I am sure many of you are familiar with Japan’s kei-car classification, which is basically a class of car that is very small, with restrictions on engine size, power output and exterior dimensions — the purpose of which is to lessen the parking burdens of an extremely crowded place. To give people incentive to use these kei cars, they are cheaper to own, register and insure than normal size cars. This is not to be confused with the K-car, which was Chrysler’s answer to its floundering sales.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was booming and the yen was strong. This created a lot of extra cash, which caused the automakers to go a little nuts and create a round of sports cars that still fit within the kei restrictions. Mazda created the gull-winged Autozam AZ-1. Suzuki made the Cappuccino, which coincidentally was about the same size as a real cappuccino. Honda created the Beat, which, for some reason, is much less highly regarded. Now, after driving one, I’m not sure I understand why.
I recently spent the day at Carter’s Cars, a small used car dealership in South Burlington, Vermont, whose inventory includes many normal cars, but also a few cars whose parts will need to be shipped overnight from Japan. One of their more interesting cars was a 1991 Honda Beat.
But before I talk about what it was like to drive, here’s a little history. There were about 33,600 Beat models made between 1991 and 1996, and all were powered by a mid-mounted 63-horsepower 656 cc 3-cylinder engine. The Beat was the only one of the sporty kei-cars to not be turbocharged, instead using individual throttle bodies and Honda’s high RPM know-how to squeeze the same amount of power as the other guys.
As far as sizing the car up, I’ll compare it to everyone’s favorite small sports car: The NA Miata. Interestingly, the wheelbase is actually around an inch longer in the Beat (90 inches) — however, the Miata is more than two feet longer than the Beat, which is just 129.7 inches in length. This means the Beat has approach and departure angles that would make Wrangler owners happy … if only it sat a couple feet higher from the ground. It’s also about 10 inches skinnier (55 inches overall) and 400 pounds lighter, at 1,675 pounds. As I shall now demonstrate in the form of a photograph, putting them side by side makes the NA Miata look portly — and I bet you never thought you’d read that line.
Obviously, the Beat is a small car. But, amazingly, at least in terms of leg and head room, it doesn’t feel all that much smaller than the Miata. Hip room is a different story — so be mindful of that when you’re shopping for yours. Clearly, since the interior length doesn’t differ greatly from the Miata, yet the exterior dimensions do, those differences are elsewhere. And, indeed, if you open the clamshell front trunk, in lieu of storage space you’ll find things like a spare tire, fluid tanks and all the things that make the brakes work. See for yourself:
Ahh, you may be thinking, what about the trunk!? Well, like on the Acura NSX, that doubles as the hood — but it also has some storage, which is large enough for some things. As long as those "things" include no more than a small lunch for one. Or two, if you skip the drinks.
Okay, so, it’s tiny on the outside, small in the inside and you can’t bring anything with you. Since we don’t live in one of those countries where entire families travel on a single scooter in complete chaos, what good could it possibly be? I mean, it must be fast, right? Well, no, not really. I mean, it’s small and light, but 63 hp in anything bigger than a snowmobile isn’t going to concern anyone at the drag strip. So what’s the point?!
Well, I think, after several miles of driving around Burlington, I figured it out. It’s the noise. Not that it’s deafening or anything — but even when my GoPro mounted near the exhaust died, the crappy little one clipped to the neck of my t-shirt picked it up perfectly well. Now, I’m not sure whether that’s because the exhaust outlet is only a few feet away, or because the car is just loud, but you definitely hear it. It’s a cool noise too, like half of a highly strung V6 … though that might be due to the fact that’s pretty much what it is. And to top it off, it’ll happily rev all the way to 8,000 RPM.
Sadly, Burlington isn’t close enough to any of the great twisty roads in Vermont — but my short time with it would lead me to believe that’s what the Beat could be best suited for: Small, twisty roads. On the highway it feels minuscule; it twitches and buzzes, and it clearly does not want to just cruise. It begs for the back roads.
There’s no power steering, so it communicates what the tiny front tires are doing beautifully. The grip is decent and it responds to quick jabs of steering like the housefly with which it shares its exterior dimensions. The body rolls and pitches a little bit, but no worse than any other sports car from the 90s. I would love to see what this would do on a good autocross course with some sticky tires on it!
So, if your daily commute requires passage of the Tail of the Dragon, first of all, I think I’ve found your new car. As long as you’re not a salesman for Encyclopedia Brittanica or Electrolux.
Quoth the Hummer: Eek, a mouse.