SOME CARS ARE as distinct as music: say, the difference between Cafe Noir and some local band doing a bad imitation of Metallica.
Cafe Noir, a jazz quartet we stumbled upon in Dallas, plays sweet, haunting stuff. Hear it and you know you’ve heard something special.
Local rockers, of whom we heard more than our share at auto dealer convention receptions in Dallas, are something else. They screech and squeal from one “song” to another, evoking memories of even noisier cars, such as the one-liter, three-cylinder, three-door 1992 Daihatsu Charade SE hatchback I drove before heading down to Texas.
To say that the little car was awful is to do it a disservice. In the matters of fuel economy and basic, bare-bones transportation, it hit certain notes right. But, ooohhh, it was so horribly basic!
You could hear the road quite clearly in the Charade SE. The crank windows sounded as if they were being raised and lowered by metal pulleys. The car’s five-speed manual transmission was the most manual of any manual gearbox I’ve ever driven. You had to work at it.
Ah, but the four-door, 16-valve, four-cylinder 1992 Charade SX! That was Cafe Noir! I could listen to that group all night and drive the Charade SX just as long. It’s a harmony thing. You know it when you feel it.
Background: Daihatsu, of Osaka, Japan, is best known in America for its industrial Hijet off-road vehicles, seen on many construction sites out west. But since 1988, the company also has been trying to sell cars in America; it’s been having a rough go of it, partly because of the lousy national economy and partly because Daihatsu is not exactly a household name among U.S. consumers.
That’s too bad. Because, despite the baseness of its basic Charade SE, Daihatsu makes some darned good little cars, mini tankmobiles that keep on going and going and going.
The Charade, the only car line sold by Daihatsu in the United States, comes in six different versions, all of ’em under $10,000. They are worth a look.
Complaints: I frankly see no need for the one-liter, three-cylinder Charade SE in this country — not as long as there are big cars and big trucks running on the nation’s highways. The basic Charade SE is just too slow and too light to compete with that traffic. It’s best kept on safe streets in the suburbs or on surface roads in urban neighborhoods.
Praise: The four-door, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, 16-valve Daihatsu SX is a terrific little commuter — ample legroom and headroom for four adults, decent luggage space, solid construction and a generally nice small-car feel. Everything blends on the Daihatsu SX.
Head-turning quotient: Both the three-door, base Charade SE and the upscale Charade SX would get lost in a small crowd. Exterior design is totally vanilla.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Bumpy ride, lousy acceleration and dippy handling in the Charade SE. The one-liter, three-cy linder engine produces a whiny 53 horsepower at 5,200 rpm.
Excellent small-car ride, very good acceleration and good handling in the Charade SX. The 1.3-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine puts out 80 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.
Braking in both cars is good.
Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, installed by Daihatsu. Pretty decent sound in both cars.
Mileage: About 40 miles per gallon (10.6-gallon tank, estimated 414-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded) in the tested, manual Charade SE, combined city-highway, one to three occupants and light cargo. About 31 miles per gallon (10.6-gallon tank, about 318-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded) in the Charade SX, combined city-highway, one to three occupants and light cargo.
Price: Base price on the tested Daihatsu SE is $6,797. Dealer’s invoice price on that model is $6,253. Price as tested is $7,074, including a $277 destination charge.
Base price on the tested Charade SX (three-speed automatic transmission) is $9,997. Dealer’s invoice price on that model is $8,697. Price as tested is $10,274, including a $277 destination charge. Optional air conditioning would add $755 to both cars.
Purse-strings note: All things considered, neither the SE nor the SX is a bad deal. But if it’s sweetness you want, get the SX.