Home > Features > A-O-Kei Part 2

A-O-Kei Part 2

In my last post on the subject, we looked at why kei cars exist. Today, we’ll try to get an idea of what exactly these things are.

The stringent requirements placed on kei’s dimensions define the configuration of these vehicles. Most manufacturers take a subtractive approach to their designs: cutting away at the box that defines the maximum dimensions. Boxy forms are not only a stylistic choice, but a rational approach to maximize space within the constrints provided.

The wheels are pushed, literally, to the corners, at the expense of useful bumpers or just about anything else. The wheelbase of, say, a Suzuki Wagon R, for example, is 94.5 inches, less than for inches shy of the Honda Fit, while the 133.5 inch length is almost a full 30 inches – more than two feet – shorter. It’s also nearly six inches taller, despite having a lower floor.

Narrow, small diameter wheels and tires and a compact suspension configuration minimize intrusion into the passenger cabin, and the compact powertrain preserves foot room. But despite these accommodations, the driving position of a kei is startlingly upright – a bit more like driving in a phone booth than any proper cockpit.

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

The windscreen is near vertical and placed closer to the driver than in a traditional car, and the dashboard shallower. The front bumper is impossibly close, and visibility excellent (things are arrayed vertically under a kei’s hood to minimize the length of the engine compartment), such that the uninitiated driver will feel remarkably exposed.

interior arrangement

interior arrangement

Rear seat passengers are afforded plenty of leg room and an exceptional view due to staggered seating height. The exceptionally low floor plays a significant role in making this spaciousness possible. The extra inches rear passengers are afforded comes at the expense of utility – one would struggle to put anything larger than shopping bags in the rear hatch with all four seats occupied. Fold them down, and usable space becomes available. Buy a kei, and you’re presented with a choice: your stuff or your friends.

Unless, of course, you buy a kei van. Mid- or rear-engined cabover designs, they put the driver over the front axle and sit on a shorter wheelbase than kei cars for even greater agility. With the driver’s feet inches from the front bumper, these are not vehicles for the timid.

Subaru Sambar

Subaru Sambar

They do offer massive cargo capacity, and are the near exclusive domain of the business customer. The Daihatsu Hijet may be the best known example of the genre overseas, but the Subaru Sambar is the progenitor of the species, entering production in 1961. Honda’s Acty and Suzuki’s Every have found significant market share as well.

In the coming post, I’ll go through a who’s who of the kei market, and share some information on the different segments which populate it. Stay tuned!

Categories: Features
  1. October 26, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Natsukashii! The Kei-Van. I drove a Suzuki Carry van when I lived there. I loved it so much. I was delighted to discover there’s a company in Canada that imports kei-cars and vans.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the informative articles (part 1 and 2) and I look forward to part 3. See you over on Sidepodcast, too.

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