Curbside Outtake: Smart Forfour – A Hard Life in the Land of the Rising Sun


While walking over to City Hall the other day I saw these two cars parked side-by-side at a nearby apartment complex – and immediately thought “this picture perfectly captures the tough business case Smart faces here in Japan.”


Obviously the Smart is on the right – it appears to be a first-gen (03-06) “Forfour” 4 door model similar to this one.


On the left is a fourth–gen (08-12) Suzuki Wagon R, the sales leader and most popular model in Japan’s “Kei” or mini-car class.

As you can see, the Smart is a little wider (1.68m) than the Suzuki (1.47m).  Ditto for the engine – Smart 1000 cc, Suzuki 660 cc (max mini-car size).  Length is roughly the same; 3.7m for the Smart, 3.4m for the Suzuki.  Height however goes to the Suzuki; 1.66m to 1.45m.


With its minivan-like increased height, and lower floor, the Suzuki actually has more interior space than the Smart.

Why does all this matter?  Purchase price and operating costs…

Due to its width and engine size, the Smart is defined as a regular-size automobile under Japan’s auto classification system – same class as a Corolla, Sentra or Civic.  The Suzuki, however, as a kei-class car, benefits from much less expensive taxes, fees, insurance, and registration costs – in addition to a lower MSRP.  An example;

–  In Japan, MSRP for a 2016 Smart Forfour is around $21K, a 2016 Wagon R starts at $11.3K and goes up to $15K loaded.

–  Sales tax on the purchase price of a kei car is 3% vs 5% for regular models.

–  Annual Road Tax is $70 vs $300-$500 (dependent on engine size) for larger vehicles.

–  The Weight tax due every two years is approximately $70 vs $120-$240.

–  The compulsory two-year Japan Liability Insurance is approx $200 vs $300.

–  Lastly, in most large cities, regular size cars require a parking certificate issued by the local police station prior to registration verifying a space to park the vehicle – kei cars do not require this certificate.

So unless you’re really into having a foreign make with some European cachet, it’s tough to make a dollars and cents argument for the Smart over a similar size JDM model; specifically a kei-class car.  Factor in dealership accessibility and maintenance costs and the argument becomes even more difficult.


Smart did market a Fortwo model in Japan from 2001-04 that met kei-car class engine and size dimensions but it was just too expensive for its size and unrefined for Japanese consumers.

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That may be why we see so few Smart’s here in JDM-land.  I assume Smart salespersons here must have a lot in common with this gentleman – brownie points to anyone less ancient than Paul and I who can identify him…