This compact, with its gauche chrome affectations, represents the last conventional compact offering from quirky Daihatsu. To paraphrase their oft-repeated tagline, “Who can build a compact for ten years with few compelling changes? Daihatsu! That’s who!”
Daihatsu may have left the Australian market almost a decade ago in 2006, but it enjoyed a much longer shelf life here than in North America. Its final offerings included the tippy but cute Terios SUV, the delightful Copen roadster, and the pleasant Sirion.
Not every Daihatsu was brimming with character, though. There were plenty of staid offerings, like the bargain basement Cuore and Charade Centro and the conservative Charade, which had a very senior-friendly image. The Applause was another fairly invisible offering, but it did have a trick up its sleeve.
Despite its traditional, three-box styling, it was actually a hatchback with a useful 14.54 cubic feet of trunk space. Daihatsu figured they could offer the best of both worlds: sedan styling and hatchback versatility.
Still, perhaps it was the three-box styling that was both its most unique feature and one of its biggest flaws. Why? It resulted in nicely proportioned but utterly sensible styling. Anecdotally speaking, sedans here in Australia have always been preferred by older people. Those more youthful prefer the style of a hatchback. Statistically speaking, hatchbacks are more popular.
1996-2000 Daihatsu Charade. Photo courtesy of Order 242
Like Suzuki, Daihatsu was a second or even arguably third-tier Japanese brand on the Australian market. With much less development capital than the big Japanese brands, both brands pursued niches or put their marketing efforts into their more successful offerings. For example, Suzuki has always focused on its successful Swift and SUV range, but its larger offerings (Baleno, Kizashi) have never been very successful.
The Applause was never a force on the sales charts. The model lineup was a confusing jumble – at various times including Executive, Li, Ri, Ri Sports, Theta and Xi variants – but all models came with the same 1.6-litre, overhead camshaft, 16-valve four-cylinder engine with 103hp and 99 ft-lbs, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic (three-speed in 1989).
A rising yen in the mid-1990s forced prices up of the dull Charade and Applause, and their small Australian presence further sabotaged their success. Daihatsu decided to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck. The mid-1990s, thus, saw a shift from plain Jane to Mary Jane.
In came the dorky Move kei car, the narrow Terios and the mini-minivan Pyzar. In fact, the long-running Charade was even axed in favour of the quirkily-styled Sirion and the van-like YRV.
The Applause had been trudging along since 1989 before its first revision in 1997. Newer, fresher rivals had come along, offering more space and power. The Applause couldn’t even play the value card; although its base price had held the line in the $AUD15-17k range for several years, a rising yen saw the MSRP jump to $21k in 1995, and the complex range was trimmed back to two models.
The 1997 revision was heavy-handed and further cemented any senior-friendly image the Applause had. Lashings of chrome, including a gaudy new grille, were alarmingly out-of-touch additions; acres of plastic woodgrain trim adorned the interior as well. Unlike, say, the AMC Concord – another example of a dated compact tizzied up with luxury touches – the market wasn’t clamouring for a more Broughamantic small car.
Where the Concord was a modest success, the Applause revision failed to arrest flagging sales despite substantial price drops of around $3k. The Executive and Xi were replaced with a single model with either a manual or automatic, at $19,490 and $21,490 respectively. In addition, this new model, cheaper than the previous base model, included the previous uplevel Xi’s features such as power windows and mirrors, but it still lacked remote central locking.
Despite these price cuts, the Applause still didn’t represent exceptional value. Nissan was making hay with its long-running Pulsar Plus limited edition, heavily advertised on television, and offering alloy wheels, rear spoiler and standard air conditioning for a memorable $19,990 driveaway price. Moreover, the Pulsar was one of the segment’s best offerings and offered better dynamics, more modern looks inside and out, and a gutsier engine: 115hp and 108 ft-lbs versus the Applause’s 93hp and 99 ft-lbs. In addition, the ever ambitious Koreans were offering newer, more stylish models like the Kia Mentor and Hyundai Lantra.
A 1998 small car “super test”, one of my favorite comparison tests by my favorite but sadly now defunct magazine Which Car, saw the Applause go head-to-head with almost the entire segment. The Applause was older than its opponents, the Daewoo Nubira, Kia Mentor (Sephia), Mazda 323, Ford Laser, Holden Astra, Nissan Pulsar, Toyota Corolla, Proton Persona and Mitsubishi Lancer. Its age showed: it tied dead last with the Nubira.
Kia Shuma/Mentor hatch
While praised for its decent price and equipment, fuel economy and willing performance, it was panned for excessive NVH and steering kickback, as well as sloppy handling, poor tire selection, a lot of body roll, and a loose front end. Inside, the woodgrain appliqué was deemed tacky, the interior ambience dated, and the seating position uncomfortable due to a higher driver’s seat and the lack of height adjustment for the steering wheel.
It was considered no better dynamically than the Nubira, and having driven a Nubira, I can advise that means it was a pretty rubbish drive. Still, the Applause’s ills were more forgivable considering it was approaching the decade mark at this point, and the Nubira was brand new.
Even the Applause’s once vaunted practicality was called into question, as the rear seats didn’t completely fold down and the trunk was shallow. The older design also meant less interior room than its rivals. However, the Applause was always reliable and its aged design certainly meant if there were any kinks, they’d been ironed out long ago.
It was a miserable end for a forgotten car. Daihatsu kept building the Applause for the Japanese market until 2000, but by 1999 it was dead in Australia and without a direct replacement. Suffice it to say, when you are competing in the most cutthroat segment of the market and you are a small brand, you really have to bring it. The Applause didn’t. At best, it was a polite clap.