10 Japanese kei cars we'd love to own

Graham Hope

10 Oct 2021

1/11
The most desirable mini marvels from the Land of the Rising Sun.

As the old adage goes, size matters. With European cars getting bigger and more bloated – partly to accommodate the Western world’s ever more obese population – there is something to be said about the simplicity of a small car. And nobody does downsized motors better than the Japanese, who know all too well the benefits they can afford in hugely congested urban centres. To that end, a class of vehicle called kei cars was introduced in 1949 – microcars which had restrictions placed on engine size, power output and dimensions. The regulations have been revised a number of times over the years, but currently stand at 3,400mm (length), 1480mm (width), 660cc and 63bhp. Safety concerns have generally prevented these cars from going on sale in the UK – with a few exceptions – which is a shame, as the need to package everything in such a tiny footprint has led to some ingenious and desirable creations. Here, then, are 10 of our favourite kei cars, which conclusively prove the best things really do come in small packages.


Honda Beat

 

The recipe for the Beat was straightforward– a mid-engined two-seat roadster with a free-revving naturally aspirated engine, all wrapped up in a simple but stylish package. It was sold from 1991 to 1996, and alongside the Suzuki Cappuccino and Autozam AZ-1 (see below) it added an element of sporty desirability to the kei car class. Although the three-cylinder engine was pegged at 63bhp, the car’s ability to rev to 8,500rpm and its minimal 760kg weight couldn’t fail to raise a smile when out on the open road – especially with the roof down. Job done.



 



Daihatsu Cuore Avanzato TR-XX R4

 

A performance kei car? Well kind of, although with these diminutive vehicles by definition restricted in power outputs and dimensions, there is clearly a limit in terms of what can be achieved. But Daihatsu created something truly desirable with the Cuore Avanzato TR-XX R4, endowing it with a turbocharger, intercooler, five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive and 0-60mph in around 8.5 seconds. Some 80 examples of the car found their way to the UK in 1999, and their appeal endures, with one recently selling for nearly £7,500.



 



Autozam AZ-1

 

Don’t be misled by the name – Autozam was a Mazda sub-brand and the AZ-1 had genuine pedigree, being designed by some of those behind the original MX-5. Obviously, the extraordinary styling proved a real talking point – while the gullwing doors grabbed attention, the low-slung sportster had a real sense of purpose about it, despite the dinky dimensions. Mid-engined and rear-wheel drive, the AZ-1 promised a lot of fun on the road but a high price meant it struggled for sales and it was in showrooms for only two years, before the axe fell in October 1994.



 

 


Suzuki Alto Works

 

Remember the Suzuki Alto? You’re forgiven if you don’t. The honest, but rather unremarkable, small car was pulled from showrooms in the UK in 2014 (to be replaced by the equally nondescript Celerio). But the nameplate continued in Japan, where the altogether more interesting Alto Works arrived in 2015. With its five-speed manual gearbox, permanent four-wheel drive, tiny kerbweight – 720kg – and some sporty adornments, including Recaro seats, it was a kei car with genuine attitude.



 



Honda S660

 

In many ways the spiritual successor to the Beat, the S660 also generated some hope that it might fill the void left by the much missed S2000 in the UK market when it debuted in 2015. But sadly, it wasn’t to be. Again, the menu for the roadster was very simple – rear wheel drive, six-speed manual gearbox (although a CVT was also available) and great design (albeit in miniature). Japanese fans don’t have long left to savour its charms, as Honda announced it will be discontinued in March 2022.



 



Suzuki Mighty Boy

 

Great name, interesting vehicle. Introduced in 1983, the Mighty Boy was essentially a minuscule pick-up – the only kei car of its type at the time, although with its flat bed measuring just 60cm in length, its practicality was limited to say the least. Cleverly it was classed as a commercial vehicle, which meant low taxes, and it found a reasonable following as an urban delivery car, thanks in part to its decent fuel economy, courtesy of the tiny 31bhp engine. But despite the ingenuity of the idea, the Mighty Boy didn’t last long and production was stopped in 1988.

 


 



Suzuku Cappuccino

 

Another kei car with a wonderful name, the Cappuccino, also a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster, did indeed serve up lashings of frothy fun for buyers in the UK between 1991 and 1997. And with the hard-top roof down – and stored in the boot – the full cabriolet experience was truly exhilarating. Once again, a tiny kerbweight – in the region of 700kg – ensured that the car felt swifter than a 657cc engine promised, and Suzuki claimed a 0-60mph time of eight seconds. Look hard enough and you’ll still find the odd Cappuccino for sale, although prices vary wildly depending on condition.



 



Daihatsu Copen GR Sport

 

If the name rings a bell, that’s because the Copen was sold in the UK until Daihatsu packed up and left in 2011. While the roadster didn’t have a universally favourable reputation – some derided it as bit of a Noddy car – things got a bit more interesting in Japan, with a more aesthetically pleasing second generation arriving in 2014. And now that Daihatsu is owned by Toyota, the latter’s sporting arm Gazoo Racing has been let loose on the Copen to tweak the handling, add some bodykit and – dare we say it – add a welcome air of menace to proceedings.



 



Mitsubishi Pajero Mini

 

In the UK, Mitsubishi is best known for its rally-derived Evo muscle cars, unbreakable pick-ups and utilitarian off-roaders. But in Japan it has also dabbled in the kei car market, with interesting results. Pictured below is the Pajero Mini, a junior version of the brand’s famous 4x4, which was sold between 1994 and 2012. The rugged looks weren’t just for show – the model came with four-wheel drive and had more than seven inches of ground clearance, so off-road excursions were feasible. And inside it aped its bigger brother with features such as a compass and dash-mounted inclinometer. Fun with a capital F.

 




Suzuki Jimny

 

Yes, we know what you’re thinking – the Jimny is available in the UK, and it’s not a kei car. And you would of course be right; what we get is a commercial version of the no-nonsense 4x4, designed to carry more cargo and fewer people (so as not to fall foul of emissions regulations). So what’s the Jimny doing in a kei car countdown? Well, there is an even smaller kei-compliant version of the model on sale in Japan, as there has been since its introduction in 1970 (below). So essentially you get the same adorable Tonka Toy styling in an even more compact package. What’s not to love about that?

 


 

360° View

Full Specs

Used Car

Videos

News

Search any model to find out everything you need to know. Get full specs, news, reviews, videos and much more!

Graham Hope

10 Oct 2021