Unique JDM

What Is a Kei Car? – All You Need to Know

The Kei car is defined as a small, cheap, and reliable city commuter. Kei cars started getting mass-produced during the late 1950s and have since kept growing in demand. Kei cars were not only limited by size, but also engine displacement, power, and weight.

History of The Kei Car

After World War Two ended the world economy was not in the greatest of shape, especially not over in Japan. Money was scarce, and people could not afford to purchase normal-sized vehicles, so many households relied on motorcycles or Vespas. As a way to boost the automobile industry, and provide affordable delivery methods to small businesses and shop owners, the Kei category was created in 1949 with strict regulations on weight, power, and size.

The Kei car quickly became a huge success in the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM). Manufacturers like Daihatsu, Subaru, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki started mass-producing these types of vehicles during the 50s, and still are. Eventually, Kei “trucks” also started getting manufactured during the 1960s.

The earliest Kei cars, such as the Subaru 360 were limited to a 40 km/h top speed until the mid-1960s when the limit was increased to 60 km/h. The engine displacement was also limited. The first mass-produced Kei cars were limited to 360 cc engines. In 1976 the maximum displacement rose to 550cc, until eventually increasing to the current limit of 660cc in 1990.

By 1970 over 750,000 Kei cars had been sold on the Japanese Domestic Markets. Today, Kei cars are mostly sold solely in Japan and make up about one-third of the total domestic new car sales in Japan.  


The small size of the Kei car was due to keeping running costs such as insurance, emission fees, and maintenance costs low. But the Kei car was also mostly manufactured to be used as a city car. Japan’s urban cities are some of the world’s most densely populated. By having a small car, you could easily find parking spots anywhere in the city. The combination of this meant that even a small family with limited income could own a car without living paycheck to paycheck.

Japan’s roads are very small, and generally are very centralized, made up of back roads and highway structures. If you want to travel far, or across the country, most people would commute by train. So if you live in an urban environment, a Kei car is really the only thing you’d need.


The Kei cars we’re not only limited by size and weight, but also by displacement and power.

The earliest Kei cars were not even fitted with newly developed engines, but with small 100 cc and 150 cc motorcycle engines. As popularity grew and engine regulations eased up, new engines were developed solely to be used in Kei cars and trucks, most being inline-twos and inline-threes.

Kei car engine displacement regulations

Maximum displacement
July, 1949
100 cc
150 cc
July, 1950
200 cc
300 cc
August, 1951
240 cc
360 cc
April, 1955
360 cc
January, 1976
550 cc
January, 1990
660 cc

The power of the Kei car engines was very limited. The early mass-produced cars, we’re only making about 15-25 hp. As turbo technology and engine displacement increased – power was regulated. Current regulations state a maximum displacement of 660 cc and maximum power output of 63 hp.

Japanese Domestic Market

The majority of Kei cars are considered what is known as “true” JDM cars. This means they were only sold in the Japanese Domestic Market. However, there are a few manufacturers such as Daihatsu and Subaru who tried their luck in the international markets, both in Europe and the U.S.

However, most Kei cars saw very limited success overseas as the niched demand for small hatchbacks was not as large as in Japan. Although with the introduction of Kei trucks the export market saw a large boost in sales. Both in Europe and the U.S. but perhaps more specifically in South Africa, Chile, and India.

Unfortunately, in 2014, the Japanese government substantially reduced the advantages of owning a Kei car. Higher sales, gasoline, and car taxes were introduced. The car tax was increased by 50% which drastically increased the cost of owning a Kei car. The direct effect of this was lowered new Kei car sales and higher ownership costs. This means that more people bought regular-sized cars as the benefits of owning a Kei car were limited.

Manufacturers of Kei Cars

Although almost every manufacturer in Japan produced their own Kei car at some point, today not every manufacturer sells their own manufactured Kei car.

Today, only Daihatsu, Honda, Suzuki, and Nissan-Mitsubishi (joint venture) sell mass-producing manufacturers of Kei cars.

While the brands such as Mazda, Toyota, and Subaru still sell Kei cars under their respective brand, these are rebadged cars manufactured by someone else.

Mazda sells rebadged Suzuki models.

Toyota and Subaru sell rebadged Daihatsu models.

A reason for this is that competition got really tough, and

Popular for PVC Drifting

So, you may wonder how it is possible to drift a 20-60hp FWD hatchback? While it might seem impossible, it is not.

The Japanese are intuitive people, they figured if they could reduce the rear traction enough, even a FWD car should theoretically be able to drift.

So, they came up with what today is known as PVC Drifting. It is called PVC because PVC rings were fitted to the rear tires, this in combination with an installed water sprayer meant that rear traction was basically no longer a thing. This meant that even a low-powered FWD hatchback could go sideways. In fact, there are even competitions, and people keen to PVC drifting even tandems with each other.

Is PVC drifting like drifting RWD car? No, but it is as close as you’ll get in a FWD car. There will be less noise and no tire smoke. But unless the other FWD drifting techniques, the PVC technique will allow for sustained drifting.

If you are interested in different techniques which can be applied in order to drift FWD cars you can read more here.

How to Buy a Kei Car

Since most Kei cars weren’t sold internationally it can be quite difficult to find a Kei car at your local dealership. However, there are some alternatives – importing.

Importing is not as difficult as you’d think. There are many well-established companies importing hundreds of cars a month. And most of them do everything for you, such as:

  • Sourcing the car
  • Ensure quality criteria
  • Paperwork
  • Logistics
  • Insurance

Here are some of the best JDM import/export businesses in the world.

Most desirable Kei cars, such as the Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon or Honda Beat has surpassed the 25-year import rule, which means that these vehicles can be imported directly from Japan. The great thing about this is that the supply is really great over there. So, you could basically find whatever you’re searching for.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind before importing your first car. Here is list you should go through first.

E. Lindgren

Recent Posts

Japan’s Ancient Car Culture: Bosozoku – Controversy and Criminality

Revving engines, flamboyant style, and a rebellious spirit - that's what defines Japan's bosozoku subculture.…

4 months ago

The 1997 Honda Civic EK9 Type-R Is One of Honda’s Greatest Creations

There's something about the Honda Civic EK9 Type R that just screams performance, sleek lines,…

4 months ago

Mitsubishi 1600 GSR – Mitsubishi’s Ticket to win the WRC!

The Mitsubishi 1600 GSR is a car that has left a lasting legacy in the…

4 months ago

The Evolution of the Honda S2000: From Sportscar to Icon

The S2000 was introduced at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show and went on sale in…

5 months ago

This Is Why The Toyota AE86 Became Known As Legend!

The Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno, also known as the Hachiroku is one of the most…

5 months ago

The Honda NSX-R – A Regular NSX On Strict DIET! [VIDEO]

The Honda NSX-R is Honda's answer to supercar makers such as Lamborghini and Ferrari. But…

6 months ago