Japan has always had an affinity for small cars and the Japanese government have tried to promote their use due to the limited space in their cities. Around 50 years ago they created the “Kei” class of small cars and offered tax and insurance incentives to get people to buy them.
An even smaller class of small car is set to become Japan’s first new vehicle niche to be approved by the Japanese government in 50 years. The "ultracompact" class looks similar to a street-legal golf cart, but is a single seater vehicle.
This new vehicle class has attracted the interest of new startup companies as well as the established motor corporations. Motor industry insiders estimate that up to 70,000 of the little vehicles eventually could be sold in Japan annually.
Yoshiro Sugimoto, 62, a former Toyota employee has spent 20 million yen ($254,800) of his and colleagues' money to build the 800,000-yen ($10,000) ZEVe ultracompact vehicle. This single seat golf cart like vehicle consists of an aluminum-framed narrow cart with a windshield, canopy, hatchback-style trunk, but without side windows or doors.
Performance will be adequate for city streets with a range of 50 kilometers (31 miles) when fully charged and a top speed of 50 km per hour. Safety is a key aspect for these ultracompacts as they look easy to crush, but the government is expected to approve them as they have a low speed and are lightweight. Meaning that they are less of a danger to pedestrians and other vehicles.
Sugimoto plans to have its 800,000-yen ($10,000) ZEVe ultracompact on the market in Japan next year.
Mr Sugimoto faces competition from Toyota and other rivals including Honda Motor (HMC), Suzuki Motor, Daihatsu Motor, and Nissan Motor. All have recently shown prototype ultracompacts at auto shows but so far have not announced plans to sell the cars in Japan.
Toyota has demonstrated two ultracompact vehicles, the Smart Insect and the COMS. The two vehicles are quite similar, the major difference being that the COMS does not have doors and the Smart Insect has gullwing doors reminiscent of an insect's wings, hence the name.
Both these vehicles can be charged at the owners home on a standard 110V supply and offer 50km range and a 60km/h top speed. Toyota's efforts look like production ready vehicles but there's no word as to when, or if, they will be sold to the public.
It seems that the humble electric golf cart is starting to become more of a mainstream vehicle and we may yet see large motor manufacturers take an interest in developing vehicles in this segment. However, it remains to be seen if ultracompacts gain any traction outside of congested city areas of the Far East.