Glittering beneath the lights, a new feisty sports car sits ready to take to the streets and start slaying corners. Tuned by specialist outfit Gazoo Racing and fresh off their victory at the Le Mans raceway in France, this new machine is knife-sharp and honed to perfection. It has enhanced body rigidity and a stiffened suspension. It has body-hugging Recaro seats and a Momo steering wheel. It also has 63 horsepower.
This is the Copen GR, a mighty wee pocket-rocket from Japanese small-car specialist Daihatsu. Here at the Tokyo Motor Show, Daihatsu is showing off all manner of machines that seem designed to be smuggled home in your carry-on luggage.
There’s the TsumuTsumu, a pint-sized cargo truck concept that comes with a deployable delivery drone. There’s the WaiWai, which looks like someone washed Volkswagen’s electric I.D. van in hot water, even though it specifically said not to do so on the label. And there’s the rugged WakuWaku, which is a bit like a Yorkshire terrier crossed with the new Land Rover Defender.
Yes, the names are all a bit silly, and these micro machines are still only concepts. However, small cars like these are big business in Japan. Fully a third of all cars sold in the island chain are “kei” cars, a category of machine restricted in horsepower and size.
Ordinarily, kei cars can be dismissed as a sort of wheeled Pokemon cartoon character, an automotive adaptation fit only for Japan's narrow back alleys. Yet we find ourselves in 2019 with a population that is calling for a society that pays more careful attention to how we consume. What if we could reduce our collective automotive footprint by literally reducing our automotive footprint?
To some extent, Canadians have already been voting for kei cars with their wallets. Thanks to our fifteen-year grey market import laws, small utility vehicles like the Honda Acty pickup are a not uncommon sight on our roads. If you're running a small gardening business, perhaps specializing in bonsai, one of these little trucklets might make a perfect fit.
So what if you could purchase one new? You might scoff, but there is historical precedent. Today, we live in an era where the likes of the Ford F150 rules the earth, but there was a time not so long ago that plucky little Japanese trucks made a case for themselves by being cheap and efficient.
There's something else too, something I'm sure you've noticed. As every generation of vehicle progresses, it grows larger. The modern Honda Civic casts a bigger shadow than the original Accord. A BMW 3-Series is heftier than an old 5-series. The cars aren't better to drive, they're just bigger.
Traditionally, Canadians have been happy to purchase small cars that fall within our means. There's a worrying trend of cheap credit lately that has seen the average loan payment stretching longer and longer. According to marketing research company JD Power, half of auto loans were financed on terms of 84 months as of 2018. We are overextending to buy more car than we need.
Lastly, there's our aging population. As more baby boomers grey, they still value their independence. A small sedan might be too low to climb in and out of as sinews stiffen with age. That explains the modern tendency to shell out for a high-riding crossover that's bigger than a single occupant requires.
Wandering around the halls at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, you can't help but feel like the solution is staring us right in the face. Small Japanese cars like those made by Daihatsu are inexpensive, capable, and the majority of them are designed for easy ingress and egress.
Take the Honda N-Box, Japan's best-selling vehicle for the past two years. Fitted with advanced safety features like automated emergency braking, the N-box is popular with older Japanese drivers because it is both safe and inexpensive to operate.
Then there are more youthful options, like the Suzuki Jimny. A sort of miniature Jeep, the Jimny is sold to export markets with a 100hp, 1.5L engine, along with widened fender arches. It’s got all the attitude and capability of a Mercedes G-Wagen, but treads far more softly.
Suzuki stopped selling cars in Canada just five years ago, due to declining sales, and it seems unlikely that the company would return. However, both Suzuki and Daihatsu supply small vehicles to larger Japanese manufacturers, to be re-badged and sold at their dealerships.
Standing on a corner on a busy road in central Tokyo, you see that Japanese traffic is perhaps not so different from our own. There are large trucks, mobile cranes and a plethora of vans. Sure, there are a mix of kei cars flitting here and there, but they have just as many large cars to contend with as they would if they were brought to Canadian roads.
Obviously, 63 horsepower might not cut the mustard. But would the Jimny's 100hp be sufficient? As gas prices continue to rise, as the cost of living swells ever higher, could cut-price vehicles that appeal to Canadian values of thrift and economy make inroads in at least our urban centres?
Speed limits haven’t increased. Our dollars don’t go any further. This is a big country, and we’re still going to need big machines to cross the prairies in winter and haul our stuff up to the cottage in summer. Yet, perhaps having the chance to make a more frugal choice in our daily lives would be no bad thing. Think small.
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