Curbside Classic: 1989 Daihatsu Charade – Treat And Retreat

What a difference twenty years makes. The eighties was the Japanese decade, when they were going to take over the US, if not the world. They bought prime real estate assets like Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. They wrote books telling the US how to fix its problems. And their car makers were swamping the US like a tsunami. The last of the holdouts, Daihatsu, finally showed up on our shores at a rather inauspicious time: 1988, one year before the great Japanese stock market collapse. Did Daihatsu’s failure and retreat in 1992 have to do more with Japanese hubris in trying to sell a “BMW quality” Geo Metro, or was the Charade just an overpriced charade? Or is there a difference?

Let’s just say that among other things, Daihatsu’s timing generally wasn’t so hot, and their judgment questionable. Gasoline prices had been dropping all through the eighties. Buyers were abandoning small hatches for bigger cars and SUVs, and the Geo/Chevy Metro (Suzuki Swift) pretty much had the bottom feeder market to itself, modest sized and priced as it was. But Daihatsu priced the Charade substantially above the Metro, despite its similar size and 1.0 liter 3 cylinder engine. And Korea was sending over the Festiva, Pontiac LeMans and Hyundai Excel.

Daihatsu tried to create an upscale image for the Charade, making references to “BMW style quality” in a small car. Well, it was the time that Toyota peaked in terms of content quality, and as Toyota’s captive mini-maker, Daihatsu probably and rightfully tagged along. American car mags generally agreed in their tests of the Charade, duly impressed in its build and material quality. Its interior alone looks more Camry than Metro. The little three pot impressed with its flat torque curve and eager-beaver demeanor, even if objective performance wasn’t significantly different from the Metro. And forget about smoothness with only three cylinders.

I have to admit to rather liking the styling of the Charade, and it did exude a more substantial image than the lowly Geo, probably in part to its significantly wider stance. And its handling was pretty consistently praised too; with a little more power and style, the Charade could have been the Mini of its day. Perhaps that’s what it was trying to do, but it came off way too business-like and with not near enough self-conscious style and verve. The Nissan Pao of the same vintage had plenty of that, but that cutie was a limited production only model, and never officially imported.

The Charade was built in a turbocharged version, the GTi,  with a whopping 100hp, but not for us. And a little turbo-diesel was also available in other markets. Speaking of Daihatsu’s other markets, it wasn’t just the US that they retreated from. In 2005, they pulled the plug on their Australian operations, after some forty years. And this past year, they announced a phased withdrawal from all of Europe by 2013. Daihatsu once had quite a presence there.

Toyota took a minority ownership stake in Daihatsu in 1967, and upped that to 51% in 1999. Daihatsu was the source for kei-cars for Toyota, allowing it to not spread its resources into that narrow segment. But there has always been an overlap with Daihatsu’s larger cars, many of them having been Toyota rebadges. That’s not the case with the Charade, but Toyota’s Tercel was clearly stepping all over it, especially in the US. And Daihatsu’s recent retreats suggest that it will eventually be absorbed fully into the Toyota family, except perhaps as a brand in Japan.

Daihatsu added a four-door sedan sometime along its brief four-year assault on the US market, and in addition to the two extra doors it also sported an extra cylinder, to/and boot. They also sold the rugged Rocky, a compact Jeepster also just a cut above the popular Suzuki Samuari. Anecdotal evidence suggests the Charade had typical Toyota reliability from that era, as there are a fair number of them still on the streets on the West Coast. Considering that only some 15k units were sold in 1989, that tends to support that supposition. Try finding a Peugeot 405 today, another victim of the US market about the same time as Daihatsu. I’ll keep looking for the 405, but it didn’t take much to stumble on these Charades.