15 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right

15 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right

Kei cars are probably the coolest niche car segment in the entire industry. The explanation

Kei cars are probably the coolest niche car segment in the entire industry. The explanation is simple for those who do not quite know what a Kei car is or have never truly had the terminology explained to them. A Kei car or truck is described as a Japanese car that is the smallest passenger car allowed on the streets. It is a car that has limitations on the size, engine capacity, and power output to keep the taxes and insurance rates low.

Kei vehicles have become a culture unto their own, and that’s been the case for the better part of 70 years. In all that time, Japanese automakers have produced a litany of unforgettable kei cars, including these 10 models that prove that small doesn’t always have to be terrible.

Now, just to be clear from the start, even though the title states that the following list is all about the Kei cars that prove Japan has it right, some Kei trucks and Kei SUVs are included because, let’s face it, cars are out, and utility vehicles are in. With that said, let’s jump right in behind the wheel of some of these fascinating cars and take a little closer look at what makes them so special.

Updated May 1, 2023: With the move towards EVs and hybrids, the world is discovering that some areas of the world have already been shifting away from big and bold cars towards smaller, more fuel-efficient models. Japan is one such area of the world that has done a great job and will continue to lead the world into the future, which is why we have decided to refresh this list and add a few more entries for you to learn about.

Related: 2016 Honda S660 Concept Edition

1 Honda S660 Is One Of The Greatest Kei Cars

15 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
USER 3204 via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a 2015 Honda S6600

Make any list of Kei cars, and every one of them will feature the Honda S660. The Honda S660 is, arguably, one of the greatest Kei cars ever built, in part because Honda wanted to introduce a performance car that still abides by the regulations that govern Kei cars. The Honda S660 wasn’t powerful, and it certainly wasn’t very fast, but it looked like a proper roadster, and, more importantly, it was insanely fun to drive.

2 Autozam AZ-1 Is A Mazda With A Suzuki Engine And The Kei Car Designation

A blue 1993 Autozam AZ-1 with doors open.
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The Autozam AZ-1 takes a styling cue from DeLorean.

Yes, those gullwing doors can be deceiving to the uninitiated, but the AZ-1’s extraordinary presentation is also the reason why it’s one of the most famous Kei cars of all time. Imagine seeing a car this small with those doors, a hood scoop, and fender vents. You’d think that it’s some kind of pocket rocket on the road, right? Well, it’s far from one — the scoop and vents are primarily for show — even if it looks like one. Even though it was a Mazda design with a Suzuki engine, it was marketed as an Autozam brand.

3 Honda Vamos Is Not Your Average Minivan, But A Kei Van

A parked 2015 Honda Vamos
Kuha455405 via Wikimedia Commons

Side and front view of a 2015 Honda Vamos

The Honda Vamos is a perfect example of a Kei car. It’s completely stripped down of any meaningful tech and appreciable features. However, you still can’t take your eyes away from it. This four-wheeled wonder was supposed to be a minivan, but very little resembles anything you’d see in an actual minivan. It’s got a bench seat at the back, which is the closest similarity you can get, but everything else about the Vamos is straight out of the world of Kei cars.


4 Suzuki Alto Turbo RS Is A Little Kei Car With Loads Of Attitude

A parked Suzuki Alto Turbo RS
Ten-nen Gas via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a Suzuki Alto Turbo RS

The Suzuki Alto Turbo RS is being added to this list because it actually looks great. Owners love the headlamp design, the tiny horizontal bar connecting the two laps, and the three horizontal lines occupying just one side of the Suzuki logo in the front. Even if it’s powered by just a 660cc, three-cylinder DOHC engine and only weighs as much as 720 kilos (1,587 pounds), the Alto Turbo RS still looks like the kind of car that you wouldn’t want to see in your rear-view mirror, in part because of how angry it seems.

5 Daihatsu Copen Screams Kei Car Perfection

A parked Daihatsu Copen
TTTNIS via Wikimedia Commons

Side and front view of a Daihatsu Copen 

Daihatsu hasn’t been an impact player in the auto world in recent memory, but there was a time when the brand was the proud creator of the Copen, an intensely cute Kei car that looked like a shrunken version of what was the Audi TT Roadster in the early 2000s. Everything about the Copen screamed Kei car. From its sporty looks to its minuscule dimensions and small-fry 660cc engine, the Copen exemplified the “Kei Car Japan” movement of its time. It’s even become one of Daihatsu’s more popular models. The Copen is now in its second generation, and the new model bears some similarities to the Toyota 86.

6 Toyota Pixis Mega Is A Kei Car With Pizzazz

A parked Toyota Pixis Mega
DJ5F-XDTB via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a Toyota Pixis Mega

Dimensional limits often result in some Kei cars looking like shoe boxes. We’ve seen plenty of examples, but some automakers have found ingenious ways to work around the limitations over the years. Behold the glorious Toyota Pixis Mega, a Kei car so awesome it features sliding doors, a low floor, and a color options list that will make Roy G. Biv envious. It might not be suitable for big and tall people but don’t sleep on this Kei car’s pizzazz. It has more personality in its shoebox profile – and the irony of having “Mega” in its name – than some of Toyota’s mainstream models.

Related: 2020 Daihatsu Copen R35 GT-R by Liberty Walk

7 Suzuki Cappuccino Is A Kei Car With More To Offer Than A Flavor

1992 Suzuki Cappuccino

Front and side profile view of the 1992 Suzuki Cappuccino

If you’re a Kei car named after a blend of coffee, you must be dripping in cool points. The Suzuki Cappuccino is arguably one of Suzuki’s most famous Kei cars. It was produced from 1991 to 1998 and was one of the hottest Kei cars on the market. There were a lot of things to love about the Cappuccino. It has an awesome name. The Cappuccino was powered by a 657cc three-cylinder engine that produced 63 horsepower. It even came with three removable roof panels that allowed it to be used as a coupe, a T-top, a Targa, or a full-blown convertible. Like the coffee blend it was named after, you could enjoy the Cappuccino in many ways.

8 Subaru 360 Was The Kei Car That Started It All

A parked 1958 Subaru 360
Mytho88 via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a 1958 Subaru 360

The Subaru 360 —manufactured and sold from 1958 to 1972 — is considered one of the godfathers of the entire segment. The 360 looked like a cheap Volkswagen Beetle — perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it was nicknamed the “ladybug” — and while the global market wasn’t as accepting of the 360, the model gained a strong enough following in its home nation that Subaru actually sold almost 400,000 units of the 360 in its entire 12-year production run, including around 10,000 units in the U.S. alone.

9 Daihatsu Hijet Is A Kei Truck That Has Lasted Through The Ages

A parked Daihatsu Hijet
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Rear and side view of a Daihatsu Hijet

The Daihatsu Hijet is arguably one of the most successful Kei trucks of all time. It’s been around since 1960, and for over 60 years, Daihatsu has launched ten generations of its immortal Kei truck. It’s taken many forms and has been given many different names — it’s been called the Daihatsu Zebra, Piaggio Porter, and even the Mitsubishi Jetstar — but one thing about the Hijet that very few cars in the entire industry can lay the same claim to is its longevity.

Related: Subaru Celebrates 50 Years In The U.S. Market With Special Editions, But We’re Digging This 360 Instead

10 Daihatsu Mira Cocoa Is A Politically Incorrect Kei Car

A parked Daihatsu Mira Cocoa
TTTNIS via Wikimedia Commons

Rear and front view of a Daihatsu Mira Cocoa

We all thought there was something silly about Land Rover tapping Victoria Beckham to market and promote the pants off of the Range Rover Evoque. The name itself is an affront to the sensibilities of the political correctness police. Yet, Daihatsu marked the heels off of the Mira Cocoa with no regard for any of that. The Mira Cocoa, with its distinctive retro styling, was sold in Japan from 2009 to 2018. Undoubtedly, many of those who bought the kei car did so because of color options like ‘silky lavender metallic opal.’

11 Honda Beat Is A Kei Car Designed To Perform

A parked honda Beat
Dave_7 via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a Honda Beat

Since Kei cars are already small in nature, you may not think that many of them would be designed with the engine placed in the middle of the vehicle, and for the most part, you would be correct. In the case of the Honda Beat, though, that is not the case. The company designed and produced the car with the seats pushed back and the engine placed over the center of the frame rather than towards the front. This creates more evenly spaced weight distribution, giving the small car better handling and performance.

A parked Honda N-One
Tokumeigakarinoaoshima via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a Honda N-One

Whenever you discuss Kei cars in Japan, you will eventually find yourself talking about a model of the Honda N-One. There is simply so much that can be done to them that it not only makes a great daily driver but can be molded into one of the best show cars in the world. When you take the N-One to the next level and let it be modified by the people at Mugen, the Honda will be one-of-a-kind in appeal and performance.


13 Suzuki Jimny Is A Well-Loved Off-Road Kei Car

Suzuki Jimny main

Front three-quarters shot of a blue Suzuki Jimny

Suzuki Jimny fans have had some awesome news over the last few years of production. Not only will they be getting a four-door version of the off-road beast, but they will also be getting an electric version. Unfortunately for those of you that do not live in the Eastern half of the world, though, they will still not be available for you to buy because this amazing Kei car is only available for the locals. Eventually, maybe some of the experts will be able to talk Suzuki into offering a version of the Jimny on the Northern markets, but for now, all you can do is drool from afar.

14 Nissan Sakura EV Is The Model Of The Future

A parked Nissan Sakura EV

Front view of a Nissan Sakura EV

The all-electric Kei car receiving the Japan Car of the Year Award and the Kei Car of the Year Award is the Nissan Sakura EV. This little car is claimed to have a range of up to 114 miles on a full charge and will go on sale for less than $14,000. Since the Sakura EV falls into the Kei class, it will never make it to any North American markets. Maybe Nissan will figure out a way to offer Americans something close, but until then, we will all just have to admire this cute little electric box from a distance.

15 Caterham Seven 160 Is More Than A Kei Car In Other Areas Of The World

A parked 2010 Caterham 7
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons

Front and side view of a 2010 Caterham 7

A car that was not intentionally created to fit into the Kei car designation but still found its way into it is the Caterham Seven 160. This car can be found with many variations of engines and builds, but the one that landed in Japan has the 660 cc engine, along with all the other stipulations, making it a Kei car in every way possible, except perhaps in its looks. Some of the latest Caterham cars can put out over 300 horses, but that is a discussion for another time.


Q: What is a Kei Car?

A Kei car, or light automobile, is a vehicle category in Japan that’s made up of the smallest highway-legal passenger cars. The Kei car category was created by the Japanese government in 1949, shortly after the end of World War II. The Kei car has since become one of Japan’s most successful and most popular vehicles, accounting for over a third of domestic car sales.

Q: How Much Do Kei Cars Cost?

By virtue of their size and all-around build quality, Kei cars are typically some of the cheapest cars you can buy in Japan. Most Kei cars are priced at a little over one million yen. It sounds like that’s a lot of money, but when converted to American dollars, you’re looking at somewhere around $10,000. That’s a cheap price tag for a car, at least compared to what you have to buy for your typical Honda Civic.

Q: Why Are They Called Kei Cars?

The phrase “Kei car” is derived from the Japanese word keijidōsha, which translates to “light automobile.” Kei cars also go by different names, including Japanese city car, ultra mini, or Japanese microcar. You can call them by any of those names, but more often than not, these cars are called Kei cars.

Q: How Many Kei Cars Are in the U.S.?

Japanese automakers can’t export modern Kei cars to the U.S., but those that are at least 25 years old are now allowed to be imported and registered in the U.S. market. Kei cars are legal to drive and own in the U.S. provided that they meet this very important requirement.

Q: Are Kei Cars Legal in America?

Kei cars are legal to drive in America so long as they are over 25 years old and are documented legally upon ownership.

Q: Are Kei Cars Legal in Europe?

Just like in the U.S., most European countries don’t allow Kei cars because they do not meet or comply with most European crash test standards.