The Boxiness Of Japanese Cars

When you’re in Japan, one thing you’ll immediately notice is the boxiness of their cars. Sure, not every car looks exactly like a rectangle on wheels, but compared to most other nations in the world Japan is boxy-car heaven. They don’t look very sleek. They don’t go as fast. They’re not that aerodynamic. But… they’re extremely popular. I mean, look at the Japanese lineup of cars for Honda Japan. It’s not all box, but there’s a considerable amount in there.

Now that you’ve looked at that, take a look at Honda America’s car lineup. Much less boxy, right? The only thing you could call “boxy-shaped” is the SUV and mini-van… and those aren’t true “box-cars,” at least not in my book.

Although not all Japanese cars are boxes and not all American cars are round and flat, you can definitely see the difference between the two. So why are Japanese cars so boxy? It all started after World War II.

The “Kei Cars” Era

After the second World War, most Japanese people didn’t have enough money to buy a car. The Japanese government wanted to help out the Japanese automobile industry though, so they created something known as the “Kei Car Standards.” A “Kei Car” (aka kei-jidosha, aka light automobile) back in 1949 was limited to 150cc, with a max length of 9.2ft (2.8m) and a max width of 3.3ft (1m). A quick search on the Sears website tells me that most modern push lawn mowers are between 150-190cc, if that helps to put things in perspective. No wonder people said the original Japanese Civic had a lawn mower engine in it… perhaps it actually did.

As time went by and more people started driving, restrictions got less strict. In 1950, they increased the cubic centimeters to 300cc. In 1951, it went up to 360cc. By 1990, Kei Cars could be up to 660cc (take that, lawn mowers!) with max length of 11.2ft (3.4m), a max width of 4.9ft (1.48m), and a max height of 6.6ft (2m). This is also when they added a max power restriction of 47 kW (that’s the power of a mere 63 horses). Nehhhhh!

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By purchasing a Kei Car you get some financial benefits as well. Taxes are 3% instead of 5%. Your automobile weight tax is lower. The cars themselves are cheaper. Also, your liability insurance premiums are cheaper. Basically, there’s some perks to owning one of these cars and the government wants you to buy them because it helps keep the air clean. Due to this, the Kei Car became quite popular. Because of their popularity manufacturers kept innovating and the Kei Car got better and better. Although there has been ups and downs in the history of Kei Cars, they’re doing quite well right now. You save on insurance, you save on gas money, and your car actually fits in Japanese parking spaces. That’s a win-win-win if you ask me.

Oh, and I also believe that they were responsible for the boxiness of Japanese cars. Here’s why:

Why Japanese Cars Are Boxy

The Honda nBox: Has the word “Box” right in its name, just in case you weren’t sure

I feel like a lot of this “car-boxiness” came from the Kei-Cars, because this shape is so absolutely perfect for them. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. Japanese speed limits are quite slow. The highest I’ve seen is 100kph (60mph), though generally the speed limit is quite a bit lower.  Also, expressways (where you can drive fastish) tend to require tolls to drive on. Basically, Japanese cars don’t have as many opportunities to drive fast, so being aerodynamic isn’t that big of a deal.
  2. Japanese cars (even cars that aren’t Kei Cars) tend to be smaller. Even trucks are more compact. When you drive a tiny car, the last thing you want is for it to feel like you’re driving a tiny car (I’m looking at you, Smart Cars). A square shaped car actually gives you a lot more interior space. Also, you get more headroom. Although the car is still small, you have a lot of space on the inside. Plus, even though more space is taken up on the outside, it doesn’t have any negative effect. For example, you still fit in parking spaces just fine, right?

When you combine these two reasons, square shaped cars just make sense. Your smaller car (which never needs to drive fast) feels a lot bigger. In this type of market, a square shaped car is almost always going to be better than a round shaped car.

Boxy Cars In America?

Boxy cars in America, however, haven’t caught on quite in the same way. We still need to drive more often and more quickly. Also, American cars tend to be bigger, meaning even “smallish” cars (like the Honda Civic, etc) feel like they have enough room on the inside. The boxy cars in America also tend to have lower gas mileage due to the need for more power.

For example, when the Nissan Cube came over to America, it went from having a 47mpg (Japanese Cube) to 30mpg (American Cube). This is because they had to add more horsepower for the American market. Now all the non-aesthetic reasons for having a boxy car don’t make as much sense anymore. It’s hard to have boxy, horsepower, and gas mileage together in one car. You have to choose two and deal with it.

So, even though America does have boxy cars, I don’t think we’ll see them in quite the same way. I do, however, think we’ll get partway there. Cars like the Honda Fit are moderately boxy in terms of the interior space, but still have all the rounded corners that make it more aerodynamic. You’re losing some of the space, but you still get (part) of the gas mileage that a weak, boxy car could get.

I, for one, actually love boxy cars – but I don’t think we’ll see them in America anytime soon. Until America loses its need for speed, Japanese-style boxy cars won’t make too much sense around here, which explains why the “Kei-Car” market is mainly for Japan.

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Wikipedia: Kei Car

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I drive a box, too! I have a kei-car. It’s convenient for driving in a normal city, but quite horrible when driving on the highway. Whenever I try to go over 80km/h and hit the accelerator pedal with all my strength, just nothing happens. Always makes me laugh.
    Originally I’m from Germany and I don’t know if you know, but we don’t have a speed limit on our highway. You just go as fast as your car can (often over 200km/h!). Coming from there and then trying to speed up on a Japanese highway is just … two different worlds *g*

    Japanese roads are sooooo narrow, so I have to admit that I really appreciate the “boxiness” of my little Japanese kei-car!! :D

  • niyoels

    Definitely something I noticed when I was in Japan. Even told my friend it was pretty ださい in the west to have a boxy car lol

  • JatinChittoor

    Nice article! I always wondered why cars in Japan were shaped that way. Oh and as for us, we won’t loose our need for speed anytime soon!! But, I do like boxy cars.

  • sillysamurai

    I love my Honda Element. Great for road trips and it can (and does) haul almost anything. I’m very sad that Honda stopped making them. So what if it looks like a toaster? Everyone who has asked me how I like my car went out and bought one of their own. I really hope Honda replaces it with something similar. Otherwise, I’ll be out looking for spare parts, because it’s the best car I’ve ever driven and I want to drive it forever.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I like the Element too! Surfer?

  • Guest

    thanks, i was curious about that! i think that the boxiness is kind of cute-looking…

  • eru777

    Thanks for this post. I actually wanted to know what the deal was with these boxxy cars. Since I saw Ponyo and that made me notice that there are many of these cute cars in Japan. Also, “I am boxxy you see?” Sorry I had to say it.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    But… Can you inertial drift in these boxes??? Seems like the raised center of gravity would have you flippin’. How am I suppose to deliver tofu in time if I can’t drift???

  • Sephy

    I live in America and drive a Smart Car. It actually doesn’t feel small inside! I’d like to get a Japanese version if I get a driver’s license in Japan.

    I like Japan’s view of cars as a practical way to get around, unlike America’s view of ‘make it bigger!!’ even when it’s not necessary. Most people don’t *need* massive trucks or SUVs, but they buy them because big cars make them feel ‘safe’. I’d take a more practical car any day!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Pf, Kei Cars can’t even multi-track drift!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    According to Marikart, 150cc is all you need if you want to drift like a pro.

  • Barbpj

    Great article!
    This sure brings back memories!  In college in San Jose, CA,back in 1980 something, I drove a 1969 Honda 600, it was their pre-Civic car.  As the name implies, it was a 600cc and yeah it did sound like a lawnmower! I loved that car! Great gas mileage, something like 45mpg, and very useful when trying to park at a crowded urban campus and quite reliable.  The little chrome yellow cutie never broke down.I could get the tiny spaces others had given up on.  Sadly it couldn’t be sold here today as it had no smog control, or air bags.  I ended up selling it to a guy in 1985 who wanted to use it to drive across the country cheaply.  I’m sure he got there and drove it for several more years as well!  Really miss that car…
    http://www.tommcmahon.net/images/Honda600Coupe2.jpg

  • kuyaChristian

    You need a cup filled with water and figure that out on your own!

  • Reptic

    I drive an American Kia Soul, and I absolutely love it for all those reasons you listed. I really only use it for commuting within an urban environment so I’m not going very fast, and it was reasonably priced, gets reasonable gas mileage (though obviously not 47 mpg like a Japanese car), and it feels really big on the inside despite being a small car. This was important to me because I spent most of my childhood in an SUV, and even though I like driving smaller cars better, I still would miss the high ceiling and openness of an SUV interior. I have to say, though America might not be a large market for boxy cars yet, this car is actually quite popular where I live. The dealer I bought my car from was selling plenty, and I always see a couple on the road wherever I go. Could America finally be embracing the boxyness?

  • niz5000

    I drive a pretty boxy kei, the Dihatsu Naked. It feels fine on the inside for me, and I’m 6’4″(193cm).  No power, though.  It has trouble hitting 80kph(50mph) going uphill on the freeway.

  • Larisa

    This conversation reminds me of this : 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ery2Qnf1cJI&feature=relmfu

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    That’s clearly an AE85, not a AE86.. Pffttttt :P

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    i’ve…never liked the boxes. going fast is where it’s at.

    but i’ve been in a box once, and boy, was it roomy! really comfy, and not too large, just like you said, koichi. i’d never want to drive one, though. it’d be like switching from the agility and speed of a tiger to a slow bumbling amble of an elephant…or something.

  • Kiriain

     I’m actually 6 feet tall (or taller), and I have a fascination with tiny cars. My dream is to buy a little itty bitty car that I can squeeze myself into and be able to drive in it and such. When I go live in Japan, I’m going to a used car dealership, getting the tiniest car I find that I can fit in and take it. Then in 3 years to 6 months, I’ll have to give it to the Russians so they can put it on their boat and sail away.

    tl;dr
    I want a clown car.

  • Kiriain

     I would have murdered the driver, and the girl who set me up on that.

  • Guestymcguesterson

    I dunno.. whenever I drive on the highway I get tailgated like mad unless I drive about 110-120kph (even though the speed limit is 80).  Even in the slow traffic lane.  The cars may not be built for speed but that doesn`t stop anyone from trying @@!
    @14e7fb943b67bdb3719b12de8540957b:disqus 
    I used to hate boxy cars before coming to Japan and mocked them at every opportunity.  While I still dont find them that pleasing aesthetically, I do appreciate the smaller size (I mock unecessarily gigantic cars more than boxy cars ;)).

  • nagz

    apart from the fact i deeply loathe cars and despise those who unnecessarily drive it everywhere, i like the compact, efficient thinking of the japanese car industry. btw. by today’s standards, a curved car brings more aesthetic beauty than a boxed one but trends are always change.

  • Mescale

    Yep that body roll! /AND/ it clearly sounds SOHC not DOHC.

  • デス子

    I just figured that, since Japan was such a crowded country, they had to reduce the number of polygons in their cars and watermelons so that they could keep a steady 60 fps.

  • Kiriain

     Pfft… Why would they need that if they’ve got such super powerful processors?

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    It all makes sense now!

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Apparently them Cell processors are no good D:

  • デス子

     Well, obviously all that processing power is going into 1080p and anti-aliasing. That’s what makes Japan such a safe country. No jaggies to cut yourself on.

  • Mescale

    What if she was a super powerful alien princess with a magic wand?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Can I get Japan in bluray?

  • Hinoema

    I’ve seen those super boxy cars here in Arizona! One I’ve seen (not sure of the brand) is so square, you expect the people to get out by popping out of the top like toast. 

  • Guestie

    I got my box-car Ichiro (yes, that’s my car’s name) when I was in high school, and I love it/him. My tiny part-Japanese self has way more headroom than I need, and anyone who rides in the backseat always loves the extra space. All that positive feeling + being able to fit into itsy-bitsy street parking spaces= win. The gas mileage isn’t bad either, especially compared to most of my friends’ cars.

    Not everyone likes the way Ichiro looks, but I think he’s a perfect fit.
    (Oh yeah, he’s a first-gen xB… which I *think* was called the bB in Japan before they wee sold in the US.)

  • Crowbark

     Ha! I have a friend, 6’2 and 240 lbs, all broad shoulders and long legs, who went nuts for the Mini Cooper S. Nobody could sit behind him in it, but he was totally comfortable. It was always fun to see people’s faces when he got out of it.
    He had a racing harness installed and used to win autocross rallies with it, too

  • http://espo.in/ Jonas

    I don’t even have a license, but if I did, I’d get a boxy car. My girlfriend has one and it’s just perfect, lots of space even though it’s tiny.

  • Superguest

    Honestly imo like those japanese box cars way more then the american cars, They kinda look futeristic in someway

  • Kris

    I have a smart car too! People are always saying how tiny it must feel but you could be 6 foot something and still fit inside perfectly. The only thing I have to compain about is the suspension and transmission. But other than that its one of the most stylish cars you could have on a budget.

  • AveryGoodgame

    Well, when you think about it, Japan is a bit of a small country as compared to America. There’s more space to traverse when you want to go somewhere, because as every Japanese person I know that comes here says, “everything’s so big!” So the speeds would be a little different. I would presume the time for commuting would be larger for America if we used boxy cars, so we need faster cars. 

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  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Interestingly, Honda has enjoyed success selling the Honda Fit to the US market, though the US model has to be a tad longer to conform to NHTSA safety regulations. I drive one myself and love it for its amazing amount of interior space and ability to use parking spaces I wouldn’t dare use with a bigger car. Indeed, the Honda Fit is one of the most popular models in Japan, period.

  • Khaos

    I hate the box cars. They have no style. Whatever happened to the fast and stylish Japanese tuners from the 80s to the early 2000s? They had excellent weight-to-power ratios, they had quirky and unique Japanese style, the lights looked futuristic, and they could be tuned to look badass. Now in America all the cars being sold here try to look luxury and European, even if they’re Japanese or American cars.