By on March 10, 2010

Subminiature, or „kei“ cars ( from kei-jidosha – subcompact cars) have been a Japanese phenomenon. At one time, their combined share was 1/3 of Japan’s market. Unlike anime and Pokemon, the 660 cc vehicles never much made it beyond Japan’s shores. And recently, the sales of the pocket monsters on wheels had been flagging. Last February, the little critters had recorded their first rise rise after 15 months of going down – by a hair of 0.7 percent.

According to today’s Nikkei [sub], “improvements in hybrid and electric technology are dulling the fuel-efficiency edge that minivehicles have long had over larger cars. To maintain their advantage, makers of minis are putting their autos on diets, shaving weight wherever they can to eke out better gas mileage.”

Well, the formerly yaseta (skinny, lithe) kei cars have gotten a bit debu-debu (hefty) lately. Minivehicles have grown larger and heavier over the years, losing some of their appeal — superior mileage — in the process.

Manufacturers have declared an all-out war to fight the flab. When Suzuki  launched a redesigned 2010 Alto last December, Yasunori Arakawa, chief engineer for the development team, “panicked” when he “was told that the new Alto might have to become even 100 grams heavier than the previous one to meet quality assurance standards.” After an all-hands slimfest, the redesigned Alto did shed 10kg, and became nearly 17 percent  more fuel-efficient. Daihatsu’s new Tanto, released last December, dropped 60kg of extra heft. All minicar makers are on the hunt for weight to regain lost market share.

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14 Comments on “Japanese Mini Car Makers Fight Battle Of The Bulge...”


  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Well, the first two sections I got…. (hey, I’m a car guy – I get racing and 0-to-whatever).

    Looks like for handling, the Subaru was barely beaten and in straight line performance, the Subie cleaned everyone else’s clock.

    I think the Suzuki won the first race, but not by a lot.

    Overall winner: Subaru R2? Agree? Disagree?

    Why should it matter?

    ‘coz IF gas prices do a massive spike and suddenly these cars are offered in the USA, it might matter.

    Subaru has a great reputation, BTW, and a lot of these kei cars are actually offered in AWD. Most seem to be CVT, and Subie has a lot of experience there, as well (though only now starting to use these units in larger cars, like my ’10 Legacy). Yep, it’s my first Subie.

    Gas is $6.60 a (US) gallon equivalent in the UK right now. What happens if it goes to that price in the US and stays there? We think we were whining at $4.19.9 in 2008???? There’d be a lot of whining.

    Wonder if the Subie plant in Lafayette, Indiana could be tooled up to produce these little R2′s?

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    $6.60 gas in USA is doomsday scenario. Breakdown of social order. Don’t worry about selling Kei cars then.

    I would gladly buy one now for fun if it was priced rationally. To me, thats per pound.

    • 0 avatar
      Mr Carpenter

      You’re probably right about that. And of course, I don’t want it to happen. But the same thing could be said for the Captain of the Titanic not wanting the ship to sink….

      But on the flipside, the Brits and Europeans and others have “managed” to still wake up to sunshine and breakfast while paying such prices for years.

      Looking back at $4.19.9 per gallon, I recall a lot of used SUVs and pickup trucks sitting on the side of the road for sale; a lot of people actually driving the speed limit (probably for the first time in their lives since passing their driver’s exam test); a little more courtesy on the roads and a lot less traffic on the roads as people actually combined trips, presumably. We all presumably noticed the massive change in buying habits (either not buying new vehicles at all, or buying small vehicles).

      Since the gas has gotten relatively cheaper again, I’ve noticed a few changes.

      Sales of trucks and SUVs is back up (a bit). People are speeding (generally 10-15 over) a lot again, along with the other antisocial behaviors normally seen behind the wheel, and traffic is up a bit.

      A gradual ramp-up to Canadian equivalent fuel prices in the USA with tax increases (say back to about $4.20 a US gallon) would not have the “desired results”, though, because it is the shock-factor of having a near instantaneous price increase which caused the behavior changes in the public.

      However, I posit that a semi-gradual or gradual ramp-up to $6.60 a gallon (UK price levels) in the US would do two things.

      It’d bring traffic levels way down, and would collapse the economy because there would be insufficient time to change how we live.

      The oil based economy has only got a few decades left to run, as a WAG (wild-@ass guess).

    • 0 avatar

      There is nothing doomsday about $6/gal gas. In the 1950s, gas already costed that much if compared to the share of household income. Some folks would just need to choose between gas and the newest cellphone data plan, or maybe pig out in restaurants a little less.

  • avatar
    krazykarguy

    150cc engines? I thought kei cars were limited to 660cc.

  • avatar
    tced2

    I wish the makers of “normal” sized cars would get this weight reduction bug. Just bring out a new model that is the same size but weighs less. Less weight brings all sorts of positives, better economy, more nimble handling, better braking.

    • 0 avatar

      You see weight reduction sometimes with sports cars between generations, but mid-generation changes almost always add weight.

      The Corvette and Miata are examples, and because the designers and engineers strive to keep the weight down and performance up, both cars have been selling well for decades.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Tced, the “normal” sized car makers did the weight reduction gig in the late 1970′s.

    The Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr twins replaced the Maverick / Comet twins and came in weighing as little as 2590 pounds vs 2864 for the lightest 1977 Maverick.

    The car wasn’t downsized, either; it was just rationalized. I recall reading about it back in the day and even went to test drive one new, but I preferred the then new GM B-cars, which were in semi- competition with the Fairmonts – and which were downsized AND reduced in weight. Despite still having a full frame. The 1977 Malibu minimum weight was 3551, the 1978 Malibu minimum weight was 3001. The Ford cost about $600 less (about $3624 up vs about $4204 up), which surely was partly due to less raw materials being needed for the vehicle.

    Ended up buying a used 1977 Plymouth Volare V8 automatic instead.

    Frying pan. Fire. There weren’t any really good US spec cars in the 1970′s. None. Not even Japanese or European, really.

  • avatar
    Adamatari

    I’m not surprised that hybrids are eating into the kei market. They are a compromise, and are in a special tax class which explains their popularity to some extent. However, they also show how much can be done with so little – 4wd, turbos, and space for 4 adults (or at least 4 adult skinny Japanese women). I wonder if hybrid or electric kei cars will start appearing?

    Ha, the girl that did the driving picked the car that won the road race (the Mitsubishi eK sport)! I wonder if she’s another racer or if she just likes to drive… She said, “It’s fun to drive. Awesome!” when they did the “girl’s choice” thing. It’s obvious where her priorities lie.

    I must say, kei cars have always fascinated me. Though they exist at least partly because of their protected tax status in Japan, I kinda wish we had them in the US. I’m willing to bet these are better than owning an Aveo!

    Personally, I want a Suzuki Cappuccino! Those things are cute, RWD, with a huge aftermarket… There are some monster tuned versions.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Kei cars will always be popular in Japan because of certain parking and tax exemptions they enjoy.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    tedc, sure, anything’s possible.

    Here’s how I would reduce weight.

    A-pillars: drove a Chevy HHR (rented for one day) and the A-pillars were as thick as a human’s thigh. An obese human’s thigh.

    A lighter car with A-pillars as thin as Italian Frua designs in the 1960′s Maserati Quattroporte http://www.themotoringenthusiast.com/cars/featured/67qp

    would allow for some visibility and SAFETY. Seeing danger allows one to avoid it… “duh”. A (and B and C) pillars could be made like some of the master engineer’s best work – like human bones.

    For cars, that would be high strength steel (or carbon fibre), two pieces in C-shapes, welded continuously and filled with foam.

    Cars could be light. Look at the 1960′s Peugeot 404. It seated 5 or 6 and weighed what, 2300 pounds?

    Simplicity keeps costs down. The 404 had a torque tube rear drive system with 2 coil springs and one universal joint, some locating arms and probably a Panhard rod for placement… front McPhersons and coils, anti-roll bar…. and I believe, rack & pinion steering. The car was light enough to not need power assisted steering.

    Cars with tiny electric window motors needn’t be more than a few pounds heavier than manual regulators – so a few luxuries wouldn’t add a lot of weight. For every pound added, take out a pound by putting aluminum parts on instead of steel. Aluminum hood, trunk lid, doors. Air bags do not weight a lot. Nor do seat belts.

    Good engineering weighs less than poor engineering.

    Conventional family cars with adequate room could be very 404 like but perhaps with aerodynamics of the same period Citroen DS (which are already accomplished on many current conventional appearing family cars).

    I think the secret is to stop making 44 different types of vehicles.

    The OLD OLD General Motors had it right; after all, they did stomp Henry Ford’s empire into the ground between 1928 and 1948.

    Perhaps instead of building multiple vehicle types, a half dozen would work (per manufacturer).

    For example, is there really a need for Toyota to build the Avalon while they try to sell similar Lexus vehicles too?

    Simplification would reduce costs and allow for better value.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    “Looking back at $4.19.9 per gallon, I recall a lot of used SUVs and pickup trucks sitting on the side of the road for sale; a lot of people actually driving the speed limit (probably for the first time in their lives since passing their driver’s exam test); a little more courtesy on the roads and a lot less traffic on the roads as people actually combined trips, presumably. We all presumably noticed the massive change in buying habits (either not buying new vehicles at all, or buying small vehicles).

    Since the gas has gotten relatively cheaper again, I’ve noticed a few changes.

    Sales of trucks and SUVs is back up (a bit). People are speeding (generally 10-15 over) a lot again, along with the other antisocial behaviors normally seen behind the wheel, and traffic is up a bit.

    A gradual ramp-up to Canadian equivalent fuel prices in the USA with tax increases (say back to about $4.20 a US gallon)”

    Vehicle ownership and operation here in Canada shows the same characteristics as the US before, during and after the gas price spike. Bring back expensive gas, I say.

    There are lots of Kei cars around Vancouver. It’s common to see the pickups, vans and even 2-door sedans. It’s great to see them, as opposed to bloated goofy pickups and the German lux/ego barges.


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