They’re small, they’re Japanese, they’re the stuff of urban automotive legend. But what exactly are kei cars?
Have you ever wanted to drive the automotive equivalent of the Hello-Kitty cat? Well, the Japanese have been doing just that since 1949. Kei cars (pronounced “kay”), short for keijudosha or “light automobile,” are tiny passenger cars and work trucks that meet stringent government regulations limiting their size (both in footprint and engine capacity). They are also boxy, cute, economical, and more Japanese than bonsai, OG Ninja Warrior, and Charmander combined.
Responding to the traffic congestion, narrow roadways, and population densities of Japanese cities, the Japanese government created the kei car segment. They did so by reduces taxes, registration fees, and insurance costs on these light autos. But in order to gain these benefits, cars are limited to 660cc engines that can top out at no more than 64hp and have a footprint 11.2 feet in length by 4.9 feet in width and be no more than 6.6 feet in height. It might not surprise you then that 3-cylinder engines and boxy designs dominate the kei car segment.
Note: You won’t need to worry about the paltry 64hp from your kei car, at least not when you’re driving in Japan. The speed limits are shockingly low (at least by US standards). Typical urban roads are posted between 40-50kmph (25-31mph), highway speeds are set at 50-60kmph (31-37mph), and even highway speeds for large transport vehicles is capped at 80kmph (50mph). I know this doesn’t sound like much fun, but these low speed limits have also reduced Japanese traffic deaths by 75% over the past 20 years, down to just 3.5 per 100,000 compared to the US’s 12.4.
Currently, kei cars make a whole 3rd of all new car sales in Japan. Their efficiency, both in raw mpgs and sticker price (ranging from $9,100-$15,000 USD), have helped them maintain their popularity even though the savings on fees and taxes have decreased over time.
The hottest kei car currently on the market is the Honda N-Box Slash (oh, did we forget to mention kei cars have wonderfully silly names like the Toyota Pixis and the Mazda Scrum). The N-Box Slash is boxy. Seemingly boxier than the Nissan Cube, as if such a thing were even possible. The N-Box Slash is literally a single rectangle with a minor divot carved out to form the windshield and hood.
The boxy nature of modern kei cars is an attempt to maximize their already limited functionality. These things are small. So small that just buying one grants your friends and loved ones lifetime passes to make whatever clown-car/Power Wheels jokes they want. But their diminutive stature is also the greatest charm.
We already wrote breathlessly about the Suzuki Hustler concept when it debuted at last year’s Tokyo Auto show. Seriously, how cool is this tiny, yet rugged looking crossover? The aforementioned Toyota Pixis Mega (the Japanese know their irony) rivals the N-Box Slash for boxiness and silly name cred. Plus, in the Suzuki Alto Turbo RS, you’ll at least look like you’re driving fast.
As cool as today’s kei cars are, a look back over their 70+ year history proves the old design adage that constraints spur creativity. Check out some of these kei car classics:
The Mazda built Autozam AZ-1 is one of the sickest JDM cars period. A kei car sport car The Autozam AZ-1 is a kei sports car featuring a mid-mounted 657cc turbo-3, gullwing doors, a wing, and a 5-speed manual. Oh, and check out those quarter panel slats reminiscent of the Ferrari Testarossa!
The Honda Beat is another kei sports car. It’s another mid-engine rowdy RWD, but time it’s also a convertible. This car was the last project overseen by company founder Soichiro Honda prior to his passing in 1991.
You might be thinking, gosh, I’d love me one of those “fun size” Japanese cars. The good news is there are plenty to be had, the bad news? We’ll get to that in a moment. Here’s the rub, Japanese automotive regulations, which require strict initial and bi-annual inspections, render many cars in Japan obsolete long before they’ve outlived their usefulness. The steady churn of used to new vehicles means Japan has literal boatloads of used cars ripe for export. It’s not just the Nissan Skyline either, there are all sorts of exotic JDM (Japanese domestic market) cars American motorheads and semi-pro drifters desperately want to get their grease stained hands on, including these charming little kei cars.
And sure enough, kei cars have been exported from Japan for decades … just not to the US. Whaaaa? Why no love for the mighty, miniscule kei car in the good ol’ US of A? Easy answer, trade protectionism in the form of H.R. 2628 (passed way back in 1988) which restricts the importation of used vehicles to those no less than 25 years of age. That means you’ll have to wait years, in some cases decades, for a chance to see some of the coolest kei cars out on US roads.
So how is a red-blooded Yankee such as yourself supposed to get your kei car fix? Simple, bide your time or get truckin’. There just happens to be a glaring loophole in H.R. 2628. All those plucky little kei trucks you see zipping around Tokyo loading docks can be imported as off-road vehicles and registered as ATVs in 21 US states. That means, aside from use on interstate highways, you can import your own Daihatsu Hijet or Suzuki Carry and haul whatever reasonably small load of stuff you see fit.
In a nation obsessed with automotive size, our trucks, their grilles, their touchscreens, we forget the joys of economical design. We can thank our friends across the Pacific for reminding us. And even if those kei cars aren’t designed with track-day in mind, you can still have fun racing them.