Curbside Capsule: 1995-97 Daihatsu Atrai – A Fleet Manager Had Fun With This One

Daihatsu Atrai Appare right rear

I brake for all JDM vehicles.  More accurately, when I see a Japanese Domestic Market car or truck, I’ll try to slow down and savor the details.  When I spotted this van in a Michigan parking lot, I did my obligatory swing-around, since I’d never seen a Daihatsu Atrai before.  However, the most intriguing thing about this little green van was the license plate.  This van sports a Municipal plate, meaning it’s part of a fleet, most likely from a local government.  Evidently, somewhere in Michigan a fleet manager was able to break out of the boring-white-fleet-car routine.

Most municipal fleets look like this – dull, white, and uninteresting.  Though it’s tempting to sneer once our yawning is complete, there’s a good reason for this lack of individuality: fleet vehicles are intended to be merely background material for a company’s or government’s duties.  They need to get the job done without causing fuss.  Every so often, however, someone will break the mold, and it seems that’s what we have with our featured Daihatsu.  Some clever employee talked his or her workplace into buying a 25+ year-old Japanese kei van.  Creative for sure, though this could be just what’s needed in a municipal fleet.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare right front

These photos were taken in a small city that’s also home to a private college.  While it looks to me (through a cursory glance at Michigan’s state code) that Municipal plates are not applicable to private institutions’ vehicles, I can’t rule out that possibility, so this fleet Daihatsu could belong either to the city or the college.  But the uses for both would likely be similar.  Both cities and colleges tend to operate vehicles for light duty transportation of people or goods within a small area.  And a kei van – in theory – makes perfect sense.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare right side

Prior to spotting this vehicle, the only Daihatsu microvan of which I knew was the Hijet, a nameplate used on kei vans and trucks since 1960.  The Atrai is closely related, manufactured since 1981 as a passenger version of the Hijet van.  Our featured car is a 3rd generation Atrai, sold between 1994 and 1998.

As typical with Japanese domestic vehicles, myriad trim levels were offered on this car, from simplistic to extravagant.  This is one of the more utilitarian versions; from what I can tell it’s called an Atrai Appare.

This TV commercial shows the Appare model’s appeal to families – and the example featured in the ad is the same turquoise color as our featured vehicle.  The Appare was produced between 1995 and 1997.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare left front

A glance at this car shows the hallmarks of sensible family transportation.  Fancier versions featured two-tone paint, alloy wheels, splashy ’90s-era graphics, and glass-roof options.  This example, meanwhile, eschews those unnecessary items and instead is a plain microvan.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare left rear

Like other Atrais, this car came equipped with a 660-cc three-cylinder engine.  Daihatsu offered turbocharged versions, though most were sold with the normally-aspirated engine like this example.  However, this van does have the optional part-time 4wd system, something likely useful in Michigan winters.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare rear

Here we can see our featured Atrai showing off its capacity to carry tall cargo.  Tall, narrow cargo, specifically.  But in all seriousness, this is the kind of stuff that local government employees need to transport quite a bit, so a vehicle such as this does make some sense.  And then there’s the efficiency of a vehicle like this.  With city fuel economy around 35 mpg and a 12.4-ft. turning radius, this is an excellent choice for driving around a small town or campus.  Of course these vehicles aren’t made for long-distance transportation, but in local fleet use, it’s unlikely such a vehicle would often need to leave a 5-mile radius.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare interior front

Inside are designs and textures familiar to those who have experienced 1990s Japanese cars.  Durable cloth, good quality but hard plastic trim, and lots of bubbly shapes abound inside this 1-box van.  Interestingly, despite being a relatively value-oriented vehicle, the Atrai Appare came with standard air conditioning.  Also notable is the 4wd button located at the dashboard’s top-center position.

The driver and passenger sit atop the engine – both seats tilt back to allow engine access.

Daihatsu Atrai Appare interior rear

In the rear, the environment is more utilitarian, with exposed metal pillars and UFO-style solid headrests.  The two rear seats can move independently, providing for flexible cargo/passenger arrangements.

Daihatsu Atrai

While this is certainly an unconventional choice for a fleet vehicle in Michigan, sometimes creative solutions can be highly practical.  Assuming this vehicle’s operators can service it effectively, a kei van would likely satisfy the requirements for a municipal or college fleet.  And judging by the van’s condition, it appears to have seen quite a bit of use.  We’ll likely never know how this Daihatsu came to a municipal fleet 7,000 miles from Tokyo – I’m glad, though, that someone took a chance and ordered this vehicle for fleet use.  Sometimes those dull fleets need a bit of excitement.


Photographed in Hillsdale, Michigan in June 2023.