford, GM, and Dodge had 4x4s long before 1979."

It took until 1984 before GM, Ford and Chrysler could build their own small pickup on their own.

Isuzu helped to create the S-10 with their LUV trucks sold as Chevy.

Mazda helped to create the Ranger small truck.

Mitsubishi helped to create the Dakota.

The market was full of import trucks selling well and the U.S. automakers had nothing to compete with Toyota and Nissan with. So GM went to Isuzu, Ford to Mazda and Dodge to Mitsubishi for help.

That is a major reason why I chose Toyota years ago because they had a reputable history, built their own trucks, you will see them the world over and they were solid off-road capable from the factory (as well as easy to build for off-roading) unlike the domestics.

My old 86 4x4 had the high-trac front suspension where the torsion bars were mounted to the upper a-arm thus full protection from the frame and leaf springs mounted above the axle so when you drive behind a Toyota 4x4 you do not see vulnerable lower shock mounts like on the domestics. The domestics had torsion bars mounted to the lower a-arms and leaf springs below the axle thus why Toyota's had higher ground clearance and were easier to build into off-roaders. Also factory 4.10 gearing in the rear helped also.

Little details that made a Toyota a better off-roader from the factory.

Quote: Isuzu helped to create the S-10 with their LUV trucks sold as Chevy.

Mazda helped to create the Ranger small truck.

Mitsubishi helped to create the Dakota.

I think you have that backwards. The S10 was GM's own design, the Ranger was Fords and the Dakota was Dodges. I don't seem to recall any chassis parts being shared between the US and Japanese manufacturers. Engines possibly in Fords case. Mazda never ran a twin traction bean front suspension either which the Ranger ran for years.

Not backwards, GM went to Isuzu to sell a re-badged Isuzu under the Chevy name, Ford went to Mazda to sell a re-badged Mazda under the Ford name and the same with Mitsubishi and Dodge.

The point I am making is that these joint moves is what helped GM create the S-10, it was with Isuzu's help, same with Mazda and Ford and Mitsubishi and Dodge.

The S-10 was born from knowledge gained with Isuzu, etc...

It appears as though oxi is right. The first versions of American light pickups were all Japanese. I always knew American manufactures could not (or would not) produce small cars, but I guess it also applies to small trucks.

Thanks for the history lesson.


Oxi, just because a manufacturer sold a rebadged product does not mean the supplier of the rebadged product was responsible for anything other than a quick, relatively inexpensive entry into a class. Note that none of the rebadged Japanese mini's had any staying power and were all replaced by inhouse mini's by Ford and GM. To put this in reverse terms, did Ford help recreate Mazda's B series with the rebadged Ranger or did GM help recreate Izuzu's mini truck with a rebadged S10? The only thing the Courier and the Ranger have in common is their size and being sold by Ford. Same goes for the LUV. Also IIRC both the Courier and the LUV had huge reliability issues. How many do you see on the road or even at car shows? The last LUV I saw had the common problem of the frame rottingor being bent between the cab and bed.

I have to give props to both the Datsun pickups and the little Toyota's with the 22R. It's not from Japan, but don't forget the Peugot. Outside North America and especially in Africa it is ubiquitous.

As a kid there were two cars I wanted, and Datsun 280Z and and Toyota 4X4. I was at the lake on day(early 80's) on a family water ski trip and some friends and I were walking down the road and there was a brand new Toyota pickup that had the "4X4" sticker on the door, I thought it looked fantastic! I bought a new Toyota SR5 Xtracab in 1987 and drove it for the next 13 years, what a great vehicle, only complaint was that it rusted out pretty bad here in Alaska. Then my dream truck was the T100, but I never could afford it, plus I was still getting good use out of the 1987. Then when the 2000 Tundra came out, that became my dream truck. I bough a new 2002, SR5 Access Cab with the 5-speed and V6. Yeah, I know, it didn't have the V8--which is a superb engine, but, I wanted the manual and the better gas mileage. When I road trip and get around 21.5 mpg, with that big gas tank I can get almost 600 miles range!! Fantastic. So, I'm seven years in and I plan on driving this one for a long time. The new Tundra is way too much truck for me, it would stick out of my garage. So I guess I would be looking at the Tacoma today, although my two children fit nicely still in the 2002 Access cab. cheers.

What no mention of the Mazda 86-93 pickup?

That trumped the Nissan Hardbody in sales

I follow you VIA GFC and I love your blog!

I think it was the Datsun 521 that changed the game. Compact half ton. 1969-72

Interesting. I have both Number 1 - a 1960 Datsun PLG-221 truck and Number 5 - a 1978 Subaru Brat.

Anything related to the 1987 22R 6' bed toyota pick up.

My first truck was a 1985 Nissan 720 ST Reg Cab short bed 2WD. I beat on that truck hard. I drove it through the woods and would dump the clutch in every gear. I had to prove it would still "catch" second gear once with it loaded with sand. I hauled a cab high load of cinder blocks on it that left the axle riding on the frame rails and it always seemed to beg for more. It proved itself indestructible despite being called a total loss once when the person I sold it to pulled out in front of a larger truck and tore the front end off it. I lost track of it a few years ago but at that point it was still being driven as a work truck (I tried to buy it back at that point but the current owner would not sell). I hope my 1995 Pathfinder lasts as long as that old truck, it should, I certainly take better care of it than I did that great little pickup!

I live in Kenya where we have no tarmac roads in the countryside. When it rains,and it does quite often,the roads become a thick muddy glue with torrential rivers.
Over the years I have used several types of Pick ups and I can attest without fear of contradiction that nothing,repeat nothing comes close to the Nissan NP300 4x4 Pick up. This Pick up is incredible in mud and steep inclines. I have on several ocassions extricated many bogged down 4 x 4 pick ups from thick mud by just engaging the 4L shift knob on my 2.5 Turbo Diesel Intercooler NP300.

I need to buy used (from 2009-2012) small pick ups, 4 (four) cylinders, ,manual transmission. japanese brand (diesel preferred), hohowever gas is fine - for Nicaragua in Central America. I can start with 1 or 2 units and depending we can go to larger quantities. Delivery to Miami, Fl or Huston, Tx.

I need someone reliable, honest. I've the gut feeeling I can trust you. Will you please write me back?

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