When Kei Van Dreams Become Kei Van Reality – Autoweek

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Somehow, a street-legal 1996 Subaru Sambar Dias II Maleza Super Charger 4WD lands in Colorado!
When I fell for a 1989 Honda Street 4WD seven years ago, then admired countless kei vans on the streets of Japan in subsequent years, I knew that someday I’d need to obtain a four-wheel-drive kei van of my own. Someday. First, of course, I’d need to import a V12-engined Toyota Century—which just became legal here this year—and then find the kei van of my dreams. But then Things Happened and now I’m the proud daily driver of a 1996 Subaru Sambar Dias II Maleza Super Charger 4WD.
It all began when I started seeing this white Subaru Sambar in my Denver neighborhood. Like nearly all JDM vans around here (there are many, mostly Mitsubishi Delicas and Toyota HiAces), it sported Washington license plates. Washington is sort of the flag-of-convenience state for JDM vans in the American West, it turns out, because the Evergreen State’s motor-vehicle department is very understanding about such things and doesn’t require emissions tests for any vehicle owners.
Eventually, I flagged down the Sambar’s driver and learned that he has a business importing things from Japan and owns many more interesting Japan-only machines. This Mazda Bongo Friendee Diesel 4WD Camper, for example, which should make Vanagon Westfalia owners green and yellow with envy.
He also has this Mitsubishi Pajero Mini VR-II, with turbocharged engine and manual transmission, which amounts to a half-scale Montero and is the cutest SUV now on this planet today.
This tiny truck is for sale in Denver right now, and TFLclassics has a full review of it for your enjoyment. I was tempted to buy it, but I really wanted a van.
Two Sambars were also available, sort of, both mid-1990s Dias II Malezas. One had the five-speed manual transmission and one had the same early-technology CVT that scared everyone away from the Subaru Justy when it was available here during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I test-drove both of them, only to find that my enormously American 4E-width foot hits all three pedals at once on a manual-transmission Sambar, with no room to modify any pedals to make space without hitting the vertical steering shaft. Thanks, Neanderthal ancestors!
That’s fine, though, because Neanderthals turn out to have been very intelligent and artistic, so I don’t have to be ashamed of my big feet nor my positive ape index. And, once I did some research on the original Subaru ECVT, it became less mysterious and something I could fix when if it broke. The Sambar Maleza with ECVT had a good tight suspension, just 119k klicks on the clock, air conditioning, power steering, and a supercharged 658-cubic-centimeter four-banger making 55 horsepower. I bought it.
Part of this project involved getting my new van completely legitimate and street-legal, with no fudges, cheats, or workarounds. Having moved to Colorado in 2010 from California, where the long-suffering DMV employees can be broken on the wheel for saying “yes” to anyone, I was expecting my experience here to be difficult but not Full Kafka. I’d managed to get a ’92 Civic with ’96 Integra GS-R engine swap legal here, so I figured I’d start by just getting a temporary title and plates for my new ride. This turned out to be shockingly easy, and I began running errands in the Sambar.
I found a genuine Japanese Mild Seven lighter and one-yen coin (worth about eight-tenths of a US cent) in the ashtray, installed the radio out of a junkyard 2002 Legacy (the Sambar came with a radio, but Japanese FM frequencies aren’t the same as ours), and realized how much I loved driving this little van.
If you want to pick up some compost at the local hardware store, a Sambar is the best choice.
It has room for four passengers plus plenty of cargo. The seats fold up to make a platform suitable for camping, which I plan to do. I’ll write about those features in a future article.
The possible seat configurations are on the bewildering side, but I’m puzzling them out.
To get the next phase of legal registration accomplished for Denver County, I had to convince a couple of hard-eyed old wrenches at the county’s Department of Health (don’t ask, I don’t know) that it was roadworthy at American highway speeds. “That van has less power than my Harley,” one grumbled, but then I pointed to the SUPER CHARGER badges on my van and showed that its power-to-weight ratio was actually better than a lot of economy cars of the 1980s and 1990s.
Which is true, and they handed over a copy of the magical Colorado Department of Revenue Form DR2365, which allows owners of weird-ass vehicles to proceed to the next step: the emissions test. My van’s “Clover” engine clearly needed a tuneup, so I ordered a distributor cap and rotor from Japan, fixed a couple of vacuum leaks, and prepared for smog-check adventures.
It’s not impossible to get Sambar parts, as long as you don’t mind paying for shipping from Japan. Some online sources say the US-market Justy has the same distributor as the Sambar, but they’re wrong. They also tell you to remove your Justy’s catalytic converter immediately, and on that subject they’re really wrong.
My Sambar had passed Japan’s rigorous shaken test back in February of 2021, according to the windshield sticker, and it appeared to have been treated well during its quarter-century on the road over there, so I felt confident that my simple tuneup would do the trick during the tailpipe test. Unfortunately, its wheelbase was far too short to fit on the dyno rollers for four-wheel-drive vehicles, so it had to take the high-low idle test instead. My experience with California smog checks was that you want your catalytic converter to be good and hot for the test, which is tough when the engine isn’t under load.
Here goes nothing! All I had to do was meet federal tailpipe-emissions standards for model-year 1996 light trucks—with a 0.65-liter supercharged engine from another country. I got in line at the Air Cares Colorado station and began chewing my nails.
It turns out that nearly every American who encounters a kei van thinks it’s adorable, and so nobody at the emissions-check facility got angry about the steering wheel on the wrong side, or a 1996 vehicle with no OBDII data connector (kei vans must have been exempt from OBDII requirements in Japan), or a distinctly foreign nine-digit VIN, or the fact that the ECVT won’t let the van creep in gear at idle. In fact, it seemed to provide them with a break from a boring day of smogging Jettas and 4Runners.
Passed! Don’t listen to Internet Car Experts™ who tell you that it’s impossible to pass federal emissions standards with a JDM car. Now I have real Colorado license plates, despite living in the county with the strictest emissions requirements in the state.
I only had one key for the Sambar (which has central power locks but no wireless fob), so I headed over to a Denver locksmith shop that’s always been highly competent. I handed over my lone Subaru key, and they figured out that it uses the same blank as US-market Subarus of the same era. Now I have multiple keys, no sweat.
I still had some accessories from my trip to the Mach 7 dekatora shop in Tokyo, so I installed this friendly waving hand in the side window.
A Japanese-fluent friend tells me this oil-change sticker shows that my van’s last home was in Eigenji, Shiga Prefecture, just east of Kyoto. It can get muddy there, so the four-wheel-drive system must have been useful.
This Sambar drives just fine at American highway speeds, but the 12″ JDM snow tires of late-2000s vintage (three Goodyear Ice Navi Vans and one Bridgestone Blizzak) made me nervous about blowouts. I’ll probably get some ridiculous knobby ATV 12-inchers for these wheels later on, but I needed to go up a wheel-diameter size to have any hope of easy tire obtainment on this side of the Pacific. The bolt pattern on the Sambar is the common-as-dirt 4×100 size, but it wants a strange offset plus a big 59.1-mm hub hole.
Now this project had gone into territory very familiar to me: the junkyard. Crawling around some local yards with a tape measure showed me that some 1990s Nissan Sentras came from the factory with 13″ wheels sporting a 4×100 bolt pattern and 59.1mm hub hole. Unfortunately, 1990s Sentras have become so disposable that they’re actually rare in junkyards now. I found this one, which hadn’t yet been put up on stands by the yard.
Since this yard is located near the county lockup and recently released inmates and their associates like to stop by to pick up scissor jacks to use for breaking bicycle locks, it took me quite a while to unearth a jack enabling me to yank a wheel to test-fit on my van. I persevered and brought a wheel home.
It fit perfectly, so now I just needed three more.
I thought about just getting readily available 4×100 wheels with smaller hub holes and having a machine shop enlarge those holes, but I couldn’t find any shop in town willing to do the job. I considered making a good template and using my Dremel to open up some Civic hub holes, but you need a perfectly symmetrical hub hole if you want your wheels to go on a balancing machine someday. I kept finding Sentras with 14″ wheels but eventually had three wheels. For the fourth, I ordered the last remanufactured 13″ Sentra wheel RockAuto had in stock.
I never would have guessed that 1990s Sentras could be so rare in junkyards, but there you go.
Someday I’ll get more interesting aluminum wheels for my Sambar, but for now I decided that I didn’t want bare black steelies. I headed down to Colorado Springs, where a couple of Loyales were in stock.
I wanted factory Subaru hubcaps for 13″ wheels, and these Loyales had what I needed.
I found a total of seven Loyale hubcaps and bought the four best ones.
I bought a set of Kumho Solus all-seasons in 155/80R13 size and had them mounted and balanced on my laboriously obtained Sentra wheels. The OEM tire size is 145/80R12, so my speedometer will read a bit slow but nothing too bad.
It rides about a half-inch higher with the new wheels and tires, which clear everything just fine. Here’s what it looks like with bare steelies.
I like it better with the Loyale hubcaps, so that’s how I’m driving it now.
These days, I’m running almost all my errands in the Sambar. It turns out to be a great city vehicle, with great sight lines and the ability to fit into the most cramped parking spots. It has a small footprint but it’s tall enough to be easily visible, and even the angriest drivers seem to find their hearts melting a bit when they encounter a happy little kei van.
I’ve begun the process of upgrading the audio system with some Subaru “butt-thumper” subwoofers, and I found this 100-yen coin when I pulled up the carpeting. That’s got to be Japanese good luck.
Denver already has quite a few larger JDM vans on the street, nearly all camping-optimized diesel 4WD machines, and I can tell the owners of these vans are envious of my far more space-efficient Subaru.
I wouldn’t drive anything else to Izakaya Den!


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