Home > Features > A-O-Kei part 1

A-O-Kei part 1

Japan has its fair share of automotive oddities. Mitsuoka comes to mind. But if you’re looking for mass market strange, look no further than the letter K.

軽自動車 (kei-jidōsha) or “kei cars” as they’re known, are an entirely different class of vehicle from, well, anything else on the road. They even wear a different shade of license plate.

photo credit Suzuki Motors

photo credit Suzuki Motors

The name signifies them as “light vehicles,” but the epithet “light” doesn’t quite appropriately characterize these cars. Diminutive would be more like it. Miniature. The dimensions are dictated by law – 3,400 mm in length, 1480 mm in width, and most dramatically, 660 cc of displacement. Even output is restricted to 64 ps (roughly the same horsepower), and that from forced induction variants. In the olden days, these cars were barely able to exceed 100 km/h. Clearly not destined for the interstate or the autobahn; even on city streets, earlier models were not going to get you anywhere in a hurry.

What the Japanese government has done, then, is to legislate a market where none would otherwise exist. So tiny cars, cheap to operate. Which means you’re now thinking Smart ForTwo. Or maybe Tata Nano. Niche market, razor thin margins – you’d have to be looking to make a loss to build these things, right? Well, no, not exactly. Certainly not in Japan. Because the government has also been sure to incentivize kei so significantly that demand has been created from the ether.

What incentives, you say? 50% lower registration and taxes would be a start. Reduced expressway tolls and looser parking demands round it out. To those of you who wonder what parking demands mean, an owner of a standard vehicle must furnish proof of an owned or leased parking space before any car can be registered. In many areas, kei are exempt from that requirement.

For the companies that trade in kei, therein lies the briliance. Because they are so heavily incentivized, the lifetime costs of ownership – everything after the moment you pay for it – could be two-thirds to half that of a traditional car. For Japanese, who tend to pay cash for cars, that’s money in the bank, and a down payment on the next, without even having to consider the purchase price.

Manufacturers have responded by using option packages to boost the equipment level while keeping the price right around what one would pay for a more spartanly equipped compact. And when price and content are both in your favor, what’s a fifth seat and passing power between friends?

So that’s why kei. So what’s kei, who’s who and what are they like to drive? Stay tuned, there’s much more to follow.

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  1. October 28, 2009 at 5:35 am

    I wish we had such incentives for small city cars in the United States!

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