Why Kei cars?
Kei cars are the best. They are cheap, fuel-efficient and a ton of fun to drive. We’ve gone over the most popular trucks like the Subaru Sambar, Honda Acty, and the Carry Truck. So today we thought we’d have a crack at the best Kei cars.
With access to all the auctions in Japan, we can give you hundreds of options to choose from per week. You’ll also get a detailed condition report translated as well as additional inspections with photos and videos done before purchase and further additional photos before shipping.
Let’s start with perhaps the most well-known and expensive Kei car, the Autozam A-1. It was inspired by the Suzuki RS/1, a mid-engine sports car. Suzuki provided the turbocharged engine that was also used in the Suzuki Alto Works RS/R and the Suzuki Cappucino for the Autozam A-1.
The engine was:
0.66L in-line 3DOHC intercooler turbo F6A type with a 5MT
(Maximum output 64ps/6,500rpm, maximum torque 8.7kgm/4,000rpm)
The iconic design with the gull wings was based off of a design experiment exhibited at the Tokyo Motorshow in 1989 called the AZ550 Sports Type A (alongside type B and type C).
Suzuki also produced a rebadged version under the name Suzuki Cara. Unfortunately, compared to its rivals Kei cars, the Suzuki Cappuccino, and Honda Beat, the AZ-1 came with a higher price tag, no automatic transmission version, and tighter interior space during the recession in Japan leading to very low sales and ultimately halting the AZ-1 production at a total of 4,392 Autozam A-1s and 531 Suzuki Caras.
Two limited editions, Mazda-Speed Version and M2-1015 were released in February and May respectively equipped with exclusive aero parts.
Honda Beat was released in May 1991 as the first full-fledged two-seater sports Kei car. The open-body design was a fully open soft-top convertible with a transverse midship engine with a rear-drive system. The engine was an E07A type MTREC 0.66L straight 3 SOHC 12 valve.
It generated a maximum output of 64ps/8,100rpm and a maximum torque of 6.1kgm/7,000rpm despite being a NA engine. The transmission was limited to 5MT. The suspension was a 4-wheel independent suspension with front and rear MacPherson struts, and 4-wheel disc brakes.
Suzuki cappuccino is a Kei car released in the November of 1991. It shared the engine with the Mazda Autozam mentioned above. Three removable roof panels mean that the car can be used in four different specifications: Closed roof, T-bar roof, Targa top, and fully open making them truly fun to drive!
The engine was the 660cc straight 3 DOHC intercooler turbo F6A type with all-wheel disc brakes with ventilated front brakes. Initially released with a 5-speed manual transmission, Suzuki later added a 3-speed torque converter AT.
The Alto is a long-running Kei-car series from Suzuki still being produced to this day. Alto Works was released based on the second generation Alto sold between 1984 and 1988 with a 543cc engine. Works came in three grades, a base grade called the RS-S, which was front-wheel drive. The RS-X, which had more equipment and still front-wheel drive, and finally the RS-R grade which had a viscous coupling full-time four-wheel drive system and the same equipment as the RS-X. They were available in 5MT or 3AT.
Following the new Kei engine standard in the early, the engines of the Alto Works RS-X and RS-R were upgraded to a 660cc F6A DOHC Turbo.
The TURBO IE/S version released in 1989, was released with an upgraded 660cc F6A SOHC engine turbo. In 1995, Suzuki also released a limited edition WORKS TURBO IE/S LIMITED.
Pajero Mini was released in December of 1994, as a mini cross-country Kei SUV to rival the Suzuki Jimny. The Mini was directly stylized and Modeled after the second-generation Pajero.
The great thing about the Pajero Mini is that it came with both NA and Turbo engines alongside both a 3-speed torque converter automatic and a 5-speed manual transmission and the choice to choose between 2WD and 4WD!
Turbocharged models were VR-I or VR-II while the NA versions were called XR-I and XR-II. The more expensive mini also came with a two-toned body color.
An FR model with an NA engine is also available from 1997.
There’s also a bunch of special editions with additional equipment and upgrades over the years:
1st Anniversary Edition VR-II
Skipper X and Skipper V special editions based on the VR-II
Iron Cross X and Iron Cross V
1997, Anniversary limited X and Anniversary Limited-V based on the XR-II and VR-II
1997 Limited Desert Cruiser
White Skipper X and White Skipper V
1998 Anniversary J
First debuted in 1970, the Suzuki Jimny is a very versatile SUV that has been reliable and a long-running series for Suzuki much like the Suzuki Alto. The Jimny also had 800cc, 1000cc, and 1,300cc variants but we shall leave those for another day since we’re only looking at Kei vehicles that are importable under the 25-year-old import regulation.
The first generation went through a few different iterations over its run:
The LJ10 had an air-cooled 2-cylinder 2-cycle 359cc engine – This was when engines had to be under 360cc to be classified as a Kei-vehicle. The LJ10 was fitted with a full-fledged ladder frame and front and rear leaf rigid suspensions.
LJ20 in 1972 had a water-cooled engine, a steel-bodied van, and eight vertical slits in the front grill.
The SJ20 in 1976 brought along a new 550cc.
The second generation released with a full model change went on to last for 17 years from 1981 to 1998. A turbo mini 550cc model was introduced in 1986 and in 1990 per the new Kei regulations, a new 660cc Suzuki Jimny was released (Model code: JA11). The Second Generation Kei-Jimny would go on to have a few upgrades and iterations with models JA12/JA22 (higher engine power outputs) until the end of its production in 1998.
This third generation underwent a major makeover to reveal a much more modern design. The body type is a 3-door hardtop with a lightweight shock-absorbing body. Still following the ladder frame structure, this model lived on for 20 years.
The Mitsubishi Minica is a Kei car with a very long history. It was manufactured for 8 long generations with a simple and solid design at a low price before it was discontinued.
The Minica is a Kei car that was developed, manufactured, and sold by Mitsubishi Motors. The first model appeared in 1962 and was on sale until 2007, a sales period of 45 years. It’s so easy and fun to drive because it’s small, lightweight, and could turn a tight circle easily. With great fuel economy and later generations being available in 4WD made it a very popular option for the JDM market back in the day.
Much like the vehicles above, it started with 360cc and 550cc engines, later being upgraded to 660cc in its 6th generation with a 5-valve in-line 3-cylinder DOHC turbo engine. They also introduced a turbocharged engine with double overhead cams in the Dangan ZZ models, producing 64PS. An automatic version was later added in 1991 alongside the two NA variants, the Dangan Si and Dangan Ri. This is the most sought-after grade for Kei importers.
The 7th generation went on sale in 1993. With a change from an angular design to a more rounded design. The engine is equipped with a newly developed in-line 4 -cylinder ( 4A30 type), and a fuzzy control type 4AT is also adopted.