Kei cars are an essential part of the Japanese scene, with a whole world of diminutive motoring available. Kei cars are much more than just tiny hatchbacks though. Pretty much every form of motoring has been represented in kei form. Here are some of our favourites…
1 – Mitsubishi Pajero Mini
The Mitsubishi Pajero Mini is a perfectly scaled-down version of its bigger off-road siblings. Despite a kei-friendly 659cc, four-cylinder engine, the Pajero Mini still packs a proper transfer case and full four-wheel drive capability. This is no soft-roader. Introduced in 1994, the Pajero Mini was facelifted over the years to match the full-sized Pajero (or Shogun in Europe) and production didn’t end until 2008! If you think you can’t fit a 4×4 in your garage, think again.
2 – Honda Beat
The Suzuki Cappuccino is perhaps the best-known kei car in the UK, as it was sold here in relatively large numbers. However, only a few of Honda’s remarkable Beat sports cars made it here, but they have just as much, if not more to offer. Like the Cappo, the Beat uses a 656cc three-cylinder engine, but in typical Honda fashion, it’s a high-revving, normally-aspirated affair that still manages to produce the kei-maximum of 63bhp at an ear-shattering 8100rpm. Practical it is not. Fun, it very much is.
3 – Daihatsu Mira Walk Through Van
Even the commercial world is catered for with kei vehicles, with Daihatsu producing a walk-through van version of its Mira kei car. Looking like a Mira has reversed hard into a shed, the Walk Through offers space aplenty, though seating is restricted to just the driver, with an optional fold-out seat for a plucky passenger. While some vans were built on the Mira L70 platform, most used the L200 underpinnings, from 1990 through to 1998.
4 – Suzuki Lapin
Kei cars have always had that cute thing going on, but few more successfully than the Suzuki Lapin – French for rabbit. Introduced in 2002, the Lapin is a more modern interpretation of kei, with a three-cylinder 657cc engine producing 54bhp or 60bhp when turbocharged. As is often the case, you can specify this kei with four-wheel drive. Nearly all of them have automatic transmission, and a third-generation was launched in 2015.
5 – Mazda Autozam AZ-1
Here’s proof that you can even get a kei supercar, complete with turbo, mid-engine and gullwing doors! The Autozam AZ-1 came out of a collaboration with Suzuki, so it uses the same turbo triple as you’ll find in a Cappiccino, but mounted in the middle. The body consists of a steel structure, to which plastic outer panels are attached. Sadly, it was a bit too radical, even for the Japanese. Only 4392 AZ-1s, and a further 531 badge-engineered Suzuki Cars were built. There are thought to be only five or six in the UK.
Words: Ian Seabrook