They are Japanese cultural icons, easily recognizable by their diminutive size and yellow license plates. But unlike their even smaller anime cousins, such as Pokemon, kei-jidosha (subcompact cars) have remained a completely domestic phenomenon.

Soaring fuel prices and economic and environmental uncertainty, however, seem to warrant another look at the world’s most modest class of vehicle.

The category name kei comes from a reading of the kanji character for “lightness,” but there are actually no weight rules for these cars. Their size is determined by restrictions on body size and engine displacement. In 1949, the Ministry of Transportation offered special tax breaks on vehicles no more than 2.8 meters in length, 1 meter wide and 2 meters high. Engine displacement was capped at 150 cc.

The resulting vehicles were regarded as merely a class above motorcycles. Despite being quickly slapped with the derisive label “helmets with wheels,” though, kei cars provided cheap transport for the masses, quickly becoming the cornerstone of Japanese motorization — and hence Japan’s economic miracle. Through the decades, the height limitation has stuck, but length and width restrictions have been incrementally increased to the present 3.4×1.48 meters, while engines have also got bigger and now displace up to 660 cc. And a power limit of 63 hp was added in 1976.

Kei cars are marvels of miniaturization to rival Sony’s Walkman. They may be at the bottom of the size scale, but that has not stopped makers from packing them with new technology, such as turbochargers, hard-disk-drive navigation systems, hybrid engines, double overhead camshafts, four-wheel drive and continuously variable transmissions. With no restrictions on body type, makers have also produced a mind-boggling array of styles — including minivans, Sport Utility Vehicles, mid-engine sports cars, flat-bed trucks and shrunken sedans.

Kei cars have increased their market share in recent years at the same time as sales of full-size cars have fallen. Full- size cars still outsell kei cars two to one, but Suzuki’s little Wagon R kei car has been Japan’s top-selling vehicle for the last five years, beating out bigger compacts in Toyota’s Corolla range and Honda’s Fit. And outside the cities, kei cars rule in rural areas. As ubiquitous as vending machines, it seems that no rice farmers can do without their geta (Japanese clogs) — a nickname awarded due to the kei’s place as casual transport.

Several carmakers have officially exported kei cars to Europe, but with little success. Though they do well in crash tests, their frighteningly thin doors and narrow width provide no sense of safety. There was talk of a substantial increase in size and engine displacement that could have helped make them a global standard for small cars when the last updates to the restrictions were being decided in 1998. In the end, engine size remained at 660 cc — not the 880 cc that was discussed — and length and width were increased just 1 cm and 8 mm, respectively. This relegated them to the domestic market. No one gave a real explanation, but keeping kei-makers out of the fullsize compact market was one factor behind the decision.

That was a lapse in judgment on the part of regulators — and not just for simply making them difficult to export. Every engine developer I have talked to, including those in Japan, says that a 660 cc engine is just too small, even for cars with these body specifications. In the countryside, gas mileage might be good on a short 30-kph trip from home to the convenience store. But driven like fullsize cars at normal speeds — particularly on highways — you have to work the kei car’s little engine too hard, keeping it out of its efficient zone. Bigger, 1,000-cc cars are unquestionably more economical. Competitively priced base-level versions of compact fullsize autos such as the Toyota Vitz, Honda Fit or Nissan March are often a more sensible purchase.

Asked in the 1990s why the company still makes low-profit kei cars, legendary automotive engineer and former Honda President Nobuhiko Kawamoto explained that having young engineers developing them ingrains in them the company’s unique values. The continued existence and current popularity of kei cars also reveals a lot about Japanese consumer mentality and the domestic market. The main advantages of owning a kei car are slightly lower taxes and insurance rates, and no parking-place verification is needed outside of metropolitan areas. And the kei’s frugal image seems stronger than its lack of real economic advantages.

Another reason for its current popularity is the maturation of the market. In the past, cars were more objects of desire, creators of status — with function being a secondary priority. In postbubble Japan, consumers have become more practical — they will settle for geta. Kei buyers decide on a generic body style and features such as power sliding doors; then they shop around several different brands. The response from carmakers has been a design approach that workers at kei market-share leader Daihatsu compare to a Shokado bento (a lunchbox named after a monk and painter of the early Edo Period [1603-1867]). “In a Shokado bento, you have a selection of the best seasonal ingredients, each completely different and in a unique dish,” says Takahiko Koyama. “Each element is attractive but without any visual continuity between the elements. At Daihatsu, that’s how we offer products, each comprised of high-quality goods but without the need to link them with shared design elements.”

Keis are stretched to such size limits that there is little room left to create a specific visual design identity; the concept of visual identity is not even mentioned in Daihatsu’s design guidelines. Interestingly, it just so happens that cars made for traditional automotive tastes, such as the Mitsubishi I or Daihatsu’s Sonica, are not selling at the moment. Daihatsu designers point out that “cars that appear to have not been designed are the hits” — like the recently launched Tanto.

Almost every night on business-news television shows, pundits talk about how various Japanese standards should be adopted around the world. Kei cars could have easily become the global benchmark for subcompact cars. Makers devote extensive resources to developing these vehicles, but they only have the shrinking domestic market to sell into. If the category was made more to produce cars that can be sold around the world it would still be possible to downsize models to compete in the coming micro-car market. This lost opportunity is emblematic of one of the biggest problems Japan faces: the inability to think globally by all but the most international companies.

Bob Sliwa is an automotive design and branding expert who has written for many domestic and foreign publications.

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