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Mini car built for young families in Japan attracts senior buyers instead

Honda's N-Box is Japan's best-selling passenger vehicle. About half the owners of its recent model are aged 50 or up. Its US$7,500 starting price and low ownership taxes have earned it loyal followers.


WHEN Honda Motor Co launched the latest version of its N-Box a year ago, it promoted features on the pint-sized car 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 mini cars, or kei cars, even as the number of Japanese drivers under 30 has slid 40 per cent since 2001.

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Instead, with a price tag starting at around US$7,500 and low ownership taxes, mini cars have gained a more loyal following among the rapidly growing ranks of Japanese elderly.

Kiminori Murano, managing director at Tortoise, a dealership specialising in mini cars just south of Tokyo, said: "After their children are grown and leave home, more people are looking to downsize from larger family cars to more compact ones." At Tortoise, seniors have overtaken young families as the biggest customer group in the past decade, making up more than 70 per cent 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 - mini cars are considered too small for most overseas markets. Industry watchers say automated cars, taxis and buses will some day 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 ageing 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 mini car.

"Smaller cars are easier to drive as you get older," he said. Honda said the safety features in the N-Box were not designed just with the elderly in mind, but said they could help older drivers stay on the road. Hideaki Takaishi, senior safety engineer at Honda, said: "We wouldn't want elderly people to become holed up in their homes because they can't get around. We want to do what we can to enable them to stay mobile for as long as possible."

For years, TV commercials for kei cars have been a montage of energetic 20-somethings. More recently, ads have featured sentimental snapshots of families with young children. But mini car marketing is slowly starting to reflect the segment's biggest buyers.

This year, Daihatsu Motor, a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp, released a TV spot featuring an elderly cabbage farmer who berates his son for suggesting that he switch to a mini truck with automated emergency braking, misreading it as a slight to his driving skills.

Daihatsu spokesman Kazuki Inoue said: "Our mini trucks are widely used on farms, and farming communities are greying rapidly, so we wanted to market advanced safety systems on this model."

Honda's Mr Takaishi said that sensors to track a vehicle's surroundings and assess whether drivers have depressed the wrong pedal are among the features that can offset common challenges for older drivers, including reduced alertness and reaction time. The automaker is also trying to develop artificial intelligence-driven systems for "coaching." Cars could theoretically advise drivers via flashing dashboard icons and steering wheel vibrations if they are about to drift out of their lane or make a potentially risky manoeuvre.

In Japan, the number of driving licence holders aged 60 and older is growing faster than in other developed countries; in the last five years, it has grown to double that of those under 30. People in rural areas are driving well into their 80s and 90s as train and bus services pull out of depopulating towns. This has led to an increase in traffic accidents involving drivers older than 65, even as the overall number of accidents has decreased. Last year, older drivers were involved in 55 per cent of the country's accidents, up from about 47 per cent 10 years ago.

Partly in response, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry last year launched its Safety Support Car system, which categorises safety technology on cars sold in Japan. Automakers can use the government-endorsed logo to promote vehicles; drivers can save on insurance by buying them. REUTERS