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Kei cars, trucks, and vans

May 22, 2015

When people drool over a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car they typically direct their attention towards a svelte Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 or maybe a perky Honda Civic Type R EK9. Unfortunately, these vehicles are not allowed in the US due to draconian emissions standards or frivolous safety precautions. This only serves to make them more highly coveted within the cadre of JDM enthusiasts though. I on the other hand, am more attracted to another type of JDM car - a Kei car.

Utility kei truck Kei farm truck

Kei cars came about after WWII to make motorcars more accessible and sensible for the general population in Japan. While the regulations of Kei class cars have slackened over the years they are still very small. Compared to the gas guzzling behemoths commonly seen on the road of America, the Kei car is exceptionally small. All Kei cars must be no longer than 11'3", no wider than 4'10", carry a maximum of 4 passengers, and have a 660cc 3 cylinder engine (and to think that I thought the 1600cc engine on my 1969 VW Bus back at home was small)!

Grocery store run Japanese home w/ kei car out front Parking lot filled with kei cars

Here are a few examples of how the Kei cars makes a lot of sense for me and the driving I do in Japan.

  • I need a car that can carry all of my gear and equipment but still offer an incognito place to lay my head at night. Surprisingly these vehicles have a large interior space that even my six foot tall frame can comfortably lay down inside of (with the seats folded down of course).
  • Driving in Japan can cost an arm and a leg, due to the toll roads, so the break Kei cars get on the toll costs more than makes up for their small stature.
  • Obviously with a 660cc engine you can expect good gas mileage and the Kei cars does not disappoint in that department either.
  • Then there are the roads in Japan. I cannot tell you how many times I have missed a turn because my GPS is telling me to turn down a sidewalk. I assume the GPS must be off and I continue on down the road only to discover that that sidewalk was actually a two lane highway! To say that the roads here are narrow would be an understatement. On more than one occasion I have had to fold both my mirrors in to fit down a street or allow an oncoming car to squeeze by. This is where Kei cars truly shine.
  • Beach house Kei van

    Since moving to Japan I have had my eye on acquiring a Kei car. I quickly discovered though that there are many con artists looking to dupe an unsuspecting customer. Be very wary of purchasing any car through an auction. Only licensed individuals are allowed to attend an auction so that means you will have to hire someone to go on your behalf. Of course you can see where this might cause some problems, especially since they often require you to pay in full before even seeing the vehicle. I was almost scammed, several of my friends were, be careful. 

    Off road kei van Fishin pier Urban decay

    After patiently trolling the market for several months I came across a beautiful 1995 Daihatsu Atrai S120 with a SOHC 6-valve EF-TS 3 cylinder turbo-charged engine! The price was right, it was in superb condition (with less than 45,000 miles), and it was not an auction vehicle so I bought it!

    full size van next to a kei car Custom kei van

    Now I am the proud owner of my very own Micro Machine! She drives great, gets 33+mpg (not bad for a 3 speed auto transmission), has dual sliding back doors, curtains in the interior and room enough for a full sized air mattress! Two quarts of oil tops the engine off. The gas tank holds 6 gallons! The wheels are 12" This little car is a blast to drive, I love it! Now I just need to get a lift kit like this and I'll be all set!

    My Atrai :D

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    Isaac Tait

    Written by Isaac Tait who now lives in San Diego but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter.