10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else

Japan's kei car regulations state a vehicle must be no larger than 11.2ft by 4.9ft, with an engine no bigger than 660cc. In return owners get tax breaks and cheaper insurance, plus manufacturers being creative with sports cars, pickups, and minivans all under the kei car umbrella

Remind me later

1. Honda Beat

The Honda Beat is one of the funkiest cars on this list since it looks like a shrink ray-affected sports car, and the quirkiness is exemplified by headlights that wrap around into the front wheel arch.

Its mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout helps give the car its sportier character, and despite the 660cc engine only making 63bhp it captured the imagination back in the 90s, with Honda selling over 30,000.

2. Honda S660

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

This is probably the most intriguing kei car on sale at the moment, thanks in part to its funky NSX-lite styling. The S660 was clearly built with enthusiasts in mind, with its mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout giving it decent weight distribution, just like its predecessor above.

Unlike so many modern enthusiast cars this one comes with a six-speed manual gearbox (or a CVT, if you desire), which allows you to make the most of the turbocharged inline-three’s modest 63bhp. Despite lacking power, Japanese journalists have remarked about how fun it is to drive, and let’s be honest, that’s all that really matters. There have been rumours about an exported version hitting foreign markets with a bigger engine to take on the Mazda MX-5, but so far nothing has been confirmed.

3. Suzuki Alto Turbo RS

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

Taking a standard model and fettling it into a performance variant is the age-old trick for making boring models exciting, so when you see a Suzuki Alto with ‘Turbo RS’ scribbled down the side you expect something that might get the fizz going. Especially given the fact the Suzuki Swift Sport is such great fun to drive.

Unfortunately, since it’s still a kei car it only has a 63bhp engine. Not that you’ll care when you see its go faster stripes, cooling vents, aero lips, and pretty alloy wheels. To make it the perfect all-weather fun-kei car, you can spec your Turbo RS with all-wheel drive.

4. Yamaha Ami

While we’re on the subject of cars that look like they should perform better than they do, may I introduce the Yamaha Ami? Yep, that’s a miniature Ferrari F40, based on the Daihatsu Opti.

I think the best way to describe the Ami’s F40 aspiration is ‘optimistic’. It came with a choice of two three-cylinder engines, one making 42bhp, the other 55bhp, so we’re fairly sure it’d come second to the Italian in pretty much any Top Trumps category…

5. Toyota Pixis Mega

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

One of the great things about Japanese cars is that they’re often born out of engineers and designers getting creative within regulations. In the same way many JDM performance cars have engines at or below 2.0-litres to keep them within a lower tax bracket, kei cars have to fit a lot of practicality into a small footprint.

This is evident in the likes of the Toyota Pixis Mega, a car which comes in two or four-wheel drive flavours, with an option of 52 or 63bhp engines. Its boxy design helps it make the most of the space available by pushing its floorplan to the exterior limit and then going upwards. It’s got a sliding door and a super low floor so people in the back have easy access and loads of space once they’re in. Clever.

6. Daihatsu Hi-jet

And while we’re on the subject of practicality, what’s more practical than a pickup truck? Originally introduced in 1960, the Hijet packed a 360cc two-stroke engine - in line with kei car regulations of the time - and the truck has grown with the regulations, now powered by a 660cc lump.

It’s been ever present in Daihatsu’s range ever since then, and has even been offered in electric form. It’s proved popular with farmers in rural areas who perhaps can’t afford a full-size pickup but still need to be able to move stuff, as well as being outed as an alternative choice for particularly barmy drifters, as you can see above.

7. Autozam AZ-1

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

I have two words for you: gullwing doors. Yep, this kooky little thing comes with gullwing doors, and therefore it is inherently genius. Like a few of the cars above, the AZ-1 takes the Honey, I shrunk the sports car mentality to kei car creation, but here Autozam (a former subdivision of Mazda) took this idea and went mad. Bonnet ‘scoop’? Check. Fender vents? Check. Freakin’ gullwing doors? Check!

8. Honda Vamos

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

The Honda Vamos might have been reborn in 1999 as a fairly mundane miniature minivan, but its roots are much more kooky than that. Its design meant it’d look more at home on safari than cruising the mountains of Japan, and perhaps for that reason only around 2500 were sold - that, and the fact it didn’t come in all-wheel drive despite its seemingly rural design.

Still, you can’t help but love seeing such a funky small car with a tiny spare wheel attached to the front. It’s just so damn cute!

9. Subaru Sambar

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

You’re looking at the first ever kei class truck, but unfortunately that’s about as exciting as it gets for the Subaru Sambar. The main reason these things have become so sought after is because they can easily be converted into mini versions of the iconic Volkswagen Camper. If you think the real Camper’s become a bit hipster, this thing is off the charts.

10. Suzuki Hustler

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Does Small Vehicles Better Than Anyone Else - Kei Cars

The Suzuki Hustler isn’t just on this list because it’s funny that it shares its name with a popular… ahem… men’s magazine. No, that would be silly and immature. The other reason it’s on this list is because it looks wicked - just imagine a scaled down version of the already funky Jeep Renegade and you’re somewhere close. Proof that you can pack a lot of design into a small package without it looking fussy.

If you want more like this, hit the Kei Car community and check out #MightyMouse.