Curbside Capsule: 1997-2005 Daihatsu Terios – Twenty Years Early

With the Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester, the Japanese invented the compact crossover and helped establish a segment that continues to grow and grow in popularity throughout the world. Beneath these compact crossovers, however, are sub-compact crossovers. Toyota and Honda have only recently introduced their C-HR and HR-V; Subaru makes do with a jacked-up Impreza hatch. But the Japanese actually invented this segment two decades ago, it just took the world that time to figure out they liked these kinds of cars.

Mitsubishi’s Minica-based Pajero Mini and Pajero Junior were technically the first tiny crossovers. But with their tiny kei-class dimensions and 1.1 litre (and smaller) engines, they had no future outside of the Japanese market. These were more like sub-subcompact crossovers.

The first widely exported tiny crossover was a bit larger and a bit more powerful and, therefore, destined for greater popularity overseas. And who made this cute little soft-roader? To borrow the company’s advertising tagline for many years, “Daihatsu, that’s who!” The Terios was exported to various Asia-Pacific and European markets and confounded many.

With its tall stance, decent ground clearance, and spare tire on the back, the Terios looked like a funhouse mirror SUV– it was also a good five inches narrower than a Toyota Yaris. But unlike the little Japanese trucks export markets had become accustomed to – like the Suzuki Samurai/Sierra and Jimny – the Terios wasn’t designed to be taken off road. This was a car-based vehicle with a monocoque chassis, although full-time 4WD was standard. Unlike larger crossovers like the RAV4, the Terios had a live rear axle.

Although a turbocharged three-cylinder engine was available in the Japanese market, the Terios’ export engine was a 1.3 four-cylinder. This little engine had just 81 hp and 77 ft-lbs, and was mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Although the Terios weighed under 2400 lbs, the little 1.3 still had to be revved to get the soft-roader moving. The Terios wasn’t especially satisfying to drive – as with subcompact crossovers today, compromises were made. The Terios sat higher than, say, a Nissan Micra – a favorable attribute to the young, mostly female buyers Daihatsu was targeting – but it didn’t handle as well.

The Terios was a steady if unexceptional seller here in Australia but disappeared when the Daihatsu brand was withdrawn here in 2005. However, a second-generation model was launched elsewhere. A little larger, the second Terios was also available in a new, long-wheelbase model with seven seats.

The first-generation model was also available in an extended seven-seat model in Indonesia, while the Terios was also built in Malaysia and sold as a Perodua; the Japanese market also featured a Toyota-badged Terios. The Chinese even ripped off the design.

Although many found the little Daihatsu puzzling, it clearly caught on with some. Today, subcompact crossovers are surging in popularity in markets all over the world, from Brazil to India to the UK and so many more. And it wasn’t market leaders like Ford or Toyota or Volkswagen that invented this segment. It was Daihatsu, that’s who.

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