Only a select few have the privilege of visiting Japan during their brief stent on this over-sized asteroid we call Earth, and even fewer get the opportunity to see those distant shores more than once in a lifetime. I am not one of these people.
In the past decade alone, I have visited Japan close to 20 times, and have had the honor of seeing some of the most sensational race cars up close, eating the wildest delicacies imaginable, and drinking more than my share of high-grade chilled sake. I have climbed bamboo covered mountains, ridden bullet trains that run faster than a two-year-old’s nose, and lounged in the most extravagant hot springs imaginable. But all of these experiences pale in comparison to the wonder I found within the confines of a tiny little contraption called “The Kei Car.”
Literally translated, a Kei car, K-car, or Kei Jid?sha, is a “light automobile” which is usually a commuter car designed for fuel efficiency and space saving. According to modern Japanese regulations, a Kei Car cannot have an engine larger than 1.4 liters, and has a very low insurance and tax bracket. They can be equipped with any two-wheel or four-wheel drivetrain configuration, are surprisingly spacious inside, cost little more than a pack of Juicy Fruit to own and operate, and are a breeze to parallel park.
Toss in a massive amount of airbags (absent of the Takata recall naturally), every tech upgrade imaginable, and some clever styling, and we have a car that is tailor-made to the finicky Generation Z buyer I reported on a while back. So what’s holding America back from offering us these amazing little machines of futuristic proportions? The answer proves to be a bit more simple than one might think.
First of all, most Kei cars are designed exclusively for sale in Japan, so left-hand drive models are not even available most of the time. Secondly, America’s Department of Transportation (DOT) standards are quite different than those found in Japan. With our faster highway speeds, and the populace saying “who needs ‘em in the first place?” it would be quite the field day for inspectors when they see a shipment of these Japanese “toy cars” wash up on their shores.
There also is the manufacturer’s concern that Americans wouldn’t be interested in a low horsepower, itty-bitty car, what with the plethora of full-sized, V8-toting SUVs and trucks one sees liberally sprinkled across the American landscape. But this shouldn’t discourage Japanese manufacturers, because they might not know it yet, but the Kei Car might just have the upper hand here.
With more drivers becoming obsessed with fuel efficiency, there is no reason why the Kei Car shouldn’t be a worthy option on any car salesman’s roster. Despite having the equivalent of sewing machines for engines, the modern Kei Car can easily be equipped with a turbocharger from the factory like the Honda Vamos van, and we see no reason why a supercharger cannot be slapped on one to eliminate turbo-lag.
The steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car? That never stopped Japanese manufacturers from sending us factory converted Accords, Legacys, and GT-R Skylines with the steering wheel on the left side and 100% DOT approved. And if someone even dares to raise the argument that these little pip-squeaks are too tiny for our roadways, I shall be quick to point out the fact that the Smart Fourtwo, the Mini Cooper, the Chevy Spark, and others are all road legal here, and they are smaller than most Kei Cars.
So who is the target market for a wee little car like this? Well to be honest, a lot of people. With their super low emissions these cars would pass emission inspections with flying colors, and will undoubtedly appeal to all the hybrid owners out there who have realized that the 90-pound cobalt-filled hybrid battery in the trunk of their car is actually really bad for the environment. This kind of car is also undeniably attractive to the aforementioned Generation Z buyer, who wants something cheap to purchase, own, and insure; all while still being tech-filled, easy to drive, and attractive to the eye.
This car is also ideal for any urban dwelling individual who needs something that can get around the city center with great ease, and is not a total pain to park. But the Kei Car isn’t just limited to city folk; rural drivers will appreciate the fact that many models come equipped with all-wheel drive, and don’t require an $80 fill-up every time they head to the market for dish soap and toiletries. And for those of us who are over six feet tall (myself included), rest assured in knowing that the Japanese have designed these little boxes to be surprisingly spacious. Not once have I found myself grimacing in pain in the backseat of a modern Kei Car van due to the use of low seat rails and extended cabin height.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the Kei Car is perfect for every American who wants a small car. Trunk space is usually limited at best, and when working on their engines, maneuvering room is at a premium. And there is no denying the fact that there is virtually nothing masculine about a single Kei car, ever.
But despite its obvious lack of “macho appeal,” I still feel strongly that there is no reason why we as Americans shouldn’t be offered these cars. Isn’t that why we have such a wide variety of cars to choose from in the first place? Shouldn’t we at least have the option to choose something that is even more efficient and practical than what is already offered? Variety is the spice of life, or so the saying goes. Maybe it’s time we get a tiny taste of what the far East has to offer.