Kei Cars: The Japanese Cars You’ve Never Heard Of

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I want to relive my childhood and drive those little battery-powered toy cars again,” then the Japanese Kei cars might be exactly what you need. Of course, they aren’t battery-powered and they are way more fun than those toy cars!

What Is a Kei Car?

Pronounced like “kay” not “key,” and more akin to a Hot Wheels than an actual car; Kei cars are microcars that:

  • Have an engine displacement of 660cc or less
  • Have a maximum power output of 63 horsepower

To the average American driver, that may sound ridiculously slow and annoying to drive. The Chevrolet Volt is the lowest horsepower domestic car with 149 horsepower; nearly 2.5 times that of the Kei car’s maximum power output. Despite this, 7 of the 10 most sold cars in Japan were Kei cars in 2018. While they are becoming a little less popular in Japan compared to their near 40% market share in the early 2010s; a growing interest in Japanese Domestic Market vehicles overseas is fueling a bit of a resurgence for these tiny cars.

Why Are They So Popular In Japan?

The main reason people still love the Kei car class after over 70 years of its existence is because of its tax and insurance benefits in Japan. Not to mention that Kei cars tend to sell for between $9,000 and $15,000 brand new at retail. It is especially popular among retirees and young drivers because of this. Small cars that come with a low price tag are going to sell, no matter the power or performance!

How Can You Get One?

Unfortunately, Kei cars are specifically designed for the Japanese market, meaning getting one overseas can be a bit expensive. If you live in the US, you will also have to deal with the 25-Year Import Rule. This means that you could only import a Kei car if the model is 25 years old or more. For example, it is currently 2020, meaning that the latest model year you could import is 1995 and prior. You can read more about the 25-Year Import Rule here!

Kei Cars You Could Own Today!

Honda Beat (1991 – 1996)

Red Honda Beat | Kei Cars: The Japanese Cars You've Never Heard Of blog by

One of the most sought after Kei cars is the Honda Beat! There were just under 34,000 of the tiny roadster built. Their personality and quirkiness made them an instant hit despite the limited number of them produced. The Beat is a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive car, and is as light as feather with a curb weight of 1,675 lbs. Its tiny, inline-three cylinder pushes the Kei cars limits at 656cc displacement and a whopping 63 horsepower.

It was the last car design to be approved by Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Co., and was based on a design sold to Honda by the revered Pininfarina. For those unaware, Pininfarina is an Italian design house that has created designs for Ferrari, Lancia, and Maserati. The mix of Honda’s build quality and the quirkiness of Pininfarina’s design makes the Honda Beat a classic that Kei car enthusiasts the world over are on the hunt for.

Autozam AZ-1 (1992 – 1995)

White Autozam AZ-1 | Kei Cars: The Japanese Cars You've Never Heard Of blog by

Much like the Honda Beat, this cartoonish sports Kei car looks like it came straight from the Cars movies. Autozam is a now-defunct subsidiary brand of Mazda. With such a goofy brand name and equally quirky exterior design; the Autozam AZ-1 has become a must-have for all fans of weird cars. The one thing that separated the AZ-1 from its competitors is the gullwing doors! Gullwing doors have reentered the public consciousness as of late because of their presence on the Tesla Model X.

The AZ-1 came with a 657cc, turbocharged inline-three cylinder engine with a maximum output of 63 horsepower. It also had a rear-mid engine that sends power directly to the rear wheels. It also has a curb weight of 1,587 lbs. This unique microcar is, unfortunately, one of the rarest Kei cars because of its limited production of just under 5,000 units. The Autozam AZ-1 is a perfect example of what makes Kei cars so fun to own. They’re quirky, eye-catching, and completely unique to anything you would see today!

Suzuki Cappuccino (1991 – 1998)

Red Suzuki Cappuccino | Kei Cars: The Japanese Cars You've Never Heard Of blog by

The final of the big three in Japanese sports Kei cars is the Suzuki Cappuccino! The Cappuccino’s personality comes from its peppy turbocharged, three-cylinder engine with 657cc displacement and its exterior styling to match. While not significantly different then the AZ-1 or Beat in terms of power, the Cappuccino had a near 50/50% weight distribution when both seats of the car are occupied. It was also unique because it could become a convertible. True to the name, the Cappuccino drives like a kid’s car on way too much caffeine.

The Suzuki Cappuccino is the second rarest Kei car of the bunch with just over 28,000 being built. Most were sold to its home country of Japan, while the ones that remain today are in the hands of car enthusiasts all over the world. This tiny Suzuki has captured the hearts of Kei car lovers and has become a classic with the likes of the Honda Beat and Autozam AZ-1, the big three of sports Kei cars.

Daihatsu Hijet (1960 – Today)

Silver Daihatsu Hijet | Kei Cars: The Japanese Cars You've Never Heard Of blog by

The Daihatsu Hijet is a more utilitarian approach to the Kei car. Daihatsu is an automaker that’s hardly seen in the United States because of its focus on the Japanese domestic market. There are countless options for customers looking to purchase a Hijet. You can get the cargo van, the truck, and even a van-truck hybrid called the Deck Van G, which was basically a cargo van with one-quarter of the roof cut off to become a truck. The Daihatsu Hijet is one of the view Kei cars with businesses and commerce in mind. Businesses needed cheap transportation to move people and cargo and the Hijet filled that role perfectly.

Today, the Hijet is more likely to be converted into a camper for the free-spirited van life aficionados in the US. It is dependable, efficient, tiny, and will grab the attention of anyone who passes by it.

Mitsubishi Pajero Mini (1994 – 2012)

White Mitsubishi Pajero Mini

The Mitsubishi Pajero is widely-renowned as one of the greatest off-road vehicles ever made. So, it is no stretch of the imagination for Mitsubishi to create a miniature version to take advantage of the growing Kei car classification. The Mitsubishi Pajero Mini has a 659cc, turbocharged inline-four engine and four-wheel drive. While your buddies are mountain climbing in their massive Jeep or expensive G-Wagon, you could be conquering the rocks with an SUV that weighs less than a ton.

All jokes aside, the Pajero Mini is a really cool car. The fact that Mitsubishi was brave enough to miniaturize such a well-loved car is commendable at the very least. The best part is that you can find these all over the internet for well under $10,000 and under 100,000 miles! The Pajero’s legacy continues to live on, in both full and miniature versions, as that off-road vehicle that just won’t die!

What Do You Think of Kei Cars?

Do you love Kei cars as much as we do? Or do you think they’re dumb and underpowered? Let us know on our social media! We want to hear your opinion on these tiny giants that are continuing to impact the auto industry 25 years after the Kei car glory days!

Maybe we taught you something new or validated some deep-seated desire to downsize to something more efficient and within your means. Do you need the utility of a truck or cargo van but hate their awful gas mileage? Do you want to go off-roading but don’t want to spend a fortune on the newest four-wheel drive behemoth? Luckily, Kei cars can do both! Get cash for your gas guzzler and buy one of the most fuel-efficient car classifications on the market. We’ll take your old truck, cargo van, or any boring, old vehicle off your hands for cash. You can use that cash to buy yourself a Kei car that does everything you could ever want for so much cheaper. Get started selling your car to by filling out our instant online quote!


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