Kei cars (Kay) were made to fit standards set by Japanese officials in 1949 for light and compact cars for insurance and tax benefits to the owner. The rule was so effective that in 2016 it accounted for more than one-third of all new car sales! From it came lightweight, fun, capable, and surprisingly comfortable cars that all fit within the dimensions of 10.8 feet long, 4.6 feet wide, and 6.6 feet tall. For reference, the latest Honda Civic is 15.3 feet long, 5.9 feet wide, and 4.6 feet tall. Even a Smart car is too wide to categorize as a Kei car by a full 10 inches!
Nowadays, Kei cars are a staple of the JDM scene, and if you happen to own a Kei truck like the Honda Acty, you get major respect points, even next to Supras and GT-R’s! That being said, importing and owning a Kei car is not expensive at all! The most pricey “sports” car on this list is an Autozam AZ-1 that sold on Bring A Trailer for $17,800. On the other end, you can import a non-working car for just $2,000 all-in. The general consensus is that small cars are hard to work on, but these are reliable and even motorcycle-simple, seeing how they share a lot of parts with motorcycles and other Japanese companies.
With that whole sharing thing in mind, remember that most of these cars had between two and four different names with nicknames and trim-specific names to boot. The names you see are the broadest and most commonly used for each car.
Honda Acty Van/Truck
Ending production this year (2021), the Honda Acty is the one to have for car shows and being creative! Acty is short for Activity, and owners take that to the extreme. The little three-cylinder engine makes between 35 and 45 horsepower through the years, and the 4WD made it an ideal farm truck. It can go up to 71 miles per hour and the 2WD offered an automatic.
This truck/van has been embedded into JDM culture in America with teeny-tiny camper vans (basically just a bed and no passenger seat), off-road trucks, and even mobile competition-ready zen gardens! They look great with the iconic Honda Ruckus in the bed with exactly 2″ to spare. Sitting in one isn’t nearly as cramped as you may think, with enough legroom and headspace for a 6′ 6″ man to manage.
Suzuki Jimny (Samaruai)
This little Suzuki took the heritage of offroading that they had and combined it with a Jeep-looking car that fits in the Kei car box. The awkward two-seater was successful enough to run from the ’60s to selling 2.85 million in multiple countries in 2016, but the 1990’s versions are the raw, off-road classics we’d rather have, not the Jeep Renegade cube they sell now.
The Jimny was a silly body-on-frame car we can still see off-roading with the big boys around Moab, even though it stopped production for the U.S. in 1995. The Japanese versions made up to 70 horsepower and the JA12W introduces the most recent and best we can import; a taller and more aggressive model with a cleaned-up look and better interior and spare tires mount on the back.
This little vehicle sold out in just 90 days and had a waiting list to purchase. After selling around 30,000 they called it a day and no more were made. The 1989 car looks like it’s from the ’70s, and nothing on the outside or inside except the vents and stereo buttons would tell you otherwise. It has exposed hinges, a narrow steering wheel, ’70s style dashboard clock, and an oversized speedometer.
There are no airbags or insulation so the inside is spacious enough to pass for a normal(ish) car and even has a rear bench for two to three more passengers. It reportedly handles like an old Mini and has 52 horsepower “depending on what you had for dinner” according to owner Godis Sanchez in an interview, making the top speed 75 to 80 miles per hour. It came in a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic that controlled the 1.0L inline-4. If you notice the cloth top, yes this is a convertible… it just has to be.
Subaru Vivo RX-R
Hey, how about a car that fits in through your front door and can also rally the dirt trails? Subaru doesn’t hold back their AWD streak when making this little thing, and even though it looks like a squished WRX mated with a Fiat 500. The four-cylinder (non-boxer engine) makes 62 horsepower and it’s supercharged!
The RX-R has a red interior with bucket-looking seats and fog lights hint to the seasoned car people that this might be kinda capable! That Dude in Blue revs it up on YouTube and MAN! Does it sound good! All told you can get one to the U.S. for around $10k.
This is one of the very first cars people think of when they think of Kei cars. Many compare it to an S2000 that weighs about half as much. It was made for speed, with a limited-slip dif and even individual throttle bodies! The features and buttons are scaled down to make it look more normal, and someone sitting inside might need to pop the convertible top if they’re taller than 6′ 1″.
The usual 62 horsepower engine was paired with a manual five-speed that could get it to 90 miles per hour is limited by the ECU to 84 miles per hour. The rear-engine car makes the balance of it fun if you ever could test it.
Along with the Beat, the Cappuccino is the second car we think of in the Kei car world. Unlike the Beat, the Cappuccino is turbocharged and front-engine. Like the Beat, it’s rear-wheel drive. It fits disc brakes in the little wheels and has a manual LSD.
The top can be removed and stored in the trunk with no room to spare, and the rear window can fold down flat. The appearance is just like a Miata but the horsepower comes as 62, staying under the limit. One owner modified theirs to make closer to 100 miles per hour and the top speed (either way) is a decent 93 miles per hour and the 0-60 is faster than any on here by a few seconds at just 8.9.
Let’s get this out of the way; yes this is one of the ugliest cars you can ever own besides the Fiat Multipla. We might argue that “ugly” could be translated to “unique,” and since it’s so tiny it can hang out as the cool unicorn car at the shows. The Kei was made from just ’89 to ’91 and unlike a lot of cars at the time, came with AC.
It ran on a 3-speed automatic controlling the 1.4L engine. A passenger model had tiny circle windows not unlike a ’70s Dodge Van’s porthole window, though normally the practically useless bench was folded flat for a 4″ by 3.5″ storage space. The blank sides were great for a logo and the strange curved top hit the Kei height limit at its apex, though why not just square it off? We may never know…
This was the main competitor to the Honda Acty, and the modern one is considered a wagon. It has a 4WD option and the engine was under the seat. If you’ve ever seen a tiny VW van, it was most likely a painted-up Suzuki Every. It was called a Carry until 1982, then switched to the Every name, and is one of the longest-running Kei cars since 1966.
The ninth-generation is the most recent we can import and it came as a truck or a 5-door van. The 1.0L inline 3 cylinders made 63 horsepower and came in a manual or automatic. Being one of the smallest body-on-frame vehicles ever, it has some crazy off-road builds roaming around that look so easy to tip over and yet so gnarly and fun to take on a wilderness trail!
(Mazda) Autozam AZ-1
The AZ-1 car sat near the middle of the pack cost, except for the 150 Mazdaspeed editions they made. All of the AZ-1’s came with wild gull-wing doors, a mid-engine setup, and were built to be a fun racing car on the road. The interior is simplistic and with overhead windows (part of the door), you don’t feel cramped.
To get the ultra-rare Mazdaspeed version meant you also got a new body kit with a big wing, upgraded shocks, strut bars, a mechanical limited-slip differential, and alloy wheels instead of the original steelies. Somewhere they stuffed in a five-speed manual transmission and a 1.3L engine. If you’re very motivated you can even find a three-rotary engine concept called the GReddy VI-AZ1.
The star drives plenty of SUVs and sustainable vehicles.
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