Why electric kei cars are great in Japan but wouldn’t work here

Keicars, which are missing from our roads, represent the ideal gateway to electrification. Full of arguments, they would have their place on our roads with an electric motor. But it’s not that simple.

Among the plethora of curiosities that Japan contains, we can find very funny cars. These small, often taller than they are wide, these mini-city cars, which are part of local postcards, correspond to a very specific category: kei-cars, or keijidosha for close friends. If their history goes back almost 75 years, they represent an ideal entry point for Japanese manufacturers into the world of electronics. On paper, these are perfect electric cars for the vast majority of drivers. Riding high on success in Japan, we often find ourselves fantasizing about their presence here. But in reality, everything is not so simple.

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What is a kei car?

After World War II, Japan was in bad shape. The time has come for reconstruction, literally and figuratively. However, the car industry is at a standstill and the Japanese do not have the means to afford a car. In order to revive the country’s economy, the government and manufacturers then decided to create a category keijidosha, literally “light vehicles”. Initially, it was mainly utilities that entered the category to enable businesses to grow at lower costs. The only requirement at the time: to have an engine with a maximum volume of 150 cm3. With a controlled price, these cars quickly enjoyed success until the early 1970s.

As sales began to dwindle, the Japanese government, aware of the environmental problems associated with the nation’s expansion, enacted new registration measures. From then on, kei-cars, recognizable by their yellow (passenger cars) or black (professional cars) markings, could enjoy various tax benefits: lower purchase tax, annual tax reduced by a little more than half, more affordable tolls and the possibility of exemption from the license plate ownership of a parking space when signing in certain cases. The strategy is paying off as sales are growing again.

The current category limits were adopted later. In the late 1980s, the government decided to consider the Suzuki Alto Works’ output as the legal maximum, i.e. 64 hp (47 kW). There are a few exceptions, such as the Caterham Seven 160 with the 80 hp Suzuki K6A, but they are very rare. In all cases, the heat engine must not exceed 660 cm3, regardless of the technical configuration. For electric cars, only the retained peak output power may not exceed 47 kW.

Above all, what makes kei-cars so special are the maximum dimensions that must be respected: 3.40 m in length, 1.48 m in width and a maximum of 2.0 m in height! To put it into perspective, neither the Volkswagen e-Up! could not apply the category, that is. Surprisingly, the government has not imposed any weight limits on keijidosha. But their volume, internal layout and low mechanical options (small heat engines, small batteries, etc.) naturally limit the weight: the Suzuki Alto does not exceed 680 kg, while the Wagon R Smile, taller, does not exceed 920 kg in the Full Time 4WD Hybrid version.

Why is this a good idea?

Due to their reduced size, manufacturers have imagined all possible solutions to use the maximum space on board without exceeding the limits. A very Japanese know-how, where the country’s various geographical and demographic constraints have forced residents to optimize the available space. This explains the shoe box profile of most models on the market. Taller (generally 1.80m) than they are wide and equipped with sliding rear doors, these cars offer interior space unmatched for their size! According to some, this profile was chosen to allow children to stand at the back and change after school or before a sporting activity.

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Of course, they are not all configured the same way, and there are two other types of kei. At the entry level, they often display a fairly common profile, close to our A-segment city cars. This is the case, for example, with Suzuki Lapin and Alto, Daihatsu Mira Tocot or Toyota Pixis. Between the latter and the queen subcategory, there are quite atypical cars with a barely increased height (around 1.60/1.70 m high), with hinged doors. Right there, between the Honda N-WGN, Nissan DayZ or Daihatsu Taft, we find rare electric kei-cars like the Nissan Sakura and the Mitsubishi eK X EV. And let’s also remember the “three” iOn/C-Zero-i-MiEV from a few years ago.

Perfect electric cars?

To tell the truth, kei-cars have all the characteristics of the city cars we know at home. The wheels in the four corners generally provide a wheelbase of 2.50 m, which is close to what we find in the higher segment (2.54 m Peugeot e-208). Therefore, it may be possible to install a battery with a very reasonable capacity. The Nissan Sakura has a 20 kWh unit, while the Kia Ray EV car “cube” 35.2 kWh. The approved autonomy is then around 200 km (180 km for the Nissan and 210 km for the Kia, depending on the protocol). With a city car in the A segment, we therefore find the same or almost the same technical sheet.

But this category allows us to push the design and engineering even further, creating cars that are space-saving but livable like a local minivan. Of course, families won’t take them on vacation, but it’s hard to imagine more suitable cars for everyday use. And of course the principles of reduction lead to the usual reflections: less sheet metal, less strategic materials, less clutter in cities,… Less of everything, actually to the greatest benefit of the environment, although, it must be admitted, the car remains a car, kei-cars or not : their size will not reduce traffic congestion and increase the number of available parking spaces. Anyway, thanks to their technical configuration and other aspects, they look like perfect electric cars! If we add to this the tax assistance they enjoy in Japan, it could be formidable here.

Why are there no kei-cars?

But we realize that, all things considered, these cars won’t have much of a chance to shine outside of their home market, where they were designed by and for the Japanese. On the one hand, technical modifications to bring these cars up to standard (although electrification would make things easier) or to avoid a bitter failure on the EuroNCAP tracks will greatly increase the final price. This is the complete opposite of the original specifications, which focus on accessibility. At the commercial level, if the arguments are clear on paper, the public income is very uncertain. Just like in big cities in Japan, where kei-cars are paradoxically not in the majority (so it is in smaller cities or in the countryside), European buyers might prefer bigger, more profitable and/or more versatile. This is what caused the downfall of the A-segments here, although admittedly they don’t have the practical aspects of kei-cars to help them. Finally, it is much more unofficial, some observers believe that Japanese producers carefully preserve their specialty, which reaches 40% of the market share in the archipelago. Results that would even force foreign manufacturers to pressure the government to lift kei-car regulations, claiming unfair competition. In vain.
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On the other hand, it would be entirely possible, with a little will, to import the legal framework to give birth to this type of practical and practical vehicle. perfectly in tune with the electric fairyand all this without forgetting to provide numerous incentive measures. This is what we lack in small cars placed in the same boat as larger, bulky cars, not necessarily more practical, but definitely less sober. And we also think of the heavy four-wheelers, unfairly forgotten by the drivers because the administration forgot about them: these vehicles, limited to 400 kg without battery, 3.70 m long and 20 hp, can benefit not only from the €900 bonus, but also from other limitations. such as banning the use of expressways.

But the latter could easily become the next European kei-cars, as Oliver Ouboter, co-founder of Microlino, implicitly pointed out on the microphone of our colleagues at Challenges. Microlino and five other brands therefore decided to unite around the Microcars coalition. The goal: to shift regulations so that heavy-duty ATVs can benefit from the same tax and regulatory benefits as conventional electric vehicles, in proportion to their more favorable environmental impact than the latter. The sale price has yet to be determined. But some ATV manufacturers are considering a starting price of around €15,000. Or the equivalent, at the current exchange rate, of the Nissan Sakura (€15,830). Thus, European kei-cars could exist, but they will not have the same form as the famous Japanese keijidosha, which of course will remain a very local curiosity for a long time.

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