Dep-O Magazine

The Kei Car Concept and Honda’s Twin Identities

Vehicle marques can sometimes mean different things to different consumers. A prime example is the Honda Civic 2013 model. This car appeals to family drivers who are looking for a reliable run around – a typically sensible second car to park alongside the saloon. However, the model remains as ever popular among young – and mostly male – drivers who favour a hot hatchback with relatively high performance specs for the size and price of car. As such, in the British imagination the Honda Civic in 2013 is equally at home on the school run, squeezing into the ever diminishing car parking spaces that supermarkets offer or sitting at a set of lights on a Friday night waiting for an impromptu drag race.

Honda N600

Of course, Honda as a Japanese brand has become more established in the psyche of the British public than other Asian manufacturers. But has it always courted this double identity? Well, not really. Both of Honda’s best known UK cars, the Civic and the Accord were aimed at the American public in the first instance. It was the fuel crisis of the Seventies that really led both models to make inroads into the US market. This is because Honda, in common with other Japanese companies, had really been pushing fuel economy as a selling point – something that sounds perfectly obvious from today’s point of view but wasn’t then. Indeed, the first models to be launched into the UK market in the late Sixties were really only about the fuel economy, based on lightweight design and size – the so-called kei car concept.


Kei cars, also referred to as K-cars, were developed to meet the Japanese domestic market’s requirement for smaller vehicles. The N360, a two door air-cooled sedan with a four stroke 354 cc engine was the first to make it to British shores, soon followed by the slightly larger N600. This version arrived in 1968 and had a top speed of over 75mph, making it more practical for motorway driving than its smaller sibling. The 600cc engine was capable of giving the Mini a run for its money. Although neither model were long-lived, the practicality of the kei car concept seemed to stick, even if British consumers didn’t call it that, and Honda gained its reputation as a sensible car buyer’s manufacturer.

1982 Honda Accord

However, Honda’s development throughout the Seventies and Eighties with performance engineering inevitably altered the public’s perception. For instance, the valvetrain system, which controls the operation of valves with twin camshafts, really took off after 1983 when it was first introduced on the CBR400, a sports bike. The system, now developed and branded as VTEC is a mainstay of Honda’s marketing to this day. It remains a key part of the appeal to the Honda Civic in 2013 as it has ever done. There’s also little doubt that Honda’s successful involvement in motor sport through the Eighties and a return to it in earnest today helps to build on this engineering heritage.

Of course, there are more exciting cars in Honda’s UK range than the Civic, as well as ones which are only marketed on their kei car practicality, such as the Jazz. What makes the humble Civic stand out from the crowd – and perhaps makes it unique among models sold today – is its twin identity. Excitingly practical is the way Honda describe it. So long as mums and teenagers continue to buy them in numbers it is unlikely that the Civic’s brand will need to be repositioned in the near future, at least.


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