After a long deliberation, I decided to buy a car. This was a big choice for me because although I was once very much a lover of cars, during my recent stint of 17 years of living continuously abroad in Asia, I was quite happy not owning a car. It was very consistent with my adoption of a minimalist lifestyle, and using public transit is very affordable and there were other benefits of walking more and being part of the local life.

Later, I found out that I was missing some opportunities

If you read my blog, you know that I am a fan of getting out to the undiscovered places in Japan. Over the past couple of years, I felt that I did a pretty good job of seeing many out-of-the-way places in Japan, but kept on running into places that just were not well served by public transit. While Japan has one of the best and most comprehensive train networks in the world, it is simply impossible to get everywhere.

I chose the Suzuki Jimny because it is simple, economical and rugged vehicle perfectly suited for rural Japan

My model is a Japanese kei car. For those who don’t know what a kei car is, the word kei means “light” and it is a regulatory specification that is unique to Japan and specifically limits specifications of the car – engine size can be no larger that 660cc and dimensions are restricted to 3.4m length, 1.48m in width, and 2.0m in height. For cars in this classification, there are savings to be enjoyed in taxes, insurance, tolls and parking. You can read a bit more about it here:

While my Jimny is also available with a larger 1500cc engine, it no longer can can classify as a kei car. This 1500cc model is known as the Sierra and it treated as a totally different car in Japan. The vast majority if Jimnys sold in Japan are kei models, with the Sierra made mainly for export markets.

Why did I go for the kei model?

My friends often ask me why I did not go for the larger engine, after all it only costs a little bit more. My answer to that is that I have always been fascinated with kei cars in Japan. When I go back to the US, I am always shocked at how large cars have become, with powerful engines and performance that is way beyond the practical needs of consumers. It’s largely driven by marketing and consumers are condition to feel the need for more and more.

The establishment of the kei specification puts muzzle on this senseless escalation. The small size if very practical in Japan were roads are narrow and congested, and fuel is expensive. With their small engines, they get excellent fuel economy and yet are sufficiently powerful to handle driving conditions in Japan. While kei cars are not as popular as they once were, they still account for 35% of all the cars on the road.

A truly minimalist and rugged vehicle

The other attraction to me was the minimalist nature of owning a car with only 660cc – with only three cylinders, it is an engine smaller than most Americans have on their motorcycles. Granted, it has a turbocharger and intercooler to help it along, but compared to the modern engines on cars in most countries, it is positively tiny.

Not only compact, the Jimny is also a very rugged design. Unlike many off-road vehicles that have evolved into “crossover” SUVs, the Jimny remains true to its original roots. As with all Jimny’s of the past, the latest model retains a full body on ladder frame design, with solid axles front and rear. This simple design still remains the optimal configuration for off-road vehicles, although it does sacrifice in comfort and roadability. There are very few vehicles in the world today still with this design – notably the Jeep Wrangler and the Mercedes G Wagon.

Although small and simple, it still feels substantial and is fun to drive

What is it like to drive? It is surprising at how substantial it feels – with a high ride height, it does not feel small at all, despite its diminutive size. The suspension is soft and bouncy, and driving it, it really reminds me of my Jeep Wrangler I used to own. The engine is surprisingly willing, and has a very pleasant growl when accelerating. The engineers have used the turbo to provide a very flat power curve with lots of useable torque. While you would not say it is powerful, it feels surprisingly competent and well matched for the mission.

The limitations are that with all this purpose built off-road and simple design, it is not a car that you would want to drive very fast. On the expressways, speed is not necessarily limited by the small engine, but the short wheelbase and poor aerodynamics of the boxy shape. At 100kph, it is quite a handful in cross-winds. However, in Japan high speed driving is quite rare. Most motorways are limited to 80kph to 100kph, with only a couple of stretches in the country are at 120kph. The 660cc engine can actually handle 100kph quite well, and there is enough reserve left that the cruise control and keep a steady pace even with slight grades without the necessity to downshift.

660cc, 3 cylinder turbo intercooler engine

Fuel economy is quite low for a kei car, but put in the context of a purpose built off-road vehicle, actually very good with a 5-speed manual transmission. Since owning it, during the first 1,600 km I have averaged 15.7 km/l, which works out the 37 mpg (US) that includes a lot of stop-and-go city driving. So far, I am very pleased with this result.

Now I can see more of the real Japan

For the near future, I will start off with some small trips to gain my confidence of driving in Japan. Driving is a bit more complicated here, with lots of very narrow roads, complex road systems and many unwritten rules of the road, so before I embark on the longer trips, I first want to make sure all of the driving skills that are unique to Japan are hardwired into the way I drive. I will first start revisiting those places I have been to and are familiar with to see them from a different perspective. Also, I do not plan to abandon train trips altogether, but pick the mode that most suits where I will be going.

Keeping the Kaikueki style

One thing worthing mentioning that often puts travel by personal car at a disadvantage is the cost of expressway tolls. Tolls are very expensive in Japan, and often the tolls alone can exceed what it costs to travel by train, specially if you travel by yourself like I do. Because of the costs and the fact that I can see more on the local roads, I plan to travel as much as I can by avoiding the expressways. Not only are they costly, but I have found that Japanese expressways, while very convenient and well engineered, for the most part tend to be very boring, while the local roads have many sites to see.