I was shocked by all the tiny vehicles I saw in Japan. Here are my top 16 'Kei' vehicles.

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I was shocked by all the tiny vehicles I saw in Japan. Here are my top 16 'Kei' vehicles.
  • "Kei" cars are small, light and cheap. And they're cute.
  • They are all over Japan, including big cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Vehicles are getting bigger and heavier in the US, which makes them more dangerous. And the larger they get, the less efficient they become.

I recently saw a Cybertruck up close and was surprised by its size. When I got to Japan a few weeks later, the contrast was shocking.

Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and other locations were awash with tiny "kei" trucks, cars and vans. These cities have thin, weaving side roads that would never be able to handle most American SUVs and trucks. These small vehicles are perfect for getting around busy, dense locations.

Kei is short for Keijidosha, which means "light automobile" in Japanese. New ones can be purchased for the equivalent of less than $10,000, about a fifth of the average US new vehicle price. Kei cars are also lighter, so even though most are still gas-powered, they are efficient. Some Suzuki Alto models can get at least 80 miles per gallon, roughly triple the US average.

Downsides: It's tight in there, especially for someone over 6 feet like me. There are also safety questions. For passengers, these small vehicles may not perform as well as big vehicles in crashes. While I was in Japan, Daihatsu, a leading Japanese "kei" car manufacturer owned by Toyota, halted production after admitting it had been forging safety tests for 30 years.

Still, I was won over by these kei cars. Here are my favorites from a December visit, my top pick, and one surprise.

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Nissan Sakura

Nissan Sakura
A Nissan Sakura in a park in Nara, JapanAlistair Barr/Insider

Suzuki Alto

Suzuki Alto
A Suzuki AltoAlistair Barr/Insider
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Daihatsu Tanto Custom

Daihatsu Tanto Custom
A Daihatsu TantoAlistair Barr/Insider

Honda N-ONE

Honda N-ONE
A Honda N-ONE parked in KyotoAlistair Barr/Insider
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Honda N-WGN

Honda N-WGN
A Honda N-WGNAlistair Barr/Insider

Nissan Dayz

Nissan Dayz
A Nissan DayzAlistair Barr/Business Insider
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Daihatsui Hijet

Daihatsui Hijet
Daihatsu Hijet trucksAlistair Barr

Japanese Kei trucks, in particular, have found a home among hobbyist importers in the US.

Mazda AZ-Wagon

Mazda AZ-Wagon
A Mazda AZ-WagonAlistair Barr/Insider
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Daihatsu Move Canbus

Daihatsu Move Canbus
A Diahatsu Canbus "kei" car in Kyoto, JapanAlistair Barr/Insider

Suzuki Wagon R

Suzuki Wagon R
A Suzuki Wagon RAlistair Barr/Insider
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Suzuki Alto Lapin

Suzuki Alto Lapin
A Suzuki Alto LapinAlistair Barr/Insider

Mitsubishi Minicab truck

Mitsubishi Minicab truck
A Mitsubishi Minicab truckAlistair Barr/Insider
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Suzuki Hustler

Suzuki Hustler
A Suzuki HustlerAlistair Barr/Insider

Honda N-Box

Honda N-Box
A Honda N-BoxAlistair Barr/Business Insider
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Suzuki Palette

Suzuki Palette
A Suzuki PaletteAlistair Barr/Insider

Honda Life

Honda Life
A Honda LifeAlistair Barr/Business Insider
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Half of a Rolls-Royce

Half of a Rolls-Royce
A kei car that was altered to look like a Rolls-RoyceAlistair Barr/Business Insider

My kei car verdict

My kei car verdict
A Suzuki Alto on the roadAlistair Barr/Business Insider

Out of all the kei car manufacturers, Suzuki seemed the most dedicated to this important segment of Japan's auto market. The Alto, the Hustler, and the Alto Lupin are affordable and either beautiful or at least interesting to look at.

This Alto on the road in Kyoto has lovely design touches, such as the small front grille to the right of the Suzuki logo. I'd drive one, especially as they are so cheap. Now, how to get these to the US?

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