Paul recently had the chance to experience firsthand one of the smallest cars ever to be imported to the U.S. from Japan, the Subaru 360. It was a miserable flop in the American market, but representative of a super hot category in Japan. By the early 1970s, the state of the art of the Japanese “city cars” had progressed quite nicely from the dismal miniature penalty boxes of the 1960s. Road Test Magazine had an editor based in Japan, and the April 1971 issue offered a glimpse of the newest, smallest cars in The Land of the Rising Sun. U.S. acceptance was still hard to come by, however. Only one brand of Kei cars featured here ever made it to our shores in the 1970s, and only for a few years.
Road Test butchered the Japanese name for the class of micro cars, leaving out the first “i” and adding a second “o” in Keijidosha. Proofreading was unfortunately not a Road Test specialty. However, the magazine did offer comprehensive write-ups on vehicles that were usually ignored by the other U.S.-based buff books, so please overlook the errors and enjoy the cars.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, Honda was the only maker to bring its “Kei cars” stateside in the 1970s. The N Series was sold as the 600, and the Z Series was sold for a few years in America as the 600 Coupe, to be replaced by the far more successful Civic in 1973.
The Subaru R-2 was the far more attractive successor to the 360. But the damage had been done in the U.S. market, so no attempt was made to Federalize it. Rather, Subaru wisely focused on bringing its larger (for Japan) FWD offerings to the U.S., though even those were still Lilliputian for American tastes.
With the improvements in the Kei cars, Road Test wondered if these handy super-mini cars would emerge as a transportation solution for cities around the world, including in America. Well, not quite… For one thing, size is relative–even the smallest city cars of today are far larger than the Kei Cars of the 1970s. From the Fiat 500 to the Honda Fit, small today is actually big compared to minis of the past. Only the Smart ForTwo, at 98 inches long on a 71 inch wheelbase, is close in size to the early Kei cars. But no matter how you slice it, Americans don’t bite on cars this small. Even the city-centric, environmentally conscious Millennial generation hasn’t embraced them, preferring “regular” small cars and CUVs, or eschewing automobile ownership entirely and going the Zipcar route, something that the Road Test prognosticators could never have envisioned in 1971.