Japanese light motor vehicles, domestically known as kei cars, are automobiles defined by being shorter than 3.4 meters with a maximum height of two meters and a maximum width of 1.48 meters. The engine capacity is restricted to 0.66 liters. Kei cars are often box-shaped to minimize the overall size of the vehicle while maximizing interior space.
Small size – big sales
After being introduced into the Japanese automotive market in the late 1940s, light motor vehicles have quickly gained popularity. Kei cars are not only an affordable alternative to regular-sized private passenger cars; there are also models manufactured for commercial purposes, including mini trucks, minivans, and small-sized assisted-mobility vehicles.
Nowadays, more than one in three vehicles owned or in use fall into this category in Japan. While the most popular regular-sized passenger car modelthe Toyota Yaris, recorded unit sales of almost 213 thousand units in 2021, Honda’s mini-sized N-Box model rivaled the Yaris, selling nearly 190 thousand units.
All major Japanese automotive manufacturers carry mini cars in their portfolio. Light motor vehicle specialist Daihatsu has the highest unit sales within the domestic kei car market, and other renowned brands such as Suzuki, Honda, and Nissan rank right below. Available kei cars are mostly gasoline-fueled – some carmakers even offer hybrid-electric models – yet their size, otherwise a strength, poses structural problems for battery-electric versions.
Why are mini vehicles successful?
To some extent, the success is attributable to Japan’s road infrastructure. Not until 1938 did regulations require roads to measure at least four meters in width (before ca. 2.75 meters). Therefore, Japan‘s cities are densely constructed, with small vehicles naturally better navigating its narrow roads. Moreover, real estate is expensive - so is parking. While many people in metropolitan regions rely on public transport or bicycles to get around daily, individuals living in more suburban and rural areas depend on the usage of cars.
Initially, mini-sized vehicles were a domestic solution to meet the demand for an affordable four-wheeler adjusted in size to the actual road design. Recently, however, the Japanese automotive industry noticed the presence of mini vehicles in other Asian markets, like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia. With demand for automobiles increasing in Asian countries that share similar features to Japan, i.e., scarcity of highways and abundance of narrow roads, mini vehicles might realize their potential as export products, as did their larger siblings.
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