Japan’s BIG small cars

Ross Hall

May 27, 2021
(Updated on June 17, 2021)

Orange toy Suzuki Hustler kei car in front of the allow wheel of a real car of the same make

Emerging at the end of the Second World War, Kei cars were designed to be cheap to produce and own. With limited engine sizes and dimensions, they started as an alternative delivery method to motorbikes and evolved into practical family cars.

The first Kei cars were basic, with a 150cc engine and little in the way of safety equipment or comforts. Over the years they became more sophisticated, powerful and safe. 

Modern Kei cars bear little relation to their basic origins. They’re as well equipped as their bigger cousins, yet are economical, benefit from lower taxes and far less expensive to buy.

Although manufactured and sold mainly in Japan, some models found export markets, and there have been limited imports. Both Smart and Caterham have attempted to enter the market, neither successfully, while sports models from Suzuki and Daihatsu found cult followings in Europe and the US.

The future direction of the Kei concept is the subject of debate. While some have hybrid engines, pure battery powered models have been less than successful because of high costs, low range and a lack of charging infrastructure. There are concerns mandating EV versions could force costs to more than triple and deprive the standard of its low cost benefits.

The Coronavirus pandemic has caused recent car sales in Japan to fall to their lowest levels in nearly a decade. However, sales of Kei cars have remained resilient, undoubtably helped by their value for money. In 2019 approximately 1-in-3 new cars was a Kei, that number increasing slightly to 2-in-5 in 2020.

For the time being at least the Kei will be a popular sight on Japan’s roads. Whether the standard can evolve to meet the challenges of a zero-carbon economy remains to be seen. 

If history is anything to judge by, prospects are good.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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