Photographing and Dreaming About Kei Cars

by | Jul 1, 2021

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 a previous Tokyo Motor Show and the little car sure is cute. Sadly, I don’t remember the manufacturer’s name; I originally thought it was Daewoo but now I’m not so sure.

How I Made This Photo: Camera was a Canon EOS Digital Rebel with am 18-55mm kit lens (at18mm) with an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 400.

A kei car or kei jidōsha (“light automobile”) is a category of small Japanese vehicles, including passenger cars, vans and even pickup trucks designed to comply with 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. Although regulations restrict physical size and engine displacement (currently 660cc), manufacturers sometimes 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 the sales figures for Smart cars are a good example. But that may be changing…

One kei car that has a large cult following here, UK and Australia is Nissan’s Figaro. It 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 sorta like the Fiat 500 convertible. In fact the Figaro is three inches longer that the 500, so take that Fiat. Because of the USA’s 25-year import rule, Figaros have been entering the country from various JDM importers and I’ve seen one driving around here on local roads. And just between you and me—I think Mary would hate it— I would love to own a Figaro as the next JoeCar.

*Amid the global pandemic, Tokyo Motor Show 2021, which was to have been held in October this year, has been cancelled because of the difficulty of providing, in a safe and secure environment, a show program that allows participants to experience “hands on” the appeal of mobility.


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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 $21.49 or used copies starting around nine bucks from Amazon, as I write this. Kindle version, for some reason, is really expensive.