Japan’s mini-car boom was rooted in affordability, low taxation and aesthetic myopia. Then Honda handed its new mini-car project to an F1 engineer, who surprised everyone by putting high-spec design at the heart of the kei jidosha.
On Tokyo’s crammed streets, mini cars are everywhere. Their distinctive yellow-and-black licence plates and pint-sized bodies make them easy to spot. One in three cars sold in Japan last year was a kei jidosha (lightweight car). The big draw of mini cars is affordability, with looks, handling and safety an afterthought. Honda Motor felt the mini car deserved better so, a few years ago, the Tokyo-based car maker embarked on a radical redesign led by former Formula One engineer Yasuaki Asaki.
Since Honda unveiled the N-One last November, it has sold 10,000 a month to young families and elderly consumers who’d never owned a mini car. There’s a six-month wait for some models; Honda’s factory can’t make them fast enough. Honda is ruled by engineers but Asaki let his design team take the lead. Designers raided the firm’s archives for inspiration and took Honda’s first car, the N360 from 1967, as a model. Still, they had to work to government regulations that limit a kei jidosha’s size (3.4 metres long, 1.48 metres wide, 2 metres tall) and power (a 0.6 litre motorcycle-style engine).
The N-One’s sporty outline is strikingly close to designer Takao Ishikawa’s original sketch. Savings made in development by using existing parts helped fund expensive features such as ultra-compact headlights, a turbocharged engine, side-curtain airbags and details that give a roomier interior feel. “The N-One conforms to uniquely Japanese regulations,” says Asaki, “but we came up with ideas that rival the best of any market.”
N-One sales per month: 10,000 vehicles
Honda’s mini-car sales in Japan, 2012: 321,300 vehicles
Honda mini vehicle models: 7
Honda’s share of Japan’s mini-car market, 2012: 16 per cent
Honda’s rank in domestic mini-car sales: 3rd (1st is Daihatsu, 2nd Suzuki)
Mini cars as a percentage of Honda’s sales in Japan (2012): 43 per cent
The LED headlights required an engineering feat to fit the tiny engine compartment, while the grill recalls the N360, the first Honda car.
The N-One boasts anti-slip steering and suspension controls, side-curtain airbags and rear lights that blink when the driver slams on the brakes. The engine crumples in a crash, absorbing the impact and protecting passengers.
The N-One’s colour designer, Yasuko Saito, decided on a two-tone paint job for the premium model, which requires factory workers to hand-spray the roof. There is a six-month waiting list for the two-tone version of the car.
The central fuel tank sets front and rear axels further apart for a roomier interior and improved handling. Designer Takao Ishikawa obsessed over giving the car a sporty look with curved side panels and an angled roof.
Shinichiro Kanayama, chief interior designer, created a curved, minimally adorned dashboard. He also worked with engineers on analogue controls for the audio system that were previously developed only for luxury models.
Cars designed from their outer dimensions in, like hand luggage, were never likely to catch on in the West – so sniffed many auto journalists when the Kei-car emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. It didn’t help that many Keis resembled the kind of vehicles later imagined by Pixar (Suzuki Cappucino, anyone?). No, K-cars seemed destined to remain the quirky preserve of enthusiasts, out of scale with their surroundings whenever they were imported to Europe or, especially, the US. But then the West went and built its own K-car: the Smart, and in these straightened times, with our ageing populations and urban migration, who would bet against a new wave of Ks conquering the West at last? If there are more like the N-One in the pipeline, I certainly would not.
The marketing strategy
New Next Nippon Norimono doesn’t make much sense in English (norimono is anything you ride) but the N-One’s marketing slogan is catchy in Japanese. And that’s what matters. Honda developed the N-One with young families and the elderly drivers in mind. It had to be attractive and assuage consumers’ safety worries. But exporting the N-One was never part of the plan; buyers outside Japan don’t benefit from the tax breaks that make the car so affordable.
Looks, safety and power weren’t always mini cars’ strong points. But competition and surging demand has led to big improvements in specs and designs. Last year, Japanese consumers bought nearly 2million mini cars – one in three cars sold.
Japanese love their mini cars. Why? Narrow streets and tight parking in Japan’s big cities and high petrol prices. For mini-car makers, it’s a hyper competitive market. Auto makers must pile on features: equipping a Lilliputian car with a rear camera might sound excessive but it can help car makers defend their share in a shrinking market.