Tag Archives: Kei cars

TeslaMondo weighs kei car purchase, because it’s fun being a lightweight

TeslaMondo likes Tesla as an investment vehicle, but has no interest in owning the company’s vehicular vehicles.

In 2015, TeslaMondo bought a 2000 Toyota Mr2 Spyder and, a year later, urged all car enthusiasts to make a similar move. Buy an old-school sports car, an elemental machine created purely for motoring pleasure, before such machines, and the art of driving them, both disappear. Buy a horse before they go extinct, basically.

Toyota Mr2 Spyder, black with red factory interiorWell, sometimes the Mr2 feels too refined, too slushy, not to mention too large. It’s also too middle-of-the-road ordinary. Where’s the shock value in a Toyota that resembles a first-gen Boxster prototype?

It might be time to turn this knob one more notch, to buy a car so raw, so pure, that the Mr2 is rendered a rolling condominium. Yes, it’s time for the “less is more” mantra to become “the absolute least is the absolute most.” And the absolute least, in many measurable ways, is a Japanese-market kei car. Right away we have a semantics problem, for these aren’t really “cars” by American standards. They’re four-wheel motorbikes powered by tiny, high-revving motorcycle powerplants and wrapped in whimsical car-like bodies. But here’s the kicker: These go-carts are totally legit, designed and assembled by major auto manufacturers instead of your drunken uncle Stan.

Illegal in the US, you say? Wrong. Foreign-market cars of all stripes can be imported and driven in the US — and they’re totally exempt from America’s NHTSA and EPA standards — as long as they’re at least 25 years old. That means these cheeky kei cars, kei vans and kei utility trucks, many costing under $10,000, are yours for the taking. And many have low miles on them.

Who sells them? Importers like Japanese Classics, or JDM Auto Imports, or Montu Motors. They take care of the importation and titling agita. Your only legwork, besides getting the car home, is arraigning insurance and registration. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s all pretty easy. However, a dry practice run might be a good idea. Advice to self: Run your plans by your insurance agent and local registry to make sure it’s all going to work out.

Here are the Big Four in kei sports cars. Big? Another semantics problem.

  1. Suzuki Cappuccino — a teensy Miata
  2. Honda Beat — a teensy Mr2, mid-engined to boot
  3. Autozam (Mazda) AZ-1 — a teensy Ferrari with gull-wing doors, also mid-engined
  4. Suzuki Alto Works — a teensy Dodge Omni Shelby GLH

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The driving experience appears to be at once exasperating and exhilarating. Exasperating because body roll, wheel hop, stability control — puzzles long ago solved in real cars — are unsolved here. Exhilarating because you hear a revvy motorcycle powerplant making motorcycle sounds while you look at a motorcycle instrument cluster and toss around a vehicle that weighs about 600 lbs less than an Mr2 Spyder. Bonus: driving one in the US means you’ve got the novelty factor of a Ferrari F40 — for under $10,000. In fact, there’s a Yamaha kei car with a Ferrari F40 body kit somewhere in Japan:

Yamaha AMI with F40 body kit

Safety-wise, we could learn from motorcyclists. Choose a brightly-colored car for maximum visibility, make sure the exhaust is loud, drive very defensively, avoid people’s blind spots, wear a helmet, and don’t drive it in bad weather. Also, if you have a short commute to work, consider wrapping every utility pole with foam padding, just in case. At least you needn’t worry much about a head-on collision with an oncoming car. Kei cars are right-hand-drive, so you can precisely hug the curb. Just watch out for potholes. They’re unkind to 12-inch rims. If an oncoming car does cross the center line, there’s plenty of room for error. That’s because your car is narrower than a Miata. Not by a couple inches. By a foot.

Two words about parts and service: Screw them. Actually, with the growing interest in kei cars, there’s a growing online parts network. And service? Some of these cars might make sense to the service techs at your local Suzuki dealer. Suzuki motorcycle dealer, that is.

So let’s say after five years of enjoyment, the thing craps out. Just pick a spot on your front lawn and push it there. Instant feng shui. Sure beats a pair of chintzy lion statues guarding your front stairs. Don’t you have some fond childhood memories of interesting car corpses in people’s yards? Saab Sonett? Fiat Bertone X19? Renault Le Car? Well, you could have the king of all yard ornaments for a new generation of car kids.

And you’ll still have your Mr2, running flawlessly as always, happy to forgive and forget.

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