“TOKYO (Reuters) – When Honda Motor Co (7267.T) launched the latest version of its N-Box a year ago, it promoted features on the pint-sized minicar such as error-detecting pedals, automatic emergency braking and moveable seats, part of a push to market the vehicle to young families.
But a drastically different demographic has made the N-Box the country’s best-selling passenger vehicle: roughly half the owners of the most recent model are 50 or older.
Automakers had hoped high-tech options would attract younger buyers to minicars, or kei-cars, even as the number of Japanese drivers under 30 has slid nearly 40 percent since 2001.
Instead, with a price tag starting around $7,500 and low ownership taxes, minicars have gained a more loyal following among the rapidly growing population of Japanese elderly, many of whom are on fixed incomes.
“After their children are grown and leave home, more people are looking to downsize from larger family cars to more compact ones,” said Kiminori Murano, managing director at Tortoise, a dealership specializing in minicars in Yamato, Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo.
At Tortoise, seniors have overtaken young families as the biggest customer group in the past decade, making up more than 70 percent of its clientele.
Kei-cars represent nearly a third of all Japanese passenger car sales, and about one of every 20 cars sold this year has been an N-Box.
All of Japan’s major automakers sell the no-frills, fuel-sipping vehicles, almost exclusively for the domestic market. With their 660cc engines – a size more common in motorcycles than cars – minicars are considered too small for most overseas markets.
Many in the industry predict that eventually, automated cars, taxis and buses will keep the elderly mobile for longer.
Until that future arrives, demand for cheap, safe and easy-to-drive vehicles such as the N-Box is growing sharply among older Japanese in a country that is home to one the world’s most rapidly aging populations. The success of these cars could also provide a blueprint for marketing such vehicles to older drivers overseas.
When Yoshiyuki Imada’s car insurance expires early next year, the 68-year-old retired truck operator from Kagoshima Prefecture is planning to trade in the Toyota Mark II sedan he has been driving for nearly 20 years for a minicar.
“Smaller cars are easier to drive as you get older,” he said.”