As you fine readers will come to find out, I have strange tastes in vehicles. I like crazy cars that sometimes don’t make a ton of sense to other people. This has led me to find some odd balls over the years in the US and had me yearning for all the strange rides from abroad. So I decided to write a few articles showing some of my favorite, weird cars that we don’t get in the America. Some of my local loves have been the early 60’s Corvair wagon (suck it Nader), the Citroën SM and CX, and the Honda Accord Crosstour (Yeah, that one).
In today’s installment, I am going to investigate the most obvious option with the weirdest crazy cars from abroad: Japan. Our neighbors across the Pacific have been producing fine automobiles and shipping them to the US for many years. Aside from a few hiccups (gas pedals and air bags, anyone?), the major Japanese manufacturers have been selling reasonable, reliable products for decades. However, at home, the providers of such beige cars as the Civic Hybrid and the Altima sedan have produced some pretty radical vehicles.
A lot of these oddities land in the middle of a Japanese automotive category called Kei Cars. For those not familiar Kei cars are small, lightweight vehicles that have engine displacement, horse power and size limitations. While these limitations have changed over the years, the current maximum engine size is 660cc and 63 bhp. To put that into perspective, your typical, American Motorcycle has similar horsepower but twice the displacement. That may not sound like much but when remember that a lot of Japan is urban sprawl long periods of 70+ mph travel just don’t happen. Here are some of the more interesting Kei cars that I have run across.
This little guy was made by Mazda as the Autozam AZ-1 in the early 90’s. It has a three cylinder, 657cc, turbo engine mounted behind the driver, gull wing doors, and weighed in at less than 1600 lbs. This makes it lighter than a Lotus Elise although it still only has 64 bhp. However, the Skyline GTR “only” made 280 bhp so who knows what it is actually putting down.
Another tiny sports car is the Suzuki Cappuccino. It looks like someone shoved a Miata into a Xerox machine with the scale set to 70%. This one runs, you guessed it, a turbo charged, three cylinder engine that displaces 657cc. See the trend here. The difference is that this time it is mounted up front and pointed at the rear tires. Like I said, tiny Miata.
Any gear head with some time in the dirt knows about the Suzuki Samurai. After some early success the Samurai took some heat in a rollover lawsuit and was eventually pulled from the US market. This didn’t happen in Japan. It is still for sale as the Jimny and is tiny enough to be considered a Kei car.
Honda N BOX
Don’t think that the main Japanese producers aren’t involved in making crazy cars as well. Honda has been making tiny cars since this all started in the late forties. Their latest, and coolest of the modern Keis in my opinion, is the N Box. This pint sized people mover makes the most of its size limitations by going vertical. I’m sure everyone remembers the first gen Scion xB. The N Box takes all the styling used by Toyota and maximizes it. It is legitimately taller than it is wide, by almost a foot! Honda introduced the N Box with a full size dirt bike in the storage area.
Heading away from Kei cars, by a very small amount, brings me to the Nissan Figaro. This odd little car was only produced for one year (1991) but it has turned into a sort of icon for strange cars. Demand for the Figaro was so high that production was more than doubled and prospective buyers had to enter a lottery to gain a chance to buy one. The Figaro doesn’t qualify as a Kei car as its motor is too large (a whopping 987cc turbo four cylinder).
The only Mitsubishi on my list of crazy cars is the Delica. Now the Delica was available in the US in the late eighties. However, we only got the non-turbo, four cylinder motor instead of the much cooler turbo diesel found elsewhere. Our neighbors to the north figured out a while ago that the diesel, 4wd versions were solid pieces and began importing them from Japan to Canada almost a decade ago. Can you imagine tooling around in the woods in this beast? I sure can.