What can be done to stop this?
The smallest car currently sold in America is the 2021 Chevrolet Spark, which measures 143.1 inches in length. Some of the smallest cars sold in Japan are only around 134 inches long. Kei cars, which translates to "light cars," have been around since 1949 and have remained immensely popular ever since in the island nation. They're cheap to buy and maintain, have a lower purchase tax, and are rarely exported. In 2017, for example, seven of the ten best-selling vehicles in Japan were kei cars, such as the Honda N-Box and Nissan Dayz. Even the original Suzuki Jimny was classified as a kei car.
But times are changing fast and the kei car is now facing its biggest threat ever: electric vehicles.
Bloomberg reports that following Japanese Prime Minister Suga's plan to decarbonize the country by 2050, which will pave the way for pure battery electric vehicles, the ultra-fuel efficient gasoline-engined kei car will no longer be needed. But there will be a probably downside for buyers. Although kei cars can easily be electrified, doing so will add an estimated $9,600 to $19,200 to the price, essentially doubling it.
"Affordability and convenience are the lifeblood of compact cars," said Hitoshi Horii, the head of the Japan Mini Vehicles Association. "These cars are important mobility that work as infrastructure and something that replaces public transportation." Not only are kei cars found in cities with narrow streets, but also in rural areas where there's less public transportation.
Even Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota and grandson of the company's founder, expressed harsh words in December regarding the government's EV push and subsequent kei car demise. "The kei is Japan's national car," he told his Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association audience "People may be able to live in cities without keis, but once you're in a rural region, these cars are a necessity." In general, kei cars appeal to the elderly and women, many of whom are on tight budgets.
But sooner or later, Japanese automakers, including Toyota, will no longer have a justifiable kei car business case. One possible alternative could see Japan importing cheap Chinese-built EVs. Still, the kei car's impending death sentence is something government officials see as a small price to pay for a zero-emissions future.