Special K: Mini-cars come of age in a maxi-world
The nationwide used car dealer, Gulliver, recently set up a new venture called Gulliver Minicle, which deals only in kei-jidosha, often referred to as minicars in English, though here we like to call them K-cars, which make up a separate class of automobile. The engine displacement can’t be more than 660cc, and they were developed in the ’60s and ’70s for people with limited incomes.
When K-cars first appeared the engines were as small as 360cc, and have always been a point of contention for the U.S. automobile industry, which describes them as a “non-tariff trade barrier” because taxes for K-cars have been much less than they are for regular cars and thus are deemed as being unfair competition for infamously larger American cars — though it should be noted that U.S. automakers have tried to sell compacts in Japan.
K-cars have always had one glaring drawback. Because the engine is so small, they have to be light, and that means they are less safe. Consequently, families don’t buy them; or, at least, they didn’t until recently.
Gulliver’s launch of a retail entity that only sells used K-cars shows that there must be a viable market, since K-cars are already cheap and Japanese people aren’t big used car buyers. So far there is only one Minicle, in Morioka, and it has about 50 cars on display divided into three sizes: S, M and L, like apparel.
According to an article about the store in the Asahi Shimbun, there really isn’t much difference in the sizes, but the designations appeal to women, who are now the main target demographic for K-cars. There is even a play space in the store where kids can relax while mom is shopping for new wheels.
Gulliver is already planning Minicle stores in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and the San’in region, and by 2018 expects to have about a dozen throughout Japan, mainly in the vicinity of regional capitals and not so much in the big three metropolitan areas.
In December, the Japan Light Motor Vehicle and Motorcycle Association estimated that 2.1 million K-cars would be sold in Japan during 2013, a new record. In contrast, sales of all other cars amounted to about 3 million. So while sales of minicars increased by 4.8 percent over 2012, sales of other cars decreased by 5.3 percent.
As a portion of all car sales, Ks increased by 2.4 points to 39.3 percent. The only other automotive sector that showed more growth was foreign (read: German) cars, whose sales increased by 9 percent, also a record. And in terms of production by Japanese automakers, 40 percent are now K-cars.
The obvious reason for the popularity of minicars is their price, but they’ve always been cheap. It’s their reason for existing in the first place. Some say that people bought them last year because the K-car tax is set to be eliminated sometime this year, but a more likely reason is increased safety and functionality.
More than a year ago, Daihatsu started selling a new version of its Move model that uses sensors to automatically reduce speed when it gets too close to the car in front of it. Though it’s offered as an option at ¥50,000, more than 80 percent of the buyers order it. In succession, similar options were added by Suzuki to its popular Wagon R model, for ¥42,000, and by Honda to its N-WGN model.
A Honda representative told Asahi that since 64 percent of K-car drivers are women, this option was incorporated specifically to attract them. A good portion of K-cars are bought as second cars, for shopping and shlepping the kids around. In the past, these women bought compact cars, but they’re switching over to Ks.
Nissan and Daihatsu have upped the ante by also offering windshields that cut ultraviolet rays, something else women demand. In addition, K-cars now have much roomier interiors than in the past and larger cargo areas. In truth, there isn’t much difference, performance-wise, between a K and a standard compact.
Which is why the U.S. is even angrier than before, because that makes the so-called trade barrier even higher to scale. Due to regulations and consumer sentiment, K cars aren’t marketable in America, and the Big 3 automakers aren’t going to manufacture them only for one market, but that could be changing. India seems ravenous for K-cars and Suzuki is quickly setting up factories and joint ventures on the sub-continent.
Some experts say that the U.S. Trade Representative’s gripe about Ks is actually a means of keeping pressure on other sectors, generating leverage to open Japan’s agriculture and insurance markets more, for example. Also, it gives the American government an excuse to maintain its own tariff to protect the U.S. truck market from low-priced Japanese imports.