TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese carmakers are once more proving that small
After first pioneering the gas-sipping compact, then subcompact,
the country's auto companies are scoring again with another
downsizing _ the so-called ``minicar.''
Tiny, cheap and super fuel-efficient, minicars are essentially
motorcycle-sized engines on four wheels. But demand for these runty
runabouts is anything but petite. Last year, minicars racked record
sales in Japan and now account for more than a third of all new cars
sold annually here. The automakers have no immediate plans for mass
export of the minicars, but some analysts predict they may
eventually catch on in developing economies like India and China.
At a time of soaring oil prices, it's little surprise Japanese
drivers are turning to more wallet-friendly rides, just as Americans
are abandoning their lunky sport utility vehicles. But perhaps only
in a country famed for its ``small-is-beautiful'' culture of pocket
electronics and bonsai trees could the trade-ins be so diminutive.
Known as ``kei,'' or light, cars in Japanese, minis are limited
to an engine size of up to 660 cubic centimetres _ less than half
the size of a Honda Civic _ and restricted by law to being no bigger
than 3.4 metres long and 1.5 metres wide.
The first mini dates back to poverty-stricken post Second World
War Japan as a rattletrap people's car for those who couldn't afford
``real wheels.'' They never really went away, but only recently
became popular again, largely due to improvements in technology,
styling and looser size restrictions on cars. Today's generation
stretches the limits of engineering and styling, with models
sporting four-wheel drive, satellite navigation, antilock brakes and
``They used to be sold as cheap cars,'' said Kurt Sanger, an auto
analyst for Macquarie Research in Tokyo. ``Now they are actually
decent cars that just happen to have a wimpy engine in them.''
Japan's minicar boom is the silver lining of an otherwise dismal
domestic market. While Japanese automakers have marched from one
success to another overseas, sales at home have slumped for
three-straight years _ hurt by the country's shrinking population
and a trend of increased urbanization.
Minicar sales, however, have been climbing since 2004 and jumped
5.2 per cent to a record 2.02 million vehicles last year. And
surprisingly, it's not the big names like Toyota or Nissan riding
the tide, but second-tier players once dismissed as also-rans, like
Suzuki, Daihatsu and Mitsubishi, that locked up the niche market.
Price is a big factor. Minicars cost around just US$10,000 and
get tax breaks from the Japanese government. Then there's the
savings from fuel efficiency that hits 47 miles a gallon (about 20
kilometres a litre)_ a boon in a country where gasoline sells at
about $4.75 a gallon (about $1.25 a litre).
They are popular in crowded cities because they are easy to park,
and a hit in less affluent rural areas where public transportation
Minis also pay cheaper registration fees and taxes than regular
cars, noted Masa Ogawa, a managing director for J.D. Power Asia
Pacific, an automotive consulting company. The basic flat tax on a
minicar can run around $96 a year, compared with more than $830 for
high-end performance cars.
Yet the class got its biggest boost in 1998, when government
loosened restrictions on minicar sizes, expanding the overall
dimensions to 3.4 metres by 1.5 metres, from 3.32 metres by 1.4
The added dimensions allowed for roomier cabins, more bells and
whistles and sturdier frames. The latter was crucial in helping
allay consumer concerns that the whole car could end up a
crumple-zone in a crash.
Suzuki's Wagon R has not only been Japan's best-selling minicar
for the past three years. It has been the country's best-selling
car, period _ even outselling Toyota's universally adored Corolla.
Typical of modern minicar styling, the Wagon R looks like a
shrunken-down four-door minivan balanced on pie tin wheels, and is
disproportionately tall for its length. The maxed-out passenger
compartment nearly overwhelms the chassis, and the hood is
compressed into a pug-nose to further save space.
Indeed, gone is the 1980s heyday of Japan's booming bubble
economy, when looks mattered more than utility and customers were
prepared to shell out big time for a little highway cachet,
particularly if it involved a German import.
``Japanese thinking about driving cars has changed a lot,'' said
Kentaro Nakata, spokesman for the Japan Automobile Dealers
Association. ``It's no longer a big status symbol. It's more about
getting from place to place.''
Some analysts predict that minicars may eventually catch on in
developing economies like India and China, or even be manufactured
there. Suzuki is already making slightly larger cars in India based
on its minicar technology. It experimented with limited exports to
Britain of an open-topped sportser called the Cappuccino in the
1990s, a venture that mostly flopped.
``We have no plans to sell the minicar overseas as it is,''
Suzuki spokesman Yoichi Kojima said.
Japanese minicars are sold mostly in Japan. Partly because profit
margins are so low, it's not cost-effective to ship them abroad.
Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG is hoping to sell its own minicar,
the tiny two-seat Smart car, in the United States next year. But
some observers doubt whether American drivers _ used to big, open
highways _ are ready for such a radical revolution in size and
``The minicar is one or two sizes below the compact,'' said J.D.
Power's Ogawa. ``American consumers would probably perceive the
minicar as a kind of toy.''