Change Our Mind: kei cars need to come to Britain | Top Gear
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Change Our Mind: kei cars need to come to Britain

The non-electric city car is dying, it seems. Here’s how to fix it

Published: 13 Jul 2020
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Slowly but surely, the small hatchback is dying. I'm not talking Fiestas and Corsas – they’ll probably die out with the cockroaches – but the really small hatchbacks. Diddy little city cars are dropping off price lists or turning electric-only at a rate of knots.

The latter seems, on the surface, perfect. Tiny cars use tiny batteries, which means a tiny (ish) price just as we need as many people as possible to adopt EVs to force an improvement in infrastructure. Everyone wins.

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Except they don’t. What about the cliched stereotype of the OAP doddering to the shops once a week to buy cat food? Or the learner driver on a far-flung Scottish isle where charging an EV just isn’t an option? Their options are narrowing if they don’t want to end up in something bigger. And therefore pricier and more polluting.

Enter the kei car. Long kept from UK showrooms by safety concerns, they might just keep the city car flame burning. I hope you know the kei car by now. Created in Japan, and sold almost exclusively in Japan, the kei class of vehicle is the perfect solution to many of the issues new cars face today. It just so happens to be a 71-year old idea.

In short, it's cars (and vans, and trucks, and buses...) which fit within a strict set of criteria, and get big tax breaks as a result. Those criteria have morphed with time – they’ve swelled with the inflation of the cities the cars inhabit – but are still fairly tight. You wanna be a kei car? You need to be shorter than 3.4 metres, narrower than 1.5 metres and possessing an engine with upper limits of 660cc and 63bhp. If you’ve ever committed to a career mode in Gran Turismo, you’ll have tumbled into some dinky little Suzuki Alto hot hatches that fit within the rules. And probably desperately switched out of them the second you accrued enough credits.

That’s not the kei car in its correct environment, though. They’re made for urban life, not race tracks. But don’t think that means they’re restricted to boring, samey boxes. Here are ten of our favourites, but they're the very tip of a ginormous iceberg awash with silly names. Gullwing sports cars, diddy fire engines, a tipper truck genuinely called the Autozam Mini Dump… there’s not a corner of the car world more diverse.

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If they were allowed on British shores with similar tax breaks to their JDM home, then I think people might just flock to them. Our people love a) a bargain and b) a loophole, as the scrappage scheme of a decade ago proved. Delta Integrales, 944 Turbos and 205 GTIs were sent to an early grave purely for a modest chunk of cash off a Hyundai i10. Apply a tax cut to something truly wacky and inventive, and I’d like to think our car buyers’ appetites would be even more voracious.

And so we come to the Suzuki Jimny. News of its UK demise resurfaced in recent days, killed off by emissions regulations, effectively. Which surely wouldn’t be an issue if we got the 660cc kei version that Japan enjoys. Our 1.5-litre Jimny is agonisingly slow anyway, so what harm is losing a third of its horsepower? And surely the kei version is no less safe than a previous-gen Jimny, or a wobbly old Daihatsu Terios.

It’s entirely right that the car industry has to clean up its act, making whatever cars aren’t turning electric much less of an assault on the air around us. No qualms there. But if it means the day-to-day sensible stuff becomes even more homogenised, it’s also pretty sad. So let's take a leaf out of Japan’s book: make the sensible stuff use diddy little engines, leaving the big power outputs for bona fide performance cars. Then not only is the supercar saved, but we too can choose between a Tanto, a Scrum or an N-box Slash next time we need a cheap hatchback to fill with cat food or traverse slowly across a Scottish isle in.

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