Kei cars in Japan: Suzuki's little giants

Jochen Knecht
Kei-Cars in Japan
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I In this article you will find:

A characterization of the vehicle class Kei-Cars (following)

Driving reports from Suzuki Spacia and Hustler

Driving reports from Suzuki Alto TurboRS and the ladies car Lapin

The picture gallery of the Suzuki Kei-Cars

They make up 41% of the Japanese vehicle market, but are like that in the rest of the world as good as unknown: Kei cars, miniature cars with a maximum of 660 cubic capacity and a variety that can easily keep up with the “big ones”. auto motor und sport had the opportunity to drive four kei cars popular in Japan at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Despite their small size, they are not difficult to find: Japanese Big cities are full of kei cars. Maximum 3.39 meters long, 1.475 meters wide, 1.99 meters high. The dwarfism of automobiles suggests that the urban Japanese are primarily driven by the dense traffic of a megacity when they buy it. Where there is a lack of space and highways are built up and highways are stacked, such a mini-mini car can only be useful when looking for a parking space, right? Certainly. In fact, the popularity of the “keijdōsha”, Japanese for “light automobile”, goes back to the time after the Second World War. Full-grown cars were unaffordable back then. With the introduction of the kei car regulations, the Japanese government tried to promote the development of small, light and at the same time inexpensive vehicles (2.8 meters long, 150 cubic meters) that were affordable for small businesses and families. Attractive tax bonuses rounded off the offer. Kei car instead of a bicycle or motorcycle. The plan worked.

A kei car doesn't need a parking space

That hasn't changed much to this day. And yet everything. But one after anonther. Today's kei cars are also bought primarily for tax-saving reasons. Three percent instead of five percent consumption tax, up to 30% less weight tax, more economical tariffs for vehicle liability and advantages in the annual road tax, which is billed according to engine size. The bottom line is that such a kei car costs less than half the taxes a year that a regular vehicle would have to pay. There is also another cost factor: Anyone who wants to register a car in large cities like Tokyo has to prove that they arehas a sufficiently large parking lot. A very costly obstacle in the extremely densely built-up Japanese metropolises due to a lack of space. Anyone who drives a kei car is fine. The minis are exempt from the mandatory parking space. A fact that makes kei cars vital, especially for small businesses and craft businesses.

Why is everything different today than when the kei cars were introduced? Quite simply: Because customer demands for security and comfort have changed. Economic success and prosperity have also changed the expectations of Japanese drivers. The regulations for dimensions, power, displacement and payload have been adapted again and again since 1949. The current kei car specifications since 1998 include a maximum displacement of 660 ccm, a maximum output of 64 hp, four seats and a maximum payload of 350 kilograms in addition to 3.39 meters in length, 1.475 meters in width and 1.99 meters in height before.

Kei cars are small cars of great variety

Despite all the changes, it doesn't sound like a lot of cars, does it? But not true. Despite the strict regulations, the Japanese carmakers have managed to put an extremely diverse kei car ecosystem on the wheels that is keeping interest in this vehicle class high. Family vans, off-road vehicles, SUVs, pick-ups, sports cars or flatbed trucks: anything goes.

A pioneer in the industry: Suzuki. Kei cars have been built in Hamamatsu since 1955, and the company alternates almost every year with Daihatsu at the top of the kei car registration statistics. As part of the Toyko Motor Show 2015, we had the opportunity to drive our way across the Suzuki kei car line-up and afterwards seriously asked ourselves whether you really need more car than such a kei car has to offer.

Driving report Suzuki Alto TurboRS

Of course, the Alto made the leap into the world decades ago . However, it was never exported as a kei car, but as a small car with various engines well over 0.66 liters. The Alto was also available in Germany, but in 2014 it was replaced by the Celerio, which was built in Thailand. It has been available in Japan since 1979. Always as a kei car. The top model TurboRS has been in the range since 2015 and is primarily intended to attract young male drivers. He's definitely dreaming of a 1,000-horsepower Supras or big import cars, but mostly ends up in a kei car for tax and parking reasons. But then it can look a bit sportier. Which brings us to the Alto TurboRS.

Visually, it rides fully on the latest Suzuki design line, which will also arrive in Germany with the Suzuki Ignis from the beginning of 2017. Pretty edgy, a bit retro, and significantly more confident than anything we've ever seen here as an Altogot. In the case of the TurboRS, there is also a pretty self-confident front apron, two-tone 15-inch aluminum wheels in asphalt cutter width (165/55 R15 75V) and spoilers, exterior mirrors and trim strips in contrasting colors. If the part weren't just one size too small, you could stick the “hot hatch” seal on the thin sheet of metal. Oh yes, Suzuki makes no exception to the rule that all models can also be ordered with all-wheel drive when it comes to kei cars.

Thin sheet metal, thin upholstery, space for four

Enough amazed, into the sports pea. The door rattles tinny as she falls into her lap. It's not tragic. The subject of lightweight construction has to come from somewhere. Much more important is the message that you can travel with four adults in such an Alto without any problems. Without a lot of luggage, however. And especially at the back you need strong intervertebral discs. Because the non-Japanese is not only pretty crisp on the street, it also extends pretty much every asphalt joint unfiltered to the occupants. That can be exhausting on the two thinly padded seats in the back.

It’s much more comfortable at the front. And more fun. Because the processing of the very simple plastic dashboard fits and the Sport Alto is really nice to look at with its color-contrasting ventilation nozzles and red decorative stitching. The automatic air conditioning is just as standard as the automated five-speed manual transmission. ABS and two airbags are always on board, ESP and a camera-based emergency brake assistant are available for an extra charge. The latter is optionally available for all Suzuki kei cars.

Always on board: a start-stop system that saves a bit of fuel. How much? That has not yet been found out.

Three-cylinder turbo with 100 HP liter output

And how does it work Part? Really good. This is primarily due to the turbo three-cylinder (0.66 liter displacement, 64 hp), the sporty chassis and the surprisingly fast transmission, which changes gears wonderfully noisily. Shifting takes place, after all, we're in a sports car, using the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Despite all the technology and sportiness on display, one should not expect miracles. Because in fact you are usually much slower than it feels. And the little Japanese acknowledges real sporting challenges with consistent understeer. That is clearly better that way. Because the combination of front disc brakes and rear drum brakes is relatively stable, but can only be dosed very roughly. The power steering acts in a similarly callous manner.

There is a reason why Suzuki does not save on the sprint from zero to 100 km /h. 30 km /h later is over anyway. None of the Suzuki Kei cars drives faster from the factory.And what does the fun cost? The Suzuki dealer charges 1,239,840 yen (excluding taxes) for an Alto TurboRS with front-wheel drive. That is around 9,800 euros. The all-wheel drive version is in the books for just under 10,600 euros.

Driving report Suzuki Lapin

What actually does the best friend of the young dynamic Alto TurboRS driver? If the Suzuki marketing people have their way, she'll order a bunny. Or better: a Suzuki Lapin. A 'woman's car', as Suzuki emphasizes without any fear of clichés or aspirations for emancipation. What that means can be seen above all when looking at the sales prospectus. A second catalog is attached to it, listing all the accessories with which the bunny can be hung. In addition to the 12 trendy colors in which the Lapin can be ordered. The offer ranges from colored keys to seat covers, tank cap deco stickers and factory inserts for the shelves to glittering bunny stickers for the body. You can like it, but you don't have to. The kitsch is obviously in abundance. Because at least in the Tokyo street scene, none of the many Lapins are the same.

Technically, the Lapin is by the way on the latest kei car platform from Suzuki. Apart from Ignis and the eternally young Jimny, they share all of the Suzuki Kei Cars that are sold as passenger cars.

The bunny hops with 12 HP less

And whether you like the emphatically colorful and exaggerated playful appearance or not, the Lapin is really great fun in everyday life. Because he reduces driving to the bare minimum. Instead of 64 HP as in the Turbo-Alto, 52 HP must be enough for women. And thanks to the continuously variable CVT transmission, a lot of it also trickles away when converting speed into torque. Means: Anyone who drives Lapin needs patience. Or lots of toys in the car that distract you from the rather decelerated way of getting around. A large part of the toys are available as standard or can be ordered as a factory.

The series is, for example, the continuous front seat. This makes the Lapin look even more airy than it actually is. The complete absence of lateral support also ensures that you don't feel like driving fast at all. The large windows give you the feeling of sitting in a bus rather than in a car and also provide a really great all-round view. And what the discs fail, modern technology takes care of. If you order the top navigation system, you will get the Lapin with a camera in the left exterior mirror. It films the ground and helps to maintain the necessary distance to the curb when parking from the side.

Congratulations from the digital garbage man

Bright colors and various storage compartments and drawersthe decidedly friendly look. The little bunny that lives in the multi-function display of the speedometer is almost unbearably nice. Whether when starting or parking, on the driver's birthday or if the driving style is unnecessarily sporty: the Mümmelmann always has something to say. The good news: the thing can be switched off. Really practical, stylish or at least special: all seat backs can be folded down. So that of the driver's seat too. In other words, if you wish, the Lapin can be turned into a large sofa. Or to the packhorse, if the driver's seat stays upright and the rest of the seats lie flat. The light-colored surfaces of the dashboard are nano-coated and particularly easy to clean. And in the Lapin there is also a particularly large storage compartment that can hold a pack of facial tissues. This storage compartment is in all Suzuki Kei Cars except in the Alto and the Jimny. No joke!

Always on board: A start-stop system that is coupled to a mild hybrid by a starter generator and lithium battery. In other words: When starting up, the generator pulls along a bit and all in all it saves a bit of gasoline.

And what does the fun cost? 1,389,960 yen, the equivalent of 10,988 euros. The all-wheel drive model is available for 1,492,560 yen (11,799 euros).

Driving report Suzuki Spacia

Ein Family car on 4.4 square meters? No problem if you build a little higher. Spacia is the name of the result at Suzuki. A miniature van that still has almost everything you need to comfortably transport a family of four. Almost everything? A little more trunk space wouldn't be bad. More than ever a small backpack does not fit in the back when the load is full.

The Spacia still makes a confident appearance. Above all, the front with chrome radiator, deep apron and modern headlights signals that there is no good philistine van around the corner, but a comfortable family cruiser. The equipment is accordingly lavish. Two fully electric sliding doors facilitate access to the two rear seats with XXL legroom. Again for everyone: two fully electric sliding doors. There are European car manufacturers who can't even do that for really big vans and buses. And certainly not as standard. Of course, the rear seats can be completely folded down. If the back of the passenger seat is flat, theoretically even a two-meter person can sleep on one side of the Spacia. Overall a very wild, but also extremely amiable combination.

Windy like the Eiger north face

On his The Spacia always reaches its limits when it either has to carry a lot of luggage, has to drive fast or is exposed to cross winds. The thing with the driving dynamics has nothing to do with which engine is working.Regardless of whether it is a 52-hp three-cylinder or a 64-hp three-cylinder with turbo: you don't have much to report with this drag nightmare. Especially since here too, as with the Lapin, too much power disappears in the CVT transmission. A manual shift option is only available for Alto and Jimny as well as the basic model of the Hustler.

Otherwise, everything that distinguishes the Lapin technically applies: emergency braking assistant, mild hybrid and a large selection of infotainment systems. The air conditioning is standard, by the way. A practical detail that can be ordered for all Kei-Cars: an integrated module for the automatic lanes on Japanese highways. This eliminates the waiting at the toll stations.

Cost: 1,717,200 yen (13,575 euros) for the 2WD top model with turbo three-cylinder. 1,838,160 yen (14,530 euros) are due for the comparable all-wheel drive version.

Driving report Suzuki Hustler

Before anyone here gets red ears: Yes, Suzuki has secured the name for use on the Japanese market. The Suzuki crew is not worried that this name, especially in America, is associated with everything except a car. On the contrary. They like to take the laughs with them.

Technically, the Hustler is a kind of Spacia without sliding doors. In combination with the bad road chassis, the exhibited plastic wheel arches and the indicated underrun protection front and rear, it makes a very convincing SUV appearance. This of course also includes a hill descent aid and an off-road mode for anti-slip control. This means that the all-wheel-drive version of the Hustler should go relatively far away from the big city slopes. And because the Suzuki squad was on the SUV trip, there is also information on the angle of approach and departure for the micro-SUV (front: 28 °, rear 46 °). A bit megalomaniac, but somehow likable.

Extension tent as an extra

Even as a low-budget camper the hustler can be used. A tent extension for the large tailgate can be ordered for this. In combination with the folded seats, this creates at least a kind of small camper for a spontaneous trip into the countryside. The resulting lying surface is only suitable for extremely short Japanese people.

The performance is, just like the Lapin and Spacia, modest, the motorization is identical to that of the Spacia. And here, too, the CVT transmission kills any attempt at sporty driving right from the start. Except, and this is where it gets exciting, you order the Hustler with a manual five-speed gearbox. Only available in the Hustler. The technology twins Lapin and Spacia are only available with a CVT.

The price is hot

At the latest When it comes to the price, all-wheel drive fans around the world should listen carefully. Because the cheapest Hustler all-wheel drive model, which is simply called “A”, is very verySpartanly equipped and only available with the small 52 HP three-cylinder, it’s available from 1,199,880 yen. That corresponds to 9,485 euros. The all-wheel-drive top model “X” with turbo engine costs 1,621,080 yen (12,815 euros).

Conclusion on driving in four Kei-Cars

Do you really need more cars than such a kei-car has to offer? Maybe not, but actually yes. Anyone who drives short distances, really never needs more than four seats and doesn't care about status symbols, would also be happy with a kei car with us. Especially when, as with all providers in Japan, the offer is so diverse. The technology and security are absolutely fine for the space available. And when it comes to comfort, most kei cars easily overshadow most of the compact models we have available.


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