Where Japanese Cars Get Their Boxiness It's cool to drive a cube

    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.

    chart of honda car models

    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.

    honda america car models

    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

    post WWII model subaru

    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!

    two men sitting in horse buggy
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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

    honda box car driving on road
    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?

    nissan cube side view

    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.