Curbside Conundrum: The Confusing World of Japan’s Kei Cars

Over the past several years CC has reviewed a number of “kei jidosha” – the small minicar segment here in Japan.  For new readers, this class of car sets below sub-compacts, and is limited by government regulation in both exterior dimensions and engine size/horsepower.  Currently, the maximum body dimensions are 3.4 m (11.2 ft) in length, 1.48 m (4.9 ft) in width, and 2.0 m (6.6 ft) in height.  Engine size is restricted to 660 cc, with max output 63 hp.

1982 Suzuki Cervo

Prior to the mid-90’s, these kei cars were real penalty boxes; while thrifty with gas, they were small, tinny, slow, and did I mention small?  Your author can remember trying to contort his 6’6″ frame into a Suzuki Cervo in the mid-1980’s – and still having back spasms today as a result.  As such, the Japanese government offered incentives to increase sales by reducing the cost of mandatory insurance, taxes and fees – which were typically less than half that for a regular size model.  In turn, despite their shortcomings, kei cars commanded a respectful share of the market.

1993 Suzuki Wagon R

The first “tall wagon” version of these cars, the Suzuki Wagon R, was introduced in 1993 – Suzuki used new production techniques to maximize interior space within the allotted dimensions.  With this model, the class began to leave their penalty box reputation behind, and started surging in the sales charts.

2018 Honda N-Box

Throughout the oughts and teens, kei car manufacturers continued to carve out more space inside with the use of high strength steel and modern production techniques.  Engines became more refined and responsive, with turbocharging now the norm.  As their popularity grew, in 2014, the government scaled back the financial incentives – rather than fifty percent, it’s now about twenty-five percent cheaper to own a kei car versus a standard model.  But even with these increased fees, the Top 4 slots on Japan’s most popular car list for 2018 were held by minicars;

Rank          Model                              Units Sold

1.              Honda N-BOX                        241,870
2.              Suzuki Spacia                        152,104
3.              Nissan Dayz                           141,495
4.              Daihatsu Tanto                       136,558
5.              Nissan Note (Compact)          136,324

And I can see why – several weeks ago Honda had a display at a nearby shopping mall and I had the chance to poke around a new N-Box.  The space inside was amazing – sitting in the driver’s seat, I had plenty of legroom and headroom.  You certainly notice the narrowness, but other than that, it was like sitting in a regular small van.

2005-10 Subaru R1

What I’ve also found interesting over the past several years is the consolidation of kei car manufacturers – twenty years ago most all auto companies built their own kei model; usually several models.  But now there are only four – Daihatsu, Honda, Mitsubishi and Suzuki.  The other manufacturers have found it more profitable to purchase OEM units from these four and do a little badge engineering.  That can make things a little confusing – let’s see of we can bring some clarity.  We’ll limit our look to just the most popular kei models…



Let’s start with Honda as it’s the easiest. Honda manufactures the N-Box and N-One, plus several other models to include the S660 roadster. Both the N-Box and N-One are extremely popular.  Honda keeps these models for themselves and does not build versions for any other manufacturers.

Toyota Pixis Mega                                                          Daihatsu Wake

Toyota Pixis Joy                                                                               Daihatsu Cast

Subaru Chiffon                                                                       Daihatsu Tanto

Next there’s Toyota – prior to 2011, Toyota didn’t market a kei car, allowing its subsidiary Daihatsu to carry that flag.  But their popularity forced even conservative Toyota to bend to the winds, and now you can buy a Toyota Pixus Mega which is really a Daihatsu Wake or a Pixus Joy which is really a Daihatsu Cast.  With Subaru’s recent alliance with Toyota, you can also buy a Subaru Chiffon which is a Daihatsu Tanto.

Nissan Dayz                                                                           Mitsubishi eK

Nissan NV Clipper                                                             Suzuki Every Wagon

Then there’s Nissan which no longer manufactures a kei model – but you can buy a Nissan Dayz which is a Mitsubishi eK or a NV 100 Clipper which is a Suzuki Every Wagon.

Mazda Carol                                                                               Suzuki Alto

Mazda Scrum                                                                       Suzuki Every Wagon

Mazda is up next with the Mazda Carol which is a Suzuki Alto, and the Scrum Van (love that name) which is a Suzuki Every Wagon (also sold by Nissan).

Mitsubishi Town Box                                                              Suzuki Every Wagon

And just to make things more confusing, Mitsubishi, which builds several of its own keis, also sells the Town Box which is a Suzuki Every Wagon (also sold by Nissan and Mazda).

Suzuki Bandit Solio

Suzuki, Daihatsu, and Mitsubishi all sell their own unique models in addition to those built for OEM sale by the other brands.

For almost every one of these badge engineered models, the only change is the grille insert.  I have to believe Japanese consumers are knowledgeable enough to know what they’re buying – so I wonder why they choose a Nissan Dayz when the same Mitsubishi eK is $600 cheaper across the street at the Mitsubishi dealer.  I assume brand loyalty still plays a factor.

Badge engineering – the bane of Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s is still alive and well, at least in this segment, here in Japan.

Additional Info:

1986 Suzuki Carry

Subaru Sambar Van

Mazda Porter Van

Subaru 360