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Let's get small

The Honda S660 at the Tokyo Auto Show. The introduction of kei jidosha, or little cars, in the 1950s got many Japanese people off motorcycles and into cars.

We laugh at them, but what if supersmall cars are the solution?

Small cars are a joke – have been ever since too many clowns spilled out of one at the circus.

Even The Simpsons had fun with the concept: When Nelson the bully laughs at the Very Tall Man in a small car, the man scolds him by saying, "This was the largest auto I could afford. Should I, therefore, be made the subject of fun?"

At the recent Tokyo Motor Show, I tried a Honda S660 minicar on for size. Imagine a child's pedal car – one of those plastic red-and-yellow Fisher-Price things – scaled up only slightly so it's just two-thirds the size of a real car. You need to employ some advanced yoga moves to get in – Cat-Cow Stretch into Extended Side Angle into Warrior II just about did the trick. The door closed with a hollow clank. The top of my head was up against the cloth roof and my legs were almost brushing the steering wheel. It was cozy but not altogether bad. With a three-cylinder, 67-horsepower engine mounted behind the driver, it's like a little Ferrari – if you squint. Acceleration? Sure: zero to 100 kilometres an hour in 14 seconds.

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Gibes aside, small cars are no laughing matter. Minicars could help solve so many of the problems facing drivers and cities: traffic congestion, lack of parking spaces, pollution.

In Japan, kei jidosha (light cars) were introduced as a special class of vehicle in the 1950s. As of 2016, they made up about a third of new-car sales Japan, according to data from the Nikkei Asian Review. "The price for a kei car is half that of a Honda Civic. And the tax payment for a kei car would be a third of the one for a Civic," said Makoto Iwaki, Honda's executive creative director. "There's no specific target demographic – everybody drives kei."

In the fifties and sixties, kei cars got many Japanese people off motorcycles and into cars, Iwaki said.

"In Japan, roads are very narrow and small. Parking spaces are very small. [ Kei] fits, in a sense, our societal limitations or restrictions," he explained. If a family has two cars, one will often be a kei car. In rural areas, where cars are indispensable and families need several, you will see multiple kei cars in the driveway.

How good is the fuel economy? Honda's N-Box kei car – the bestselling vehicle in Japan as of September, 2017 – uses just 3.4 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres. It's not even a hybrid – it's just incredibly small and light.

Kei cars remain popular today in Japan and come in all shapes and sizes, from coupes to minivans.

Japan's minicars come in all shapes and sizes, from pickup trucks to minivans to coupes and hatchbacks. There are even kei dump trucks, moving tiny amounts of dirt around tiny construction sites. In Canada – because of a rule that lets us import almost any car that's 15 years or older – you occasionally see landscaping companies using kei trucks because they can fit between houses and drive into backyards.

So why wait years – decades, probably – for connected, autonomous, electric, shareable car pods to solve the problems of driving in a congested city when small cars could help with all those issues right now? They're a cheap solution, especially compared with autonomous cars.

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Well, for starters, when the legion of distracted drivers in gigantic SUVs and trucks inevitably smash into kei cars, the results will be horrific. It doesn't matter how many airbags you put in one of these things, it's going to be a pancake after it meets the bumper of a Chevy Suburban.

Even if we could get around the regulatory hurdles facing kei cars, would Canadians buy them?

I, for one, would love to zip around in Honda's sporty little S660 roadster. Toronto parking spaces would suddenly all seem huge. But it wouldn't work for road trips with friends or family.

Daniel Weissland, president of Audi Canada, sees an increasing demand for small cars, but not kei cars.

"I believe the smaller-vehicle segments will grow in the metropolitan areas like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal," he said. "I think there is definitely opportunity, looking in the next five to 10 years. It would not be smart for us, as a brand, not to look at those opportunities."

How small is too small was a debate Audi struggled with when deciding if it should bring the Q3 compact SUV to North America, Weissland said. "Americans weren't really fond of it, but now the Q3 is a hit – and in America, too."

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He's currently considering bringing the even smaller, subcompact Audi Q2 SUV into Canada. It's about the same size as a Nissan Juke or Mini Countryman.

"Q2 would be the entry to the brand," he said. "It would enlarge our customer base and we would [conquer] a lot of new customers." Still, bringing it to Canada would depend on being able to sell it in the United States, too, and American drivers are less likely to embrace small cars than we are.

Kei cars make up about a third of new-car sales in Japan, but their popularity will be difficult to duplicate in the North American market.

But the Q2 and other subcompact cars are likely as small as vehicles will get in North America, especially for luxury brands such as Audi. Any smaller and you won't find many willing customers.

The Smart Fortwo, for example, is relatively expensive for a two-seater at $17,300. The four-seat Mini Cooper, which starts at $22,190, outsells the Smart by a factor of 3 to 1, according to data from GoodCarBadCar. Scion, a Toyota subbrand that tried to peddle small cars to young drivers, folded after just seven years in Canada.

Even in Europe, during the economic crisis, people didn't switch to smaller cars, said Weissland, who was previously in charge of Audi sales for Southern Europe.

People don't like to downsize their cars – it's like getting a demotion. North America, after all, is the home of the V-8 muscle car, the pickup truck, the lead sled and the tail fin. We still cling – subconsciously and not – to the idea that a car is an indicator of wealth, status and success. Understood in those terms, a kei car looks like failure. And that's a shame, because they could help solve some real problems.

As I struggled to get out of the minicar in Tokyo, my body twisting into an unfortunate pose not unlike Downward Dog, a pair of Japanese businessmen watched and laughed.

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