Small is the new big on Ja­pan’s roads

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

WHILE wait­ing at a traf­fic light one day, some­thing caught my eye. It was the tini­est and cutest car I had ever seen on the road.

“Did you see that? Cool! Re­minds me of a go-kart,” I pointed it out to my hus­band.

The util­ity poles were par­tially block­ing the view of the car, but I could see that it had one seat and four wheels, and the driver looked like a se­nior cit­i­zen.

That teensy car was a rare sight, al­though “kei cars” have be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in Ja­pan. Could it be an ul­tra-mini car? How­ever, judg­ing from its li­cence plate, it might be­long to the class of scoot­ers.

Today, about 40% of the sales of new cars in Ja­pan are kei cars that have an en­gine dis­place­ment of 660cc. “Kei car” (lit­er­ally “light au­to­mo­bile”) is a Ja­panese clas­si­fi­ca­tion of small ve­hi­cles: cars, vans and pick-up trucks.

You can tell kei cars by the colour of their li­cence plates. Kei cars for pri­vate use fea­ture black prints on a yel­low plate and vice-versa for com­mer­cial kei ve­hi­cles.

As most roads are pretty nar­row in Ja­pan, kei cars are deemed safer than mo­tor­cy­cles. Kei cars are sell­ing well since they are cheaper in terms of price, main­te­nance, tax and in­sur­ance, and re­quire just a small park­ing space. So even Ja­pan Post uses mini-vans and some fire de­part­ments have mini-vans and mini fire trucks.

El­derly peo­ple ac­count for about 30% of those driv­ing kei cars. Such ve­hi­cles are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity with the el­derly be­cause of the great im­prove­ments in safety and user­friendly fea­tures. And as the de­mand for kei ve­hi­cles grows, auto mak­ers are fac­ing stiffer com­pe­ti­tion.

At the 43rd Tokyo Mo­tor Show held last Novem­ber, new light au­to­mo­biles and ex­tremely small pro­to­type mod­els were show­cased among other ve­hi­cles.

Ac­cord­ing to The Yomi­uri Shim­bun, Dai­hatsu Mo­tor Co ex­hib­ited Deca Deca, a 660cc pro­to­type whose rear-hinged doors give it a sense of spa­cious­ness in­side.

Suzuki Mo­tor Corp dis­played a 660cc model, Alto Eco, which stressed on fuel ef­fi­ciency and the height of the driver’s seat.

Honda Mo­tor Co un­veiled a 660cc van, NWGN – the com­pany’s first light model to be equipped with an au­to­matic brak­ing sys­tem mainly for the safety of el­derly driv­ers.

The mo­tor show also pro­moted ul­tra-mini cars that seat one or two per­sons. Their very small foot­print makes them easy to park and ideal for short-dis­tance com­mutes for run­ning er­rands. And they are en­vi­ron­men­tal­lyfriendly, too.

Honda’s very own minia­ture car, MC-beta, can run 80km on a sin­gle bat­tery recharge, 20km longer than past pro­to­types. Toy­ota Mo­tor Corp’s funky mi­cro-sized model, iRoad, comes with two front wheels and one rear wheel.

Mini sports cars ap­peal to sports car hob­by­ists. Honda’s pro­to­type kei sports car, S660, made its de­but at the show. The light­weight two-seater is a con­vert­ible and is great for fun driv­ing.

I came to know more about a mini sports car when my hus­band’s col­league, Ya­madasan, drove a Dai­hatsu Copen to our house for din­ner last De­cem­ber.

Ya­mada-san, a trendy sex­a­ge­nar­ian, had parked his car by the road in front of our house while I was set­ting the ta­ble. So I only knew about his car when we saw him off af­ter din­ner.

My in­ter­est was piqued by his sleek two- door road­ster with an alu­minium re­tractable hard­top. “Why a mini sports car?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve been in­ter­ested in sports cars since I was young. Be­sides, my wife and I wanted to en­joy a di­verse life­style af­ter re­tire­ment. Now that our chil­dren have grown up and live away from us, we don’t need a big car. With age, we find that a small car is eas­ier to ma­noeu­vre,” Ya­mada-san ex­plained.

Ya­mada-san bought the car in 2006 for about ¥2,000,000. His wife first drove it and now he is hav­ing fun zoom­ing around in it.

“Don’t you feel cold driv­ing in the open air in this win­ter­time?” I asked again.

“Not re­ally. The seats are equipped with heaters,” he replied, pat­ting his seat.

Then Ya­mada-san pressed a switch and voila, the hard­top un­folded from its rear and cov­ered the car. I watched wide-eyed. Wow! Like some kind of a su­per­hero’s car.

As Ya­mada-san waved good­bye and drove off, I gazed in ad­mi­ra­tion at his car.

Sarah Mori, a Malaysian mar­ried to a Ja­panese, re­sides in Ja­pan.

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