Super Street Network

Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit www.motortrend.com for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
 |   |  Pocket-Sized Fun - What is a Kei Car?
Subscribe to the Free
Newsletter

Pocket-Sized Fun - What is a Kei Car?

Japanese OEMs have always led the way in the little car movement, but the tiniest ones never made it Stateside. We explain what a Kei car is and round up a few examples to broaden your horizons.

Bob Hernandez
Aug 6, 2020
Photographers: Super Street Archives, Manufacturer

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."

What Is A Kei Car Subaru Stella 01 Photo 49/49   |   Pocket-Sized Fun - What is a Kei Car?

Size Matters

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.

Tiny but Tough (Looking)
Liberty Walk Mini GT-R Daihatsu Copen
Honda City with Motocompo Trunk Bike

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.

What Is A Kei Car Suzuki Suzulight Photo 49/49   |   Pocket-Sized Fun - What is a Kei Car?

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).

Uniquely JDM

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.

What Is A Kei Car Daihatsu Taft Photo 49/49   |   Pocket-Sized Fun - What is a Kei Car?

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.

 

By Bob Hernandez
962 Articles

BROWSE CARS BY MARKET

MORE FEATURES

That a Suzuki Samurai is being featured by Super Street shouldn’t come as a complete shock to some of our long-time fans who know we love capturing something unique. Sure, it’s not a common occurrence and in fact, I can’t recall ever having featured one in the past, but this example, owned and built by
RodrezApr 9, 2021
The thin, often blurred line that separates street cars from full-fledged track cars is a slippery slope, and one that this 2018 Civic Type R seems to have settled comfortable upon. Its owner, Mary Valdez, made a calculated approach to the build – a process that’s slowly and steadily continued to enhance her FK8’s track
RodrezApr 8, 2021
Just a few days removed from the launch of Toyota’s half of the GR 86/BRZ second generation vehicle debut, Subaru announces a slew of OEM optional parts for their version. As of now, these parts, some of which were seen through a cloaked BRZ undergoing testing at Fuji, are in development and intended for the
RodrezApr 7, 2021
Collaborative ventures between automakers, like that of the Toyota and Subaru joint effort, are typically met with a noticeable amount of pushback from the enthusiast circle. The main argument is usually based on the assumption that each manufacturer fails to have the dollars or know-how to create a special model of their own and that
RodrezApr 6, 2021
The idea of a long-time Honda enthusiast who, after putting years of effort and excessive dollars into his Honda build only to let it go in lieu of an 80s-era Porsche, shouldn’t come as any shock. The transition has become a common occurrence as the overcrowded Honda community has seen a pretty significant number of
RodrezApr 2, 2021
Sponsored Links

SEARCH ARTICLES BY MAKE/MODEL

Search
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS
TO TOP