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Japan's mini car boom sends Suzuki past Honda

Posted by: Ian Rowley on November 1, 2006

Strange things are happening in Japan’s domestic auto market. Despite a glut of models and Japan’s economic recovery, regular car sales are still slumping—down 6.2% in October, the sixteenth consecutive year-on-year monthly decline.

But perhaps of more interest is the growing role of kei or mini cars—low cost, tiny cars limited to 660cc engines and mass produced by just a few automakers, such as Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Daihatsu. Bucking the wider trend, through October, kei car sales rose 4.4% and are expected to break the 2 million sales barrier for the first time this year. Kei cars now account for 35% of unit sales in Japan’s 6 million a year car market.

One reason is price. Kei cars, already cheaper to produce, receive tax advantages from the government, and typically cost around a million yen ($9,000). Another is that many Japanese car users increasingly perceive cars as commodities and don’t want to pay more to make a big statement. It also helps that new kei cars, like the cool Mitsubishi i, have higher specs and better designs than they used to.

All of which is have a big impact on Suzuki, the kei car leader. In October, Suzuki’s domestic sales, fuelled by its 660cc gas sippers, overtook Honda, making it the third best selling auto maker in Japan following Toyota and Nissan. In the ten months through October, Suzuki’s sales were 587,874, compared to Honda’s 581,249. For most other Japanese automakers, though, the country remains a tough sell.

Reader Comments

Mark P

November 2, 2006 4:59 PM

One must remember that Suzuki is owned by Toyota - so naming them #3 doesn't really make sense. However if you are looking at purely brand - it is a fair statement. Suzuki has also made great inroads in the US an Europe.

Ian Rowley

November 2, 2006 7:44 PM

Thanks for the comments. Suzuki isn't owned by Toyota. Another kei-maker Daihatsu, though, is a Toyota unit. Best regards, Ian

Keith Beatty

January 4, 2007 7:37 PM

A small, personal, single seat 100 mpg sports car mini could satisfy 99% of transportaion needs as well as the demand for speed, excitement, status, and admiration. My two seat sports car gets 32 mpg and I'm ready to movc up to a single seat and 100 mpg. I recall the MG TC, the bugatti, and the MG midget. Sports car does not mean 400 horsepower. Sports cars are fun and stylish. The velo bicycles would fit the category if only they had a 50cc engine, running lights, floor board, and windshield wipers. Lance Armstrong is a good example of what you can accomplish with only one quarter horsepower. Let us splurge and provide a velo with five horsepower!


January 23, 2007 2:48 PM

Hello all!
What today's auto market lacks - this is a small and cheap car - around $5000 - $6000. Just a city car to go to work and shopping. I (as many others) do not want to pay fortune to get a big, powerful monster which I have to re-pay in 5-10 years! There are enough other goodies to spend on. I want to buy a simple car, which consume 4-5 litres of gasoline in a city , use it for 3-4 years and through it away. And buy a new one.
Who will through away $20 - $25K cars after 5 years???? That is why people keep them for 15 - 20 years. So, who wins in this situation???
Cheap Cars! Cheap Cars! Cheap Cars!


February 21, 2007 11:13 AM

Thanks Ian for correcting Andy , Toyota owns Daihatsu not Suzuki and again GM sold its stake foolishly in Suzuki where it could have gained in the micro-car business as well as its 49% stake in Isuzu, the world's largest maker of Diesel engines. So much for foresight.

Ernie Schaedlich

May 20, 2007 8:10 AM

Hi what the US needs is A small front wheel drive mini pickup that will carry 800 to 1000 lbs. in the back 2 people in front an get good mpg 40 to 45 mpg around town with a top speed of around 85 or so like VW used to have with the rabbit diesil pickup but just a little quicker on taking off from a dead stop an they would sell a million of them in no time we don,t need all these fancey electronic things in them just very basic heater wipers etc thats if the US government will allow these little fuel savers into the country big money still hasn,t emptyed out all the grounds oil yet so they might put a stop to these little pick ups an mini cars so they can make every penny they can out of us .they will find some way to stop these little minis one way or the other !!!

Josu Elordieta

May 21, 2007 7:54 PM

In Australia,the Malysian built,Mitubishi-based Proton Jumbuck pickup,or ute,as we call passenger car derived pickups here,sells for about $16000(or about $13000US).It has a 1.5 litre Mitsubishi engine,and has an average fuel economy of just over 7 litres per 100 km,or about 33.5 miles per U.S gallon.The Australian market is allocated about 2000 Jumbucks per year,and are snapped up very quickly,and are in such high demand,two to three year old models are sold at virtually the same price as a brand new one.

Josu Elordieta

May 21, 2007 9:33 PM

Oh,and by the way,you can still buy a brand new original Volkswagen Rabbit pickup,or Caddy,as it is called there,in South Africa.

Pete Scaperotta, Jr.

August 25, 2007 12:18 AM


I agree that a basic car or truck is needed. Issues to address:

> Enough with the front wheel drive.
There is no reason a basic vehicle can't be made in rear wheel drive and get good gas mileage. Based on past ownership: 1981 Nissan 210 4 door sedan - was getting 42 miles per gallon in 1980 and put over 200,000 miles on the car with nothing but routine maintenance - only rust did it in. Current 1993 Nissan pickup truck - getting 34 miles per gallon and have 230,000 miles - again only routine maintenance.

> Enough with the obscenely expensive to repair and replace yellowing plastic headlights. Function over form. The $8.00 sealed beam worked better and was a better value - if you ever had to replace these because of some idiot in the parking lot.

> Enough with the obsession that everything needs to be controlled by a computer. Replacing a throttle cable with a couple of sensors and a computer tie in is better? Tell that to those who have to tow their car to the dealer after replacing the battery to have the computer reset so the gas pedal works.

> A real bumper system. Don't get me started.

L. Baird

January 6, 2008 1:32 PM

WHEN can the Japanese mfgs. get past the roadblocks and sell Kei cars in the US? I've emailed Suzuki et al but get no answer.

Tom Adams

April 4, 2008 10:38 PM

I've inquired several times since 1999 to Mercedes and Daimler about the Smart Car (awesome 2 seater) - which is now offered with the Mercedes badge as well - and was put off with promises that it would be available in the US by 2003, then 2004 and so on. Finally it's here, but now I'm more interested in something more functional but still sexy... Suzuki had a (mini) 2 cyl van available in the early 70's that was an awesome little buggy. THAT is what I want to see. Fun to drive, functionality and great gas mileage. Where is a vehicle like that? Anyone?

Lord Atkinson

May 15, 2008 11:12 AM

Europe and Asia already have many small and effecient vehicles but for some damn reason the US market is controlled and small cars are kept out of our markets. It is digusting!

Ed Hawke

June 6, 2008 7:19 PM

I too would like one of the HiJets or something similar for in town pickup and delivery. In Venezuela, most trades-people use these small pickups and vans. They're miniatures of what we have here. There, you see all sorts of labels attached to unusual vehicles...identical Chevy and Toyota mini 4x4s that look like Suzuki Samurais. There are huge Kia vans w/ efficient diesel engines and manual transmissions getting 30 mpg.
The main argument here is that we have so many monsters on the road that we would be in mortal danger in smaller cars. Some truth there, but I occasionally ride a motorcycle, and so driving defensively comes natural.

John Day

July 6, 2008 4:12 PM

Obviously, small, energy and maerials efficient cars are a better idea today than (Hey look at me, I'm a huge dinosaur!) Hummers. I lived in Japan in the 70's and have always dug the micro-minivans they have there.
By the way, Lance Armstrong makes WAY MORE than a horsepower. He may make 2 horsepower for half a minute. He can SUSTAIN about a horsepower of output, which is why he won so many bike races.


October 26, 2008 6:43 PM

Many Americans want low cost, fuel efficient cars.

Kei cars are a special class of cars in Japan. They are limited to an engine size of 660cc and have vehicle size, but not weight, restrictions. They are made by many different Japanese car companies and they are mature designs that are reliable, and get up to 60 mpg. They can cost less than $10,000.

If these cars were converted to hybrids, they might get 100 mpg.

However, they can't be driven in the U.S. because they can't meet U.S. crash test requirements.

I believe that adding my crumple box invention to a Kei car will allow it to pass U.S. safety requirements. Then it could be driven in the U.S.

Some American auto companies have ties to Kei car manufacture. They could make these cars.

Please help me promote this idea.

See my website


May 1, 2009 10:51 AM

hurry get us choices for mini cars. let them all in.

who do you think is behind keeping them out.

we have been manipulated by big industry again.

americans rise up and revolt. we don't want them stealing our money to support a failed industry that promotes auto obsolescence.


May 2, 2009 12:48 PM

When I lived in Japan and was vactioning, I always rented a mini made by Daihattsu, Nissan (Micra) or others. They're simple, well built and a lot of fun to drive. The sardine can like rollup sunroof was real quirky. Perfect city car or errand car in the states. I like them better than the Smart Cars. Kind of like the old Renault Tin Can but with more creature comforts.

Paul (Vw)

May 3, 2009 11:26 AM

Back in the late 80's I bought my girlfriend a Renault LeCar for like $200 (used). It was pretty beat up, the heater did not work, and had about as less horsepower than an anemic lawn mower. I removed the cover over the carburetor (the air filter assembly didn't work anyway) and that seemed to give it a little more power--what did I care--it was a cheap beater car.

Anyway, it was literally a beer can on wheels. Well, only difference was that a beer can does not have wheels and would probably provide substantially more protection on impact than the LeCar. And the LeCar easily lent itself to unfair stereotypes of French quality.

That being said, it was a blast to drive that car. It was my first experience with a manual transmission and I loved it. The car felt nimble (even if it was not). I gave my mother a (now) legendary drive through city traffic that had her screaming at the top of her lungs in abject fear.

Oh, and the girlfriend I bought the French car for...she is now my wife. C'est magnifique!

(Speaking of married life...I think a combination of Saturn and Fiat would be a far better match up than with Chrysler)


May 14, 2009 10:46 AM

First off the Smart is a tremendous value for what it offers. This is a great commuter car that is sporty, fair pickup and the ability to sip gas slowly, and it is a rear wheel drive vehicle. I just had the factory upgrades to the ECM completed on my 2008 SMART

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