Small is the new big on Japan’s roads
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.