Review From The Backseat: King Of The Kei Cars, The Honda NBOX (Japanese Spec)

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

About one third of all cars sold in Japan are an oddity: Cars for midgets. Kei cars. Limited in size (11.2 by 4.9 ft), displacement (40 cid), and power (63hp). “Americans won’t buy them,” says our contact at Honda who meets us in the basement garage of Honda’s headquarters in Tokyo. “Americans want big.” We are here to test whether a Kei car can be pressed into duty as the epitome of big, as a chauffeured limousine.

“We,” that is Martin Koelling, East Asia correspondent of Germany’s Handelsblatt, and I. Martin already excelled as a very capable driver at our from-the-backseat test of the Lexus GS 350 F Sport. That was in the serene setting of Kagoshima. Today, we are in the 13 million metropolis of Tokyo.

I have been around many cars in my life. My favorite part is the backseat, and my favorite drive is to be driven. I quickly learned that “driver, why don’t you raise the partition” signals the most fun one can have in a car. But how much fun can you have in a Kei, a car that is normally not associated with party space, except among anchovies?

Our car is Honda’s NBOX, Japan’s bestselling Kei car. 19,354 NBOXes were sold in May, Toyota’s Prius (20,789 units) and Aqua (20,091) are only a few hundreds ahead of the third-placed NBOX.

When Honda heard of our backseats plans, they switched the car for a top-of-the-line NBOX Custom G Turbo, to conform with the intended mission profile of a swank limousine. Would we buy instead of just borrow it, the car would set us back by 1.66 million yen with tax. It sounds like a lot. Converted to dollars, it is $20,000. Two years ago, it would have been $17,500, not because the NBOX was cheaper, the yen was. Also, this is the fully loaded, tricked-out with cherry on top version. For a little less luxury, the NBOX G would be 1.24 million yen ($15,500).

On paper, the G Turbo version increases the car’s 58 hp to an exhilarating 64 horses. The torque climbs from 65 Nm (48 lb ft) to 104 Nm (77 lb ft). Not quite pavement-ripping, but as we shall soon see, nonetheless noticeable.

Before we even get close to the car, it shows off an amazing feature: A remote-controlled door. Not just a keyless entry. A remote-controlled door. Push a button on the remote, the door unlocks, a motor slides the door back. Enter, have a seat. At another push of a button, the door will close as if it’s moved by a benign ghost.

I have experienced this degree of hands free luxury only in true chauffeured cars. In Japanese taxis, usually Crowns, the driver operates the doors without having to get up. In the olden days, this was done via a series of levers. Now, servos serve the purpose. There are thousands of perplexed and sometimes screaming cabbies in Manhattan and other world metropolises, where Japanese tourists exit the cab and leave the door wide open. Back home, the benign ghost will take care of it. It does it taxis, limos, and in our nifty NBOX.

While the ghost closes the doors, driver Martin pushes the start button (keyless, of course), the engine happily reports for duty. Martin adjusts the steering wheel, performs a credible Martin Winterkorn “da scheppert nix” persiflage, and off we go into Tokyo’s city traffic.

We do this while submitting the NBOX to a brutal torture test: Will the car start with the door open? Will the ghosts close the door with the car in motion? Or will an underhanded under-hood nanny chew us out?

Nothing of that happens. The car emits small electronic yelps, but it obeys Martin’s orders to start. With the car in motion, the NBOX dutifully closes my rear door when Martin up front says so. That’s how we like our cars. Good car. Yoiko.

Time to assess my backseat environment. It is amazingly roomy. Legroom is better than in some business class seats. I could easily put another person on my lap, and if she is not too fat (unlikely in Japan), we would not even impact the front seat while communicating.

“Move your seat all the way back,” I order my driver.

“I have,” answers driver Martin from the front.

Amazing. Behind a completely retracted driver’s seat, a solid foot of empty space separates my knees from the front chaise. I did not have that kind of space since back when I was rich, had an expense account, and a stretch would take me from 1020 Park to JFK. Or the Meatpacking District.

Before you ask the question that is now on your mind (I know, Japan is inhabited by pigmies…) driver Martin sends a comment to the rear:

“I could wear a top hat, and there would be room to spare. This is a coach in its true meaning. Will you buy me a top hat?”

I take note of the first and ignore the last. That Kei car made me stingy.

A Kei car is a TCO (total cost of ownership) wet dream. In Japan, a Kei saves you sales tax (3 percent instead of 5 percent for a normal car.) The annual federal tax of the NBOX is about one fifth of the tax for a Honda Fit. The weight tax is a third of that for the Fit. The insurance is lower. You get a break at the dreaded Shaken inspection. Even the parking space certification costs only a fifth of the normal fee in Tokyo. In rural parts, you can buy a Kei without proof of a parking space. Don’t try buying a regular car without proof of a parking space in Japan, you won’t get it registered.

This is why the American Automotive Policy Council (AAPC), which represents Ford, Chrysler, and GM, hates, despises, loathes Kei cars as another trick by the insidious Japanese to keep the poor persecuted American cars out of Japan.

“Japan’s ‘Kei’ super-mini car segment has consistently represented over 30 percent of the auto market, but no longer has a clear policy rationale to be provided preferential treatment,” the AAPC wrote in an opinion paper sent to the U.S. Trade Representative with the intent to trigger compassion for Detroit’s plight. Imagine the uproar it would cause if the Japan Automotive Manufacturers Association JAMA would call American politicians “irrational” and would demand an end to the double CAFE standard that keeps the American pick-up alive.

While my mind wanders to DC, driver Martin steers the NBOX in the direction of the Togu Palace, which Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, Masako, Crown Princess of Japan and their daughter Princess Toshi call home. We are not heading there for tea, but for the famous oval in the park, where we intend to kick the Kei as much as Tokyo’s Finest allow.

“That little mill has oomph,” Martin mumbles as he clicks through the paddle shifters. “Plenty for the city and such a small car.”

Martin races a Honda Civic. The Civic demures, whether in awe of the sheer power of the NBOX, or that of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police, I don’t know. Yes, the car has a CVT and paddle shifters. Back at Honda, I was told it is for the entertainment of the driver.

We run out of other cars to subjugate with the might of our 64 horses. Driver Martin embarks on his favorite topic:

“Look at those mirrors.”

Our NBOX is a veritable mirror castle. On both sides and in the rear are trick mirrors that allow Martin to keep a look at his tires while sitting behind the wheel. Undoubtedly employing technologies refined in the periscopes of submarines, these mirrors perform acts thought anatomically impossible.

Other carmakers would use an array of video cameras to perform similar visual contortions. Just in case, the pre-installed navigation system of the NBOX comes with a rear camera for people who like to watch.

Meanwhile upfront, Martin fondles the car with a loving touch that I would reserve for the fairer sex.

“Love those details,” Martin says and squeezes the armrest like I would squeeze other parts. “Soft and yet firm.” His hands wander over plastic that Martin likens to “Japanese nurimono,” a deep dark lustrous lacquerware that centuries ago looked a little bit like today’s, well, plastic. Martin is in love with the indentations in the inner door panels that give more elbow room, Martin even rhapsodizes about the toolkit in the back.

Say what you want about Honda, but the inside of this car is made with love, dedication, and ingenuity. The longer I am in Japan, the more I notice that people ignore the outside of their houses, they run ugly pipes and wires up and down the walls. The inside of the house surprises. It is usually well thought out, nicely proportioned, with a lot of built-ins and an amazing economy of space. The NBOX is like a Japanese house. From the outside, it has the charm of a shipping box. Sit inside, and you don’t want to leave.

“Look at those legs!” says Martin.

That gets my interest immediately, but I see nothing except a motorcycle messenger who is about to pass us on the left. It’s his legs that attracted Martin’s attention. Actually, it’s those trick mirrors again. The side rearview mirror is curved, not in the usual horizontal, but in the vertical axis, eliminating blind spots from dog level all the way to heaven.

“It also makes legs of motor cycle riders look short and funny,” Martin opines as he deftly directs the NBOX away from the imperial palace and into Tokyo’s rush-hour. Should the NBOX ever be federalized, then only with a decal saying “The legs in your mirror may be longer than they appear.”

Speaking of legs, anatomical differences of the Japanese race give the otherwise gushing Martin cause for criticism:

“You know, they do have shorter legs. This car is made to measure, but I am beginning to have problems.” In a Porsche or BMW, one reclines. In an NBOX, one sits upright. With his longer legs, Martin wishes for a height-adjustable seat, which he is not provided with, or does not find. The top hat worthy headroom would accommodate much larger examples of the Aryan race, if only that darned seat could be raised. I’m sure Honda engineers could solve that in seconds. I still suspect they may already have. My back seats are a treasure-trove of versatility; they fold more ways than an origami.

“This is the perfect car for the city chauffeur,” pronounces Martin, waves an impressive looking pass in front of a bowing guard and drives into the basement garage of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan while rendering his final verdict:

“It handles well, it is pleasant for the passenger. As a driver, I can’t complain. Here, I don’t have to get up to open the door for the boss, I just push a button.”

We glide up the elevator. On the 20th floor, we are greeted with applause and champagne. Driver Martin has been re-elected as the storied club’s vice president, and we are having a victory party.

It is also a victory for the little big NBOX. It just received TTAC’s “Foremost Backseat Driver’s Choice” challenge trophy. Who will challenge it next?

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href=""> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href=""> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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2 of 48 comments
  • Andy D Andy D on Jul 07, 2012

    The nearest thing to a kei car that I've driven is the Geo Metro 3 banger. Or a '58 bug. Suzuki made a very small pick up that I would love to own.

  • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on Aug 23, 2013

    It is August 2013 and I made a point to count NBOXes out on the street. Result: ZERO. Not even one, but three Mitsubishi i. Eventually I found one NBOX in the lot of Hondarent. Bertel-sensei, what happen! Someone set Honda the bomb?

  • Redapple2 Brandee. Another Stanford grad. Bankman Fried. The blood test girl. Mary Barra.
  • Redapple2 CruiseSTUPID, battery problems, software, killing carplay and AM. Why is this so hard.
  • Alan Like all testing and analysis work you need a good set of requirements. If you don't you'll find or end up with gaps.
  • Alan In aviation there is more vigourous testing, well, until Boeing changed things.
  • Alan This outcome was certain.The US, Australia and Canada need to approach this differently. A policy towards plug in hybrids should of been a first step. As in CAFE gradually tighten FE from there.There's no reason why you can't have a 2 litre F-150 with electric motors putting out 400-500hp. A 2 litre turbo is good for 200hp more than enough to move a pickup.Also increase fuel tax/excise every year to fill the void in loss of revenue.