Bold Rides: The ABC's of 90's Kei Cars
Japanese kei cars were never offered for sale in the US, but that hasn’t stopped these pint-sized vehicles from retaining quite the cult following on this side of the Pacific. Some enthusiasts dig the rough and tumble 4WD trucklets and vans, while others prefer to go somewhat fast but very sideways. If you’re of the later group, you might be interested in these – the Autozam AZ-1, Honda Beat, and Suzuki Cappuccino. Autozam AZ-1
Glance quickly and you might think your looking at a Ford RS200. The AZ-1 was designed and built by Suzuki to be sold by Mazda under the Autozam nameplate. While that’s a bit confusing, its mission couldn’t be simpler. Powered by a 657 cc turbocharged I3, mounted in the middle, the AZ-1 was a rear-drive sports car for the everyday man.
However, in reality it wasn’t. By the time the AZ-1 hit the market in late ’92, Japan had been plunged into a severe recession that crippled sales. The AZ-1 sold only 4,392 cars over its production run, making it one of the most exclusive kei cars today. Gullwing doors don’t hurt either.
PHOTOS: What exactly does a Ford RS200 look like?
The Honda Beat might be the second best example of Japanese and Italian cooperation, right behind the NSX. Released in 1991, the Pininfarina-styled Beat broke the turbocharging mold with a naturally aspirated, mid-mounted 656 cc I3 engine, producing the regulated 63 hp maximum output.
Straight-line performance was down on its two main competitors (0-60mph in 13 seconds), but its cloth-top convenience and innovative engine design favored this Honda in sales. The Beat sold 33,635 units with numbers tapering off in the mid ‘90s.
PHOTOS: Check out pics of other sporting Hondas
Rounding out the group is the Suzuki Cappuccino, which not only found a home in Japan, but Europe as well. Suzuki’s mini grand tourer brought the kei car globally with a limited number destined for the United Kingdom.
The Cappuccino’s turbocharged 657 cc three-cylinder was mounted as far behind the front wheels as possible to allow for a perfect 50:50 split weight ratio, which it reportedly achieved with two passengers in tow. Just over 28,000 models were produced.
PHOTOS: Check out our Suzuki gallery