Photographing and Dreaming About Kei Cars

by | Jun 28, 2019

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

One of the joys of attending the Tokyo Motor Show, at least for we Americans, is that we get to see cars from around the world that are not typically imported into the USA. In addition to French cars, which have not been sold in the USA since the 1991 Peugeot 405— Columbo drove a Peugeot 403—you also get to see Asian cars that never make it here, such as the class of Japanese automobile know as kei cars. The below image was made at the show and the little car sure is cute. I don’t remember the manufacturer’s name; I though it was Daewoo but now I’m not so sure.

A kei car or kei jidōsha (“light automobile”) is a category of small Japanese vehicles, including passenger cars, vans and pickup trucks designed to comply with certain government tax and insurance regulations. For private use, the cars feature yellow license plates with black numbers  and have yellow numbers on black background for commercial use. Because regulations only restrict physical size and engine displacement (currently 660cc), manufacturers often include technology and features associated with larger vehicles. That’s why Kei cars are often available with forced-induction engines, automatic and CV transmissions, front, rear and four-wheel drive, air conditioning, GPS, and other features.

While successful in Japan, manufacturers consider the genre too specialized and small to be profitable in export markets, which is why we rarely see them here.  I guess one look at sles stats for Smart cars are a good example of that.

One kei car that has a large cult following here, UK and obviously Australia (from the license plates) is Nissan’s Figaro was only manufactured for one year—1991. The Figaro uses a 1.0-liter (987 cc) turbocharged engine producing 76 hp and is kind of a sunroof/convertible like the Fiat 500 convertible. In fact the Figaro is three inches longer that the Fiat 500, so take that Nissan. Because of the USA’s 25-year import rule, Figaros are now entering the country from various JDM importers. And just between you and me, I would love to own one and have it as the next JoeCar.

Fine Print: photo of Nissan Figaro: This image was originally posted to Flickr by jeremyg3030 at It was reviewed on 24 April 2016 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

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Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s out-of-print but new copies are available for $21.88 or used copies for giveaway prices—less than three bucks—from Amazon, as I write this. Kindle version, for some reason, is really expensive.