You've never heard of the Mitsubishi Bravo before and we don't blame you. Half of our staff hasn't either, but at least we know a thing or two about Kei car (pronounced "kay"). Kei cars are the smallest and most affordable street legal vehicles sold in Japan. They're regulated by size, displacement and power, have been around since World War II, and still remain popular today.
However, as you might have guessed, they never made it to U.S. shores. Quite frankly, they're too tiny for the majority of Americans that live by the old saying, "bigger is better". That doesn't mean some of us don't appreciate a good Kei car, truck or van when we see one, which is why we think you'll be pretty stoked to meet Los Angeles native, Joe Dashtoyan and his 1994 Mitsubishi Bravo Super Exceed.
Most people that drop a lot of money on a right-hand-drive JDM import would invest into something like a Skyline or Silvia. The last thing on their minds would be a Kei car or microvan, right? Joe's been around Japanese cars all of his life but the moment he laid eyes on this particular Bravo earlier this year, his mind was set.
The mini Mitsubishi weighs just a hair more than a Smart car, but comes packed with more functionality and flavor. Surprisingly, there's ample room whether sitting in the front or rear, which Joe can attest to as he's not a petite guy. There's also plenty of space in the trunk, making it a more than capable vehicle for a weekend road trip or serving as a parts runner.
Joe was lucky enough to pick up the AWD Bravo stateside, so he didn't have to go through the importing process, although he did have his fair share of work cut out for him when it came to replacing OEM parts and restoring it to "as-new" condition. For that, he spent months on the internet and coughed up big bucks for components that had to be shipped over from across the Pacific.
Aftermarket modifications remain minimal outside of a set of Enkei wheels, two-tone vinyl wrap job, steering wheel and upgraded sound system, but that's all the Kei project really warranted. Joe explains that he enjoys the Bravo with his wife and young daughter, who'll likely inherit the microvan once she's old enough to drive years from now.
Before our photoshoot was done, Joe threw me the keys to take it for a spin around downtown L.A. and let me tell you, this thing is wicked fun to drive! Perhaps the slowest thing I've ever got behind the wheel of, but I've never been waved at or given a thumbs up in so many instances within a 10-minute window. From folks just admiring its cute stature, noticing the right-hand-drive, or giggling at the computerized Japanese voice when I'm in reverse (you'll have to watch the video to know what I'm talking about). Yes, this Kei van is one of the coolest JDM things I've seen all year, or maybe I'm just having major withdrawals from not visiting Japan in 2020...
INTERVIEW WITH JOE DASHTOYAN
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Joe.
13 years ago I was a graphic designer by nature, but my passion had always been around cars. While I was making a healthy living, I decided I wanted my career and my passion to be intertwined. On a whim I decided to risk leaving my comfortable job with a mere logo concept and start my new career working with cars. I became an auto broker selling the latest and greatest cars to clients. Anytime a new car came out, I would research the hell out of it to see if I should recommend it to clients or not. I would never recommend a vehicle I wouldn't drive myself.
Sounds like you know your stuff! How about when it came to modifying cars?
I've always modified my own cars to make it unique and fit my style, with my first vehicle, a 1991 Nissan 240SX, to 14 cars later, my current daily, a Tesla Model 3 dual motor and project car, the Mitsubishi Bravo.
How'd you discover Kei cars?
On my free time, I've always enjoyed looking up cars you don't always see in the United States. I randomly stumbled upon a video about Kei cars and what categorizes a vehicle to be a Kei car. Typically, when I discover something new, I obsess over it to the point where I need to read every article and watch every video I can find. I came across this video that showed a modified Kei truck and that's when I realized I needed one. It was different, unique and definitely not something you typically see in California. I realized if I did get the Kei truck, I wouldn't be able to enjoy it with my family. My wife and daughter usually accompany me to car events, plus we take drives to the beach on the weekends. That's when I realized the van would better suit us.
Can you reveal to us how you were able to pick up the Bravo?
I started doing research and contacting importers to see how I could acquire one. After two long months of searching, I randomly came across a Craigslist ad that had a very vague main photo and description. Once I realized it was a Kei van that was located just 30 miles away, I knew this was it! My wife and I decided to leave work on a Tuesday afternoon with cash in hand knowing we're coming home with the car no matter what.
A nice find! But...how were you able to register it in California?
Once we got it, we started showing it off like a child with a new toy, but we kept hearing how it would be nearly impossible to register it in California; the vehicle was registered in Pennsylvania at the time. Knowing it would be very difficult, I decided to take on the challenge. Since it's a Japanese import, there are 11 characters in the VIN instead of the usual 17, needless to say the DMV didn't have any info on this car in their system. I was sent to CHP [California Highway Patrol] for VIN verification and was told I would need the title, all import documents, smog and insurance. In the meantime, they issued temporary registration. Appointment with CHP was set, I was nervous as hell, then the pandemic hit. My appointment was canceled until further notice. While modifying the van, I was persistent on calling them weekly to see when they can see me. A few months later they gave me a date! Just my luck, the CHP VIN officer was also a car guy. He couldn't stop smiling when he saw the van. He said it was so different from the typical vehicles he usually inspects. He took the car out back, was the longest 30 minutes of my life, and came back with a signed and stamped VIN verification form. I immediately ran to the DMV to grab my plates before they changed their minds.
Sounds like you were at the right place at the right time! Now for those that aren't too privy on the Bravo, can you tell us a little bit about it?
The Bravo weighs in at 1,920lbs, has a 660cc four-cylinder, top speed of 75mph and all-wheel-drive. It's a 53hp beast! Haha! This particular model has a long name for something of its size, Mitsubishi Bravo Super Exceed with a Super Aero Panoramic Roof.
Sounds like quite the beast indeed... Hah! What's it like to drive?
Although it's the slowest thing I've ever owned, it's definitely a fun experience to drive it. Buying it, I didn't think I'd enjoy driving it as much. It was a challenge learning to drive with the steering wheel being on the right side, but it's easy to toggle back and forth with my daily driver now.
Any other Kei cars you're thinking of buying?
I hope to pick up a 1994 Toyota Sera. It is also a JDM Kei car with unique gullwing doors.
Last but not least, what can you tell anyone thinking of picking up their very own Kei car, van or truck?
Make sure it's a rust-free example. Any and all parts have to come from Japan, so expect to pay high shipping for your parts. I highly recommend joining Facebook groups for Kei vans and trucks. I've learned a lot simply by interacting with some people who own similar cars in the U.S.; however, at the end of the day, it's the same mechanics as any other car, in a shrunken form.