The Honda N Box is Japan's best-selling kei car, and is underpinning the firm's current upturn in financial fortunes

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Japan’s best selling kei car. Around one-third of the cars sold in Japan are kei cars, size restricted vehicles that attract favourable toll and tax breaks in the largest cities.

The main restrictions are in length (3.4m), width (1.48m) and height (2m). Engine size is also restricted to a maximum of 660cc and 63bhp.

You can’t buy an N Box, unless you live in Japan, in which case you are probably already trying to get one

Around 20,000 Honda N Boxes are sold each month. The car is also noteworthy for having been commissioned by ambitious Honda boss Takanobu Ito, and its success is credited with forming part of the bedrock that is allowing the company’s more forward-thinking plans now.

It sits on a bespoke platform, the investment in which goes some way to explaining Honda’s ambitious plans to spin-off more kei car products in the near future, including a roadster successor to the iconic but slow-selling Honda Beat.

The N Box is available in front and four-wheel drive (adding 60kg and seems unnecessary given the car's urban credentials), with three trim levels on offer. We tested a mid-spec GL version with a CVT box. 

As well as the Honda N Box, buyers can choose the Honda N Box Plus, which is built for additional practicality, and has features including a rear ramp, and the Honda N Box Custom, which allows buyers to customise the colours and trims of their vehicles.

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From the outside, it looks – as you’d imagine – like it has been built to a set of tight dimensional rules. The end result is odd, quirky, charming or a combination of the three. Whatever your opinion, you can’t argue at the veracity of the name, as it’s certainly boxy.

Unsurprisingly, Honda has tried to make the most of the kei car dimension regulations. The N Box is 3395mm long, 1475mm wide and and 1770mm high. The engine and ancillaries are contained under a tightly packed bonnet, ensuring the cabin is as long as possible.

Inside, the cabin is decent, but clearly built to a price. The dash and its layout are intuitive and suitably modern, but the hard plastics are unremitting. The seats, however, are comfortable and supportive.

The rear is surprisingly spacious, thanks to the flat floor and a rear bench that slides. At its most spacious, the rear cabin space rivals that available in many luxury cars, although this limits space in the boot. Practicality has also been given a priority, with the rear doors sliding open and shut at the touch of a button, and the cabin majoring on storage cubbies.

Biggest surprise, though, is the performance available. The 57bhp 658cc engine may only deliver peak torque of 48lb ft, and then only from 3500rpm, but it is enough to get the 930kg N Box around town with more than enough verve to keep up with the flow. Inevitably, it becomes strained and noisy up the rev range, but there are very few occasions when you actually need to stretch the car in an urban environment, meaning you are usually accompanied by nothing more than a slight and appealing thrum. 

Fuel economy and emissions are decent, despite the obvious aero drawbacks and the standard CVT gearshift. On the Japanese official cycle the car records 68.2mpg and 95g/km, with stop-start helping keep the figures on the right side of impressive.

While the steering is never anything but remote, the N Box does ride and handle with a suppleness that suits its urban brief. Even the worst potholes are well damped. The turning circle is almost noteworthy. Although Honda couldn't provide a specific figure, suffice to say that it puts you in mind of a Black Cab.

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It’s easy to imagine the Honda N Box could quickly acquire a cult following if it was sold here, and it is comfortably more practical and appealing than the Nissan Cube, which made a shortlived and little loved attempt at European sales a few years ago.

For now, exchange rates preclude any export plans, but we live in hope that the kei car doesn’t remain the preserve of Japan, especially with the prospect of a rear-drive roadster in the works.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.