In what could be the first step toward preparing the Korean market for a new replacement for the highly popular Matiz, GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co. sends 80 owners of the small car to Japan to familiarize them with the Kei car culture.

Kei cars are a class of minicars that enjoy special taxation and parking privileges in Japan because of their high fuel economy and small size.

Last week, a GMDAT team took eight brightly painted Matiz models by ferry from Busan, South Korea, to the Japanese port of Shimonoseki.

Once there, the vehicles commingled with a fleet of 30 Japanese Kei cars, including the Daihatsu Move and Mira hatchbacks. Twenty Japanese small-car enthusiasts joined the Matiz owners, and the combined vehicle fleet was driven in two 186-mile (300-km) legs to the cities of Kumamoto and Oita.

“In Japan, minicars account for 35% of the total market with products powered by engines in the (0.6L) range, while our Matiz has a larger (0.8L) engine,” Rick Labelle, GMDAT vice president-commercial operations, tell Ward’s. “We expect more people to gain an appreciation for economical and fuel-efficient products that are ideal in this age of high oil prices.”

While the primary mission wasn’t to market the Matiz in Japan, “our pink Matiz was a big hit with the Japanese enthusiasts,” Labelle says.

The replacement for the Matiz is due in 2009 and could be modeled on the Chevrolet Beat concept vehicle, one of three minicars GMDAT showed at this year’s New York and Frankfurt auto shows.

However, the Beat featured a 1.2L engine, while its sister vehicles, the Trax and Groove, were shown with 1.0L mills – all bigger than the current 0.8L 3-cyl. engine that powers the Matiz II.

GMDAT maintains a close relationship with Matiz owners and supports several enthusiast groups that operate their own websites, Labelle says.

“Their high numbers reflect our success in selling more than 500,000 Matiz units since the introduction of the globally popular car in 1998,” he says.