Once again, the Japanese new car market was dominated by the Kei-cars. These micro cars are exclusively designed, built, and sold for the consumer in Japan, and despite the rise in popularity of other body types such as SUVs, they are simply too popular to die.

According to the latest data from JATO Dynamics, the kei-cars sold 1.17 million units in Japan last year. Even if the volume fell by 4% compared to 2021, these iconic vehicles gained market share within the passenger car market in Japan. Their share jumped from 33.4% in 2021 to 34.1% in 2022. In other words, more than one in three of the new passenger cars sold in Japan are kei-cars.

Why are they so popular?

Simply, they are affordable to buy and to maintain. The Kei-cars are an essential player of the Japanese automotive industry. They keep the local factories alive in addition to the strong presence of products that are built for the export markets.

Kei-cars as percentage of Japanese passenger car market - graphic

The Japanese government created a dedicated legislation that aims to boost the local production and sales of these tiny cars. Their goal is to make better use of the reduced space on the streets of this already crowded country. Without big car parks, and high energy costs (Japan is a bit dependent on energy imports), the drivers in Japan need small and efficient cars to commute within the cities.

Who is who in the kei-car market

To be classified as a kei-car, the vehicle needs to be no longer than 3.4 metres, no wider than 1.48 metres, and no taller than 2 metres. In addition, the vehicle must be powered by an engine that is no bigger than 0.66 litres. This specific legislation has forced the local brands to create specific cars for the Japanese market that have zero potential outside Japan.

Consequently, everything that kei-cars offer is composed by Japanese brands and none from abroad. The 8 most important car brands from Japan are the only ones to sell these cars. And guess what? Toyota is the second smallest of them in terms of sales volume.

In 2022, Toyota’s sister brand Daihatsu, led the kei-car market with almost 349,000 units (excluding the light commercial kei-cars). This is almost 30% market share. It was followed by Suzuki, globally known for its small cars. This brand sold 336,200 units, down by 6% vs 2021. And in the third position there was Honda with 263,200 units, up by 1%.

The “small” players are Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Toyota and Subaru.

Kei-car specs - graphic

The Honda N-Box ahead

The most popular kei-car in 2022 was the Honda N-Box. The latest update allowed this car to increase its sales by 7% to 202,200 units. This is almost twice the volume sold by the second in the ranking: the Daihatsu Tanto. In fact, the Daihatsu was able to outsell the Suzuki Spacia, the second most popular in 2021, and third in 2022’s ranking.

Top selling kei-car brands and models - graphic

But the big surprise in terms of volume and news was the Nissan Sakura. It was launched last year as the first fully-electric kei-car in Japan. The brand sold almost 21,900 units of this cute EV, which means it was still far away from the leaders. Still, as it is happening with the big trucks in USA, and the big MPVs in China, the Sakura is just the beginning of a new era for the iconic tiny Japanese cars that you won’t likely see on the roads of your city.