The added dimensions allowed for roomier cabins, more bells and whistles and sturdier frames. The latter was crucial in helping allay consumer concerns that the whole car could end up a crumple-zone in a crash.
Suzuki's Wagon R has not only been Japan's best-selling minicar for the past three years, it has been the country's best-selling car, period -- even outselling Toyota's universally adored Corolla.
Typical of modern minicar styling, the Wagon R looks like a shrunken-down four-door minivan balanced on pie tin wheels, and is disproportionately tall for its length. The maxed-out passenger compartment nearly overwhelms the chassis, and the hood is compressed into a pug-nose to further save space.
Indeed, gone is the 1980s heyday of Japan's booming bubble economy, when looks mattered more than utility and customers were prepared to shell out big time for a little highway cachet, particularly if it involved a German import.
"Japanese thinking about driving cars has changed a lot," said Kentaro Nakata, spokesman for the Japan Automobile Dealers Association. "It's no longer a big status symbol. It's more about getting from place to place."
Some analysts predict that minicars may eventually catch on in developing economies like India and China, or even be manufactured there. Suzuki is already making slightly larger cars in India based on its minicar technology. It experimented with limited exports to Britain of an open-topped sportster called the Cappuccino in the 1990s, a venture that mostly flopped.
"We have no plans to sell the minicar overseas as it is," Suzuki spokesman Yoichi Kojima said.
Japanese minicars are sold mostly in Japan. Partly because profit margins are so low, it's not cost-effective to ship them abroad.
Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG is hoping to sell its own minicar, the tiny two-seat Smart car, in the US next year. But some observers doubt whether US drivers -- used to big, open highways -- are ready for such a radical revolution in size and horsepower.
"The minicar is one or two sizes below the compact," JD Power's Ogawa said. "American consumers would probably perceive the minicar as a kind of toy."