Motormouth: Japan’s kawaii factor makes everything cute, from Hello Kitty to kei-cars

Published by on . Updated on 10 Feb 2024

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The Japanese are the kings of kawaii, which gave rise to some of the cutest cars ever.

The impossibly cute cars of Japan’s kei-class “mini” segment are also ingenious, because their makers had to work within tight specification limits defined by kei-jidosha (light automobiles) legislation unique to Japan. 

Said limits apply to the engine (up to 660cc in displacement and with no more than 64PS of power) and the exterior dimensions (3.4 metres or less in length, and 1.48 metres or less in width). Kei-class "mini" cars are also subject to the same 2-metre height restriction as the “small” car category. 

Despite these strict technical limits, or perhaps because of them, kei-cars have always been slightly schizophrenic micro-machines with car-toonish styling, space-efficient packaging and surprisingly good technologies. 

In fact, Japanese automakers operating in Japan’s kei-class market segment didn’t seem to be stingy in their research and development of the clever little vehicles, even though they are domestic models meant for domestic motoring. 

These runabouts are cheap but hardly basic, and they really offer something for everyone, at very reasonable prices, starting from just over 1 million yen for a brand-new unit. 

The kei-class bodystyle options cover everything, including regular hatchbacks (e.g. Daihatsu Mira and Honda N-One), irregular hatchbacks with designer flair (e.g. Daihatsu Taft and Suzuki Lapin), “tall-boy” multi-purpose wagons (e.g. Daihatsu Tanto and Suzuki Spacia), a curious crossover (Mitsubishi eK X), a full-blown SUV (Suzuki Jimny), a hot hatch with pocket-rocket pretensions (Suzuki Alto Works), convertibles (Suzuki Cappuccino, Daihatsu Copen, Honda Beat, Honda S660), and even battery-electric vehicles (Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Sakura). 

Some of the Japanese car companies also collaborate to build kei-cars together, thus providing even more cutesy-options to the motoring public in Japan. Currently, these include the Mitsubishi eK aka Nissan Dayz. 

Kei-cars tend to have cute names too, some of which have genuine heritage behind the accidental Japlish humour. 

Female Christian names thought up by marketers, who were ironically more familiar with Shinto practices, include Carol (Mazda) and Stella (Subaru). Nissan had a good run and shared a good laugh with adorable two-syllable names such as Otti, Pino and Moco. 

Even conservative Toyota fooled around with the names of its badge-engineered versions of Daihatsu kei-cars, including the Roomy (aka Daihatsu Thor), Pixis Mega (aka Daihatsu Wake) and Pixis Joy (aka Daihatsu Cast). 

Speaking of jovial monikers, none of the names mentioned can beat Suzuki’s Every Wagon Joy Pop Aero Turbo. 

Hello Kitty, and hello cuties.

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