Here I am testing out a Lilliputian Kei car from Gullivers stables of Monteros, Eclipse Crosses and Xpanders at United Motors in the form of the Mitsubishi eK wagon. Kei cars are all the rage in Sri Lanka after the customs duties were based on engine capacity and hence diminutive engines became the preferred choice and the Kei cars so named after the Japanese term Keijidosha, (light automobile) have taken over our roads in swarms. The kei or micro mini cars were invented in Japan just after World War II when steel and other metal were scarce after heavy usage to manufacture tanks and ammunition and as an alternative mode of transport to the motorcycle.
The first four wheel alternative called the kei car was invented in 1949 a full ten years before Alec Issigonis invented the popular Mini. Over the years the engine size of Kei cars grew from a paltry 100cc to the current limit of 660cc and 64 bhp of power, which is the maximum permitted in Japan. Additionally they cannot exceed 3490mm in Length and 1490mm in width with a height limit of 1990mm which accounts for their breadbox design and shape.
The eK wagon is really not a wagon but a 5 door hatch back and comes directly from Japan. It conforms to all the traits that we have got accustomed to from this class of car and looks quite smart but very generic in comparison to the other offerings from its competitors. The dual slat grille with the three diamond logo and the two large multi reflector halogen head lamps dominates the rather clean front devoid of under bumper fog lights. The car looks simple in its side profile due to the lack of the now must-have alloy wheels.
The plastic wheel covers on steels shod with 155/65 x 14 Maxiis rubber, don’t do any favors. I wonder why Unimo did not think of importing the new Dynamic shield design fronted version eK custom that’s available or even the eKX version which looks fabulous, as I am sure there would not have been much difference in cost as the engine sizes are the same. In such a critical market segment, looks do matter to bolster the bottom line.
This one certainly looks tame compared to the styling efforts on the Eclipse and Xpander. However this is a very price sensitive segment of the market and even a Rs 100,000 difference could make or break a sale, so I am sure better wisdom than mine would have prevailed with the Unimo marketing boffins, to have opted for this model.
An oddity is the roof antenna which is mounted just above the right rear window as opposed to the centre of the roof, which is the preferred perch. The asymmetry of this mounting doesn’t lend much to the looks and may even pose a problem to those wishing to mount a roof rack to compensate for the spartan load lugging capacity (more on that and the reason why, in the “Living With the eK Wagon” section.
Mech & Tech
If the styling was not on cue, well the tech has certainly advanced as this offering is a really good alternative to those who have developed an anxiety syndrome with Hybrids due to the high cost of battery replacement and also a phobia on the maintenance of the highly sophisticated hybrid electronic componentry. This is a good old, tried and tested, three cylinder DOHC 12 valve engine fitted with MIVEC, which is Mitsubishi speak for variable valve timing. The engine is coupled to a newly developed constantly variable wide ratio transmission (CVT), which is coupled to a high efficiency oil pump and a lower friction belt which is claimed to provide better acceleration and lower fuel consumption. The normally aspirated 658 cc engine develops 49bhp at 6,500 rpm and 56Nm of torque at 5,000rpm and sits as snug as a bug in a rug in its tiny cosy engine bay.
The steering is a three spoke polyurethane one with electric assistance to its rack. The suspension is the traditional Mc Pherson strut for the front with a three link, torque arm get up for the rear.
Entry and exit are top notch in this car as the doors open by ninety degrees and the seats are placed high so you just step inside. There are features in this car that would drive many a car in higher categories, even in the semi luxury sector to shame. Case in point are the two front seats; the seat squabs are probably the best my butt has experienced in quite a while, they are so thick, plush and wide that it’s a joy to plonk on them. Once settled and the engine brought to life, you realize that for a three cylinder 660cc unit the engine is remarkably quiet and vibration free. The gear selector is not floor mounted but dash mounted to liberate space, but to select the gears intuitively without looking at the dash indicator is a bit confusing as the almost vertical movement of the lever instead of the customary horizontal movement does not lend to a nice click and most often when you change from neutral to drive you end up in low and vice versa.
On the move the engine is quite happy to chug along at modest speeds and is happiest around 3000rpm to my seasoned ear, as no tacho is on offer. At these speeds the car is quiet and comfortable, moves along with nary a complaint and takes bumps, ridges and minor pot holes in its stride. The suspension is pretty compliant and accommodating for a small car and provides great damping to make it a comfortable little cruiser.
However if you want to gather pace I suggest you open the taps gradually as the CVT box does not like rough riders. If you do metal the pedal, the engine reacts loudly and starts screaming as if in pain and progress is very slow and incremental and in the absence of a tacho the driver would not know when to ease up on the torture pedal. I think this little engine likes to be treated gently to coax the best out of it. Overtaking at high speeds is best not attempted, but I am sure you do not buy a Kei car to engage in expressway theatrics or traffic light grand prix. So give this engine the respect it deserves and it will reward you with a nice comfortable quiet ride. The brakes are quite adequate and with the available power you can throw the car into corners without ever slowing down and it just goes along with a bit of body roll and tyre squeal, the ASC helping it along and keeping understeer to almost a minimum.
No acceleration figures are quoted for the 100kmh sprint by the manufacturer and we couldn’t put a clock to it either, but trawling through the internet I gathered that it is a rather pedestrian 21.1 and the quoted top speed is an adequate 140kmh, which should permit cruising the highways at the legal limit. This little gem’s talents are space and economy and would be a great run about for the daily urban crawl. The 4.4 metre turning radius is another useful and fabulous feature that would appeal to our U turn obsessed motorists, not to mention the taxi mafia who would love this. 4.4 metre turning radius means you can U turn on a 30 ft road easily.
Living with the eK Wagon
For a small family on the move this would be a great car to have. The front seats whilst being the most commodious and comfortable ones I have sat on for quite a while have the unique position of being conjoined at the squabs like Siamese twins hence it takes the form of a front bench and with the flat floor space generated in the middle by moving the gear selector to the dash, you can carry a kid or a petite adult in an emergency, though I am not sure about its legality as there is no third seat belt. Mitsubishi certainly intended the third person option as they relocated the parking brake to the floor near the pedal box as well, which reminded me of those very early Mercedes cars which had the foot operated parking brakes. Another ergonomic feature is the provision of a central armrest again thick and padded so that both the driver and the passenger can have a really relaxed lounge poise whilst cruising. The seats have fabulous head and leg room which surpass even compact luxury cars and luxury compact SUVs. The rear doors and seats too are the same and leg and head room is fabulous with the flat floor aiding. Even with the front seat fully back I was able to totally stretch my 6-foot frame with my legs fully stretched as the raised bottom of the front seats provide ample room under seat, for feet even with oversized runners, absolutely stunning. You can even cross your legs with your foot on your knee at the back. I don’t think I have ever come across any car in this size or even one or two segments higher in which this antic could be tried.
Of course the downside of all this creature space is that there is hardly any boot space, probably enough for one hard case placed upright with two soft duffle bags and there is no spare, but a tool pack with patch kit and pump are provided for emergencies. The rear split seat back falls flat to provide additional cargo space if needed. All doors have cup holders and oddment spaces abound.
The fit and feel of the interior is very spartan with hard plastics all over the only redeeming contrast being the piano black plastic console and door handle inserts. At first glance I was even doubting whether this was indeed a Japanese offering, but then realisation dawned on me as to how much car technology has progressed and that the difference at the budget end between the Japanese and the rest of the world’s car makers especially from Asia are almost negligible now.
Even though the brochure provided by Unimo states that the climate control is a touch panel version, the one in the test car was the manual rotary dial version, which is no big deal, and I must say that the air distribution and cooling efficiency was Arctic in nature, top marks then. The UV controlled privacy glass all-round sure helps, I guess. The wide 2 DIN display panel on the infotainment system is touch activated and controls the boom box functions and phone connectivity and broadcasts via four speakers. The windows are all electric with one touch for driver door and the mirrors are full electric and retractable.
It is also no secret that a bulk of the kei car buyers are females and the manufacturer unashamedly panders to that by providing a vanity mirror only for the driver and a space for hand bag placement hook under dash. The unusual beige urethane steering has electric assistance and is a breeze to steer and would appeal to the ladies immensely.
If you believe the news reports, you may wonder what kind of safety Kei cars offer. They actually offer a fair bit of safety – more so than some other cars in our market and on our roads that hail from other countries. In fact, some of the grey import Kei cars are a “bit too safe for their own good” on our Sri Lankan roads – radar braking for example tends to get befuddled with our traffic, causing a sudden stop and a bang as the tailgating guy behind slams into you! That’s why authorized agent imported Kei cars like this and the WagonR don’t have it installed for our market.
The eK wagon has the usual complement of two airbags, automatic stability control (ASC), reverse camera and rear wiper to aid rearwards vision. The rear seat backs also come with soft padding and fabric covers for added knee protection. Of course, all the safety kit in the world is useless if the driver possesses a high level of “idiot factor”.
Fuel Econ & Price
The quoted consumption is 21km/litre and coupled with a 30 litre fuel tank, stops at the petrol pumps may be a rare occurrence. The low friction engine is designed to run on 90 octane petrol, so ones burden on the wallet and credit card would be minimal as would the Servicing costs as the engine oil requirement is only a measly three litres per oil change.
The price quoted is Rs 3,490,000/= and is slap bang in the middle of all its competitors, from franchised agents offerings and the gray market offers, with a 40,000 kilometre / two-year (whichever occurs first) warranty.
The big four Kei car makers in Japan are Honda, Daihatsu, Suzuki and Mitsubishi and all the Nissan Kei cars are badge engineered versions made by Mitsubishi. This same car under test is also offered by Nissan with an altered grille and front, called Dayz.
The EK Wagon is boxing in a very competitive field where price and economy plays a very vital part. The hybrids attract a slightly lower duty, hence in the price war it will have to compete with the hybrids. However to its credit, it is a normally aspirated regular engine, hence offers an alternative to the buyers to consider. Once customers are past the price, one would be well advised to look at the agent reputation and the warranty. Here Unimo has a rock solid reputation for reliability and availability of spares etc, and the warranty offered which grey imports don’t offer. To my mind 40,000 kilometres is a very generous mileage for two years and would be far in excess of the needs of a regular family with urban motoring needs.
For a small car there is a choice of nine colours which is rare and offers some female friendly funky colors in retina soothing Coral pink, water blue and an eye piercing citrus yellow, go check them out and be dazzled.
Direct injection, turbo
49bhp @ 6,500rpm
56Nm @ 5,000rpm
Front wheel drive
Front Vent. Disc
Wheels & Tyres
0-100km/h in 21.1s
Top Speed 140km/h
Kerb Weight 790kg
Fuel Tank 30L