The very small next big thing in cars

(CBS News) TOKYO - The new big thing in automobile design is very, very small.

Japanese automakers are developing 'microcars' that fit a driver - and the driver only.

They see a growing market among older drivers, in a country with the highest percentage of elderly in the world.

When retiree Masao Suzuki gets behind the wheel these days, he zips himself into a pod-like vehicle that's so snug, there's only room for him.

About the size of a golf cart, the slim, aluminum-frame Toyota concept car can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

"Compared to my motorcycle, it's more stable, because it has four wheels. And you don't get drenched when it rains," Suzuki said.

Suzuki, 64 years old, says he rarely needs to travel more than a few miles from home. His microcar -- which Toyota is testing -- is environmentally friendly and fun.

"It runs on electricity so I never have to go to the gas station. And since it's a one-seater, it's great on tight turns," Suzuki said.

For a glimpse of the future, CBS News took a quick spin around the neighborhood in a pint-sized electric concept vehicle made by Nissan. The no-frills car is a bit bumpy and chilly for a winter day, but it had no trouble keeping up with traffic.

The beauty of an ultracompact car is you can stash it just about anywhere without breaking a sweat.

One-quarter of Japan's population is over 65. Nissan general manager Eiji Makino says ultracompacts are tailor-made for them.

"Elder people, basically they give up driving the vehicle, but this is tiny, and easy to operate, that people, elder people want to drive," Makino said.

Expected to retail for less than $10,000 each, the tiny Nissans, and an array of other cars, are being tested by Japanese carmakers. If Japan's government approves, cheap ultra-compact cars could be puttering down Japanese streets in the next few years.

  • Lucy Craft

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