1989 Daihatsu Charade

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Los Angeles Times

What do we have to kick around now that the bloc-built Yugo is in neutral pending the outcome of its bankruptcy filing and five months of financial perestroika?

The new Volkswagen Jetta has to be a contender. It will be sold as a diesel, for heaven's sake, a form of wheezy propulsion where the only real success stories have involved London taxi cabs and RTD buses.

Faint, Faint Praise

The Chrysler-Maserati TC could be another perfect scapegoat. It has received more bad reviews than "Howard the Duck." Even Vogue magazine (whose auto critics have been known to ignore the engine size, handling, suspension and braking systems of test cars) had difficulty praising the TC but did note "the paint job is good."

Then there's the Daihatsu Charade. It looks like a Mini Cooper in a soap bubble. Get hit by one of these--to filch that immortal line by columnist J.J. Hunsecker in "Sweet Smell of Success"--and you're taken to the hospital to have it removed. As its prototype, Daihatsu used a pedal car.

The final giggle: The 16-valve 1989 Daihatsu CLS sells for a base $7,097, less than the sticker on a gold Rolex.

But here's where things start getting serious.

At that price, the Charade is in bumper-to-bumper competition with the Ford Festiva, the Honda Civic, the Toyota Tercel, the Mazda 323 and a nursery of minis selling in the tiny ballpark of $8,000.

In this little league, however, the Charade clearly is bursting to the front as a charming, sophisticated scrambler reflecting one company's belief that a small, inexpensive car does not have to drive like an upholstered skateboard.

Below-Quota Sales

Last year, Daihatsu sold 15,000 Charades in the United States, 3,000 less than its quota but not bad at all for its first year in the marketplace. And that was for a 1-liter, 3-cylinder, 53-horsepower Charade that was so spitless it didn't come with automatic transmission because that wouldn't have left enough power to drive the cigarette lighter.

This year, Daihatsu is predicting a quota sellout of 20,000 units and 45% of those will be the new Charade with an additional cylinder, a multivalve engine and 80 horsepower. That, company spokesmen say, is more than enough to handle automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering--and that cigarette lighter.

Dick Brown, executive vice president of Los Alamitos-based Daihatsu America Inc., believes that today's car buyers are tapped out. Years of discount financing and cash rebates have seduced motorists into buying cars they really couldn't afford. Extended loan repayment periods are keeping buyers out of the car market for up to 60 months.

The corollary is that industry sales projections are down while inventories are up.

"The string has run out on cash-backs and five-year financing," Brown says, and in this "(market) correction period . . . people are look ing for a more affordable car."

True, they are looking at the Charade--but also at the aforementioned tiny Toyotas, Hondas, Fords, Mazdas et al.

What will separate the bought from the barely considered, Brown believes, will be the mini-car where low price does not include "the sacrifice of quality, prestige and performance . . . and that's our strategy."

So what do you get for your $7,097 these days?

In the new Charade CLS you get, of course, a grown-up multivalve engine with electronic fuel injection.

Also disc brakes up front, a three-speed automatic or a fingertip-slick five-speed, the fuel economy of a Zippo lighter and a full list of the little things--fabric seats, rear-window defogger, cut pile carpeting, vanity mirrors on both visors, full instrumentation including tachometer, remote fuel door and hatch release and reclining bucket seats.

But these are simple trappings, albeit conveniences that indeed elevate the Charade fro some in the contemporary herd of stripped-out shoe boxes where wheels may be considered factory options.

The Power Pedigree

Of somewhat greater importance is the car's Power Pedigree--an evaluation by industry analysts J.D. Power & Associates of Agoura Hills.

Last year, a Power survey showed the Charade (and we're talking the 1-liter little fella here) to be the most mechanically trouble-free car in its mini-car class. This year, its owner satisfaction index among all nameplates rose to99.2%, placing Daihatsu second to Porsche and ahead of BMW. The closest mini-car manufacturer was Honda, in fifth place with 97.7%.

The Charade certainly is a car that should satisfy any customer willing to scrunch down his or her ambitions a tad. In it, you are not going to be wrapped in leather and sniffing real walnut. You will be slaughtered at stop lights and by most pickups. Despite Brown's partisan faith in retention of prestige, nobody is going to look at a Daihatsu and presume your other car is anything but an elderly motor scooter.

Surprise and Mischief

The payoff, however, is with a scurrying performance profile that most certainly is reminiscent of all the surprise and mischief that once came with the British Mini Coopers.

Remember those quarts in pint tankards? They were 10 feet long, rose knee-high to a belly button but hauled four adults and a case of Watney's.

On wheels no larger than jelly doughnuts, Minis took sedan championships from England's Mallory Park to Canada's Mosport and won the vaunted Monte Carlo Rally outright.

Scoot around a corner in a Charade and a similar crispness is there. The car stays light but tight in lane; this is what front-wheel drive is supposed to do. With no great weight to retard steering and adhesion, the Charade's little wheels bite down and dig out and it's through on the inside leaving others to wonder where you went.

A Few Reservations

That same darting but safe shifting of pace and direction is with the Charade under freeway conditions--remembering, of course, that it's still Only a 1.3-liter motor car and power doesn't come on quite so plentifully when pace picks up in the fast lane.

There's ample space for the long-legged and tall-hatted but precious little room in the trunk for anything larger than John McEnroe's tennis duffel. From this, one deduces that the Charade was not designed for long and high-speed touring. Some hours spent on Interstate 10 listening to its6,000-r.p.m. buzzing confirmed that assumption.

So see the Charade as an ideal, personable commuter car or an adjunct to more serious transportation--as an inflatable rubber boat performs harbor errands for its parent yacht.

The car is not flawless. Seat belts are a clumsy arrangement requiring separate latching for lap and shoulder straps. Wheel covers are basic plastic plates be gging to be chewed by standard height curbs. Rear seat comfort will depend on the size of the dog.

A Consoling Combination

But irritation wanes when one considers the ultimate consolation: spending less than $8,000 (the annual cost of insuring a Rolls-Royce these days) on a pleasurable, quick little car that can motor for 400 miles between fill-ups.

This price-performance-economy quotient is a norm for Daihatsu of Osaka, Japan, a respected specialist in small vehicle production for more than 80 years.

Daihatsu isn't quite as well known in the United States.

Recently, after one full year in business here, its public identity was measured.

"We found that only 6% of the car-buying public know we exist," Brown reported.

But like the parlor game, once meaning is realized, a Charade is no longer a mystery.

1989 Daihatsu Charade CLS

The Good A little engine that can. Handling for enthusiast . Maximum quality for price. J.D.Power seal of approval.

The Bad Minimum trunk space. Rube Goldberg restraint system. Knees-up rear seats.

The Ugly Plastic wheel covers stay scarred and scruffy after first scuffing.

Cost Base: $7,097. As tested: $7,637.

Engine Four cylinders, 1.3 liters, 16 valves, developing 80 horsepower.

Performance 0-60, as tested: 12.4 seconds. Top speed, manufacturer's claim: 95 m.p.h. Fuel economy: 38 city, 42 highway.

Curb Weight 1,850 pounds.

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