Big in Japan: exploring Tokyo's strangeness in the tiny Honda S660
How better to tackle one of the world's oddest cities than in our favourite kei car?
Miming and pointing can only get you so far. Japan is a country where English is infrequent, both in speech and writing. This, I had so far concluded, is wonderfully refreshing, enough to make even its capital city, Tokyo, feel fantastically alien.
But as I fold my (for once) lanky five-feet-nine-inch frame into the dinky Honda S660, I’m suddenly wishing for an English translator. The minimalist dashboard houses no satnav, see, and while I’m loath to rely on such things, it would offer more than a marginal helping hand in navigating a city that simply dwarfs London.Advertisement - Page continues below
My gestures do nothing to acquire a plug-in device to sucker to the screen and keep John Wycherley and me aware of where the hell we are. It’s time to do as our more sociable and adventurous pre-smartphone selves would have done a decade or two ago, then, and prod the S660’s three-cylinder engine into life and burble into the city.
And perhaps aimless wandering is best, as we aim to explore the city that bred the diminutive car we’re in, to shed some light on its unconventional form. The S660 confirms to Kei car regulations, you see. In brief, they allow no more than 63bhp from an engine 660cc or smaller, while the car must sit within a footprint smaller than a Renault Twingo’s.
Yeah, we’ve got small cars and downsized engines in Europe. But the Kei – an abbreviation of kei-jidōsha, meaning light vehicle – was born way back in 1949, a response to post-war austerity. Tax levies, more space for parking and less congested traffic were the aims. We gained the Mini a little later, of course, but it was born of one man’s vision rather than a wholesale movement. Nearly 40 years passed before we had another car remotely as focused, in the shape of the Smart.
Kei dimensions and engine allowances have grown over the years to their current point, reflecting both the car market and the growing size of the city that spawned them; the city we’re in now. Most are sensible city cars, but there is also inventiveness, high points where Japan’s carmakers have squeezed extra spicy ingredients into the Kei cookie cutter. The Honda Beat – a mid-engined, rear-drive roadster from the Nineties – is one such example, and this S660 is its modern successor.Advertisement - Page continues below
Stress-free commuting may be its real reason for being, but with the twee, Elise-esque fabric roof rolled and stored under the front bonnet, the Honda feels like the perfect little pod to take in this eye-boggling city.
Our first stop is Hie Jinja, an irresistibly Japanese-looking shrine nestled cosily among glassy modern offices. As Wycherley gets to work, I get out of shot by taking a wander around. It becomes quickly apparent this is a highly spiritual place, with locals lining up to perform a meticulously choreographed ritual before Hie’s altar, comprising bows, claps and bell-ringing.
Feeling ill-mannered for rocking up and parking a bright yellow roadster beside the temizuya water feature used for the hand cleansing that starts worship, I wander back to the car. Soon, my worries evaporate; a Rosso Corsa Ferrari FF has arrived, causing more fuss than we have.
It immediately gives some context to our shrunk-in-the-wash sports car. The S660 is simply dwarfed by the uncouth Italian, its unmistakably Japanese aesthetic looking right at home, and as we choose to make our escape, its engine, some 90 per cent down on power on the Ferrari’s V12, makes a whole lot less fuss.
With just 830kg to shift, our turbo three-pot never feels underendowed, and it powers the rear wheels via a six-speed manual from Honda’s very best box of bits. Its throw is short and slick, its operation to be relished. Not least because you can buzz the engine well past 7,000rpm, the joy telegraphed via a big, central rev-counter. Suddenly, city cars back home seem as dull as the task they’re made for. Keis like this pack fun and grown-up engineering into a package that’s no less wieldy or efficient.
After stretching the S660’s legs on the highway – not wishing for any more engine capacity, I might add – we reach pastures far less serene: Shibuya Crossing, the spot that most resembles how Japan’s capital looked as I daydreamt on the plane over.
Multiply Times Square by Piccadilly Circus and you’re perhaps halfway there: loud, bright neon adverts broadcasting onto one manic junction. Cars and buses spill in from four directions, and when a full house of red lights pauses traffic chaos, scores of people – up to a thousand in one go – spill into the road to make their way from one side to the other on foot.
I fear I’ve lost Wycherley forever, my wingman nipping out of the car to freezeframe the whole thing and, as I watch the last dregs of people leave the road and my lights return to green, he’s been swamped entirely by the fresh set of faces on his portion of pavement. The little Honda ought to feel lost in the big crowd, but its titchy turning circle and inoffensive size allow me to easily navigate through it, as well as disguise my occasionally duff lane choices with some last-minute corrections.
Photographer rescued, we seek a break from Shibuya’s bedlam. Parking a car is difficult here, Tokyo’s scant spaces in constant high demand. A beaten-up little alleyway hoves into view, and we point the S660’s nose down it. Few cars could – or perhaps should – be down here, but it’s a perfect demonstration of the benefits the Kei mantra brings. We can park where we like, it seems, with genuine befuddlement at the signs readied as our excuse.Advertisement - Page continues below
Away from the dazzling lights and dizzying crowds, our rambunctious little roadster looks especially nuts. It’s a beguiling thing, like a two-thirds scale tribute to the new NSX. If a small car fits your needs, why wouldn’t you have one that looks like this? And while it may simply be the fact I don’t know the Japanese for “tosser”, I’m sensing charm rather than animosity from the pedestrians walking past our quite probably illegally parked car. A Toyota Crown taxi wouldn’t be cut this kind of slack.
Tight lanes are not the place to explore the outer reaches of its handling balance, of course, and with grip strong and power low, you’d need a damp go-kart track to make a drift machine of it. But it exhibits its lightness and minimal overhangs with instant and precise direction changes. And no city car I’ve driven has such a low-slung, body-hugging driving position. Honda has taken the Kei limitations and worked up to their borders, taken them as an invitation to experiment. You may need a car that’s cheap to run, but that’s no excuse for a lack of personality.
Aptly, an adorable Kei ice cream van now wants to squeeze past, so we make our exit, ducking and diving through Tokyo traffic for another couple of hours. We see day turn to night, the bright lights and boisterous sounds emanating from the city’s busier boroughs taking on a new life away from natural light. Standing above it all is the 333m Tokyo Tower. Given we’re 6,000 miles from home, it would be rude to pass up the opportunity to climb to its uppermost observation deck, 250m skyward.
A twilight view of Tokyo is breathtaking. It also presents a new perspective on how intricately packed this city is, the city which helped birth the effortlessly manoeuvrable Kei car. It’s got to be the best way to explore Tokyo: Japan’s irresistible oddness – and even a chapter of its post-war recovery – distilled into an unconventional 3.4 by 1.5 metre frame.Advertisement - Page continues below
If you’ve no need for anything in the way of luggage space, this S660 would be a superb way to make inner-city commuting less fraught, more fun. But there’s a sucker punch: just like its fellow Kei cars, there are no plans for this little Honda, priced at the yen equivalent of £10,300, to be sold outside of Japan.
And after a day succumbing to the S660’s sweetness, I’m struggling to see why – beyond their fragile proportions not yielding spiffing crash results – we’re deprived of this motley crew of mini-cars. Europe likes its city cars strong and stylish, it would seem, and more than a little premium. But everything that’s fashionable now – shrunken three-cylinder engines, a focus on cheap tax and a U-turn on swelling dimensions – has been evident in the Japanese market for more than six decades, with little stars like the S660 peppered across that timeline.
After a day of soaking up Tokyo’s sights and sounds inside its cosy little cabin, I feel I must to encourage you to start knocking up the placards of protest now. Every city needs cars like this.
This feature was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine