Are Kei Cars Safe? (Or At Least ‘Safe Enough’?)

In the world of automotive wonders, Kei cars hold a unique place. These pint-sized vehicles, a staple on the bustling streets of Japan, are known for their compact dimensions, economic efficiency, and quirky designs and are the perfect fit for many owners buying in the Japanese domestic market (learn more here about what JDM means).

But as their popularity grows beyond the Land of the Rising Sun as used imports, a pressing question emerges: How safe are these diminutive dynamos? Are Kei cars safe enough to consider for your everyday transportation (if you live in a market where buying one is possible).

Understanding Kei Cars: A Brief Overview

Before delving into safety, let’s understand what makes a car a “Kei” car. Originating in Japan, Kei cars are characterized by their small size and engine capacity, typically not exceeding 660cc. They were designed in the post-war era to provide affordable and efficient transportation and to boost up the Japanese automotive industry. Today, they range from tiny trucks and vans to sporty coupes and convertibles. 

You can learn more here about the specifics of the Kei car class and the history in our dedicated guide

Size vs. Safety: The Core Dilemma

The primary concern with Kei cars revolves around their size. In a world where SUVs and large sedans are becoming the norm, these tiny cars can seem vulnerable. Ultimately, the laws of physics are fairly immutable (unless I wasn’t paying sufficient attention in high school) and if your Kei car is struck by a full size Range Rover, all things being equal the Range Rover is going to come out better.

Small car safety has improved markedly in recent years (in fact many new small cars are now safer than older large cars) but particularly in markets such as the United States, where vehicles tend to be on the larger side, a Kei car would be a relatively small vehicle and potentially at more risk in a crash.

Crash Test and Safety Features

Kei cars rigorous crash testing and are subject to Japan’s safety regulations. Modern Kei cars come equipped with advanced safety features like airbags, ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), and more recently, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings.

However, it’s important to note that many older Kei cars lack even the most basic of ‘modern’ safety features, such as airbags and ABS brakes. In effect, a more extreme instance of the typically worse safety seen in JDM-specific cars (learn more here about why JDM cars are typically less safe than their export counterparts)

This, in conjunction with the inherent smaller size and the physics-related implications thereof means that older Kei cars especially are really not that safe by today’s standards. In fact, some of them are downright dangerous. 

I recall my parents looking at buying a fairly new (might have been 3-4 years’ old) used import ex-JDM Kei car as a business delivery vehicle, and it having a measly two airbags and basically no other safety features. This was by a point where even the most basic new car available in New Zealand would come equipped with multiple airbags and at least basic crash avoidance technology. In fact, despite the car being perfect for their needs they decided against it because of the lack of safety equipment. 

Urban vs. Rural Safety Dynamics

It’s crucial to consider the driving environment. Kei cars excel in urban settings where speeds are lower, and their compact size allows for nimble navigation through tight spaces.

Having been to Tokyo, I can say that urban traffic often isn’t moving very quickly and so the risk of having an accident – at least a serious one – might be lower, and that’s before you also consider factors like typically better driving and roading standards in Japan – in this kind of urban environment a Kei car makes good sense, but still needs to be considered in the context of what other road users are driving.

However, on highways and in rural areas where speeds are higher, their smaller size and lighter weight can be a disadvantage in collisions, especially with larger vehicles. There is no way, for example, I’d want to be driving a Kei car on a busy one-lane-each-way NZ country road, with no median barrier, poor surface and traffic going at 100 km/h. Even in urban areas where I live, the traffic flow and speeds are faster than what might have been encountered in the market for which a Kei car was built.

In researching for this article, I came across this study which basically indicates that in low speed urban crashes, occupants of Kei cars didn’t really come off much worse than those in normal cars – but the same does not apply for higher speed crashes outside of town (i.e. another tick in the box for Kei cars potentially being good urban commuters even outside of Japan, but not suitable for open road/freeway/motorway use). 

International Perspective and Modifications

Outside Japan, the safety perception of Kei cars changes. Due to different road conditions, larger vehicles, and varying safety standards, Kei cars might require modifications to meet local safety regulations. However, their use in compact and congested city environments in various countries is growing, indicating a level of trust in their safety credentials (or at the very least a concession to the space and fuel savings on offer). 

The Verdict: Context is King

In conclusion, Kei cars are a marvel of compact engineering, balancing the needs of efficiency and space constraints with some safety considerations. They are designed to be safe within their intended environment – bustling city streets.

As with any vehicle, the safety of Kei cars is relative to where and how they are driven. While they may not match the crash survivability of larger vehicles in high-speed impacts, you need to consider that no Kei car is built with the intention of being driven outside of typically urban Japanese environments. 

In the ever-evolving world of automobiles, Kei cars remind us that safety is not just about size; it’s about smart design and understanding the context of use. For city dwellers and those who tread the bustling urban landscapes, Kei cars offer a unique blend of practicality and efficiency – you just need to be wary of the safety concerns. 

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  • Sam

    Sam focuses mainly on researching and writing the growing database of Car Facts articles on Garage Dreams, as well as creating interesting list content. He is particularly enthusiastic about JDM cars, although has also owned numerous European vehicles in the past. Currently drives a 3rd generation Suzuki Swift Sport, and a Volkswagen Touareg (mainly kept for taking his border collie out to the hills to go walking)

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