There are several vans that will not be among the finalists to replace the Kreutzer family’s ailing Ford Freestar and among them are the size and utility queens of the Japanese Domestic Market, the Toyota HI-Ace and the Mitsubishi Delica. Of course you already know that neither of these vans are sold here in the Land of the Free, so my attempt at including them in an article about my current search may seem a bit facetious but, the truth is, I know these vans well and they come up enough in the comments that I thought they might be worth discussing in more detail. Since I have become the resident “van guy” for the time being, let’s avail ourselves of the opportunity, shall we?
Believe it or not, there is a huge difference between Kansai and Kansas. The roads in Japan are usually narrow and impossibly crowded. In most neighborhoods there are no sidewalks and buildings come right out to the edge of the street. Rows of bicycles and scooters are lined up in front of most stores, their back wheels often protruding out into the roadway, and their presence blocks pedestrians who must then compete for space with the cars in the street. Some streets are one way but have exceptions for anything on two or three wheels, so you may even find yourself avoiding oncoming scooters who are themselves maneuvering to avoid all the aforementioned obstacles as well. At night, add in flashing lights and the scene becomes a sort of twisted, impossible game where the possibility of an accident increases a million fold.
Like all manner of creatures, the form of Japanese vans has evolved – or for those of you who live in the deep South, has been created by God – to perform well in the world in which they exist. They tend to be tall and narrow, generally have good all around visibility and usually have any number of mirrors or back-up cameras to help them settle into the small spaces in which they must park. Fuel efficiency is a must and some are diesels, but with increasing regulations forbidding oil burners in many major urban areas most vehicles these days tend to have smallish gasoline engines. Since speeds are usually low, large engines are generally not needed anyhow.
Wikipedia tells me that the Mitsubishi Delica hit the market way back in 1968 as a light cab-over pickup truck. It evolved into a van that stayed in production with only minor changes until 1979 when it got a its first redesign. Another redesign came in 1986 with the introduction of the “Starwagon” and yet another came in 1994 when Mitusbishi introduced the larger “Space Gear.” In 2007, Mitsubishi introduced the 5th Generation Delica, the D-5. Although the current D-5 is a good looking van with its square, upright lines, the real high points in Delcia history ar the “Starwagon” and the “Space Gear” both of which look like lunar rovers when outfitted with the available four wheel drive and all the various nerf bars and ladders available. They are unique, funky and flamboyant. They are, however, the Rolling Stones of minivans; if you are in the right mood they rock the house but are otherwise overshadowed by the sheer excellence of their contemporaries.
I drove a late ‘90s fourth generation “Space Gear” to and from work for two years when I lived in Osaka in ‘04 and ‘05. Because most of the people I worked with lived some distance from our job, my employer graciously provided us with a shuttle to and from work that we paid for ourselves through ticket purchases. Naturally, yours truly quickly became the designated driver and I got a lot of seat time behind the wheel. Our usual route involved a combination of major thoroughfares, small side streets, alleyways and even a dozen miles of high speed elevated expressway that soared high above the clogged city streets below so I had the opportunity to see it at its best, and worst, in every environment.
There is a lot of variety in the Delica line and I should note here that our van was not one of the heavily optioned four wheel drive models that naturally come to mind when someone outside of Japan thinks of the Delica. It was instead a simple, basic passenger van, the kind of van that plies its trade without fanfare all across the world everyday. It was cheap, rubbery and had a cloth interior that featured a second row bench with a collapsible jump seat on the end to allow access to the rather cramped third row at the back.
Even without the four wheel drive option, our Delica was a tall, ponderous beast. On the plus side, the driver’s seat sat me up high and lots of windows ensured I had good all around visibility. It was most at home at low speeds on surface streets and least at home on the expressway where, quite frankly, it struggled. At higher speeds, the van could be downright frightening and even the slightest cross wind caused it to heave around like a ship on the ocean. Fully loaded with 8 adults in the cabin and beating into a headwind the sound of the wind tearing by the windows made you feel like the vehicle was going to fly apart at any moment and I often noted the concerned looks on the faces of my colleagues.
Despite its performance flaws, I can’t really pan the Space Gear. When looking back on an older vehicle a good reviewer needs to consider a number of things, the state of the art at the time and the actual purpose for which a vehicle was intended. The Space Gear is, I think, a product of its time and place and in that light it was probably an OK ride. In fact, I briefly toyed with the idea of finding a four wheel drive version when it looked like I might be assigned to Central Asia. Ultimately, however, I ended up with a Stateside assignment and my flirtation with the Space Gear ended there but I still wonder what my experience would have been like with the fully optioned four wheel drive Delica in a land with no expressways. I suspect that it may have been good. In a “right tool for the job” sort of way, I think I would have really enjoyed it.
If it were sold today in the United States I think the Space Gear’s good looking design and four wheel drive system would still attract a lot of interest. However, without an improved powerplant and chassis I think the Space Gear would be a dismal failure. Knowing what I know, I’d probably even pass on a used one unless someone could convince me that its shortcomings could be sorted out with a few aftermarket additions. If that were the case, the possibilities are titillating…
The Toyota HI-Ace is another child of the sixties. Introduced in 1967 it has evolved steadily over the years into any number of job specific forms and includes cargo vans, ordinary and stretched passenger vans for tour and airport shuttles use, and even fairly luxurious family offerings like the Granvia which was sold in both Asia and Europe. The current boxy looking Hi-Ace is the 5th generation and I think it looks especially good for a vehicle that places sheer utility ahead of style and comfort.
The van I regularly drove was a general utility vehicle used on my job to run errands and to carry cargo, mail or supplies as needed. Like the Delica, the Hi-Ace was good around town and gives a clear, 360 degree view from the driver’s seat and enough mirrors to let you know your exact position on the road at any given moment. As is normal for my employer, ours was the least optioned model available and it was filled with hard plastics and rubberized mats. Given the vehicle’s primary role, however, these things are really a given and I can’t find fault in it just because it was built to a specific purpose.
Opening the driver’s door and slipping into the seat atop the right front wheel was always odd experience for me. I drove a cab over Isuzu delivery truck for several months when I was in college and the Hi-Ace took be right back to those days except this time I was more or less seated at the same height as most other traffic instead of above it. With the controls so far forward, the current Hi-Ace is long and because you are ahead of the front wheels you need to watch yourself on turns, going a little further into the intersection before swinging the wheel sharply towards your new direction. That, in combination with the bouncing that naturally comes from being out at the end of the vehicle, always gave me that same odd sense of both joy and fear that I always get from a ride on the carnival.
On the highway the Hi-Ace was generally well mannered and while not a power machine by any stretch of the imagination did not seem to struggle to keep up with traffic. Like the Delica, the Hi-Ace’s high profile made it sensitive to gusts and it would move around on you, but it never felt as tippy the Mitsubishi. One peculiar trait I noticed was the tendency for the van to buck over freeway joints and expansion joints and at certain speeds the van would just settle back onto is suspension before hitting the next joint would send it skyward again. I suspect this is part and parcel with sitting out ahead of the wheels and it was more of an odd characteristic than it was a real annoyance.
Between the two vans, I think the Hi-Ace would be more at home on American streets but not as a family van or intercity transport. They would do well, I think, as cargo vans where their competition would be either much larger cargo vans that use more fuel or the much smaller Transit Connect. Although the roads in Kansas and Kansai are indeed half a world apart, the economy and utility that JDM market vans offer in an urban environment is so finely attuned that they could be a great success here and I am sure that many people would appreciate their addition to the market. I may not buy one, but I am sure there are those people who would jump at the chance.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.