By on March 2, 2016

Thomas' Honda Mobilio sits beside his Chrysler Town & Country in Japan, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The Town & Country I worked so hard to import into Japan was supposed to be my wife’s. I had planned to buy whatever I wanted and, although I hadn’t quite decided on what that was going to be, classic Japanese iron was on my mind. The second-generation Toyota Soarer and the ’90s-era Toyota Celica GT-Four were leading candidates. I was having fun considering other options, too.

A second minivan, however, was not among them.

It was the drive home from the wharf that burst my happy little bubble. The T&C which had been so at home, blasting back and forth across the sun-baked American West, felt ponderous and out of place cruising along the darkened, rain-soaked Japanese expressway. My feelings worsened when I dropped down onto surface streets. It was wide, I realized, and there was simply no margin for error. There was no way my wife could handle it. And so, with visions of my beautiful van scraped and skinned from stem to stern, I decided a change of plan was in order.

Honda Mobilio rear 3/4, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars

With groceries to get and kids to haul, my retro-cool aspirations were immediately crushed. What we really needed was something small, good around town and that could haul five people. I knew from experience that sliding doors were a must and, after choosing not to look at the tiny 660 cc Kei cars because I have real concerns about their safety, we were left with just a couple of possible options: the Toyota Sienta and the Honda Moblio/Spike. I was still pondering the possibilities when a 2002 Honda Mobilio popped up on a local website for just $1,800. Naturally, I jumped on it.

Equipped with a 1.5-liter engine and a continuously variable transmission, the Honda Mobilio is basically a seven passenger minivan built onto the chassis of the well-received Honda Fit. Part of Honda’s “Small-Max” series, it is designed for maximum utility and space, and offers an interior that can be reconfigured as needed. Dual sliding rear doors provide easy access to a center row bench seat that could, in a pinch, hold three small people (sans car seats). Behind that, a pair of jump seats, which are accessed with some difficulty and that are really only suitable for small children, can fold flat against the floor and tuck under the center row. Up front, the seating is fine for my six-foot-one-inch frame and the low window sills and broad windshield provide good visibility.

Honda Mobilio rear cargo area with hatch open, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars

On the road, the Mobilio’s 1.5-liter VTEC moves the diminuvan along well. I’ve had it on the expressway a few times and it moves right along at the 80 kilometer-per-hour limit with few problems. On steep hills, there is always plenty of power on tap and the car moves out with little difficulty, despite the fact it is toting around my corn-fed American ass, my wife (who is quite petite) and our three progeny in various sizes aged 4, 6 and 9. Around town, the Mobilio is good on gas and I only fill the roughly 8 gallon tank about once a month.

Honda Mobilio engine, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars

I am also satisfied with the safety the Mobilio offers. While I have some reservations about having the kids in the very back of the car (the rear jump seats are just inches from the rear hatch), I’m assured by Wikipedia that the car was designed with strength in mind and will do fairly well in a low- to mid-speed collision. According to that article, Honda’s internal vehicle-to-vehicle testing program pitted the Mobilio against a car weighing two tons and found it safe for full frontal collisions of up to 55 km/h and for rear-end accidents with impacts up to 50 km/h. I feel confident that my loved ones are about as protected as they can get in any small Japanese car given that the fastest road around our house is just 40 km/h (25 mph) — knock on wood.

Like any used car though, I must admit my experience with the Mobilio hasn’t always been beer and skittles. Despite the fact that it’s in surprisingly good condition for its age, it’s still 13 years and wears 70,000 kilometers of use on its odometer; it has not been entirely without its problems. A slight judder that I had paid no attention to during the test drive caught my attention a week or two after I took over the car’s ownership, and I decided it was something worth researching. After looking at several Honda specific forums, I found that this slight judder, which only seemed to occur when I was starting out from a dead stop, was common to Honda’s CVT automatics and could be an indication of a failing clutch pack.

Honda Mobilio front 3/4, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars

My local dealer confirmed my concerns were real and that, although Honda had increased the warranty to cover the problem, my car was far too old to be included. The news wasn’t all bad, however. My technician told me that the problem wasn’t always the clutch packs and, if it was caught early enough, there was a chance it could be resolved with a transmission flush and filter change. I decided to go ahead with the flush and, around two hours and $200 later, I had my car back. The difference was immediately noticeable. Today, around 1,000 miles later, the juddering starts have not returned. I still worry, of course. But that may be because I’ve been burned by more than my fair share of bad transmissions.

Our Mobilio’s other major problem was water in the interior. It started with a squishy, wet driver’s side floor mat and ended up with me tearing apart the interior of the car three or four times. I started with the obvious — the heater core and the ventilation ducts — and eventually ended up pulling out the carpet and cutting away the padding until I found that the rubber grommet that plugged the gap where the lower part of the steering column passes through the firewall had come undone. Some quick work with a pair of needle nose pliers put it back into place. Since then, the car has been water tight.

Although it is not the truly classic Japanese iron I had hoped to purchase, I find myself greatly satisfied with our little Mobilio. It has some years on it and has required some tinkering (something that has been both frustrating and fun), but in general it seems to be a solid and reliable little car. It’s obvious to me that Honda thought long and hard about the design and, even today, its thoughtfulness comes shining through. That makes this little car a classic if a different sort — the kind I can live with.

Thomas' parking lot is full of van, Honda Mobilio and Chrysler Town & Country, Image: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars


[Images: © 2016 Thomas Kreutzer/The Truth About Cars]

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44 Comments on “An Unexpected Japanese Classic: The Honda Mobilio...”

  • avatar

    It’s like if someone made a little Honda based on a description of the Chrysler – translated directly from English, using Google Translate.

    Atarashi tanjo.

  • avatar

    Super cool little van. Wish we had those sort of options over here. I’d say now ditch the Chrysler and get your fun car.

    • 0 avatar

      ^Exactly what I was thinking on all points. Im not sure how the law works about selling it in Japan, but perhaps some Japanese family/person has a USDM fettish, just like we have JDM tendancies on this side, and would love an American classic like a really nice version of the iconic Chrysler minivan.

      Stop laughing. Its possible they look at it with similar googly eyes we see the Honda Mobilo. Its uniquely American, something that makes it a bit exotic and certainly different. Sure, there are bigger minivans in Japan, but few of these Im betting. I have read that having a LHD vehicle is something of a status symbol in Japan. People import F-150s and Nissan Titans to drive around. Just to be different, to experience a vehicle that is driven by an untold number of Americans a day, yet so foregin there.

      Same reason I still would love that Toyota HiAce in California Ive mentioned. Sure, an F-150 would do, and no doubt drive better on American roads, but that isnt the point.

      They probably think of the Honda he bought with similar feelings we do about an average-to-us minivan. We see probably 20 Chrysler corp minivans during a day of driving, a great many of them silver.

      Its legally imported now. Maybe thatll increase its appeal.

    • 0 avatar

      What Sloomis said. They should bring these to the US. They’d pick up where the original xB left off.

  • avatar
    daniel g.

    Why not daihatsu or suzuki in mind?

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds as though this deal came along at the right time. Maybe he didnt spend too much time looking before something decent for a good price popped up.

    • 0 avatar

      I have serious reservations about Kei class cars and vans I’ve seen too many photos of them broken open like eggs after what I think are fairly slow speed accidents.

      Also, this deal did pop up at just the right time. It was a 100 f’n degrees here in July and walking all over the place was kicking my ass. Most of the cars we were looking at were 3-4 thousand dollars so when this came up for just $1800 I jumped all over it. It was in good shape inside and out, had a recent service and brand new tires.

      The kids in the family we purchased it from simply outgrew their seats in the back.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That is a cool little car. Reminds me of a cross between a Scion xB1 and Ford Transit Connect.

  • avatar

    Ride-Height will be pleased on his return, why you could fit a Kenmore in there.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Miles per gallon vs months per tankful – and that looks a heck of a lot cushier than a Haflinger. Not bad atoll for a big engine.

    My first thought upon hearing of your squishy floor was to check the A/C condenser drain pipe exit point, as that was an endemic problem with Mopar vehicles and led to that “no rust anywhere else, but the passenger footwell is gone” condition. I’m pleased to learn Honda didn’t suffer the same malady in that case.

    And I trust there’s a headlamp polishing session in your Mobilio’s future.

    • 0 avatar

      I already polished them The defects you see are actually on the inside and given the fact we don’t really use it much after dark I’m fine with the result.

      I started by checking the condenser, then the inside/outside vent door, then the seam around the windshield. It took a couple of weeks to track the leak down, the steering column goes through the firewall pretty high up and I;m not so good at crawling around under dashboards these days.

      • 0 avatar

        I think it might be worth a few hundred bucks for new old stock OEM headlights. The headlights and the usual flaked-off Honda wiper arm paint are really the only flaws with your car’s appearance.

  • avatar

    The windows…oh, the glorious windows on that thing! Must be nice to actually be able to see out of them!

  • avatar

    This van looks like a last gen Honda Prelude mated with a last gen Honda Element…

    I am always amazed at how space saving these city style vans are.

  • avatar

    I love these posts! Any way you can do more reviews on other cars like this that we don’t have over here in the states?

    • 0 avatar

      Me too. For some reason I stories about mundane cars that regular people drive in other countries fascinating (note, this is not sarcasm).

      • 0 avatar

        I suppose its possible. I guess I could ask some of my workmates to let me use their cars.

        I actually enjoy learning about cars like this too. I know in my heart that the “classic Japanese iron” I really lust for won’t meet the expectations I have set. Ultimately, it would end up being a 20 year old performance car.

        With the Mobilio, there are no preconceptions or high expectations. It is what it is and it does what it does without a lot of fanfare. I connect with these sorts of cars – it’s why I won’t dump the Chrysler – they mirror what I am.

        • 0 avatar

          That could be like a bi-weekly segment. Tom’s Work Wheels!

          If any of them have a keiretsu relative or are into old cars and have got a Century you can pilot – that’d be dandy.

        • 0 avatar

          Hey, do a review about those fancy automated parking building that they have!

          Put a go pro on your dash and leave it recording while it disappears to the building /underground and post it. Or something… i dont know…

          its kinda mysterious watching so many cars appears and dissapears from tiny building.

          I bet its goin to be awesome!

  • avatar

    I like that little Honda van too!

    As one who has been to Japan a number of times I’m quite surprised that the width and general bulkiness issue of the Chrysler T&C didn’t dissuade you from bringing it with you in the first place (although if it had that would have deprived us of your fascinating account of getting it approved for use in Japan).

    This does remind me of a vacation we took in France a few years ago, when we stayed in a rented apartment that came with an enclosed garage in the building’s underground parking level. I had picked up a small rental Citroën hatchback at the airport, but found that once in the garage I couldn’t open a car door enough to exit. I had to go back to the airport and exchange the car for the next smaller increment in Citroën’s line-up. My wife still had to get out of the car before it was driven into the garage so that I could park her side hard up against the wall, leaving me just enough space to squeeze out.

    I guess all the scrape marks down the spiral ramp to the parking area should have been a warning of the scale of things.

    For the rest of our vacation I was only one good French meal away from being stuck in the garage.

  • avatar

    Nice piece Thomas. I’m happy to see your mood seems to have improved a tad.

  • avatar

    Cool little people mover, that rear end is certainly reminiscent of my Element. Thanks for sharing this.

  • avatar

    80 KPH is freeway speed?

    My brain would melt.

  • avatar

    I’m a sucker for

    -Quirky yet utilitarian JDM models
    -space efficiency
    -low beltlines

    The Mobilio checks nearly all my boxes. I just wish it had a panoramic glass roof.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    What a cool little vehicle-it has elements of the Scion XB, the Element and the Ford Transit. It would be nice if Honda would offer something like that in the states.

  • avatar

    you know what $1800 will buy you in so cal? a salvage title 99 accord with a check engine light and 350000 kilometers. you really should be doing a JDM version of curbside classics. or something.

    im really into japanese scooters, but id read the hell out of anything you write about japanese vehicles. is there a shakken for scooters and motorcycles too?

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve thought about doing Japanese CC but I don’t want to steal someone else’s thing. I don’t really know Paul Niedermeyer in real life, but when we have interacted in over email he has always treated me with dignity and respect. I think it’s right to return that.

      The other reason I haven’t is that the Japanese are really weird about taking photos in public. There isn’t any rule like we have in the States where, if you are in public, you are fair game. It so bad that when TV stations do “man on the street” type of interviews, they only show who they are talking to and blur out the faces of people walking by. I find it really strange.

      On the bikes, anything 250ccs and under are exempt. You still have to pay road tax, but that’s all. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many really good 250cc sportbikes here. Tiered licensing on bikes is another issue, but I think when you get a bike license here its good for up to 400ccs.

      • 0 avatar

        Based on the number of teenagers who shouted out ‘kawaii’ and took pictures of my niece as we were walking around Tokyo, I’m not sure about the public picture thing.

        Even if there were, the casual local superiority complex will get you a pass as a gaijin who doesn’t know proper behavior.

  • avatar

    Excellent and interesting article on an excellent and interesting car… As I’m on the west coast, there are a lot of companies bringing in JDM cars that I grew up desiring, and with our 15 year import law, the stuff I really lusted for is just about ripe.

    But then I see this slightly dorky, immensely useful little thing, and I sort of want to go all left field and grab something like it. Please keep us updated, or keep on sending articles about your weird Japanese experiences.

  • avatar

    Honda at its thoughtful best. I wish they had brought it here.

    Next, I want to hear about the drop-in B18C/5-speed swap and resulting 7500-rpm shenanigans.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    As someone once said about the early Toyota Tercel wagon. It looks like a hearse for short people.

  • avatar
    King of Eldorado

    I love that antenna-like thing on the left-front bumper. At first I thought it really was the antenna, but it looks like the real one is on the roof extending out of the driver-side A-pillar. I assume the bumper-mounted mast is intended as a visual reference for where the corner is, since the driver can’t see the hood? When I lived in the city and did a lot of tight parallel parking, I would have loved one of those on my ’98 Civic.

  • avatar

    I’m still having trouble getting past the idea that you spent time and money getting a T&C into Japan. Difficult to think of a similarly poor vehicle choice for another part of the world – perhaps a Hummer in Rome?

  • avatar

    Question: Why are the added signal repeaters on your Chrysler located down near the front bumper? Aren’t signal repeaters supposed to be higher on the fender, closer to the A-pillar, and after the front wheel well? Just curious.

    • 0 avatar

      I had those done at a shop. Personally, I would have put them in the middle of the fender behind the wheel well but the shop was concerned about making sure everything could be removed when the van goes back the the US. They didn’t want to drill anything and I didn’t want exposed wires.

      The upside is that they passed the inspection and that’s all we care about. Alos, even though they seem a little weird, I’ve gotten used to them and actually sort of like them where they are now.

  • avatar

    Loving your dispatches from Japan! And surprised Honda didn’t bring that little gem stateside when they saw the runaway success of the first-gen Scion xB.

  • avatar

    Love this series of articles!! Cant wait for more!

    ps. Can you ship me a Nissan Stagea wagon with a manual and AWD? I want to drop a boosted nissan V8 in it a la MightyCarMods.

  • avatar

    Very nice story Thomas. I’m glad you’d shared it with us. I find JDM cars very interesting, but it’s even better when I read about real people experiences with their cars. Keep writing please!

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