Monday, February 27, 2006

Kei Cars

Japan has a class of vehicles called "kei" cars. Thankfully they have nothing to do with the old Chrysler products of the same name. Kei means "light". These are very small cars produced mostly because the government offers tax breaks because of their ecological friendliness. How small are they? Frankly they're rollerskates, 11.15 feet long and 4.85 feet wide. Think of a car smaller than a Mini with a turbocharged engine no larger than 660cc. That's 0.66 liters if you're bad at unit conversions. Most weigh under 1800 lbs. They're totally tiny.

Some of these cars are imported into various parts of the British Commonwealth, including Canada. They're probably most popular (outside of Japan) in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. This is because those countries all drive on the wrong sides of the street just like the Japanese. You can't get them in the US. Don't even try. Sorry, ludicrous amounts of federal regulations exist to prevent Americans from importing fuel efficient small cars from somewhere else.

And yet I'm intrigued. Some of the designs are downright fascinating. Now trying to cram a family vehicle into this small footprint seem fraught with peril. But this might not suck if all you want is a small commuter car for one or two people.

Take the Honda Beat for instance. It is a little mid-engined convertible. Now take that car (quite literally that exact car), stretch it a bit and drop in a bigger engine. Now you have the MG TF which is the most popular sports car in Britain and for good reason. The Daihatsu Copen and the Nissan Figaro also have a big of style and performance.

I really think that small may be the untapped future of American automobiles. Right now we have lots of mammoth V8s, but few small, light, quick two-seater fours like the MG or the Lotus. I really think there is a sweet spot in the market for a small, sporty, fairly inexpensive, two-door that doesn't do much but does it well. But maybe that is just the guy that spends an hour and a half a day commuting doing the talking.

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