It was love at first sight when an AA Member stumbled across a TradeMe auction for a little Subaru. With a great price and an even greater fuel economy, she hit the bid button and soon became the owner of what she was told was a ‘Kei-car’. Suddenly she had a lot of questions about what had she just bought and decided to give our AA Motoring experts a call.

The car was a lesser known Subaru Kei-car called the R2 (not a Star Wars reference). You may have seen the odd Kei-car cruising the streets of New Zealand so we thought we would share some of the history and idiosyncrasies of these unique vehicles.

What is a Kei-car?

A Kei-car, K-car, or kei jidōsha is the Japanese legal category for the smallest and most limited power motor vehicles, including passenger cars, microvans and even pick-up trucks. Kei-cars are designed to comply with Japanese regulations such as vehicle length (below 3.4m), vehicle width (1.48m), engine volume (660cc) and power (63hp).

History

Early Kei-cars started life with very strict size requirements. In 1949 the maximum length permitted was 2.8m and the maximum width was a mere 1m with an engine size restricted to a ridiculous 150cc.

On the streets of Japan, Kei-cars enjoy both tax and insurance benefits, and in most rural areas are also exempt from the Japanese regulation which requires all privately owned vehicles to have a certified specific parking space within 2km of the owner’s home.

This class of car was created in the post-war era. It appears to have boosted the growth of the early Japanese automobile industry by challenging auto manufacturers to create competitive vehicles within the tight confines of the legislation which they needed to adhere to.

Japanese sales

The Japanese domestic market has a continually expanding array of Kei-cars, vans and trucks offering multiple solutions for consumers. These vehicles have become very successful in Japan and in 2016, made up just over one third of domestic new car sales. But for export markets, the vehicles are generally too specialised and too small for most models to be profitable.

Last year, the top selling Kei-car in Japan was the Honda N-Box, followed by the Daihatsu Move and Tanto. Honda sold a staggering 218,478 of these little cars in Japan. Compare this to New Zealand’s top seller for 2017 – the Ford Ranger at 9,420 and it’s safe to say you won’t miss one on your next visit to Tokyo! The N-Box also grand slammed the ever popular Toyota Prius which sold 160,912 units in Japan in 2017.

The humble N-Box is 3.395m long, 1.475m wide and 1.770m high. The engine and ancillaries are compressed under a mini bonnet, ensuring the cabin is as long as possible. The performance won’t throw you back into your seat producing just 57bhp from the baby 658cc engine. Running on as little as 3.5l per 100 kilometres, it’s easy to see why they are a Japanese favourite. If you fancy buying one, the Honda N-box sells for a fairly sweet price of $23,000 NZD (174,000 Yen).

New Zealand imports

Unfortunately Kei-cars are few and far between in New Zealand, although you may see some quirky examples on our roads such as the Suzuki Cappuccino, Daihatsu Copen and the older Honda Beat. Although providing amazing fuel economy, these vehicles haven’t proved popular for importers as New Zealand doesn’t offer incentives for smaller capacity engines. With fuel prices soaring and Kei-cars increasing in safety and popularity in Japan, will we see a flow-on effect in the coming years? Time will tell.

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