Japanese Mini Car Makers Fight Battle Of The Bulge

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

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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  • Mr Carpenter Mr Carpenter on Mar 10, 2010

    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.

  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on Mar 10, 2010

    "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.

  • Paul Alexander I'd love to buy a car without infotainment.
  • EBFlex Chrysler has the best infotainment by far. The older uConnect system was bulletproof and never had issues. The newer one based on android auto is a big step backward but it's still very good. Nothing else comes close to Chrysler's infotainment.
  • EBFlex People don't want compromises. They want a vehicle that will match what they have now with ICE which includes very short refueling times, long range, and batteries that don't degrade over a rather short time. In the midwest, people don't live on top of each other. People like their space and are spread out. 30+ mile commutes are common. So is outdoor living which includes towing.Government cars make sense for the coasts where people love to live on top of each other and everything is within walking distance. They don't make sense in areas where it's cold and 40% of your range could be lost. Government cars are just not viable right now for the majority of people and the sales reflect it.
  • MaintenanceCosts There are a lot of lifestyles outside of urban America that don't work well yet with EVs. I live in Seattle and would face minimal (if any) inconvenience from driving only EVs. We are in fact planning to replace our big family car with an EV in 2024. But my relatives in small-town Texas would have to change some things they do unless/until there is a complete fast charging network along rural I-20. That network is coming, but it will be a few more years.
  • VoGhost Five years ago, Tesla was ten years ahead of the competition. I haven't seen anything to suggest that's changed.