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IN AN odd bit of regulational maneuvering, the Japanese government—possibly abetted by its larger automakers—is discouraging sales of its most economical automobiles, the kei class.
The kei car, 軽自動車, literally “light automobile,” originated in Japan’s post-war reconstruction. The first of them, in 1949, had tiny engines, 150 cc for conventional four-stroke engines, 100 cc for two-strokes. In 1955, kei engines evolved to an upper limit of 360 cc. To put this in perspective, the classic small-block Chevy introduced that same year displaced 543 cc in each of its eight cylinders.
Kei car displacement grew to 550 cc from 1976 to 1990, and has been 660 cc ever since. There are a plethora of regulations defining kei cars and their use, among them maximum dimensions of 3.4 m (133.9 in.) long and 1.48 m (58.3 in.) wide. (A Toyota Prius is 175.2 in. long and 67.9 in. wide.)
Despite their tidy size, kei cars are amazing in their interior accommodations. I’ve driven a goodly number of them in Japan and, surprisingly, many pass my “Sit behind myself” test.
Nor are kei cars boring. Quite the contrary, they have displayed innovative design, engineering and marketing, with everything from young ladies’ kei cars to explicit boy racers.
For instance, one generation of Mitsubishi kei class in the 1990s included the Minica Lettuce, a ladies’ commuter and shopping car (don’t you love the name?).
The Lettuce had its single driver door on its right, a pair of doors on the left (for groceries and strapping in the kiddies) and a hatchback. There was also a bin beneath the driver seat for m’lady’s shoe swap when driving.
At the other extreme, the Minica Dangan ZZ sported an intercooled turbocharger, double overhead cams and five valves for each of its three cylinders.
The ZZ’s 660-cc engine produced, with an automaker wink, a reported 64 hp.
The reason for the wink was a regulation that no kei car should exceed this horsepower figure. No one called Mitsubishi’s bluff on the matter, the Dangan ZZ was quite quick, and a real ball to drive.
As another example, the Minica Toppo looked like a scaled down version of today’s Ford Transit Connect.
My favorite kei was the early 1990s Autozam AZ-1, built by Suzuki and sold through Mazda’s Autozam dealerships. Rare among keis, it featured a mid engine, rear drive and gull-wing doors.
Kei cars get breaks in vehicle excise tax, weight tax, annual road tax and liability insurance. They’re easy to park, a key feature in parts of Japan where proof of parking space is a requirement prior to car purchase. And they sip fuel, with economy rivaling the Prius hybrid at half its price and Japanese gasoline at the equivalent of $6/gal.
It’s no wonder that last year kei cars constituted a record 40 percent of all new car sales in Japan.
Apparently, however, small cars make for small profit. According to “Japan Seeks to Squelch Its Tiny Cars,” by Hiroko Tabuchi, in The New York Times, June 8, 2014, the Japanese government is “moving to wean drivers off” this class of car. See http://goo.gl/s1PT5v. Kei car taxes took a jump, including a 50-percent increase in annual road tax.
“We need to rebalance our priorities,” said Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs.
Not all Japanese automakers agree. Daihatsu and Suzuki, for instance, are particularly reliant on kei car production. Daihatsu estimated that industry kei sales over the next two years could shrink by 500,000 cars, a 22-percent decline in the class.
Also, the government’s push against kei cars is seen as hitting the young, the poor and the city dwellers, all of whom appreciate kei frugality.
“Keis are the working man’s friend,” a man is quoted in The New York Times article. “How could they do this to us?”
Last, given that Japan is the world’s second largest net importer of fossil fuels (it trails only China in this regard), it’s odd to see its government squelching such an efficient means of mobility. ds
Dennis Simanaitis, SimanatiisSays.com, 2014