Home Cars Tiny Giants From Japan: The Greatest Kei Cars of All-Time

Tiny Giants From Japan: The Greatest Kei Cars of All-Time

Vukasin Herbez February 5, 2019

Even if you are not a fan of the Japanese car industry, you have probably heard the term “Kei Car.” Kei Cars are a Japanese class of tiny vehicles with engines well below the 1.0-liter mark and dimensions of a go-kart. The microcar was not invented in Japan. But in Japan, those vehicles have gained significant popularity due to the extreme lack of parking spaces and heavy traffic.

Interestingly, after the Second World War, Japan could only make diminutive cars due to the shortage of materials as well as the high price of fuel. But over the years, Kei Cars have become the definitive cars of urban Japan. Most domestic manufacturers offer a wide range of models, from tiny roadsters to pint-sized sedans, SUVs, delivery vans, and even supercars. So, it looks like there is a Kei Car for every purpose and buyer.

As you’d expect, Japanese Kei Cars are rarely exported outside Japan. However, some of them are eligible for import to the United States. But, you can’t expect over-the-top performances from cars with a displacement of less than one liter. However, they’ve equipped some of them with turbochargers. And thanks to their small weight, they can provide a lively performance. So, keep reading to find out more about the 20 coolest and most interesting Japanese Kei Cars.

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

19. Honda N-Box Slash

If you are limited by government-proposed dimensions, engine size limits, and various other safety regulations, you must find new ways of designing cars. A good example of that is Honda’s N-Box Slash. It brings an interesting design to the Kei Car class with its unique looks.

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Honda made a big effort to squeeze every last millimeter of usable space from this vehicle. Best of all, you could option it with red leather seats and even a modular interior, so you can turn it into a lounge.

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18. Suzuki Cappuccino

This is a tiny roadster Suzuki built out of aluminum. It comes with rear-wheel drive, a cramped interior, and a small trunk. The engine only produces 64 HP from its 670 CC three-cylinder unit. But it likes to rev, and thanks to only 1,400 pounds of weight, this car delivers a lively performance with unbelievable driving dynamics.

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Suzuki only produced the Cappuccino in a right-hand-drive configuration. Also, it’s available in select markets in Asia and Europe, so the Cappuccino is a rare car. In fact, the total production was approximately 28,000 examples.

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17. Nissan Pao

Even before retro was a thing in car design, Nissan presented an influential, crazy looking compact model they called the Pao. It was only for sale on the Japanese market and came in a right-hand drive configuration.

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The design resembles the Austin Farina or Mini. But underneath the body, the Pao was an advanced car with an independent suspension and 52 HP engine. It sold for just three years between 1989 and 1991 and they produce just over 50,000 of them.

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16. Honda Beat

The spiritual successor of the classic Honda S600 roadster is the ‘90s Honda Beat. Honda introduced the Beat in 1991, selling it until 1996. The Beat was a small, nimble roadster with just a 660 CCM displacement, producing 63 HP.

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In the typical Honda fashion, the car was naturally aspirated with a five-speed manual transmission. At just 1,656 pounds, it was immensely fun to drive. Honda built over 33,000 in its five-year production run.

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15. Nissan S-Cargo

People often call the S-Cargo one of the ugliest cars Nissan ever produced. However, the Nissan S-Cargo has a cult following, and not only in Japan, but worldwide. The reason is simply its unusual styling and design concept, which is unique in the car world.

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Nissan introduced the S-Cargo in 1989. It was a highly stylized urban Kei Car delivery vehicle with modest power and dimensions, but great usability and practicality. It got its power from a 1.5-liter engine they mated to a three-speed automatic gearbox. However, despite being unique and interesting, Nissan only sold around 8,000 of them.

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14. Suzuki Hustler

Even though the new Jimmy is the most popular Suzuki compact SUV currently in Japan, the Hustler gets equal praise. The accolades are mainly for its retro look and a long list of options. Also, it has an interesting feature that turns the interior into a bedroom with folding seats that can create a sleeping area. But with 660 CC and around 65 HP, it is not the fastest thing on the road, but it is practical and fuel-efficient.

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13. Honda S600/S800

Honda was one of the first Japanese car companies to enter the American market in the ‘60s. But the first Hondas weren’t cars because they made and sold only small but durable scooter motorcycles in those days. However, Honda always had the ambition to start proper car production. And one of their first models was the cute little roadster they called the S600. Honda introduced the S600 in 1964. It was a two-seater convertible with extremely compact dimensions and light weight.

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The S600 came with a small 600CC engine. It delivered just 57 HP but produced a lively performance since the car weighed just 1,500 pounds. Interestingly, the S600 had a chain drive, which was a primitive drivetrain system straight from their motorcycle production. In 1967, Honda introduced the S800. It was an upgraded, more powerful version with a bigger 800 CC engine and 70 HP, which was also available as a coupe.

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12. Autozam AZ-1

If you don’t know what this car is, nobody can blame you. It is a tiny sports car with a turbocharged three-cylinder engine delivering 660 CC and 64 HP. Mazda built it, yet Suzuki sold it in limited numbers from 1992 to 1995. During that time, they built less than 5,000 of them. Despite its size and 1,500 pounds of weight, the Autozam AZ-1 was a proper sports car. In fact, some consider it the only supercar in the Kei Car segment. Its perfect chassis, gullwing doors, and decent performance have made it the favorite driving machine in Japan at the moment.

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The bizarre styling but lively driving dynamics provides a unique driving experience. And that is one of the reasons you should consider importing this little gem since they never officially sold it outside of Japan. But now you can import it to the U.S. since it is older than 25 years.

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11. Nissan Figaro

They presented the Figaro in 1991 and it immediately caused a stir among Japanese car fans. Nissan announced it would be a limited-edition car based on the Nissan Micra platform. However, it came with a bespoke interior, automatic transmission, and a full options list. Better yet, it came with a stylish new body with a big sunroof as standard.

Photo Credit: Journal Classic Cars

But when the Figaro arrived, many buyers lined up to buy it, so Nissan couldn’t keep up with the demand. The company even organized a lottery among interested buyers for a chance to buy the car. The unique aspects of the vehicle were visible even under the metal. Also, the Figaro got its power from a diminutive 987 CC turbocharged engine with 77 HP. But, it still delivered a lively performance thanks to its small weight.

Photo Credit: Sep Jog

10. Honda S660

Some car enthusiasts call the Honda S660 a “shrunken NSX.” Interestingly, the similarities are more than just in the design. Just like NSX, the tiny S660 has a mid-mounted engine, but with just three cylinders, 660 CCM, and a turbocharger. The result is 63 HP with practically ideal handling.

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The car is available with the choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed CVT automatic. Most Japanese journalists declare it as one of the best driving Kei Cars currently on sale despite its lack of power.

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9. Suzuki Alto Turbo RS

Suzuki sold the Alto outside Japan as a compact car. But in Japan, it is still a Kei Car with one interesting version, the Alto Turbo RS. It is a hot hatch with five doors, three cylinders, aggressive looks, and an all-wheel-drive option.

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Unfortunately, it comes with a lackluster 63 HP, 660 CCM turbo engine, which not many owners appreciate. The legal limit for modern Kei Cars is 63 HP, but most manufacturers offer tunable engines. They are easy to modify to close or over 100 HP, so owners can enjoy some real performance. And this is the case with the Turbo RS.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

8. Subaru 360

One of the first Kei Cars they ever fully exported to global markets including the United States was the Subaru 360. Subaru unveiled the 360 in 1958 and produced it until 1971. The tiny 360 was the typical Japanese car of the period. It was small and desperately underpowered with a two-cylinder engine ranging from 365 to 423 CC.

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Although it was slow, it had fuel economy numbers of 66 miles per gallon. Subaru sold almost 400,000 of those small cars. In fact, they set the foundation for the production of bigger, more powerful cars during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Photo Credit: Motor 1

7. Mitsubishi Pajero Mini

American car enthusiasts remember the Pajero since they sold it in the U.S. in the 1980s. But in 1994, Mitsubishi introduced the Pajero Mini Kei Car. So, what is it? Imagine a regular boxy SUV scaled down to about a third of its size into a mini car or Kei Car.

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Powered by 700 CC engines with all-wheel drive, the Pajero Mini was a blast to drive if you got used to its miniature dimensions. The concept proved popular, so they sold this model in large numbers until 2012. That means finding one today shouldn’t be hard.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

6. Toyota Pixis Mega

Most Kei Cars are small boxy vehicles they’ve designed to utilize the last inch of interior space. And the Toyota Pixis Mega is a typical example with its flat sides, suicide doors, small trunk, and short hood. The engine is a 658 CC with 52 or 63 HP, depending on the option.

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However, some customers can spec this model with a long list of options. There are several color options or combinations that make urban transportation lots more fun.

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5. Suzuki Mighty Boy

Introduced in 1983, this small car with a funny name was one of the most interesting Kei Cars of the period. The Mighty Boy was basically a Kei Car pick up with a tiny bed behind the front two seats.

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It had a 550 CC engine that produced 31 HP with an equally diminutive load capacity. However, this car proved useful for various urban delivery purposes due to its small dimensions and low fuel consumption.

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4. Daihatsu Midget

There is no more appropriate name for a Kei Car than the Daihatsu Midget. The Midget was a long line of compact delivery cars with tiny engines they introduced in the late ‘50s. They presented the latest generation in 1996 with several unique features.

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First, it looked like an insect with its separate headlights and narrow cabin. Second, it had a spare wheel they mounted on the trunk of the car, which further enhanced the weirdness of this car. And as you may expect, under the hood was a 660 CC engine with a manual or automatic transmission.

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3. Daihatsu Copen

Daihatsu is one of the prime manufacturers of Kei Cars with its entire range dedicated to those small vehicles. However, their most interesting model is the Copen, a tiny roadster. If you want to visualize what Copen is like, try a Miata, but half the size.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

They introduced the Copen in the early `2000s and it is now in its second generation. As expected, the 660 CC engine under the hood falls below the 70 HP mark. However, the turbocharged engine is highly tunable. So, if you want, you can get a lively performance from this compact roadster.

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

2. Toyota Sports 800

This was the first Toyota sports car, which they introduced in 1962. In those days Toyota was a small, unknown company. So, it’s not strange they limited its sales to the Asian market. It had a diminutive 800 CCM engine producing 45 HP.

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However, despite its extremely modest displacement and power, the Sports 800 had performance credentials because it was extremely light and agile. They stopped production in 1969 after building over 3,100 of them.

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1. Mazda R360 Coupe

The first real car Mazda produced was this tiny Kei Car they presented in 1962. The R360 Coupe got its power from the V2 engine they mounted in the back delivering just 16 HP. Interestingly, this was considered a sports car since it tipped the scale at just over 837 pounds. So, it had a performance allure that attracted young buyers in Japan in the early ‘60s.

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These are the tiny giants from Japan. Did you pick your favorite from the 20 greatest Kei cars of all time? While some may be gone for good, many are still available in Japan, as well as in the United States. Most are fuel-efficient, compact, and affordable, too.

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