Japan’s minivehicles get bigger and bigger – in importance

Daihatsu kopen concept - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Even the tiniest trendlet won’t escape the world’s vehicular tealeave-readers (latest: EVs disrupt cigarette industry). But then, a huge trend remains relatively unmolested: The world’s third-largest car market, Japan, is slowly taken over by pint-sized cars. In November, mini vehicles, or kei cars, as they are called in Japan, reached a market share of 42.5 percent.

To wrap your head around the momentousness of miniature car sales in Japan, picture an America without passenger vehicles, and you can roughly envisage Japan without kei cars. (Also very much underreported, 54 percent of U.S. light vehicle sales were of the “light truck” variety in November. Down to a 46 percent share, passenger cars have become a minority.) Only once, in the dark days of carmageddon, were kei car sales higher, when in February 2009 42.66 percent of all cars in Japan were keis.


Perusing the handy graph the Daily Kanban produced using data by Japan’s manufacturer association JAMA, you see regular vehicles steadily losing market share. It is taken away by cars that for all intents and purposes should no longer be there. The tiny kei cars, 3.4 meters or less in length, 2.0 meters or shorter in height, 1.48 meters or narrower in width, and “powered” with nothing more than a 0.6 liter engine, were meant to get Japan back on wheels after WWII, and to slowly fade away. Instead, the opposite happens.

The graph also tells us that sales of kei cars are more resilient than their big brothers, and less affected by the ups and downs of the economy. Slowly but surely, keis putter on to ever-increasing market shares. Sales of keis were expected to drop after their tax difference with regular-size vehicles was curtailed sharply last April. Instead, sales reached new heights. Formerly the car of choice in the countryside, keis are becoming increasingly popular among young city dwellers. About 26 percent of kei drivers downsized from a standard car.

The kei car market used to be owned by Suzuki and Toyota’s subminiature-subsidiary Daihatsu. Recently, Honda and Nissan made substantial inroads. Big problem of the small cars: Elsewhere in the world, they are practically unsalable, and the lack of global scale stunts development.