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Car Features

The U.S. Has Kei Cars, They Just Don’t Know It

29 Sep , 2013  

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For those not familiar with kei cars, the idea stemmed from Japan.  These cars are regulated to 660cc, offer financial advantages from initial and insurance costs, and are exempted from certain Japanese parking regulations.  Size-wise, these cars are similar to the original Mini Cooper, up to 11.2 feet in length and 4.9 feet in width.  The more popular kei cars are the Honda Beat, Suzuki Cappuccino, and Autozam AZ-1.  Some kei cars have turbo charging.  Some have five seats.

HondaBeat-carwitter

Suzuki Cappuccino Red Front - carwitter

What’s the American equivalent you may ask?  Something bigger, more powerful.  Some of these cars are the Fiat 500, Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Spark, and SmartForTwo.

Fiat 500 Trio Nose - carwitter

While that’s not a complete list, to me, they fit a U.S.-kei car description.  These cars are considered subcompacts in the United States, or would fit under the category of superminis in the U.K.  The displacement of the engines are less than 1.8 litres.  The wheelbases are less than 100 inches.  They offer financial benefits of ownership.  They are easy to drive, with a focus of getting from point A to point B with minimal hassle.

Chevrolet Spark Tag Trio - carwitter

Why would I care about them?  That’s a simple answer really.  I’ve seen the city environment around my neighborhood change dramatically in a 15 year span.  What used to be 98 cents per gallon of gas when I started driving in the late 90s, is now $4.00 per gallon.  What used to be short 15 minute drives to a favorable restaurant is now 45 minutes depending on the time of day.  The streets have added more construction, more red lights, less shortcuts, and a greater likelihood of gridlock.

Mazda 2 Venture Edition Side - carwitter

Driver training could help alleviate the situation.  I’m surrounded by modern cars with drivers thinking they’re in the 1950’s; lots of space between vehicles, very slow acceleration, lackadaisical attention to the lights, braking far too early or unnecessarily going from stop light to stop light.  While I can’t control how other drivers drive, I do appreciate it when they make choices to occupy less space on the road.  It’s that much easier to change lanes or park properly when the car is just that small.  I’ve noticed, from my experience, that owners of these vehicles are purely focused on getting to point B in a quick and safe manner.  This only makes me happier to see that there’s a variety of superminis available to the market.

Smart fortwo CDI Front - carwitter

The Mazda2 is perceived as a sporty hatchback.  The Fiat 500 is perceived as something more fashionable.  While that may be the case, at least there’s a Fiat 500 turbo and Abarth version for some track ready hooning.  The Toyota Yaris is perceived as a value purchase, while the SmartForTwo is perceived to be the most fuel efficient of the bunch listed.  They’re all great products that have attracted U.S. buyers.  It shows a shift of change from other larger cars such as a Camry, Corolla, Civic Sedan, or Honda Accord.  I see it as a positive sign in U.S. buyers adapting their choices to a more practical solution financially and on the road.

2013 Toyota Yaris White Front - carwitter

After all, that is the point of having a car; getting us from point A to point B as easily as possible.  Sometimes we don’t want driving our cars to be an event.  We just want to get groceries at the local shops, find a good parking spot at a movie theater, and parallel park easily next to a concert venue in a quiet manner.

It just helps when manufacturers make the small cars…more fun.

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By  -  
Mike Garcia - Feature Writer / US Correspondent


  • Stuart M.

    I think it is a bit of a stretch to call cars like the Toyota Yaris or the Mazda 2 kei cars. Their engines are massive compared to the kei car 660 cc engines, they weigh considerably more too. Japanese kei cars have very strict limitations on exterior and engine sizes. Okay, compared to typical American cars, the Yaris and Mazda are micro cars, but in Japan they are considered mid-sized. I have a kei car, a 2006 Daihatsu Mira. It’s very roomy inside and has power everything. The small engine encourages “stately” driving like a much larger limousine rather than sporty. I definitely don’t want to get in an accident with this very light car even though it has airbags. Maybe I would stand a chance if I hit another key car!

    • Just aim for something small eh?

    • Robert Fahey

      I’m considering buying an Autozam Az-1 (a Mazda product), but where do you get such a car serviced? Mazda dealership service managers won’t return my emails about this.

      • Stuart M.

        Can’t help you there. I once made the mistake of taking a Mazda made for the American market to Europe. I figured the same model was being sold there, so maintenance wouldn’t be a problem. WRONG! The lights had to be changed, I had to apply for exemptions for all kinds of safety features required in Europe, and every time any part wore out, it had to be special ordered from Japan.

  • Will yam Dysinger

    I agree with Stuart M. The cars mentioned are no where close to being actual kei cars! As a younger man I drove three “bug-eyed Sprites” in a row and loved them, a 59 and two 60 models with that little 4 banger engine. They were not speed demons but oh what fun just scootin around! Later I have owned two of the H600 sedans that Honda first imported to the US and still own one! If I could find an old King Midget I would drive one of them with 12hp! Much safer than a scooter but oh so much more fun and useful!

  • Thomas Lee Mullins

    I enjoy my Smart Fortwo Passion. The sporty version is the Brabus. I like how easy it is to park, how good it is on gas and how much fun it is to drive. 🙂

  • Todd Boyle

    Oh come on. This article isn’t about Kei cars. It has mostly irrelevant vehicles, talks about driver behavior etc. while omitting some of the most critical factors in adoption. Like legal restrictions. insurability, models rankings in U.S. context…

  • Thinking Freely

    “I’m surrounded by modern cars with drivers thinking they’re in the 1950’s; lots of space between vehicles…” Yes, well, that comes in handy for avoiding a pileup if someone rear-ends you, as has happened to me.
    “…very slow acceleration…” Not where I live. Everyone in my area drives like a bat out of hell and seems to believe that speed limits are a mere suggestion.
    “…lackadaisical attention to the lights…” I’ll agree with you there.
    “…braking far too early…” Acting as if one has no brakes is more of a problem in my neck of the woods.
    “… or unnecessarily going from stop light to stop light.” Can you clarify what you mean by that?