We Drive the Honda N-BOX Slash, Japan’s Bestselling Kei Car
The Slash is how the N-BOX gets funky. Really.
In Japan, kei cars reign supreme. In fact, this government-regulated segment made up around a third of all new-car sales there last year, as people switch from larger vehicles to smaller, more cost-effective ones. The bestselling kei car? You're looking at it: the brilliantly named Honda N-BOX.
Kei-car regulations stipulate that no model can exceed 133.85 inches in length, 58.26 inches in width, or 78.74 inches in height, and they must be powered by engines that displace 660cc. Maximum output is 64 horsepower. Beyond their obvious aesthetic, kei cars are further distinguished by special yellow license plates (conventional cars in Japan have white ones). As long as the cars fall within these guidelines, the sky is the limit to what a manufacturer can produce, although boxes are particularly popular as a way to maximize the cars' small footprints.
What It Is
The model you see here is actually the Honda N-BOX Slash, a sort of sloping roof variant of the N-BOX intended to attract younger buyers who might prefer its funkier design. It comes in a range of bright colors and offers several unique wheel choices, but it still holds very much true to its name. It's literally a box on wheels—and a practical one at that.
Honda's kei cars are considered to be slightly more premium than rival vehicles from Daihatsu, Suzuki, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, and it shows. Most kei cars fall into the cost-cutting trap of having nice materials up front but fitting cheap plastics in the rear, but Honda's use of soft-touch materials extends to all seating areas. The N-BOX offers plenty of uplevel feature content, too, including automatic braking at low speeds, a backup camera, automatic headlights, Apple CarPlay, and even heated seats.
It also has clever rear seats that can fold flat, turning the N-BOX Slash into a proper load-lugging van. Or the rear seat bottom can fold up like that in the Honda Fit to allow for hauling taller items like potted plants or maybe Chiitan.
As with all kei cars, the N-BOX Slash is powered by a 64-hp 660cc three-cylinder gas engine, with the addition of a turbocharger delivering low-down oomph. All N-BOX Slashes come equipped with a CVT automatic; Honda doesn't cite any official zero-to-62-mph time, but let's just say it's possible. The top speed marked on the speedometer is 140 kph (87 mph), but, well, that's mostly theoretical. While the small engine is economical—I averaged about 35 mpg—you really have to be on the throttle at all times to get it going.
How It Drives
Despite its rakish roofline, the Slash is still quite a tall thing with a narrow body and even narrower tires. The maximized wheelbase helps with stability, sure, but it's not a car you'd want or expect to be sporty in any sense. What it is, though, is smooth and solid. This feels like a proper car, and with a blindfold on—in the passenger seat, please—you'd be forgiven for believing you were in a conventional Honda hatchback. Whereas most tall kei cars struggle with being pushed around by crosswinds at higher speeds, the N-BOX Slash feels reassuringly stable. It's also quite refined and quiet as long as you don't stray too much over the national speed limit of 60 kph (37 mph)—not that you really want to.
Around town and on small country roads is where the N-BOX Slash really shines, and it's these places where kei cars make sense. They're small and nimble, perfect for squeezing through small Japanese villages, and to make things easier, there's a switch to make the steering effort even lighter. As kei cars are driven by everyone from young families to seniors, this feature is a thoughtful touch.
Would It Work in the U.S.?
Kei cars work in Japan because of the cost benefits that they bring, such as lower taxes, insurance savings, and road-toll benefits. In large cities like Tokyo, before you can even buy a proper car you need proof that you have a parking space where you can keep it. You don't need to do so with a kei car.
There are several markets where kei cars have been exported, including countries in Europe and parts of Asia, but there's almost no chance the N-BOX or any of its variants would ever be more than a sideshow in the U.S., except perhaps in a few hyperdense urban areas.
It's easy to see why the N-BOX is the bestselling kei car in Japan, as it feels much more grown up and "real" than other offerings for not much more money. The top-spec version I tested comes in at just ¥1,900,000 ($17,500) even with all the bells and whistles. Factor in the lower running costs, and it's a winner.