Kei Cars Grow Bigger In Japanese Car Market

Early this month, I wrote about how size of the car matters among the Indian buyers that actually explains the SUV craze of today. But it is relative hard to believe how the Japanese car market, the third largest globally, is slowly pinch-hit by pint-sized cars popularly known as Kei cars or kei jidosha (“light automobile“). In November this year, these K-cars peaked a market share of 42.5 percent, highest since the dark days of global crisis some years back. Despite automakers and government wanting to wean buyers off of them, there is a growing obsession, a relatively unnoticed trendlet that matters for the global auto scene.

It would be hard to miss such miniature cars in the Tokyo Auto Show every year, and are a sort of a tradition in the country’s motoring history. Kei standards can be traced back to the post world war II period. A host of affordability factors and policy incentives helped kei cars to gain popularity. They lured middle-class Japanese to get off from scooters and motorcycles to own a car, same way as how Tata Nano envisioned to grab two-wheeler and three-wheeler buyers in India pretty recently but miserably failed. Since then for decades, these minicars provide owners with alternative mobility, practicality, efficiency, style, ease of parking in the congested dwellings, and fun to drive.

You don’t have to think weirdly to picture a kei car, we Indians are quite familiar with them. We, in fact, see them for decades, thanks to Maruti Suzuki! Keis measure not more than 3.4 meters in length, 2.0 meters or shorter in height, and 1.48 meters or narrower in width, much like our market’s typical small hatchbacks. They are powered by tiny engines of 600 or 800cc. Our legendary small hatches from MSL like 800, Alto, Onmi, and Wagon-R are all derivatives of Suzuki kei cars of Japan. Kei class cars doesn’t have to be a hatch invariably, but also includes small pickup trucks, microvans, convertibles, and tiny SUVs.

Kei Convertible: Daihatsu Kopen Concept

However, there would hardly be any contemporary connection or platform sharing between JDM(Japanese Domestic Market)- spec keis and other small cars which ever brand we talk about, since these kei cars specific to Japanese standards and use. And that’s exactly why kei cars are disliked by the country’s government and automakers themselves.

The kei car market is hit by heavy tax dosages in the recent times. Carmakers too want to reduce their focus on them. The reason is, every kei cars are JDM-spec models that are sold only in Japan and very few other tiny markets. They aren’t exported to large markets outside Japan, nor can kei standards and platforms are accommodating to global requirements. This makes less sense in today’s era of globalised volume sales and production. Do you remember the “One Ford” plan of the Ford Motors to make same fleet of cars for every market in order to save costs? Spending too much on Japan-only vehicles goes against that idea of “one car for all market” principle. How long can those automakers resist this issue?

But Japanese buyers love their kei cars for sure. Their sales feat will tell you that, more so in the recent times. Thanks to high fuel prices, increased tax regime for every passenger cars, city requirements, affortability and low owning cost makes kei cars a norm for a majority of Japanese families. People there do not equate cars as status symbol or something unlike India. Keis were once limited only to the rural markets, but are now even popular among young city dwellers. This sort is of dynamic demographics is a tough one to crack for large cars. They are also popular among Japan’s car culture and tuning or racing cultures.

Modern keis are remarkably high tech as well, they are not just econoboxes with basic mechanicals and technology. CVTs are common in the kei class, or at least a AMT (Automatic Manual Transmission) would be present. In-car entertainment options generally abound, with every other features that we find in our top-trim hatches in India. Thus, these cars are not so poorly built or basic, but the kei customer wants are high too.

2015 Suzuki Alto  Kei car for the Japanese market

Thus, it would be wrong to say that the scope of kei cars in the present globalised auto market is over. With growing awareness on environmental costs of large cars with gas-gulping engines and urban limitations, small and compact cars are proliferating globally, more so in the developed American and European markets. This trend is quite visible there in the west, even though large sedans and SUVs dominate market share. But future decades are more likely to slide in favour of small cars, with alternate fuel technologies and low emissions. Tiny Kei cars may transform into a global phenomenon someday, though less likely in the immediate future.

Japanese car market is a unique one, with innovation and technological trickle down effects as its prime features. Car makers are also active in bringing new keis to the market, the recent one being the Suzuki Alto and Honda N-Box Slash. They also try to adopt them for other global markets in every possible ways.

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Dhiyanesh Ravichandran

Editorial consultant (Automotive and Technology), academic, and blogger based in India. He can be reached at

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