The Mazda Miata is the most successful sports car of all time in terms of sales. If you want a sports car and don’t really know what to buy, then as many say “Miata Is Always The Answer“.
Compared to many cars on the road, the Miata/MX-5 is not big (especially the original NA generation cars – learn more in our Mazda Miata/MX-5 buying guide).
When you see an NA Miata on the roads these days, they can look diminutive compared to more modern vehicles.
You might have heard of the term “kei car”, which refers to a specifically category of vehicle made for the Japanese Domestic Market.
With the Miata/MX-5 (which is the Japanese name for the car) being so small, you would be forgiven for wondering if the Mazda Miata – at least the original one – is actually a Kei car.
In this short edition of Car Facts, we look at whether the Miata/MX-5 is a kei car or not.
What Is A kei car?
Without getting into the finer points of Japanese automotive tax law, a ‘kei car” is a vehicle that is built for the Japanese Domestic Market to comply with certain regulations on vehicle size and power output.
Short for ‘keijidōsha’ – ‘light automobile’ – the Kei category was introduced by the Japanese government in the late 1940s, with a view to encourage more affordable motoring to get post-war Japan back on the road. The whole concept of the kei car is that by complying with certain maximum size, engine displacement and engine power limits, manufacturers could sell cars that would attract taxation and insurance savings for Japanese motorists, making them better value for money. As you might expect, their light weight and small engines also made these pint-sized cars cheaper to run.
The idea of the kei car caught on with the Japanese public, and really took off from the mid 1950s when the engine displacement limit was lifted. Although Japanese car companies are typically known outside of Japan for their export models (or some of the more desirable JDM cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R or Toyota Supra MK4) to many living in Japan the Kei-class vehicles in a manufacturer’s lineup are the ones they are most interested in.
For example, one of the Garage Dreams editors used to drive a Honda N-Box when living in Tokyo”
Another reason that kei cars caught on and have remained popular is that their size makes them a more practical proposition in a country where space can be at a premium. In city environments, such as the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, you’d be crazy to want to drive a big vehicle on a regular basis.
What’s even more interesting is that kei cars are actually more popular outside of urban centres. Rural Japan loves them, because in many places the roads are too narrow to fit anything other than two Kei-class vehicles next to each other (meaning you don’t get the ‘English country lane’ syndrome of having one driver needing to back up to a wider point in the road when two cars come across each other). Furthermore, they are often exempt from regulations requiring that a vehicle owner can certify they have enough space to park the car.
kei cars are very popular in Japan; a 2011 report by the Japanese Mini Vehicles Association found that 50.6% of Japanese households that owned a car owned a kei car. Toyota’s CEO said in a 2021 interview that “the kei is Japan’s national car”. The numbers don’t lie, and it’s hard to argue with that fact. Ben, our editor who lived in Japan for a couple of years and who travels back and forth regularly to Tokyo, will attest to that fact.
They are so popular, in fact, that in 2014 the Japanese government actually levied higher taxes on these cars in order to encourage Japanese carmakers to focus more on export models. The tax difference between Kei and normal cars was substantially reduced, making the economic argument for buying a kei car much weaker – to the chagrin of Japanese automakers who sell these smaller cars in high volumes on the domestic market.
Is The Miata/MX-5 A kei car?
No – despite what you might have heard or been told, the Miata/MX-5 is definitely not a kei car. It never has been, and never will be.
Rules from 1990 limit a kei car to a 660cc engine and 64hp; both of which even the base model of the NA Miata exceed (with a 1600CC and ~115hp engine).
Therefore, despite its small stature and relatively low power, the Miata exceeded kei car regulations. There has never been any Miata/MX-5 model or variant that has been compliant with the Kei rules.
Kei Car Alternatives To The Miata
Want a Japanese convertible roadster that is a kei car?
You’ve got a few options, although depending on where in the world you live and what your budget is, it might be hard to get your hands on one.
If you want something contemporaneous to the NA Miata, then the Suzuki Cappuccino would be your best bet:
The Cappuccino was powered by a 657cc turbo I3 engine, and weighs around 725kg.
As you can see from a photo taken from this Reddit thread, it’s also quite a bit smaller than the NA Miata:
Another option for a kei car convertible/roadster is the Honda Beat – Doug De Muro’s video below is an entertaining watch if you’re interested in this car:
This RWD roadster was – interestingly enough – the last car to be approved for production by Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, before he passed away in 1991.
Long story short (or should I say big story small) if the Miata is too big for your tastes, then there are some genuine kei car options!
However, because kei cars are all proper JDM cars, you won’t be able to buy one with the steering wheel/controls set up for American/continental European roads, and you may struggle to comply with import and road legislation in your local area if you are looking to import.
Conclusion – Is The Mazda Miata A Kei Car?
No, the Miata/MX-5 is not a kei car.
Although the Miata (particularly the first generation – learn more here in our buyer’s guide and model history for the Miata/MX-5) is not a big car at all, especially by today’s standards, it is still well beyond the kei car regulations.
Kei cars are the smallest cars on the road in Japan, and have to comply with a specific set of rules and regulations that the Miata exceeds, so it cannot be a kei car.