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Cars & Bikes:
Small talk

The classic Suzuki Cappuccino

Not to be confused with the '80s American K class of vehicles, Japanese K-cars have grown up some over the past few decades. Justin Gardiner finds that Sony is not the only master of miniaturization.

Suzuki's bestselling Wagon R

Mini-cars, light vehicles, K-cars. Call them what you will, keijidousha are smaller even than the classic Austin Mini. Originally dreamt up as a class of "people's cars" similar to Germany's Beetles, K-cars such as Mazda's Carol and Subaru's 360 were many Japanese families' first-ever four-wheeled vehicle throughout the '60s.

Four decades later, these diminutive cars—which must be less than 4.4m long and 1.5m wide, and produce less than 64bhp with an engine no larger than 660cc—are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Indeed, in 1997, Suzuki's Wagon R displaced Toyota's Corolla as Japan's best-selling car—a position it had held since 1973—and is likely to relinquish the title only to its newly released successor, the Suzuki MR Wagon.

Subaru's little delivery truck

Small wonder
Given their constraints and the changes in Japanese living standards over the last 40 years, what makes these little cars with the distinctive yellow number plates so popular today? In short, the advantage of K-cars is their running cost.

Beyond the excellent mileage returned by the sub-liter engines, annual road taxes are only ¥7,200, as opposed to ¥39,000 for a white-plated car. Insurance premiums are also lower, and highway tolls are 20 percent lower than those for their more powerful brethren.

New and old Jimny 4x4s

Then there is the matter of parking. In order to register a regular car, you must provide a diagram of your parking space, a map to the space so the police can come and check that it is big enough for your vehicle, and proof from the landowner that you are indeed paying a small fortune to rent it, if you do not own the parking space outright. Registering a K-car, on the other hand, is a breeze. All you need is proof of purchase, the car's registration document and a copy of your foreign registration document (or juminhyo if you're Japanese) from your ward office. The entire registration process takes less than 10 minutes, and although residents of major cities are required to have a parking space for their K-car, there is no actual check.

See how they grow
K-cars first made their make their presence known in the '60s, when the likes of Toyota and Nissan concentrated on copying the West's four-door saloons. It was therefore left to motorbike manufacturers and small single-factory operations to design and build the tiny four-seaters powered by smoke-belching, two-stroke 360cc engines for the home market.

A decade later, the government eased restrictions on car sizes and increased the maximum permissible engine capacity to 550cc. Around this time, most privately owned K-cars had a classic hatchback shape and began to boast creature comforts such as radios and air conditioning, which seriously affected the performance of the cars when switched on. Alongside the hatchbacks, Suzuki, Daihatsu, Honda, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Mazda were also turning out large numbers of "one-box" minivans for small businesses and delivery companies, and the ubiquitous white pickups still found beside farmers' paddies across the country.

The launch of Daihatsu's Mira TRXX Turbo and Suzuki's RS Works in the late '80s caused the government to once again rethink its definitions of the K-class, since these intercooled, turbocharged pocket rockets could outperform 1.3-liter Civics and Corollas. Consequently, when engine sizes were allowed to grow to 660cc in 1990, an extra stipulation was thrown in: K-cars were not allowed to produce more than 64bhp.

This did little to discourage a few manufacturers from developing K-class two-seater sports cars, marketed specifically to the children of the bubble's nouveau riche. Although the midsize Honda Beat, the Ferrari F40-inspired Mazda AZ-1 and the classic Suzuki Cappuccino are all no longer in production, Daihatsu will be venturing into the openka (convertible) market later this year with their new Copen, replete with automatic retracting hardtop, a la the Mercedes SLK.

If RVs are more your style, Mitsubishi has launched a K version of the Paris-Dakar-winning Pajero, not surprisingly named the Pajero Mini.

This new K was designed to do battle with the long-running Suzuki Jimny, which was better known abroad as the notoriously tippy Samurai or SJ410, albeit with a larger engine. Subaru has also carried on their tradition of putting four-wheel drive into regular cars through their entire K range, forcing their competitors to follow suit to maintain market share in Japan's snowy countryside. World Rally Champion Colin McCrae even entered a turbocharged 4WD Subaru Vivio in Kenya's Safari Rally. He didn't win, but the car did make it to the finish.

Even more extreme, Suzuki now sells 660cc single-seater sports cars for a reasonable ¥2 million, helping aspiring F-1 stars make the leap from racing karts to Formula racing. With benefits like these in an era of penny pinching and declining consumer spending, keijidousha look set to make an even bigger mark on the Japanese car market.

Photos by Justin Gardiner

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