The Japanese auto industry is home to some of the most bizarre cars ever made. JDM Automakers have a reputation for building reliable, durable, best-selling cars. Toyota’s Corolla, Honda’s CR-V and Mazda’s Miata are doing exceptionally well in their various segments. But apart from these conventional models that stand out for their reliability, the industry also produces cars that stand out for their strangeness.
From miniature Kei cars to outrageously styled Zokusha and Kaido Racers, the Japanese automotive landscape has no shortage of these creations. However, this list is not for insanely modified cars but for everyday vehicles that are weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird. It’s mostly the small Kei cars that pack a ton of cuteness and uniqueness into their tiny bodies. Vehicles like the retro-styled Nissan Figaro, a few tiny trucks, and a sedan with a cargo bed made the cut. So read on for a review of ten weird and wonderful Japanese everyday cars we’d love to drive.
ten Autozam AZ-1
The Autozam AZ-1 is a handsome Mazda 2-seat sports car built between 1992 and 1994. Rocking a pair of gullwing doors and round puppy eyes, the AZ-1 sports its engine in a mid-rear position. Mated to a 5-speed manual transmission, the turbocharged I3 unit develops 64 horsepower and 63 lb-ft of torque.
While that might not sound like much, in the 1,587-pound Autozam AZ-1 it produces more speed than you might imagine. Moreover, the car is unique, has a tasteful interior and is fun to drive around town.
9 Honda Vamos
The original Honda Vamos is a two-door Kei truck that Honda built from 1970 to 1973. Based on the Honda TN360, the Honda Vamos competed with the Suzuki Jimny and the Daihatsu Fellow buggy. Sporting a front-mounted spare tire, the Vamos was available with two or four seats.
Underneath it featured MacPherson strut front suspension and De Dion tube with half leaf springs in the rear. For power, it carried a 354cc I-2 engine hooked up to a 4-speed manual transmission. Unfortunately, this cool little truck was never a commercial success.
8 Isuzu Vehicross
The Isuzu Vehicross is an eye-catching 3-door SUV with an unconventional design that appeals to buyers who aren’t afraid to stand out. Produced from 1997 to 2001, it includes parts from other vehicles. It runs on a V6 engine paired with a 4-speed automatic transmission to produce 215 hp and 230 lb-ft.
While not a dedicated off-roader, the Vehicross isn’t shy about harsh terrain either. In 1998 and 1999, it even managed to claim victory in two off-road rallies.
seven Nissan S Cargo
Shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, the exterior styling of the S-Cargo comes from the Citroën 2CV Fourgonnette delivery van. The name, S-Cargo even rhymes with escargot (French word for snail), which is the nickname of the Citroën 2CV. Power comes from a 1.5-liter inline-4 engine that drives the front wheels through a 3-speed automatic transmission.
Along with air conditioning which is standard equipment, options include a pair of oval porticos and a power canvas sunroof. With its small size, the S-Cargo is an ideal delivery van for cities.
6 Toyota Sera
After debuting as a concept car in 1988, production Sera arrived in 1990. The 3-door sedan sports a set of gullwing doors and a glass tailgate. For its size, the Sera has a surprisingly large amount of storage space available. Under the hood hides a 1.5-liter I-4 engine that develops 104 horsepower and 97 lb-ft of torque.
Other hardware items include power steering, a strut front suspension and optional 4-wheel ABS disc brakes. Although it didn’t pack a lot of punch, the Sera was an odd gem of a sports coupe.
5 Nissan Figaro
The Figaro is a retro-styled 2-door fixed-profile convertible city car that Nissan introduced in 1989 and built in 1991. It featured amenities such as rack-and-pinion steering, air conditioning, ivory leather seats and a CD player. On the Nissan March (Micra) platform, the Figaro runs on a 1-liter turbocharged I-4 engine mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission.
With 75 hp and 78 lb-ft on tap, the 1,790-pounder can reach a top speed of 106 mph. Demand for the Figaro was so strong that Nissan had to double production and set up a lottery to choose buyers.
4 Daihatsu Midget II
The Daihatsu Midget II arrived in 1996, more than two decades after the automaker discontinued the original Midget. Available as a Kei truck/microvan in single-seat or two-seat configuration, it sported googly headlights and a front-mounted spare wheel.
For power, it relied on a 0.7-liter I-3 engine hooked up to a 4- or 5-speed manual transmission. This configuration develops 31 hp and 37 lb-ft of torque to move the Midget II 1,200 pounds. For bar owners, it’s ideal for transporting kegs around town. With its small footprint, it is easily maneuverable in tight spaces and would make a perfect grocery accessory.
3 Subaru 360 Sambar
Standing about five feet tall and weighing 1,098 pounds, the 360-based Sambar was the first Kei-class truck/van. It sported rear-hinged front doors, which greatly simplified getting in and out of the compact front seats. Developed for Japanese professional duties, it debuted in 1961 for the first generation with a rear-wheel drive transmission.
It was powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled I-2 engine that displaced 360 cc to produce 25 hp from 1970. Despite its small size, the 360 Sambar could carry a payload of 798 pounds.
2 Daihatsu Copen
The Copen is a 2-door convertible Kei car that Daihatsu unveiled in 1999. Styling cues for the Copen came from the Nissan Figaro and the Audi TT. To meet Kei car regulations, it featured a 0.66-liter twin-scroll turbocharged I-4 engine that produced 63 hp or 67 hp, depending on market.
However, this engine did not meet emission standards in some countries. In 2007, overseas-bound Copens got a 1.3-liter I-4 unit rated at 86 hp and 89 lb-ft of torque. With the larger engine, the small car could hit 62 mph in 9.5 seconds and top out at 110 mph.
1 Subaru Baja
The Baja is a truck/sedan mashup that Subaru built for the 2003 through 2006 model years. On the same platform as the Outback station wagon, the Baja is only available as a 4-door 4WD. It featured “Switchback”, a system that allowed users to extend the bed by folding the rear seats.
A turbo version released in 2004 featured a 210 hp turbocharged engine and offered 7.3 inches of ground clearance. Despite its versatility, the Baja fell short of Subaru’s sales projections and was dropped in April 2006.