1 July 2015

Japan’s fabulous Kei Cars

I’ve heard a lot about Japan, as my wife lived there for three years as an English teacher. It sounds like a wonderful country, if a little quirky. As well as being a pioneer of technology, home to the bullet train and renowned for its chopstick-oriented cuisine and stunning flora and fauna, Japan can also teach the human race a thing or two about good manners and hygiene. The kids there clean their classrooms and taxi doors open without you having to touch anything. Famous for reliability, the Japanese also make some awesome cars, like Nissan’s GT-R and Honda’s NSX. Obviously such supercars are reserved for the wealthier and in actual fact, teeny little cars are all the rage in Japan. They are called ‘Kei cars’ and the best-selling car in Japan in 2014, the Daihatsu Tanto, is from this very category, so let’s take a look.

Japanese Kei Cars - Subaru 360

Subaru 360: photograph credited to Taisyo on Wikipedia

Kei cars exist because Japan is one crowded island, its capital Tokyo housing a population of nearly 13.5million according to the last count. With space at a premium, buildings in urban areas tend to reach towards the sky and roads are so narrow that many are effectively single track. Many businesses in Japanese cities therefore rely on diddy little vans such as the Suzuki Carry, which you can buy in the UK. Petrol prices and road tax are also expensive in Japan, which is another reason why Kei cars came about and prove so popular right across the age spectrum, from city slickers to elderly couples.

Kei cars have been produced in Japan since the 1950s and originally had to be powered by engines of 360cc or less, which was then increased to 550cc, and the figure is now 660cc – yes, two-thirds of a litre, which is smaller than even the tiniest cars in the UK. The rules state that Kei cars can be no longer than 3.4 metres and no wider than 1.48 metres, and they can’t be more powerful than 64bhp. What’s more, they hardly emit any nasty pollutants, have bags of space inside as many of them are tall cars, and they are very easy indeed to park. If you’re thinking they sound ideal for new, inexperienced and young drivers, you’re not the only one, but the days of the Kei car could be numbered. Taxes in Japan are rising and car manufacturers need to develop a global building strategy to survive, so it’s not financially sensible to build such pint-size cars only for the Japanese market. Besides, they’re not very profitable to produce, either.

Japanese Kei Cars - Daihatsu Mira Walk-through Van

Daihatsu Mira Walk-through Kei minivan: photograph credited to Tennen-gas on Wikipedia

One of the first Kei cars produced in Japan was the Subaru 360, made from 1958 onwards. Nicknamed  the ‘ladybug’, it was a sales success, giving Japan a needed boost to get back on its feet and mobile again after the Second World War. When it came to early Kei vans, the Daihatsu Walk-through has to be one of the oddest, and if you’re on the hunt for the most boring-looking, older Kei car, try the Honda Vamos, which launched in 1999 as a revised model. Most Kei cars had two-stroke engines, which is essentially similar to a motorbike’s, but the new Vamos MPV used a three-stroke. Four-wheel drive was optional, which wasn’t unusual, as many other Kei cars were offered with such extra traction, again making them seem a no-brainer choice, unfortunately only sold in Japan. Honda actually still sells the Vamos Hobio for 1,280,000 Yen, making it around £6,500. Honda’s latest Kei cars include the N-Box Slash and the kind of funky-looking N-Box Modulo X.

Japanese Kei Cars - Honda N-Box Modulo X

Honda N-Box Modulo X: photograph copyright Honda Motor Co Ltd

Looking at other manufacturers, Toyota sells the Pixis Space, with styling perfect for Peppa Pig addicts and boasts fuel consumption of 27.6 litres per kilometre – around 78mpg. It’s grouped in the ‘Light cars’ category on Toyota’s website, not even the ‘Compact’ one, showing just how small Kei cars are. Mazda has a handful of light cars in its range, the prize for the cutest going to the Flair Crossover, a tough, retro-styled little SUV.

Subaru is still very much in the game, too. Their cheapest Kei car is called the Pleo+ and their website reckons it can do upto 99mpg. Blimey. Kei cars aren’t perhaps as safe as the small cars sold in Europe, but the Pleo+ offers ‘smart assist’, for added protection in rear-end collisions. It costs a mere £4,000 but then it is about the same size as a microwave. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the drift. Subaru also sells a Kei car called Stella, which is also available in ‘Custom’ guise, with attractive LED lights that would look every bit the part over here in the UK. The shiny purple paint job and relatively large alloys also boost its bling appeal. With a 660cc engine, it’s available in two or four-wheel drive and costs £7,300, so again isn’t going to break the bank.

Japanese Kei Cars - Subaru Stella

Subaru Stella: photograph copyright Fuji Heavy Industries/Subaru

If tall, boxy cars aren’t your thing but you still love the Kei car philosophy, sporty Kei cars old and new do exist. Honda has launched the stunning S660 sports Kei car, which still has an engine under 1-litre and 64bhp, and Daihatsu has released the second generation Copen, which looks much more aggressive than the original. Classic sports-focussed Kei cars include the Suzuki SC100, which has the nickname ‘Whizzkid’ and was actually sold in the UK in the 1970s, with a larger engine than the Japanese version had.

Japanese Kei Cars - SC100 Whizzkid

Suzuki SC100 Whizzkid: photograph copyright Suzuki

Japanese Kei cars - Honda S660 Prototype

Honda S660: photograph copyright Honda Motor Co Ltd

Japanese Kei cars - 2014 Daihatsu Copen XPLAY S

Second generation Daihatsu Copen, XPLAY S model: photograph copyright Daihatsu Motor Co Ltd

The UK is becoming more and more congested, too, many homes having three or more cars, so it’s a shame Japanese Kei cars have never officially been sold here in right-hand drive. Western Europe is still quite image conscious when it comes to cars, though, the idea perpetuated that the bigger or more powerful the car you have, the more successful you are. In Japan, Kei cars sell in droves, buyers of all ages unable to get enough of them. They’re cheap as chips to insure and run, more environmentally friendly than hybrids and usually come rammed full of the latest gadgets, which the Japanese people love. They’re even suited to rural folk, as they don’t require many visits to the fuel pump and come with 4×4 for extra ability. If you’ve visited Japan and taken photos of any teeny vehicles out there, or perhaps even driven a Kei car, we’d love to hear from you on Twitter or Facebook

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.