These kei cars are etched in history as some of the best to come out of the niche segment

Kei cars are probably the coolest niche car segment in the entire industry. Kei cars have become a culture unto its own, and that’s been the case for the better part of 70 years. In all that time, Japanese automakers have produced a litany of unforgettable kei cars, including these 10 models that prove that small doesn’t always have to be terrible.

Honda S660

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Make any list about kei cars and every one of them will feature the Honda S660. It’s arguably one of the greatest kei cars ever built, in part because Honda wanted to introduce a performance car that still abides by the regulations that govern kei cars.

How many cars in this segment came with mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive layouts? How many cars carried stylistic vestiges of a bonafide performance car like the Honda NSX? The Honda S660 wasn’t powerful and it certainly wasn’t very fast. But it looked like a proper roadster and, more importantly, it was insanely fun to drive.

2016 Honda S660
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Honda S660 specifications
Engine: 656 cc three-cylinder turbocharged engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 77 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 13 seconds
Top Speed: 87 mph

Read our full review on the Honda S660

Autozam AZ-1

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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The Honda S660 looks like a tiny roadster you’d want to be seen in.

The Autozam AZ-1, on the other hand, looks like a futuristic supercar without the power and performance capabilities of one.

Yes, those gullwing doors can be deceiving to the uninitiated, but the AZ-1’s extraordinary presentation is also the reason why it’s one of the most famous kei cars of all time. Imagine seeing a car this small with those doors, a hood scoop, and fender vents. You’d think that it’s some kind of pocket rocket on the road, right? Well, it’s far from one — the scoop and vents are mostly for show — even if it looks like one. Only in Japan, folks. Only in Japan.

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Autozam AZ-1 specifications
Engine: 657 cc three-cylinder turbocharged engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 63 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 11 seconds
Top Speed: 87 mph

Honda Vamos

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Its name is derived from the Spanish word that literally translates to “let’s go,” and when you look at the Honda Vamos, that’s the only thing you’d want to do.

The Vamos is a perfect example of a kei car. It’s completely stripped down of any meaningful tech and any kind of appreciable feature, but you still can’t take your eyes away from it. This four-wheeled wonder was supposed to be a minivan, but very little about it resembles anything you’d see in a real minivan.

It’s got a bench seat at the back, which, I suppose is the closest similarity you can get, but everything else about the Vamos is straight out of the wonky world of kei cars. Look at the front section. It looks like a door panel with a pair of detachable round headlamps and a small spare tire in the middle.

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Honda Vamos specifications
Engine: 354 cc two-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 30 horsepower
Torque: 21 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 25.7 seconds
Top Speed: 56 mph

Suzuki Alto Turbo RS

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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I’m adding the Suzuki Alto Turbo RS to this list because it actually looks great. I love the headlamp design and the tiny horizontal bar that connects the two laps. I love the three horizontal lines that occupy just one side of the Suzuki logo in the front. I love that you can dress it up with optional trim in case you want to make it look sportier. I love that even if it’s powered by just a 660cc, three-cylinder DOHC engine and only weighs as much as 720 kilos (1,587 pounds), the Alto Turbo RS still looks like the kind of car that you wouldn’t want to see in your rear-view mirror, in part because of how natural angry it looks.

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Suzuki Alto Turbo RS specifications
Engine: 659 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 70 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 11 seconds
Top Speed: 87 mph

Daihatsu Copen

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Daihatsu hasn’t been an impact player in the auto world in recent memory, but there was a time when the brand was the proud creator of the Copen, an intensely cute kei car that looked like a shrunken version of what was the Audi TT Roadster in the early 2000s. Everything about the Copen screamed kei car. From its sporty looks to its minuscule dimensions and small-fry 660cc engine, the Copen exemplified the “Kei Car Japan” movement of its time. It’s even become one of Daihatsu’s more popular models. The Copen is now in its second generation, and the new model bears some similarities to the Toyota 86.

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Daihatsu Copen specifications
Engine: 659 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 81 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 10.6 seconds
Top Speed: 99 mph

Toyota Pixis Mega

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Dimensional limits often result in some kei cars looking like shoeboxes. We’ve seen plenty of examples throughout the years, and, over the years, some automakers have found ingenious ways to work around the limitations. Behold the glorious Toyota Pixis Mega, a kei car so awesome it features sliding doors, a low floor, and a color options list that will make Roy G. Biv envious.

The Pixis Mega also comes in two trims — there’s a 52-horsepower and a 63-horsepower version — with front- and four-wheel-drive options.

It might not be suitable for big and tall people, but don’t sleep on the pizzazz that this kei car possesses. It has more personality in its shoebox profile - and the irony of having "Mega" in its name - than some of Toyota’s mainstream models.

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Toyota Pixis Mega specifications
Engine: 658 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 68 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 22.2 seconds
Top Speed: 81 mph

Suzuki Cappuccino

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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If you’re a kei car that’s named after a blend of coffee, then you must be dripping in cool points. The Suzuki Cappuccino is arguably one of Suzuki’s most famous kei cars. It was produced from 1991 to 1998 and it was one of the hottest kei cars in the market. There were a lot of things to love about the Cappuccino. It has an awesome name. It was powered by a 657cc three-cylinder engine that produced 63 horsepower. It even came with three removable roof panels that allowed it to be used as a coupe, a T-top, a targa, or a full-blown convertible. Just like the coffee blend that it was named after, you could enjoy the Cappuccino in many different ways.

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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Suzuki Cappuccino specifications
Engine: 657 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 63 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 8.9 seconds
Top Speed: 93 mph

Subaru 360

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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To understand — and appreciate — Japan’s kei car history, we have to go to the beginning, specifically to the pioneer kei cars. The Subaru 360 — it was manufactured and sold from 1958 to 1972 — is considered one of the godfathers of the entire segment. The 360 looked like a cheap Volkswagen Beetle — perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it was nicknamed the “ladybug” — and while the global market wasn’t as accepting of the 360, the model gained a strong enough following in its home nation that Subaru actually sold almost 400,000 units of the 360 in its entire 12-year production run, including around 10,000 units in the U.S. alone.

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Subaru 360 specifications
Engine: 356 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 25 horsepower
Torque: 25 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 37 seconds
Top Speed: 75 mph

Daihatsu Hijet

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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The Daihatsu Hijet is arguably one of the most successful kei trucks of all time. It’s been around since 1960, and over the course of 60 years, Daihatsu has launched ten different generations of its immortal kei truck. It’s taken many forms and has been given many different names — it’s been called the Daihatsu Zebra, Piaggio Porter, and even the Mitsubishi Jetstar — but one thing about the Hijet that very few cars in the entire industry can lay the same claim to is its longevity.

The model is 60 years old, and while a lot of things about it have changed, the Hijet remains a kei-classified vehicle that’s present in a lot of markets throughout the world.
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Daihatsu Hijet specifications
Engine: 658 cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 63 horsepower
Torque: 68 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 15.8 seconds
Top Speed: 87 mph

Daihatsu Mira Cocoa

10 Kei Cars That Prove Japan Has it Right
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We all thought there was something silly about Land Rover tapping Victoria Beckham to market and promote the pants off of the Range Rover Evoque. It was a blatant attempt to entice the fairer population on an SUV that was supposedly created for them. Well, the Evoque — and Mrs. Becks — has nothing on the Daihatsu Mira Cocoa. If you want blatant — it was bordering on flagrant, really — marketing with the sole purpose of attracting female car buyers, the Mira Cocoa stands front and center above everybody else.

The name itself is an affront to the sensibilities of the political correctness police, and yet, Daihatsu marked the heels off of the Mira Cocoa with no regard for any of that.

Care for headlamps with “jewels” on them? How about a “cocoa meter” in lieu of a speedometer? Daihatsu didn’t care who got offended, and it worked.

The Mira Cocoa, with its distinctive retro styling, was sold in Japan from 2009 to 2018. No doubt a lot of those who bought the kei car did so because of color options like ‘silky lavender metallic opal.’

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Daihatsu Mira Cocoa specifications
Engine: 658cc three-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 51 horsepower
Torque: 48 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 16.6 seconds
Top Speed: 85 mph

What is a Kei Car?

A kei car, or light automobile, is a vehicle category in Japan that’s made up of the smallest highway-legal passenger cars. The kei car category was created by the Japanese government in 1949, shortly after the end of World War II. The kei car has since become one of Japan’s most successful and most popular vehicles, accounting for over a third of domestic car sales.

How Much Do Kei Cars Cost?

By virtue of their size and all-around build quality, kei cars are typically some of the cheapest cars you can buy in Japan. Most kei cars are priced at a little over one million yen. It sounds like that’s a lot of money, but when converted to American dollars, you’re looking at somewhere around $10,000. That’s a cheap price tag for a car, at least compared to what you have to buy for your typical Honda Civic.

Why Are They Called Kei Cars?

The phrase “kei car” is derived from the Japanese word keijidōsha, which translates to “light automobile.” Kei cars also go by different names, including Japanese city car, ultra mini, or Japanese microcar. You can call them by any of those names, but more often than not, these cars are called kei cars.

How Many Kei Cars Are in the U.S.?

Japanese automakers can’t export modern kei cars to the U.S., but those that are at least 25 years old are now allowed to be imported and registered in the U.S. market. Kei cars are legal to drive and own in the U.S. provided that they meet this very important requirement.

Are Kei Cars Legal in America?

Kei cars legal to drive in America so long as they are over 25 years old and are documented legally upon ownership.

Are Kei Cars Legal in Europe?

Just like in the U.S., most European countries don’t allow kei cars because they do not meet or complex with most European crash test standards.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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