Transport in Japan. Part 1: The Kei car, Past and present.

Today we are going to talk about (or rather im going to talk about and you will hopefully read about) a topic that I’m very fond of. Cars!

More specifically a uniquely Japanese style of car that was birthed from the unique needs of a developing Japan and has continued to evolve to a point where it almost perfectly fits domestic conditions. The “Kei Car”. If you get bored reading about something that’s not specifically about what I have been doing, feel free to pop down to near the bottom where I put some bold font (for easy identification by lazy readers) after which is a short announcement about my current state of being.

I promised shorter and more frequent posts, but this one is going to be a long one alas.  So I shall hop straight into it in the hope of getting it done in a day.

 

Japan is famous for its phenomenal and often mind mindbogglingly convenient rail system, which facilitates an estimated 8 billion journeys per year. That’s approximately 21 million individual journeys per day, or the equivalent of almost the entire population of Australia hopping on board every day. The rail system is clean, efficient, comfortable and vast, covering some 27,000Km, with over 5000 unique stations for me to explore. With such a convenient and highly punctual transportation system available, it is not uncommon for residents of Japan’s cities to go their entire lives without attaining a drivers licence, nor operating a automobile. In Tokyo and many other cities (even though traffic is no where near as bad as many people say) it is typically both faster and cheaper to catch public transport to your destination than to drive. If fact, its hard to imagine a Japan without its rail system, the place would likely be a logistical nightmare of constant gridlock and polluted air. Because of this its easy to forget that much of Japan’s public transportation system is relatively new, especially compared to other large cities around the world.

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One of the many Japan Rail Yamanote Line Trains. A good representation of the Tokyo rail system. These trains are over 220 meters long, can comfortably carry over a thousand people at any one time (or uncomfortably carry about 2500) and depart any station at approximately 3 Minuit intervals all day every day.

With this in mind, “How did people get about this country before the rail networks were up and running?” you might ask. Well one of the many issues faced in the wake of world war 2 was, many of them couldn’t. While transport inside urban centers was passable, with access to busses and occasionally trains, transport for those outside urban centers was extremely limited. Despite much of Japan’s economy consisting of rural agriculture and light industry, many towns still had little to no road access. This effectively isolated towns from interacting with the wider economy and was seen as a factor limiting development of the nation by the central government. The solution to this appeared obvious, build more roads to facilitate transport of the masses, allow them to move their produce to areas where its worth more, and then tax them on profits, its win win.

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Without that bit of tarmac in the middle there, life in that town really suck. Its a 1.5 hour walk to the nearest shop.

 

Road building alone however was not going to solve the issue of limited transport. Despite massive modernisation within the cities and comparative affluence of their populations (not so much immediately after the war, but that’s another story) residents of rural Japan remained extremely poor. The vast majority of their income was locked up in the cost of merely living, with little left over for future investment or non necessities. This meant that even where roads were present travel was limited mostly to locations accessible on foot or on low cost, unreliable motorcycles. Even for successful city dwellers cars were a luxury item, wildly expensive to both own and operate, there was no way members of rural communities could afford such a thing. Limited road use also lead to funding issues and opposition to the expansion of the road networks.

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An example of Japan’s pre-automotive rural networking system. Very pretty, but not very quick.

 

In an attempt to facilitate car ownership and an expansion of the auto manufacturing industry, the government released revised guidelines for road going automobiles in 1949, including a new class of car, the 軽自動車 [Kei-jidousha] or light automobile (here after referred to as a “Kei Car”). This new breed of automobile was heavily restricted in many ways, including size, weight, engine capacity and tyre size. In return for these limitations however, any purchaser of a these cars would be awarded with significantly lower ownership costs such as taxes and registration relating to the vehicle as well as cheaper third party or comprehensive insurance amongst other things. Furthermore, the restrictions limited a manufacturers ability to go after wealthier demographics, the typical car market at the time, by adding luxury goods and prices to match. Kei cars were the automotive personification of “cheap and cheerful” stripped of all but the basic necessities of transport. Kei cars were fantastically cheap compared to their larger automotive counterparts and soon manufacturers were rushing to compete in this new mass market, which dropped prices further. In a way, the restrictions were a masterstroke of efficiency planning, for example small engine sizes prioritised light weight construction (or else the car would be SPECTACULARLY slow) which limited manufacturing costs, while also providing superb fuel economy.

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An example of an early (ish) kei vehicle. Style, power, sophistication, “mad chick magnet brah!”…… None of these describe these early micro cars. “Can haul a lot of yams and costs sod all.” However does, which was entirely the point

Initially limited to a mere 100cc motor displacment and a tiny overall dimentions early Kei cars, particularly those of the 1949-1953 vintage, were often simply converted motorcycles with extra wheels and storage space. Perfect for hauling potatoes and children. Throughout the early 1950s many of the initial restrictions were gradually relaxed, though not removed, adding increased utility to these vehicles. For example overall maximum size was expanded somewhat, while the maximum engine displacement increased to 360CC enabling them to carry a family some distance in relative comfort. While these changes made the cars somewhat more expensive, they also enabled a much wider application of the Kei car to daily life. You wouldn’t be going anywhere fast, but it provided all the required utility of a regular car for a fraction of the cost. The early days of the market saw a massive variety of vehicles, often made by back yard industries in limited numbers, but few “break out” models. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that then fledgling auto company Subaru managed to find a formula that beat the crowd and developed the first mass production Kei car, the Subaru 360. This little car would go on to sell more than 300,000 units domestically, to be exported on a small scale.

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Subaru 360. With a mighty 13 horse power this wouldn’t get you anywhere fast (unless it was down hill i guess) but it was cheap, comfortable and reliable for those unable to stretch to a full sized car.

A little good old american advertising for the the Subaru 360 export models.

Supported by the high uptake of the Kei car by the masses, the road networks of Japan expanded massively in the 1950s and 60s, a benefit to all road users. Similarly, residents of once isolated rural communities now had physical access to markets, education facilities and places of recreation well outside of their reach previously. The prosperity of regional areas grew rapidly as a result, lessening the divide between urban and rural Japanese living standards. Occasional expansions in size, weight and motor capacities kept Kei cars relevant throughout the 20th century. For example in 1975 maximum allowable displacement expanded to 550cc, making intercity and long distance travel possible… though not necessarily comfortable, while the 1980s saw the first turbo Kei cars enter the market, adding more power and utility with Kei cars such as the original Suzuki Alto Works beginning to outperform many regular cars of the period thanks to its meager 600KG total weight.

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Series 1 Suzuki Alto works. Through the use of a turbo charger, this was the first kei car to meet the maximum power level allowed under Kei class restrictions of 64Hp. Though sports models are no longer a huge seller any more, the addition of turbo power to the Kei car formula gave them the power they needed to be a true replacement for a regular car.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s something strange began to happen, despite Japan’s population now being comparatively wealthy, with most able to afford a regular car if they so chose, the sale of kei cars began to surge. This was particularly true of models that focused on style, performance of comfort over outright utilitarianism and cost. With regular cars such as the Toyota Corrola growing in size, weight, power and cost every generation in an attempt target western sensibilities, these previously small cars were becoming large and unwieldy on the narrow and winding roads of Japan. Their extra power was wasted in a country where highway speeds rarely exceed 80Kph (around town speeds are more like 30-40kph) and the extra luggage space was seen as similarly unnecessary by many living in Japan. Kei cars on the other hand had for generations been developed with only the Japanese market in mind, and were increasingly offering not only the bare necessities of transport, but providing a better suited alternative for significantly less money. Their often complete disregard for aerodynamic performance means they are often built extremely square, maximising interior space. Similarly their tiny power plants use much less room than the 1.6-2liter engines found in western style sedans leaving more room for occupants and meaning surprising amounts leg room for all while their freedom from EU safety regulations allows for skinnier doors for a more spacious cabin.

This rise in popularity, combined with the affluence of Japan in the late 1980s lead to the design of some wacky, interesting, and occasionally excellent Kei vehicles during this period. Particularly sports cars who’s handling benefited massively from their light weight. These included what came to be known as “the kei sports ABCs” the Mazda AZ-1, the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Cappuccino (spells ABC see?). Three cars I love and want to own. There were plenty of other sporty, funky and oddball kei cars during the period too, but these are the three most famous of them due to their similarity to western style sports cars, just Japanese sizing.

I will let a very much younger Jeremy Clarkson tell you about them.

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Honda Beat. A mid engined 2 seeter convertible sports Kei car that sold like hotcakes in the early 1990s. Today you still see quite a few of these running around. Also note the lack of any cars you have ever seen in Australia in that car park. Not at all uncommon.
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WAIT!!! THATS NOT JAPAN!!!! I hear you cry. Correct. Though never officially sold here, a small number of Suzuki’s Cappuccino have made it to Australian shores. These are not as common as the Honda beat here in Japan due to their higher cost when new. But have become highly sought after due to their excellent turbo motor, front engine rear wheel drive lay out and phenomenal handling. Yure was kind enough to let me drive this example, and it is hands down the most unique and entertaining vehicle I have ever driven.
The most radical of the three Kei Sports cars, the Mazda AZ-1. A mid engined rear wheel drive turbo tiny Ferrari look alike. Though they never made particularly many of these, I have still seen a couple during my time here. Their initial rarity seems to have saved almost all of them from the scrap heap and now they command serious coin if in good condition.
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I love the doors.

Now days, arriving in Japan and seeing the cars comes as a shock to many.  The land of the rising sun is usually thought of as the land of exotic, technologically complex, loud JDM sports cars such as the Nissan GTR and Mitsubishi Evo, where drift missiles are the rule, not the exception, and where there is a nightly reenactment of Initial D (or fast and furious: Tokyo Drift if you prefer crap movies) in every car park. In reality, it is the land of the econo-box. Wherever you look you will see tall, boxy cars with minuscule wheels and exhaust pipes the size of a bendy straw, almost noiselessly putting their way along the road. Since the early 1990s Kei cars have retained their popularity, though the years of economic stagnation and declining expendable income of the population has tamed manufacturers design choicesand they rarely now release cars as pointedly impractical (but none the less awesome) as those above. Regular 4 seat Kei cars unknown overseas dominate sales domestically, while famous cars such as the Toyota corolla are so uncommonly purchased here that Toyota terminated Japanese production some years ago. Thats not to say “normal” cars don’t exist. There are plenty of them, and you won’t go long before seeing some kind of 1990s hay-day Japanese sports car burble by, amazingly low and loud, but for every car you might recognise you are likely to see what appears to be an oversized motorised biscuit tin as well.

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Suzuki Wagon R. One of the more popular cars in japan during the past decade.
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Manufacturers often take base model Kei cars and restyle them into classic look-a-likes.  The Daihatsu Mira Gino above is a good example. These typically sell for not a lot more than the base model, making them very popular.
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The Suzuki Jimny and other kei class 4 wheel drives are popular in rural areas due to their go anywhere nature afforded by their light weight and true 4DW systems.  In urban areas they make a cool fashion accessory. You often see these with hilarious lift kits and massive wheels looking like a micro sized monster truck.

As it stands now, Kei cars are still limited to 660CC and 64horse power. The same as they were in 1990, though their maximum external dimensions are now allowed to measure up to 3.4M long, 1.48M wide and 2M high. To give you an idea of what those sizes mean (lets be honest, you have NO idea what length your car is) a Mazda 2, a Hyundai i20 and a Toyota Yaris all exceed 4 Meters in length, a full 60 CM longer than the longest allowable Kei car. They are all also at least 20cm too wide to fit into the kei car class. Despite their tiny exterior dimensions though, I find most kei cars to have significantly more interior room than those cars due to their more efficient lay out. Though in the past few decades they have been getting heavier,  almost every kei car weighs in at well under a ton, making them at least several hundred kilograms lighter than the above mentioned cars. The average cost of a brand base model in today’s market (at our present exchange rate) including 3 years registration is about $10,500. before the Australian dollar fell late last year, they would have been about $8,000 or so.

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Suzuki Kei Works. A four door turbo Kei hot hatch. you are likley to see a lot more of this and similar than any fast and the furious style ricer.

When I first saw kei cars, I thought they were some kind of bad joke. How could ANYONE want to drive such a horrid little box of a thing. The more I have learned about them though, the more I have come to appreciate the significant advantages they have over regular cars. Their small size makes them very easy to navigate tight spaces with. I have driven a normal car here, and while on the open road there isn’t an issue, threading a regular car down a 2 meter wide, supposedly 2 way road, filled with blind corners, bollards,  and lined with the occasional old lady and pot plant can be a nerve wracking experience. Their interior to exterior space ratio is a benefit I have already mentioned, but seriously, they are like the tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside. You know when a delivery company uses a car it can haul a lot of junk, and here they all use Kei vans for all but the largest of deliveries.

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Japanese delivery trucks. For the true utilitarian style, most Kei vans are available with optional unpainted bumpers, saving the company and thus you about 100 dollars in paint.

Despite their boxy shape, they get excellent fuel consumption in the environment they operate in. Average speeds in japan are quite low. Outside of expressways you would be lucky to cover more than 50 kilometers in an hour, and in my experience its more likely to be 30. Though high speed probably isn’t their thing (never tried) most Kei cars easily travel 100 kilometers on less than 5 liters of fuel. Newer turbo Keis increasingly can do it on less than 4. We aren’t talking clean driving at a set speed here, nor some calculated test a manufacturer can plan for (looking at you VW). That’s clambering up and down windy mountain roads in between being stuck in stop start traffic. Dull most may be, but due to their light weight and small engines their efficiency in this operating environment easily matches and often exceeds hybrids and eco-turbo cars catering to the west costing more than twice as much and specifically engineered to save fuel. Sometimes, you just cant beat simple.

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A Kei “utility truck” in Its natural habitat. These little AWD utes tractor around boggy rice paddies in summer, lug firewood up frozen mountains in winter, carry as much stuff as you could reasonably want, will run on the mere thought of petrol and will last decades with even negligent maintenance. Price brand new is less than $9,000

I could go on for a while longer listing the benefits of the domestic motorised biscuit tin. There really is a lot to like, but I will stop after talking about this last point, which is a particular peeve I increasingly have with normal cars, visibility. Anyone who has driven a car from the last few years and compared it to 20 years ago will have noticed that while cars of the past were glass houses you could clearly see out of, modern cars feature increasingly enormous blind spots and vision obstructions which make them difficult to see out of. The part of this is an attempt to make them more safe during an accident, but also comes down in large part to more emphasis being placed on exterior styling than visibility. Apparently this is a common complaint, seeing as many manufacturers are now equipping such cars with blind spot monitoring systems, reverse cameras, corner cameras and proximity sensors in an attempt to let you know where other objects on the road are. I am often shocked by the woeful blind spot visibility, and it makes me steer well clear of modern cars on the road as I know folk have NFI where I am or if i even exist. This to me is a bizarre situation where by we have made cars safer to crash…. by making them more dangerous to actually drive. Kei cars, much to my delight, while now also having all the electronic warnings and beepers, boopers, cameras and other assorted bollox required to navigate in a normal car, almost all retain the revolutionary concept of windows you can actually see out of! Something i wish was engineered into all cars. Rear and side visibility is excellent and this makes navigating tight areas, changing lanes and pulling out of obtusely angles intersections significantly safer. Not only that, but your chances of hitting unseen objects or more importantly, people, is significantly lower.

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Oh hi there Mr Blind Spot….. you sure have gotten fat since the 90s….

For all this positive talk though, there are significant draw backs to these little home grown wheely mobeelies. Probably the most paramount being safety. While most new kei cars now feature plenty of airbags, motors that fall out rather than squish your feet, impact protection and whatnot as found in a regular car in an attempt to make them safer, they have traditionally been significantly less safe to have a crash in than a regular car. part of this is due to their weight, or lack of it, meaning that they typically come ogg second best in accidents. Similarly, the design of many with an exceptionally short bonnet means that in front on collisions they have very little crumple zone. Many manufacturers now crash test Kei cars against International standards as a way of marketing their cars domestically and they increasingly are returning passable (though rarely stellar) results, with many now being safe enough to sell in other countries. However simply due to the nature of their design, they are not where you want to be while crashing. The low average speed on Japanese roads means that perhaps safety standards required for save travel at 110kph + on a German autobahn are a bit excessive here, but none the less, please don’t crash one unless its very slowly and into something soft.

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Modern Kei cars are improving safety in leaps and bounds, but a small tin can is just inherently a worse place to be in a crash than a bigger can….

The second issue is performance. While their tiny motors may be great for fuel consumption, and their tall narrow shape may be great for interior space, they rarely are particularly exciting cars to drive. Very short gearing helps them clamber their way up mountains and potter along in traffic, but rarely would their sprint times to 100Kph thrill you. Many are equipped with a turbo that help them get moving and stay moving, but few are likely to win any races (unless against other kei cars or some form of slow animal.)  Similarly, their light weight means there is a possibility of good handling, but with a focus being placed squarely on comfort over performance, most handle like a limp soggy sponge and are considered as entertaining as wallpaper paste to drive… sort of like all economy cars then.

Occasionally though, manufacturers throw all of their usual sensibleness to the wind and develop a truly sports focused, fun to drive kei car. Though the days of those “ABCs” are long over and only Honda has launched a spiritual successor so far, peppy little Kei cars do still exist. Typically based on a small hatch, they get given the suspension, tyres, steering and power they need to be genuinely engaging cars to drive. This combined with their low weight and small size makes makes them excellent drivers cars despite their limited power (64Hp). Their retention of  Kei class status still makes them significantly cheaper to own and operate than even the most cost effective non-kei car. One of the most popular of these is the suzuki alto-works, which Suzuki recently resurrected after a 15 year absence. Using the alto as a base, the alto works gets a turbo, an inter-cooler, adjustable suspension, a reinforced chassis, lighter wider wheels, nearly a thousand dollars worth of tyres, performance brakes, an entirely new interior, an upgraded clutch and gearbox and many other things I forget, it comes out the other side of the factory looking like this.

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These cost about 16,000 dollars new, and to me seems a much better option than anything on the market in Aus for that price.

This little car, including insurance, registration and all on roads, comes to a sum total of slightly less than a base model Honda Jazz or Toyota Yaris. Ongoing running costs such as registration are about half that of a normal car and insurance, thanks to it being a Kei car, is the equal lowest of any car in Japan (interestingly, all Kei cars regardless of type cost the same amount to insure for third party fire and theft.)

So that sums up a short history of the Kei car. What started life as the only vehicle most could afford, has over the years evolved into the only vehicle most people will ever need. My own reservations about why they exist have largely been laid to rest and I now genuinely believe a lot of issues about automotive transport globally could be solved with adoption of a similar mentality of car building. They inherently use less fuel, generate less emissions and due to their compact dimensions make a better city car than a regular “sub compact” could hope to. Over the years they have increasingly inherited the interior quality and features of their larger automotive peers, making them as pleasant to be in as a regular car, and thanks to their simple and largely uniform engineering (most manufactures only have less than a handful of engines for their entire kei line up, so parts compatibility across different models is amazingly common) parts and maintenance costs are extremely low.

A Kei is the ultimate in affordable and practical transportation, they are the econo-box perfected.

 

AND SO THAT’S WHY I BOUGHT ONE!

Now I’m living in the countryside, I obviously need transportation. No public transportation system, not even Japan’s wonderful and varied one, is able to service the entire nation. Rural and semi-rural areas with low population densities are obviously the areas of the most minimal coverage. There are busses that run quite close to the house that I am in, but they are too infrequent to base a life around for more than a week or two. similarly, the closest rail station is a 6KM walk, and the closest super market is located not far from there. On top of this I hope to use my time here to see things that tourists of limited time and means are forced to miss, and to get to many of japan’s most wonderful sites still requires use of the good old fashioned automobile.

The story of going to get my little automobile is a long and interesting one (more interesting than you have likely found this post anyway) that I will tell soon. But for now, I will just harvest photos from that journey and tell you about the car.

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Sunrise on “mount akina” (of initial D fame) with my new little set of wheels.

If you know about me beyond my name, then chances are you know i love things that say vrooom, that’s why I just spent a good several thousand words of so writing to you about them, even though you probably don’t care. (Actually, a few people now have expressed to me that they enjoy reading about how things are different here to other places, that has something to do with it too.) This love of cars, combined with my desire to drive many of the mountain roads Japan is famous for, meant that a typical car or regular Kei car was not what i had in mind. Perhaps I have been spoiled by my Australian car, but I strongly dislike wallowy, mushy cars that most of the industry produce for the masses and believe I would be a regret choosing something sensible and pedestrian in the long run. As a result I started hunting and soon realised that with the ever declining Australian dollar, I couldn’t afford much. When the dollar was worth 100 yen or more, as it had when i started saving for this trip, my budget would have allowed me to slip into a tidy, mid 90s rear wheel drive sports car such as a Silvia, a Suzuki cappuccino or something else of comparable sportiness. Unfortunately with the dollar having dropped more than 25% since that time, all these ended well outside any budget i could sensibly afford.

Things i can’s afford!

After a brief look about I decided I would opt for one of the few cars I both at least wanted to try, and could afford.  I have mentioned this car a few times now, but its a Suzuki Alto works. A tiny, 3.25 meter long hatch back, that has been given the proper sports treatment from the ground up before leaving the factory. After more than a week of trying (they sell really fast if in even half decent condition it turns out) I managed to get to see this one, and secure Its purchase for a sum of about $4ooo including 18 months rego. So what does 4 grand (about 3, without the rego) get you? A 15 year old, 160,000Km hot hatch with a 3 cylinder, double overhead cam, all alloy, turbo inter-cooled motor and AWD, (yep, its turbo and AWD, just like a GTR! :P) wrapped up in a sub 700Kg body with a large side serving of fun and a dash of “I don’t take myself too seriously”. It’s also somewhat surprisingly, quite spacious inside and comfortable to drive for long periods, both things I didn’t really expect of this particular car.  Given it meets the Kei class requirement of no more than 64 ish HP, it isn’t a rocket, but due to the turbo and the massive torque it generates, it feels as quick or faster than most relatively modern cars by the seat of the pants it feels faster than my MX-5, I could be wrong. It trucks along at 80KPH perfectly happily, and will pull up fairly steep hills in fourth gear as long as you keep the turbo on the boil (below 2200 RPM though it couldn’t pull the skin off a custard. The interior is a very nice place to be, with a silly amount of storage, (seriously, it’s ridiculous to have this many spots to put things in such a small car) and most importantly to me, its fun to be in and operate. You don’t even need to do anything silly in it to have fun. Thanks to its light weight, tight steering and responsive chassis, even just doing pottering up and down mountain roads at the speed limit makes you feel like a rally driver (especially the up hill, where you need to work to keep up to the speed limit.)

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Suzuki i believe once had the marketing campaign, “Every drive is a rally drive.”

So far fuel consumption is quite good. My trip home consisted of tight, steep winding  mountain roads mixed with stop start traffic averaging 30Kph in 50-60kph zones, but so far its only drunk about 20-25 liters on nearly 400KM of driving. I call that pretty good. It also has an ECO mode that unlike many actually does something…. limits your power to that of a base alto…. and doesn’t automatically turn off if you put your foot down like many do. I imagine if I made better use of it, that would improve my fuel consumption further still, but on the way home I usually turned it off on uphill sections and when getting moving in traffic as i couldn’t be bothered rowing the gears when i could just ride a wave turbo torque up the hill.

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The previous owner seems to have really loved this car. despite its age and milage, its clean as a whistle, well serviced and has a very nice, probably rather expensive steering wheel.

I suppose i haven’t spent enough time with it to find its narks and issues yet, but at least for now I wish we had these little cars in Australia. Its the best mix of fun and practical I have ever found, is good on fuel, and comfortable to drive distance in… I guess that probably makes it, at least objectively speaking the best car i have ever driven… I might leave it at that.

Time to drive to get some dinner….. what a chore 😛

(I promise the next one will be more interesting!)