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Tiny trucks, hardcore overlanders and 4×4 fun rule Tokyo Auto Salon 2022

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They say the Tokyo Auto Salon is the SEMA Show of Japan. I am not one to disagree, especially after experiencing it firsthand. The enthusiasm surrounding Japan’s largest aftermarket automotive event is unmistakably genuine, the scale of the event itself is staggering, and the number of custom-built vehicles on display and trade booths is impressive. 

Ask any Japanese aftermarket tuning shop or custom car crafter about what goes into attending Japan’s largest car show, and you will likely hear tales of sleepless nights turning wrenches. Working around the clock, right up until it is time to leave for the show is pretty much a prerequisite, which for those in the know, sure sounds a whole lot like SEMA prep.

But the two shows differ dramatically when you observe the vehicles on display – especially in various 4×4, pickup truck, SUV and overlanding segments. Save for Jeep, “The Detroit 3” are virtually non-existent in Japan, at least from a new vehicle procurement standpoint. 

Fortunately, those in search of capable and clever work truck practicality, slick SUV styling or focused 4×4 prowess have a wide array of Japanese offerings to choose from, both in stock trim and modified form. 

So, let’s take a quick stroll through some of the standouts from Tokyo Auto Salon 2022, and get the skinny on what this SEMA of Japan is all about, for it did not disappoint. 

This Kei Truck camper van conversion from Car Factory Tarbow features hardwood flooring, a quaint kitchen, and a microscopic wood-burning stove. The perfect 4×4 weekend adventure vehicle for those who are slight of stature, and favor the tones of home wherever they roam.

Pipsqueak pickups

We kick things off with the obvious, and perhaps most misunderstood automobile in the Japanese automotive portfolio: The Kei Truck. Go ahead and giggle. Their diminutive size, blocky design and unimpressive engine output figures for the average Japanese pickup truck border on laughable when compared to the average American pickup, as even the Ford Maverick dwarfs these micro machines.

But where it lacks in power, towing capacity and size, the Japanese pickup more than makes up for in practicality and packaging. Sporting a cab-over configuration for increased visibility and shorter overhangs, these tiny trucks are all about obtaining tight turning radiuses and retaining the ability to traverse trails typically reserved for ATVs. 

With their full fold-out bed walls (yes, all three sides flip down 180-degrees and utilize simple locking latches), reliable and extremely efficient engines, surprisingly capable 4×4 chops and brilliant compartmentalization to utilize dead space, the Japanese pickup is more akin to an ATV with AC than a work vehicle.

TAS 2022 was packed with both practical and playful pickups. From camper conversions and work vehicles to prototypes and historic Kei Trucks all making their presence known. Speaking of classic vehicles, it was Daihatsu that stole the show this year in the Kei Truck category, with each generation of the wildly popular HiJet work and transit vehicle standing on display at its booth.

Striking the perfect balance between retro and rugged, this Jimny from Outclass Cars/Suzuki Complete stood out as a clear 4×4 favorite at Tokyo Auto Salon. Note the brake conversion, rear spare tire delete kit, and custom snorkel, all of which are new to the chassis.

Suzuki Jimny fever burns hotter than ever

On the hardcore, 4×4 focused side of the show, there was plenty to choose from at TAS this year, especially for Suzuki Jimny enthusiasts. Due to its retro external styling, impressive off-road capabilities, and brilliantly packaged interior, the latest version of the defunct “Samurai” remains a crowd favorite for fans of custom 4×4 rigs.

Standout examples of this Suzuki SUV at TAS 2022 begin with a baby blue Jimny from Outclass Cars/Suzuki Complete, a vehicle that I have personally taken off-road on Japan’s longest public 4×4 trail. While I did not need to utilize every upgrade within Outclass’ catalog during that trip, how the brand’s aftermarket suspension, steel bumpers, skid plates, and sidestep sliders functioned proved to be top-notch in both function and form. 

For TAS this year, the brakes on the SUV were upgraded with a larger AP Racing setup out front, as well as a rear disc conversion in the back. These brake mods, along with a one-off snorkel, MG alloy wheels wrapped in 245/75/R16 Toyo Open Country M/T tires, and a slick rear spare tire carrier delete kit rounded out Outclass Cars’ Jimny build beautifully. 

Another standout was an older-gen Jimny that had been converted into a short bed rock crawler, complete with a four-wheel-steering setup, exoskeleton and an insane amount of metal fabrication. All of the imperfections and heavily worn interior clearly illustrate that this rig is still being routinely used off-road, too, earning this build even more cool points in my book. Further enforcing this favoritism was the fact that the builders had opted to adorn the entire transmission tunnel with a sparkly vinyl wrap that appeared to be infused with unicorn cocaine.

Moving from one hall to another, I encountered everything from turbocharged versions of the Jimny, clad almost entirely in carbon fiber, to miniature Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen look-alikes. There was also a hefty sprinkling of mildly built, but tastefully done builds, many of which relied upon retro aesthetic upgrades over off-road agility.

But the last Jimny I encountered was anything but vintage looking. This tank of a creation was crafted by none other than N’s Limited, a vehicle that looked all the world like a villain’s ride in a 007 flick. Standing head and shoulders above everything else at the brand’s booth, this heavily armored, turbocharged and tastefully adorned dark gray overlander was easily the most hardcore Jimny I have ever encountered in person. Fuel efficiency and rollover safety concerns be damned. A Jimny of this caliber does not come along every day, even over here in Japan.

This duo of heavily modified Toyota RAV4 crossovers from NEXUS Japan were hands down two of the most impressive and practical overlanding rigs at the entire show. Pity that they were located in such a remote booth, or they would have surely seen a lot more love.

Up close with the brilliant and bizarre

Steering away from the Jimny lovefest, I began my search for all things 4×4 SUV and truck-related, along with anything having to do with the adorable and downright unorthodox. Being that this is Japan, I did not have to look very far, with one of the most practical and pleasant surprises of the entire show arriving courtesy of a chassis that we can actually get back in America.

Kyushu-based 4×4 shop, NEXUS Japan, brought out not one, but two of its heavily modified Toyota RAV4 Adventure grade crossovers. Tucked way back in the furthest corner of Hall 10, these vehicles did not receive nearly as much attention as they deserved that weekend, which is a pity considering how well-executed both builds were from both an aesthetic and performance standpoint.

While the steel bull guard bumper on the lighter colored RAV4 “had me at hello,” the flush bug diffuser, tasteful rocker panel and rear quarter protectors, multi-tiered over-fenders and rooftop marker lights on the darker CUV made it the real head-turner. 

Overlanding roof racks with rear ladders, cantilever rear tire and trailer hitches, side-mounted jerry cans, Delta Force wheels, custom sequential LED tail lights, hidden flush-mount winches and recovery gear. NEXUS Japan made sure that it was all there and then some. The only issue is, would Americans modify a RAV4 into an off-road overlanding vehicle?

Overlanding camper vans were also in abundant supply at Tokyo Auto Salon this year, with a vehicle from Car Factory Tarbow being one of the more memorable. Instead of doing the whole rooftop tent conversion thing like everyone else, the Kei truck conversion shop decided to create a cozy cabin glamping experience for overlanders in the bed of the truck. Adorable doesn’t even come close to describing this strange little 4×4 machine.

Back in the main building, I found myself strolling around the exterior of a Land Rover Defender at the Black Rhino booth, which had clearly drawn its inspiration from Stormtrooper armor. As I admired all of the practical accouterments spread across its armored exterior, with the company’s multi-piece, throwback white wheels earning a thumbs-up, something else caught my eye. 

It was an old CJ Mitsubishi Willys Jeep that had been converted into a beach cruiser, and from the looks of it, this little machine’s builders had taken things to the extreme.

Mitsubishi and Willy’s may have collaborated to make the Japanese Jeep a reality for numerous decades, but they probably never expected to see the platform turn into a bona fide beach cruiser.

Lifted to the max, with double strut suspension, fully adjustable shackles, a rebuilt and upgraded turbocharged motor, LED headlamps, poly bushings, and one slick resto-mod interior, this convertible remained a crowd favorite throughout the duration of the show. Unfortunately, the vehicle’s owner confesses that the build turned out entirely too beautiful, so his “Jeep-ubishi’s” life consists of little more than car shows –  and the occasional cruise down to the beach for a dash of dune crawling.

Sitting directly beside that monster of an underutilized Mitsubishi build, was one of the most unusual and enjoyable trucks I have ever seen in person. It was a Daihatsu Midget Kei car that had been converted into a hauler, and holy crap was this one kick-ass purple project. 

Although the hood flames, vertical stacks and chromed-out truck mirrors may not be for everyone, you’ve got to give the team of guys who built this miniature machine kudos for creativity and for making everything functional. With its fully operational air brake system, double-dually rear roller configuration reinforced and extended frame, and meticulously crafted gooseneck trailer, this purple pipsqueak of a semi was an absolute hoot to discover.

And then there was the all-electric “T-Box” 4×4 mini CUV from KG Motors, which at first glance looked like it had been crafted from an old Honda Acty van or something, but in actuality, was 100% built from scratch from the ground up. This team of talented engineers may specialize in automotive battery production (that’s right, they design and build all of their own PEV batteries in-house), but their true passion is outdoor adventure, which is what led to the development of the T-Box Proto. 

Outfitted with independent electric motors on all four wheels, angled coilover suspension with adjustable panhard bars front and rear, undercarriage shielding, and one of the most adorable roof racks you’ll ever encounter, this primer gray build received a ton of press coverage at TAS 2022.

According to KG Motors, consumer interest in Japan has grown so great that there is talk of the brand taking the T-Box Proto to production levels in the near future. But first, a dash of 4×4 fun must continue to be implemented, as the team takes the tiny prototype wheelin’ every chance they get for both testing and enjoyment purposes.

The Japanese don’t care about towing capacity, as they prefer to load everything into the bed or atop a roof carrier rack. Long wheelbases and wide stances are undesirable as well, as navigating twisting mountain passes and narrow trails between rice paddies require a tiny footprint.

The bottom line on the Tokyo Auto Salon

Event complete, I loaded up my gear and hopped back on the interstate, a long 8-hour drive ahead of me, and a skull full of thoughts to keep me company. 

After three days of wandering the expanses of all 11 halls at the Makuhari Messe arena in Chiba City outside of Tokyo, I finally felt like I had begun to develop an understanding of what the Tokyo Auto Salon was all about. 

Yes, it is safe to say that TAS is indeed the SEMA of Japan, both in overall scale and aftermarket originality. However, unlike SEMA, which is both outdoors and indoors, the size constraints of TAS keep it from feeling overwhelming or too frenzied. It’s a borderline over-the-top weekend event that holds back just enough to keep the average automotive enthusiast in their comfort zone.

But perhaps the most important aspect of this entire adventure for me was the wide array of conversations I had with the individuals behind many of these machines. It is their stories, setbacks, passions, and automotive aspirations that keep the lifeblood flowing within the Tokyo Auto Salon year after year, and for a brief moment there, I finally felt like I was beginning to understand Japanese car culture. 

It was a feeling that would soon dissolve, as a slammed dually dump truck with purple LED lights and an engraved chrome bed blasted past us on the interstate, the fumes from its heart-shaped side-port exhaust anointing our vehicle with diesel excrement. Sigh. There is still so much I have yet to learn about this wacky and wonderful land I now call home.

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Micah Wright

Engineered from the ground up with adventure in mind, Micah Wright is a high-octane, outdoor-oriented slab of restomod American muscle. Built for performance, with reliability as an afterthought, Micah's automotive writing and photography systems have seen infinite amounts of testing and fine-tuning for your "infotainment" over the past dozen years. Outside of Pickup Truck Talk, you can find Micah's ramblings in publications like MotorTrend, Autoweek, Super Street, LSX Magazine, 95Octane.com, and a slew of other web-based platforms. When he's not out exploring a mountain trail behind his home in rural southern Japan, you can find Micah smoking wild game on his offset BBQ smoker, as he sips on crude and puffs Honduran tobacco, forever contemplating his next automotive upgrade.

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