The love of Japanese cars began over 50 years ago in the U.S. with imported vehicles that were relatively small by American standards, but they weren't the smallest to come from Japan. The island nation kept the tiniest of 4-wheeled conveyances to itself for the most part, which includes a class of vehicle known as Kei cars. In the last 15 years or so, we've seen a trickle of Kei cars imported and/or purchased by the most hardcore of enthusiasts in the States, so we decided to take a little dip into understanding what these miniscule rides are all about.
How Do You Say It?
Keeping in mind we are in no way remotely fluent in Japanese, we admit to being guilty of butchering the pronunciation—like many, referring to them as "key" cars for a time. In fact, it should sound more like "kay." The word "kei" is apparently an abbreviation of the word keijidosha, which translated means "light automobile."
Indeed, these are the smallest street-legal passenger cars, vans, and trucks that you can buy in Japan. Known also as city cars, Kei cars as a class are regulated to a specific vehicle size, engine displacement and power output. The earliest 4-stroke engined cars from the late 1940s and early '50s were limited to a maximum displacement of 150cc (or 0.15L) and 2-stroke engines were maxed out at 100cc. If these power plants seem like they're more suited for motorcycles, it's because that's where many old-school Kei car engines originally came from.
Over the decades, the Japanese government gradually expanded guidelines for the segment to include larger engines, with the current max displacement pegged at 660cc. We should note that Kei cars should not be confused with subcompacts, which are a North American phenomenon and are actually bigger in many respects, although not by a lot.
To Grow, We Must Shrink
As the story goes, Kei cars came about after World War II when automakers and the Japanese government realized many Japanese were buying motorcycles because full-sized cars were out of reach financially. The category was created in an attempt to help out OEMs and initially offered tax and insurance incentives for consumers, but as of the mid-2010s those benefits have largely disappeared as the auto industry moves away from fossil fueled vehicles (which is to say, EV and hybrid car owners are reaping more rewards these days).
Most Kei cars are still made in Japan and built primarily for crowded urban Japanese roads and space-saving parking spaces. It might be helpful to understand them as the most basic individual transportation for the masses, sort of like compacts and subcompacts here in America. Because they're so small, there's a belief most models wouldn't be worthwhile to export to other markets (less car = lower price tag), but in addition to that we couldn't imagine these things would fare too well in an accident with a big ol' American semi, or even an SUV. That said, accident mitigation tech has come a very long way—everything from energy-dissipating uni-bodies and cabins full of airbags to electronic nannies—and has filtered down to modern Kei cars, making them the safest they've ever been.
They have been popular in Japan, peaking in 2013 when some 40 percent of new cars sold there were Kei cars. Many contemporary versions come with turbocharged engines and are either FWD or AWD. If you're making a visit to Japan, you can spot Kei cars by their license plate—they're the ones with black numbers on a yellow background.
Who Makes 'Em?
Right now, only a handful of automakers mass produce Kei cars in Japan, consisting of Honda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, and Daihatsu. That doesn't mean they're the only brands to sell them, though; Nissan, Mazda, Toyota, and Subaru all retail rebadged models from the first four automakers.
How Can I Get One?
We've seen enough Honda N360/N600 at our local annual Japanese Classic Car Show and Acty trucks across North America to know that landing a Kei car in the States is not impossible, but they're certainly not widespread. Apart from hunting through conventional sources like your average Craigslist, Autotrader, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, etc. it seems like keeping tabs on auction sites like Bring a Trailer might be a good bet if you want one that's already here. If you can afford it, importing your own might be a way to go, but the process can take time and is probably best left to experts, who will help you, but again for a cost.