Kei, short for kei jidosha (“light car”), is a certain classification of car in Japan which can’t be longer than 11.2 feet or wider than 4.9 feet. It also can’t have an engine larger than 660cc, and that engine can’t make more than 63hp. Buy one, though, and you’re rewarded with lower taxes and insurance rates, and you’re also exempt from regulations in Japan that require you have sufficient space to park it.
But with the Honda Beat, you’re rewarded with much more than that. When Honda put it on sale in 1991, it conformed to all the regulations, but Honda took every liberty they were afforded to make it into something more special. It’s a convertible of Pininfarina design, it has a mid-mounted engine with one throttle body for each of its three cylinders, and it has the distinction of being the last car personally approved for production by Soichiro Honda himself before he died.
Imagine my elation, then, when my good friends at Hi-Rev Motors said I could take their 1991 Honda Beat and drive it as my own car for a few days.
Taking care of first things first, it’s important to give perspective on the Honda Beat’s size. Park it next to a 1989 Mazda Miata, and the Miata will look, well, enormous. The Miata is only a few inches taller, but it’s over 2 feet longer and it’s nearly TWICE as wide. It also weighs over 460 lbs more.
Park the Beat next to a common American full-size SUV, and you’ll get an idea of what it would be like to park Pluto next to Jupiter.
The Beat’s size poses a unique set of challenges for a driver in an American metropolis. I don’t ride motorcycles, but I now understand the motorcyclist’s mentality of “just assume you’re invisible.” After several buses cut right in front of me as they re-entered traffic, I decided to drive it with the lights on all the time. The buses bring up another point as well: driving a Beat in America will force you to learn courtesy and humility on the road. Absolutely everything is bigger and more intimidating than you are.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll let you in. Go ahead. Oh, you’re confused by the car. Well, yes, it’s very small, and the steering wheel’s on the wrong side, but I really need you to go, ma’am, before the Kia Soul behind me monster trucks over me.”
Don’t plan on bringing a whole lot of stuff with you, either, because there aren’t many places to store it. There is no frunk, really; the spare tire, jack and tools takes up pretty much the whole thing. There’s no center console or pockets in the doors, either. There is a glovebox which is truer to its name than any other glovebox I’ve ever seen, there’s a small compartment behind the passenger seat which is big enough for storing the car’s documents, and there’s a shelf in the engine compartment which is big enough for three gallons of milk. But I wouldn’t advise using it for milk, because it will be hot and spoiled by the time you get it home. The most amount of room is actually the space behind the seats where the top resides when it’s down, which would be enough space to store a weekend’s worth of clothes for one person.
However, my fear that, at 6’2″, I would only be able to drive it with the top down and my head sticking out above the windshield was unwarranted. In fact, when I did put the top up and latched it in place, I had about an inch between my head and the top, and my extremities actually had the necessary space to operate the pedals and the gearshift and the steering wheel. In a car as microscopic as the Beat, that’s simply miraculous.
Pushing right up against the limits of the kei regulations, the Beat’s MTREC (Multi Throttle Responsive Engine Control) 3cyl engine displaces 656cc and makes the full 63hp and 44 ft-lbs of torque. I didn’t have the opportunity to run acceleration tests, but one run through the gears makes it unequivocally clear that the Beat is not a fast car in a straight line. At all. It may only weigh 1,675 lbs, but 63hp is still 63hp. If you’re about to merge onto an interstate, be prepared to drive 10/10ths; foot to the floor and wind it out to the 8500-rpm redline through every gear. Furthermore, the gearing is so short that you’ll be over 5,000 rpm by the time you get to 60mph, in 5th gear. So, if you’re planning on going on a long trip at that speed, you’ll have that little engine screaming away just a couple inches behind you the entire time.
Taking the Beat through a few corners is another strange sensation to an American. The steering is without question the quickest in any car I’ve ever driven, and the mid-mounted engine and super short wheelbase means it changes directon almost too quickly. Once you take a corner, you will come to fully understand the size difference between it and your car. In fact, I hereby swear I will never describe any other car I drive from now on as handling like a go-cart, because the Beat is the only one that really, truly does.
I’ve driven plenty of cars with manual steering before, so I know how difficult it can be. In those cars, it was an absence of a luxury that you learned to live without. But turning the wheel in the Beat is met with about the same amount of resistance as turning the wheel in a normal car with power steering. The Beat lacks power steering not for improvement of feel or keeping costs down. It lacks power steering because it’s just not necessary.
The front MacPherson struts and the multi-link setup in the back is a very sophisticated suspension for such a small, cheap car, and the four-wheel disc brakes are also way more than it could ever need. It could handle and brake adequately with leaf springs and drum brakes just by virtue of its size. The tires are rather skinny, so there isn’t that much actual grip, and the same short wheelbase and mid-engined layout that make it change directions so fast make it just a little bit twitchy at the edge of adhesion. But that’s what I love about cars like this: its limits are your limits. If you have the fortitude and the skill, you can brake late, turn in late, and carry an extraordinarily high speed through corners just as you would expect from a tiny, featherweight sports car. Just like the original Mini or a Lotus Elise, the Beat fully compensates for its lack of power with absurd speed through the twisty stuff.
So, the Beat’s handling and athleticism is on a level with the best sports cars in the world. But, like the best sports cars in the world, it’s best as a weekend or recreational car. It’s just as impractical, and though you can probably get 50mpg out of it, the 6.3 gallon fuel tank means you’ll be filling it up just as often, even if it only costs you $10. It’s hopeless to try to elbow your way through American traffic, and it is always, always loud. It’s loud when you’re sitting at idle, it’s loud when you’re leaving your neighborhood, and trying to have a conversation with your passenger at highway speeds? Your voice will be gone just as quickly as your hearing.
However, using every one of the Beat’s 63hp just to lose a merging battle with a Ford Focus is one of the most fulfilling automotive experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. You might think that a 3-cyl engine with barely more displacement than a 20oz bottle of soda would be about as euphonic as an electric can opener. Yet those individual throttle bodies and the short, stubby exhaust give the Beat an uproarious, menacing sound. It’s worth being patient for momentum to build up just to hear its determination to do so.
The word “visceral” is often used to describe minimalist sports cars, but there are few cars in automotive history where the word “visceral” is more apropos than this one.
But there’s still more than just the sound, or the handling, or its raw nature. Despite what Western automotive press would have you believe about Japanese cars, the Honda Beat really does have a soul.
I have never felt a car take to an otherwise menial task of merging onto an interstate with such enthusiasm and spirit. It’s like watching a newborn puppy running as fast as it can across your yard after the tennis ball you just threw. An adult dog could do it much more quickly without nearly as much effort, and would rather just go lay back down anyway. But it is the greatest joy that little puppy could ever possibly know.
I gave the Beat back to Hi-Rev Motors feeling like that, like it was just ecstatic that it got a chance to show me what it could do. I felt like I gave it just as good of a time as it gave me.
Thanks for reading Boosted News… keep your brakes cool and your passion hot!