Even in the remotest backwater of Japan where we've been for the last two weeks, the popularity of tiny, square city-friendly cars is startling. Easily 25-30% of the cars on the road here in Shikoku are what's known as '1-box' or '2-box' models. 1-boxes have plenty of room for four people, and not much else, while 2-boxes often have decent storage/luggage space in the back. A couple are even minivan-like in their spaciousness.
I started calling these things toasters, but their shape--especially the 2-boxes--is more accurately described as bread-like. Loaves of Japanese bread are unsettlingly perfect cubes, with the heels removed.
The 1-box cincept isn't new, or even limited to Japan. 20 years ago, the Honda City started a micromini boom in Japan, and the excellent Mercedes A-class has been selling well in Europe for five years or so (and which I'd buy in a second). [The beautiful-to-me all aluminum Audi A2 hasn't done as well, but I used in my first short film anyway.] And of course, there's the Smart Car, which Trent Lott mocked on the Senate floor. [There are so many Smart-like cars now, it'd make Lott's blood run cold, if he had any, that is.
Still, except for the Honda Element and Toyota's new Scion/b,none of these cars will ever make it to the US, which is too bad. A surprise to me was how well designed the Daihatsu and Suzuki boxes are. Daihatsu's a 5th tier failure in the US, with their boring, personality-free, cookie cutter compacts, yet they're apparently pursuing a differentiation-through-design strategy at home. Why not become a quirky-cool alternative brand and leave the me-too Toyota-chasing to the Koreans?
I'll throw up some more pictures when I can. In the mean time, here's a quick spotter's guide, with links to the Japanese manufacturers' sites:
Suzuki Lapin (Note to Suzuki: VW did well in the US with a Rabbit. -g.) [oops. A Suzuki, but not the Lapin. Let me find that pic.]
Honda Mobilio Toyota Scion/b (called the Toyota b/B in Japan) Nissan Cube (a prescient name; the earlier models weren't cube-like or asymmetrical) Daihatsu Naked (a favorite. 1/10th the size of a Hummer, yet just as suggestively named. Although for that hook-up-now AOL chatroom feeling, nothing beats the Mitsubishi Toppo-BJ.)