“Cute.” “Awesome.” “Practical.” “So tiny!” These are the things I hear regularly when people describe Kei-cars, the minicars sold almost exclusively in Japan. Their funky designs, so different from what people outside of the country are used to, generate lots of love and envy among gearheads around the globe. But what’s it like to live with a typical Kei-car?
Terrible, actually. Here’s why most of them suck so badly.
First of all, let’s start with a quick reminder of what Kei-cars are. “Kei” comes from “Keijidosha”, the Japanese for “light automobile.” They were introduced in postwar Japan, aimed at the struggling masses that couldn’t afford a proper car. With one of these, they could go around and do their daily chores in something else other than a motorcycle.
These vehicles have some strict limitations to be considered a Kei: the engine must be 660cc or smaller, they cannot produce more than 64 horsepower, they can only seat four people maximum, and dimensions are also limited to about 11.2 feet long, 4.85 feet wide and 6.5 feet tall. Regular Kei-cars must also fit four people “comfortably.” As you will soon learn, “comfortable” is a relative state of being.
For me to demonstrate how awful most of these cars really are, I’ll use one of the most standard, banal, common Kei-cars you can find in Japan today: a 2013 Suzuki Alto. You might think that all Kei-cars are quirky, modern incarnations of your favorite classic small cars, but take a look at this Suzuki to see the reality of what people actually drive.
Outsiders will often praise the apparent ingenuity of the designers who manage to offer lots of legroom, even in the back. “Look at how nice it is to sit back there in spite of how small the whole thing is!” I’ll tell you why it’s surprising: it’s because you’re sitting in the freaking trunk.
All this legroom in the back comes at a very simple cost: The trunk space of a Kei is truly terrible. And I mean bad to the point that you almost cannot carry anything AND seat four people.
For example, people often mention the Honda NSX’s tiny luggage space of “only” 154 liters (about 5.4 cubic feet.) The Suzuki Alto has 129 liters, or about 4.5 cubic feet. For a family car. Who in their right mind would be in the market for a family car and choose something like that? The very limited trunk also often pushes manufacturers to add more storage space up near the roof, making the whole thing even more prone to terrible body roll.
If you don’t have anyone sitting in the back, you can, of course put the rear seats in cargo mode and carry more stuff around. Make sure to fill up the whole space as tightly as possible though, or the body roll will have anything not perfectly secured fly all over the place, no matter how careful and slow you are taking corners. Do not put grandma’s ashes in the back unattended while driving a Kei-car, no matter how big and stable the funerary urn looks. (Ask me how I know this.)
Let’s shift our focus to the driving experience. Such a small tiny car has to be somewhat nimble and agile, right? Not necessarily. Get ready to keep a hand on that wheel at all times. If your luggage flies around, so will you in this perfect crude caricature of what a car seat is. No restraint to hold you in place, cheap fabric to slide over it. Any sort of turn will require you to yank the wheel to next Thursday for even the smallest degree of motion.
And this is by design. Since kei car manufacturers are forced to work with inherently unstable short wheelbases, this is the kind of compromise they have to make to stay secure at speed. The whole logic behind that was to make the car stable at speed in spite of the very short wheelbase.
So while the steering is actually very precise with no dead zone, the what feels like 1300 degree steering rack makes it totally useless, forcing you to turn the wheel 180 degrees or more for a simple 90 degree turn. That makes evasive maneuvers very hard, and any loss of control would require extremely fast reflexes.
Again, it’s easy to romanticize kei cars as these idealized classic small fun cars still in production in the bizarro land of Japan, but the reality doesn’t match up. Take, for example, the gearboxes. Of course, not all Kei-cars are the same. For 2016, the only four-seater Kei-car I know of with a manual is the Suzuki Alto Turbo RS Works (the regular Turbo RS is only available with an automatic). Ninety-five percent of new cars sold in Japan are now automatics (an even higher proportion than in the United States) and four-door Kei-cars with manual gearboxes barely exist anymore.
Also, not only are most Kei-cars stuck with fun-sucking automatics, but they are often gifted by a very special kind of slushbox tragedy. Yes, you guessed right: CVTs, with their total lack of responsiveness and lack of gears to match. Let this information sink in for a moment: you get 64 HP, terrible body roll with no way to hold yourself in your seat, and the nimbleness of a red fish out of his aquarium. And a freaking CVT transmission.
Getting the engine to react once you’ve stepped on the gas and start accelerating takes years, seemingly. But of course with 64 HP and nonetorque, just because the car is stuck at 7000 RPM and screaming, doesn’t mean that anything is actually happening. Luckily, the cars are light and brakes are usually decent. Score one for safety!
Of course, safety comes into play for anyone who plan on driving the family around in one of these tiny cars. Right? Right? No.
Most Kei-cars are not exportable outside of Japan for the good and only reason that they do not comply with most American and European crash standards. Our beloved Suzuki Alto is one of the safest ones and is actually exported to the UK where the Euro NCAP gave it a rating of three stars out of five, legs and torso being the most at risk for the driver, along with “marginal whiplash protection.” Doesn’t that sound enticing, car-shopper?
In 2014, its Indian rebranded version, the Maruti Alto 800, was also deemed unsafe and failed to pass pretty much any structural integrity tests at higher speeds . Following these poor results, Suzuki responded by adding stability control to its cheapest models. You will still get hurt when you crash, but the car will be stable while crashing! Keep in mind, this is one of the safest Kei-cars on the market today, with Kei-trucks being the absolute worst and Kei-vans often being close second. (In all fairness, the Indian version has no airbag either, which certainly did not help with the test.)
I will not be too hard on the quality of the interior though. Sure, you had better like grey hard plastics everywhere along with cheap materials that get scratched oh so easily, but this is a $9,000 car, so there is not much to expect at this price range. All new Kei-cars now come with a GPS from factory (it works as a TV and DVD player too, because distracted driving is perfectly fine in Japan, as long as it does not involve a cell phone) which is a fairly important accessory for a country with absolutely no logic whatsoever when it comes to addresses.
Some more expensive Kei-cars are better equipped, but the driving experience stays the same and prices climb very quickly. I do strongly recommend the adjustable side mirrors though. Laugh all you want, but standard ones on that Suzuki Alto cannot be adjusted up and down. When you’re tall like me, you need some sweet yoga moves to look behind you. I have actually never seen side mirrors that bad in my life before and I have driven my fair share of shitty cheap cars of all ages.
Before anyone attempts to crucify me on the top of Mt. Fuji for hating these cars you cannot drive (and we all know that since you can’t get them, it means they are awesome), keep in mind not all Kei-cars were born equals. Honda’s Beat and the new S660, the Suzuki Cappuccino, the Mazda AZ-1 or the Suzuki Alto RS-R and the new Alto Turbo RS Works are awesome cars to drive and own.
They may not be as safe as what Americans are used to, but at least they are fun, nimble and you’ll die in them with a massive smile on your face.
But these are a tiny fraction of models in the Kei world; the vast majority suck, plain and simple. They may look cool and come in crazy shapes and colors, but actually living with one is a pain for any person who really enjoys driving. Or not being horribly maimed in a crash.
And when you keep in mind that regular cars, including hybrids and electrics, can pollute less than these little crapcans, it makes their existence absolutely useless in today’s world. The only reason they are still around is because they are less taxed by the Japanese government.
Hey, maybe it’s all part of the country’s environmental strategy. If you make shitty cars, people drive less, and that means less pollution. With Kei-cars, Japan finally figured out how to reduce global warming.
Flavien Vidal is a 32-year-old French guy born 30 years too late who now lives in Japan. He likes anything on four wheels, granted that it’s not a soulless econobox.