Automobile manufacture is like the world’s most out of sync movie, where the dialogue and the action on screen don’t always happen in a logical sequence. Our trip in the Way Back machine today is testament to that peculiarity of the car business. Many times, cars are designed and engineered to meet a specific set of circumstances that, given the long lead times of development, have changed completely by the time the model makes it to the showroom floor. Thus it was with todays study. Born of the fear that rising prices for gasoline would send drivers to the poorhouse, these miserly sub –basic transportation appliances exist now mainly as curiosities, as obsolete machines kept in service by their owners for much the same reasons that they were produced- The most MPG’s for the least money.
The first modern 3 cylinder car to be marketed and sold in the U.S. came, oddly enough, from a company that was most well known for its massive, chrome spattered barges of a decade before-GM. In the fall of 1984, Chevy dealers on the west coast began showing buyers the new Sprint that was the product of the parent company’s alliance with Suzuki. The Sprint was to be the replacement for the ( by then) ancient Chevette and would better that models fuel economy by more than twenty percent. It also negated buyers objections to the Chevette’s obsolete front engine/rear drive configuration that made the car look even more behind the times in the sales derby. The little Sprint also shocked most American drivers when they peeked under the hood: Suzuki had installed its 1.0 L three cylinder mill in a place where the plug wires usually numbered four. This was due to two factors, neither of which GM could control.
First, The dreaded CAFE standard that Washington imposed on automakers all but mandated that in order to sell big, high profit cars, the companies would have to do their penance with small econoboxes that stood very little chance of turning a profit after all costs were totted up. Sprints were imported from Japan and after transportation costs were added in, profits (if there were any) had to be split with Suzuki.
Secondly, when the Sprint was in the planning stages, the second oil shock of 1979-80 was making long term business planning a fool’s gamble. The average price of gasoline had risen sharply from about $.60 to over $1.35 -more than double in the space of less than two years. No matter what Washington mandated, the trend line of petroleum prices looked alarming. That meant that displacement was going down radically so that at least one Chevy could meet the challenge of ever more expensive petrol. Bonjour, Sprint, Merci, Chevette.
The Sprint had a pleasing, well finished look outside and befitting its entry level status, a tacky cheap interior with thin seats and rather crude ergonomics.
Chevy offered a three door and five door hatchback and buyers could spec the car with a three speed automatic that exacted the usual slushbox mileage penalty. But no matter. The Sprint put Chevy in the game again and for its entire run, the car stayed near the top of the annual EPA mileage listings.
Chevrolet even threw a bone to boy racers in 1987 by offering a turbocharged Sprint that pushed horsepower up past 70, which made the little econobox a sporting choice for stoplight derby cruising. But the intercooled turbo came and went quickly: by the end of 1988, with a redesign looming, the turbo was dropped. That makes it a rare find today. A pristine Sprint Turbo can set you back over $6K in top nick, surely the highest value retention for any GM car from that era.
The Sprint was a solid winner for GM in the three pot sales derby, so much so that when the company re branded its small cars as GEO’s in 1988, the successor generation of the little Suzuki found a place in the lineup. Known as the GEO and (again) as a Chevy Metro, the three cylinder engine stayed in the catalog until mid 2000. When equipped as an XFI model, the little Met returned an EPA rating of 43/52 (as per the current standard). Today, there is a small (but enthusiastic) cult of owners/fanatics for the little car that broke the mold in North America.
The years 1985- 2004 saw another contender in the high mileage/low displacement contest , this time from a newcomer to our shores. Venerable Japanese automaker Daihatsu finally decided that the time was right to jump into the American market (where it had sold utility trucks and small industrial engines for some time) and offered up the unfortunately named (but well constructed) Charade as its sole line of cars. In retrospect, the Charade was really an answer to which no question had been asked. Although tough and well engineered, the Charade line was limited to about 15,000 sales per year under voluntary import restrictions agreed to between Washington and Tokyo to “protect” their trade relationship. The Charade had been in production since 1977 in Japan and the new -for- ’86 models were judged to be up to American standards and as such debuted with high hopes in the fall of 1987.
What buyers got for their money was a fairly advanced and clever package that included a four wheel independent suspension that made handling crisp and precise.The running gear consisted of a thrifty 993 CC engine that could return upper 40’s mileage on the highway with the standard 5 speed. Power and torque were another matter, as the little Daihatsu only belted out 53 HP at full tilt with its fuel injected three banger. The ride was penalized by the Charades short wheelbase and could be punitive over long distances. Daihatsu thought that its unique selling proposition was quality. The car was so well built that the good looking little Charade zoomed to the top of the J.D. Power rankings for owner satisfaction just two years after its launch. Contemporary testers, including Car And Driver, praised the solid, tight package, but high quality didn’t translate to high sales. By the fall of 1990, Daihatsu was hemorrhaging money in its U.S. operation and plans were being made to exit North America.
The high cost of maintaining a limited lineup of models (Daihatsu had added the Rocky 4X4 in 1990), meant that there were no profits to be made for either the parent company or the dwindling number of dealers. Many Daihatsu outlets were opened alongside more established franchises, and dealers were hesitant to push a car that undercut their bread and butter models in the same showroom. Daihatsu never ran any national advertising and there was even some confusion with the name. These were the nightmare years for Hyundai quality and even though there as no connection between the two, potential buyers were wary of being stuck with a car that carried so many unknowns. Another factor that killed the diminutive Daihatsu was the asking price. The Charade stickered at over $7300 for a base five speed, which put it over $1800 above the Chevy Sprint and almost a grand over the Subaru Justy. That made it a hard sell when the parent company was all but unknown in the states.
Thus Daihatsu announced in early 1992 that it would exit the U.S., just five model years after it arrived. The company itself still sells its unique line of fuel stingy cars and utility trucks in Asia and Africa, but the years have seen a gradual pullback from some markets. Even today, almost twenty years on, Daihatsu maintains a website for parts and technical help for its stranded owners.
The triple with the most potential was the Subaru Justy. Potential for trouble, that is. The little Justy was a car that made lots of ex- Subie owners out of its purchasers. Introduced late in September 1986 (as an ’87 model), the Justy was the smallest Subaru since the tiny 360 of 1969. On paper, the Justy checked off a lot of boxes on shoppers wants lists. Four wheel drive, great fuel mileage and Subaru’s sterling reputation all made the Justy a must see for subcompact shoppers in its day. But two fatal flaws made the Justy a flash in the pan stateside.
One, the 1.2 liter engine installed into the Justy, while the largest in its class, had a dark family secret that came out when several thousand hit the streets- the oil pump was prone to early, frequent failure which could turn the car into a paperweight when it let go. And the Electronically Constantly Variable Transaxle was a typical early adopters risk- While fine in theory, the not-quite-an-automatic transmission proved to be the cars weakest link. Buyers reported an alarming rate of total ECVT failure within less than a year of purchase and later on, the high cost of out of warranty repair frequently made no sense for its frustrated owners. Even today, 17 years after the Justy went off the market, its not unusual to find a low mileage ECVT car that needs a new transmission. Some owners even converted to Subaru’s five speed manual when the factory units died.
The little Subaru was the last carbureted model sold in the U.S, although parent company Fuji did install an EFI system in its final year. The Justy lineup was available as a three door and five door hatchback and sales, while respectable, never cracked 25,000 in the U.S. In 1994, Subaru gave up on selling a supermini in the U.S. and the Justy was deleted from its lineup here. The name lives on in other markets, but Justys are built by companies other than Fuji in Europe and Asia.
So the end of America’s tepid love affair with miserly cars came when Subaru decamped to other continents in the spring of 1994. By then, the price of gasoline had stabilized close to its level of 1977 (adjusted for inflation) and technological advances by Japan’s “Big 3” had brought their entry level, four cylinder Corollas, Civics and Sentras within just a few MPG’s of the superminis, while performance was in a whole other league entirely. Only the little Metro still offered its rough running miser mill for the masses. The tiny cars had proven to be not very well adapted to American driving habits and keeping them up with emissions and crash standards meant that profits were all but impossible to realize given their low volume.
The next time that a mainstream manufacturer would attempt three cylinder motoring in the states would be when Honda brought its Insight hybrid to market in 1999. The one liter, aluminum bodied Insight would return 61 MPG on the highway– just about nine miles per gallon better than a Metro had done two years before. But the Met had done the job for less than half the price.
Thanks as always, Jeff.
Ugh, that Justy brings back memories of annoying TV ads for it. It seemed like they ran constantly in the late 80s! Wasted marketing budget from the sound of it.
“Technological advances by Japan’s “Big 3” had brought their entry level, four cylinder Corollas, Civics and Sentras within just a few MPG’s of the superminis…”
This is why I can’t quite get my ahead around the “new superminis.” I just don’t see why I’d buy a Fiesta instead of a Focus, a Mazda2 instead of a 3. The price and MPG difference is marginal, but the lack of head and knee room is real. And if you can’t afford a new Civic, how hard is it to find a used one? Not flaming, just curious. 🙂
“I just don’t see why I’d buy a Fiesta instead of a Focus, a Mazda2 instead of a 3. ”
Good point, but help is on the way (so I hear). Ford has promised a turbocharged 3 in the Fiesta for ’12. Supposedly it will be a mid 40’s mpg car.
If they put it in a 3 door hatchback, I may retire my Charade SE…
Believe it or not, there are people for whom “physically smaller” is a plus, not a minus.
Fascinating and well-written article!
That silly Smart car also has a three. Its 36 mpg is surprisingly poor given its tiny size and weight. So is the Fiesta’s 33, similar to the Mini’s 32, good point Cap’n. (The far bigger 1.8L 4-cyl. Prius gets 50. Sorry, just blurted that out.)
Justy’s AWD seems to have been a bad Idea to start with, mechanical all-wheel-drive costs mileage. Maybe they thought the CVT would make up for that. AWD makes sense in a Legacy-size wagon, which is long enough for skis and more mundane household loads, but not a little Justy.
We see plenty of Metros around here daily. Two guys at work drive them as thrifty suburban commuters. Apparently Suzuki built them pretty well.
I’ve seen it said the balance shaft a three needs offsets much of the cost saving over a four. Any engine that needs a balance shaft is just a kludge. Spinning a chunk of metal just for its mass, ugh.
Ford’s got a new three coming out in Europe, as does VW.
PS: I think the Fiesta and Fiat are responses to the Mini, stylish and well-appointed with pretty good mileage. Mazda 2 maybe less so.
Many modern four cylinder engines have balance shafts. It’s virtually impossible to smooth a four to adequate NVH standards once it get much bigger than 2.0 or 2.2 liters. In line fours are not that smooth either, unlike a boxer four or inline six.
The big advantage to a three is its much fatter torque curve tha a similar-sized four. IC engines operate most efficiently (all things being equal) when their individual cylinder sizes are about 350 – 500 cc. That explains the popularity of threes in their size class (900 – 1200 cc) in Europe and the rest of the world. And Fiat’s new 900cc twin. It’s not so much that there’s a big savings in build cost, but it’s to take advantage of that optimum individual cylinder size for efficiency’s sake.
Three cylinders are becoming ever-more common globally, and undoubtedly, we’ll see more three pots in our future here too.
Thus we see efficient fours in the 1.4-2.0L range. And V6s like Ford’s 3.0L Vulcan. I didn’t know that cylinder efficiency principle. Fascinating to get the engineering side, thanks!
Actually, I should have said up to about 600cc or so. Which really explains the popularity of fours in the the size up to about 2.5 liters.
That makes me wonder how efficient a 4.0 V-8 would be in a lightweight car like a Mustang. I know that even in the heavy Ford 500 and Taurus the 3.0 V-6 will get 30+ mpg when driven responsibly.
“Its 36 mpg is surprisingly poor given its tiny size and weight”
So true. My son Patrick has pointed this out numerous times. The mileage for the Smart in relation to the size is a deal breaker for me. 36 MPG’s is just a couple of miles better than a Corolla/Sentra and you can actually use them as an everyday car.
Spectacular mileage is not the point of a Smart car. You may as well fault a Mustang for being useless at hauling lumber.
This is the point of a Smart car:
Subaru never had an AWD system in the US-market Justy – you could either get front wheel drive (as most Justys were sold) or push-button 4WD, so the mileage penalty wasn’t that bad. I averaged about 40MPG in my EFI 4WD Justy – not as good as a Metro or Charade, but pretty respectable considering the Justy had the most interior space (the second-generation 4-door, anyway) and by far the most power of all, including the turbo Sprint (the EFI Justy was rated at 73HP, carbureted was at 66; amazing what an extra 200ccs will get you).
Put me in with the oddballs that like the threes.
I had three Metros; a 1994 two-door hatch; a 1993 “wagon” with an automatic; and a 1995 that I stumbled upon entirely by accident….rust-free from Montana and sitting, dirty with red dust, in a slimeball used-car dealer’s lot in Angola, NY. Price under a thousand; I had to have it.
My favorite was the circa-1990-style two-door: It was roomy enough for my six-foot frame with very light controls, excellent ergonomics and the kind of road manners you expect of a 1600-lb car. I used to say, you didn’t drive that car, you WORE it. Like most of my car-purchases, it was impulse-meeting-opportunity; and that specimen had early stages of body cancer.
Even so, one of my dumber moves in life was to trade it in for $500 on a Toyota Tacoma, which I only kept as long as the house in snow country. Not long.
The second Metro, was the ski-boot-body 1995. Should have had the same character…but the airbag forced an interior redesign. Ergonomics, as with most blow-up-bag cars, were a compromise. Seat didn’t go back far enough. Steering wheel was set too high. But the light steering and 50-mpg thriftiness was still there; and this time, no rust.
Unfortunately for hardscrabble owners, the Suzuki three wasn’t all that durable. Not as bad as Suburu’s; but there could be problems. The engine wasn’t a “clearance” design, so replacing the timing belt was a MUST. And not cheap.
I did that, but somehow the EGR valve got overlooked. It failed on or before a long road trip; and burned the valves in the space of six hours. In the morning, it started and ran fine. By the end of the day, it didn’t have enough power to run in fourth gear. And when I shut it down, in my mechanic’s parking lot, it never restarted. No compression.
A new engine out of a wreck created other problems, related to a broken engine mount…a hanger on the block of the engine which was sheared in the collision that made it a donor-motor. We used it, because there was no other three…and the problems started and never ended.
The wagonlet…the “five-door” hatch…was an old-lady’s car. Drove it to church every Sunday and that was about it. And she washed it religiously…no rust. On the outside.
Underneath was another story. Body looked cherry but the transaxle subframe collapsed from corrosion. I overpaid for it, wanting one like my first two-door…but the four-door model didn’t allow the driver’s seat back as far.
That model had the automatic; and after owning it I understood why GM insisted on a four with automatic in later years. The slushbox took most of the zippiness and about ten miles a gallon away.
Still and all, I’d buy another…many more. If the government would only let us. For it was safety regs, positioning of the fuel tank and cabin-integrity requirements, which finally killed it.
Plenty of rust-free Metros in the west for $1K-2K, look at Craigslist. Good excuse for a vacation, come out here and get a nice one.
“. Body looked cherry but the transaxle subframe collapsed from corrosion”
Every Metro owner that I talked to that knew anything about the cars told me that the anchor point for the front suspension is a MAJOR weak spot in these cars. Catastrophic failure at 65 MPH is not unknown.To a man,they told me to avoid any midwestern or canadian Met due to salted roads. Their advice: unless the car is totally rust free underneath, run away.
Anybody else know the facts here ?
Absolutely true and the problem that led to the death of my first Metro vert and my ’97 hatchback. Check out the forums at TeamSwift for more details, and get the car on a lift before you buy. If there’s any rust – even if it only looks like surface rust – near the front suspension mounts, poke around a LOT more, and be prepared to walk away.
The geo Metro was a solid success, they were everywhere back then. Not to mention popular with the rental companies… Proof that there’s demand in America for a no-holds-barred economy car, for those desiring just the most economical transportation available. Actually, the Metro is a good argument for a Kei car. Just choose the most practical ones (probably would be one of the boxy ones), and sell it as cheaply as possible. How about it, Scion? Suzuki? I think kei cars might just be Suzuki’s answer for increased brand awareness and volume sales.
Brings back memories of the ’94 Metro I bought for my then live-in girlfriend. We bought one with every option available except the automatic transmission. It got named, “The Mouse Car.” Absolutely adored it, if I had kept it, I’d probably have ended up selling off my motorcycle collection, as the Mouse Car was every bit as good on gas as most of my motorcycles. Actually got it up to 85mph (indicated) on the level on the Pittsburgh Parkway West heading out to the airport. It helped that we had a long, downhill run before we hit the level.
Back then, triples ruled our home: The Mouse Car, two Triumph Tridents (’72 and ’95) and a Yamaha XS750. And I was trying to close the deal on a Laverda Jota at the time.
Suzuki desperately needs to bring the Swift back to the states. It’ll certain sell as a cheaper alternative to the Fiat 500 and the Mini.
They cannot. American safety standards don’t allow it.
Those standards add immense weight to a car – even the (not so) SMART car weighs almost 3000 pounds. It’s why the most miserly Toyota or Hyundai only gets mileage in the upper 30s, today.
SmartUSA.com specs the coupe at 1808 lbs. and up to 500 lb. payload. Not that I’m eager to defend the so-called Smart car, but it is very light and gets good crash ratings. All the more reason to be puzzled about its poor mileage. I think it’s aerodynamics. Making it so short pushes up the height and squares off the front end. The Smart car is basically a little brick.
Somehow, I remember reading a different weight. I could look it up, but I’m pressed for time right now.
I remember being amazed that such a tiny car was so heavy. But the Web data could have been wrong, also.
The SMART does well in crashes, sure. It BOUNCES…there’s no room for crumple zones; so it just uses sheer strength to resist cabin intrusions. Problem with that, is G-forces…you won’t be skewered, but the sheer shock of stopping so suddenly is likely to kill you. Federal standards haven’t addressed that…yet.
Given its claimed light weight, I, too, am surprised by its mileage figures. Part of it may be the mechanical losses in transferring power from a longitudal layout to the drive wheels; that and hypoid sliding gears. If I recall correctly, it’s a rear-wheel drive setup.
Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I have never looked at a SMART – I’m allergic to Daimler products.
Agreed, there’s no crush space, it’s too short. This video shows a Smart being run up to a barrier at 70 mph.
The doors still open and close, so the first responders can scrape you off the inside of the windshield.
I don’t have much regard for Daimler either, it’s certainly not the M-B of old, and I’m angry at what they did to Chrysler. Smart cars appear in European cities where they make some sense, everything’s so narrow and tight. Silly in North America.
I met a couple in Ashland… visiting from Canada… with a diesel Smart… according to them, if got 50 miles per gallon… so perhaps the “problem” with the ForTwo was that Daimler put the wrong engine in the US version?
Poor aerodynamics of the Smart cause lower MPGs. Kinda hard to make a tall vehicle(short from bumper to bumper) slippery in the air.
From the reports I’ve read, and the one example I’ve driven, a great deal of the problem is the transmission. It’s an incredibly balky-shifting automatic. And I’ve got the feeling that it’s about as efficient as the old Dynaflow. No manual transmission is available in the US, nor is the diesel variant. I’ve understood that the combination of those two items in the car can give it a mileage that rivals a Prius – without the complexity. Makes you wonder who was making the decisions on what to send over here.
There is no manual transmission option on the Smart anywhere. The Smart was designed as a city car for Europe, primarily, with space efficiency being its top priority. Its fuel efficiency is hampered by its un-aerodynamic shape. But if you live in a European city, you’re more concerned about being able to park it than a couple more-or-less mpg.
The diesel would have been very expensive to clean and certify for the difficult US standards, given the low anticipated sales volume.
the Smart transmission and drive train are not inefficient per se; the transmission is a an auto-shift mechanical box, not a torque converter automatic. But the transmission is jerky, hence a turn-off. The next generation Smart will undoubtedly have a better transmission.
A high percentage of European Smart owners keep a bigger car in the garage for highway trips.Its concept just doesn’t translate well to the US, except perhaps Manhattan.
I don’t know the weight of the Smart but the Fiat 500 weighs in at less than 3000# itself.
According to C/Net, the cabriolet version of the 500 weighs in at a 2,333#, dripping wet.
The Suzuki Swift (and its smaller cousin Splash) are both sold in Europe. They can pass the Euro NCAP test, I think they ought to be able to pass U.S. crash standard.
“A pristine Sprint Turbo can set you back over $6K in top nick, surely the highest value retention for any GM car from that era” Are you kidding me??? Have you seen what a Buick GNx commands???
On a percentage of original sale price basis, I’d bet on the Sprint over the GNX if they both came up at the same time (eBay, Barrett-Jackson, you name it). And I would definitely be one of the nutcases bidding on the Sprint.
Well, it looks like we’ll be going through another round of supermini roulette. Ford and Mazda already have the smallest car ground staked out, but GM will soon issue it’s own mighty mite, the Spark. It will be a good companion to the revised Aveo, er, Sonic.
I haven’t been paying attention to the pricing of these new cars, but it will be interesting to see which ones do well in the market.
Funny you should bring this car up in the midst of the R.V. posts. When the Sprint and it’s clones were still new-ish I would see one tucked behind almost every R.V. I saw.
About two months ago I lost an auction for a Sprint Turbo.
I was only willing to go up to $1100 and it rocketed past me to $4100. No thanks!
At the $4k mark you’re stepping in to Thunderbird TurboCoupe/SVO Mustang and Omni GLH-T territory.
Yeah, my buddy, a mechanic, recently bought a running Sprint with perfect body for $200… and he got a spare motor, just in case!
With all this three-ness I’ve had the darned Trapeze Waltz stuck in my head all morning, you know the one.
My favorite of these from the novelty standpoint was the Metro convertible. I recently missed a chance to photograph one, and am keeping my eye out for it again. I believe that it was advertised as the lowest priced convertible you could buy.
Canada got the turbo for longer including the second generation body style. From what I understand engine parts are getting a bit scarce for the turbo these days. Not many of them left. I always thought it would be a neat motor to swap into a classic Mini.
A second generation turbo Firefly ad: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ifhp97/5636383339/
I cant under stand the lack of Daihatsu parts supply it is afterall a Toyota sub species. The Rugger is available here with Toyota diesel engines and is also imported used as a Toyota model.
The little Suzuki 4 came out as the Swift and bot rebadged as the Holden Barina however Holden did not get the Turbo swift model, that remained Suzuki only.
I had a 2008 Suzuki Swift loaner for a week recently and was seriously underwhelmed it was bigger and roomier than the old ones but harsh and noisy and the fuel economy worse than the diesel Peugeot I had in for repairs.
Back in the year 2000, two days before Christmas my Plymouth Voyager decided to eat its transmission. It looked like I was going to spend Christmas at home, but a call to the local car rental agency confirmed they had one car available-a 2000 Chevy Metro. As the old saying goes beggars can’t be choosers and after filing out the paper work I had wheels. It was a 4dr LSi with automatic. Around town its performance wasn’t bad, but out on the highway I had a hard time getting it past 60 miles per hour. The interior was not anything special, the driving position and visibility were quite good, although the manual steering was unusually heavy and slow for such a small vehicle, and fuel economy with the automatic was not that great. However, it got me to Christmas celebration with the relatives although on the highway it got blown around by passing trucks(not unlike the VW Bug). Still it definitely beat walking, and if something like that was available today, I’d seriously consider it as a second vehicle for local driving.
“Still it definitely beat walking”
The worst ride is better than the best walk…
You could do a whole lot worse than a Metro.
Like BMW’s ancestor to the Smart:
Jeff – this is a great article. As someone who has, at one point or another, owned a Firefly convertible, multiple Metros (a hatch and two convertibles), multiple Justys – fortunately none with a CVT – and two Charades, this subject is, ahem, near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately I can’t speak for the Sprint; they’ve all but disappeared from the East Coast. Likewise, I consider myself fortunate to say that I once rode in an Insight, but have never driven, much less owned, one.
From an owner’s perspective, here are my thoughts:
Metros are just about unkillable; what usually does them in is tinworm. They also have the cheapest-feeling and most fragile interiors, especially the earlier iterations. They are also tied with the Charade as far as lack of power goes – but their lighter weight shines. They’re by far the most “tossable”, even the loosey-goosey cowl-shaking convertibles. Metros were also offered under the most nameplates, even in North America; as Bryce has already noted, they were sold as Suzukis and Holdens Down Under, as well as Chevys, Geos, Pontiacs and Suzukis here and even as the Subaru Justy in Eastern Europe – NOT to be confused with the FHI design that was sold in the Americas. They also had the most body styles, with the 3- and 5-door hatch, 2-door convertible, and rarely-seen, Canadian-for-the-NA-market only 4-door sedan in the first generation, and 2-door hatch and 4-door sedan in the second.
Justies are the most versatile, especially the 4-door hatches – much more room than the equivalent Metro, especially head and shoulder space. They are also the quickest, and (obviously) the best in the snow – though this applies to the 2WD Justy as well, probably due to the incredibly narrow tires specced on them – 155-series 13″ on the GL and 145-series 12″ on the base DL models. I also find that they have a bit of a truck-like feel – almost like a mini-Forester. Again, I’ve never had one, nor driven one, with a CVT so cannot comment. But I do have the service manual for the CVT model Justy, and for just about anything, the instructions are to remove, ship to Subaru of America, and replace. I’ve also never had an oil pump on one go, but I’ve heard the horror stories. Finally, though they have great headroom, legroom is pathetic and the seats, even in lower-mileage models, are absolute back killers. The first-gen Metro has seats that degrade over time and become miserable; Justy seats (kind of like Forester seats) are truly horrible right out of the box. And try finding a Justy with a passenger-side mirror – you had to get pretty much every option, regardless of the year, to find one. (Also, there were two distinct generations of Justy offered in the NA market – the ’87-’88, which was two-door only in NA but was offered with 4 teensy doors in the Pacific Rim, and the ’89-’94/’95 for Canada, which brought a 6-inch increase in overall length, the 4-door body to the NA market, a different interior and exterior, improved fuel economy, the dreaded CVT, and later an EFI engine.)
Finally, the Charade is an incredible car – it rides the best, in my experience gets the best gas mileage, and feels like it’s assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch. The smallest details – like the 6-digit odometer available from the first ’88 models – speak to the car’s durability; the seat fabric, trim assembly, and long list of standard and available features feel like they would be at home in a midget-sized Camry (in a good way!) more than in a cheap supermini. The shifter is a joy to use – snicking with Honda precision, as opposed to the rubbery Metro or the watch-it-or-you’ll-grind-second Justy. (For whatever reason, the transmissions in Metros and Justies don’t feel as robust OR as precise as Daihatsu’s five-speed box.) The disadvantages – hard-to-find parts, lousy paint quality – you can tell the quality of application, but most of the metallic Daihatsus I’ve seen (admittedly not many) have crazing in the clearcoat, and the flat paints tend to develop a chalky finish – and not much headroom. Rear passenger room is nonexistent, though part of this is due to a seat that goes further back than in the others. And, as I said, the standard and optional equipment lists are pretty good; my ’88 Daihatsu has a full cloth interior, intermittent wipers/rear wiper, and power mirrors! The engine, while lacking in brute force like the Justy’s, is still more than up to the task of moving the car, and the delightful shifter encourages revving. (All three are easy to rev; the Daihatsu is probably the best-sounding, while the 9-valve Justy mill is the weirdest – I find it endearing.)
Anyhow…that was probably longer than anyone really cares to read; thanks again to Jeff for bringing back the great memories I have of these fun and frugal cars.
Thank you for your kind words.
I spent the day today disassembling a 92 Charade saloon in Birmingham Alabama. It yielded the usual treasure trove of soft trim and hard to find interior bits.
Owners tip- If you find a 4 door SE in a wrecking yard with a good drivers seat, you can improve the driving experience by a million percent over the base car by swapping the seat for the upgraded one. It’s really easy- 4 12 MM bolts , unhook the seat belt sensor and you’re done. Swap out takes 10 minutes. You would be amazed at the improvement in ergonomics.
Thanks for that. Does it have to be a four-door? The driver’s seat in my ’88 Charade CLX (top trim, that’s how I got the power mirrors!) is top-notch, especially compared to first-gen Metros and Justies of any generation, but if there’s an improvement, I wouldn’t say no. If memory serves, my CLX even has a lumbar adjustment.
I would play the hand that you have. The SE is not going to be an improvement over what’s in there now. Since you have a CLX , just enjoy the ride !
The 4 door and 2 door seats are interchangeable. No mods needed.
As well as the cars mentioned here we also saw a few of the Kei cars, which received larger engines than in the JDM. Typically generically called pizza vans here.
My uncle still has a late 80’S Suzuki 800 hatch which he has driven from north Queensland down to Melbourne which is something like 2000 miles one way. He had a uhf radio to talk to all the long haul truck drivers along the way, probably helped in not getting run over. From memory he was getting well over 50 mpg (US). Their other vehicle is one of the last Jeep Wagoneers brought into the country, definitely the other end of the scale.
A couple of interesting versions of the Suzuki Swift (Metro) we had was the GTi with a 100hp 1.3L 4cyl, and a 1.6L awd sedan.
Oh and a ute version of the Suzuki 800 – the Mighty Boy. Bed length approx 2 foot! But they were light, easy to pick up the back end and wheel around for creative parking…
Would love to see a pic of the Suzu Mighty Boy. Grab your camera , my friend !
When I was in middle school, a house a few blocks away had two Metro convertibles. One was magenta and the other bright teal. This was back when they were new. I remember seeing them all the time when I rode my bike. Years later, when I moved to my condo, a house nearby had his-and-hers Azteks, a blue one and a white one!
I actually saw a Daihatsu Rocky in traffic yesterday, a white ragtop with chrome wheels. It was a little rusty but not bad. I knew what it was, but I don’t recall ever seeing one in person before.
I once dated a girl who had a circa 1985 Chevy sprint 3 cylinder stick shift stripper model. I didn’t believe her when she told me it got over 60MPG. So I drove it when the two of us went out of town. She wasn’t exaggerating.
Years later I bought a second hand Geo Metro 3 cylinder stick shift stripper model. Can’t remember exactly but I think it got 58MPG. Not quite as good as the Sprint but still a phenomenally efficient car. I remember it had 12″ rims(diameter not width) and I could get brand new leftover tires(mismatched) for NINE BUCKS APIECE!
I switched to driving pickup trucks after that when I hit a deer with the Metro. Totalled the car and for a moment there I literally made my peace with God and was ready to die. I thought it was all over for me.
Wonderfully detailed article! Currently, Ford offers their subcompact Fiesta (on the SE model in Canada), an optional 1.0 Litre, 3 cylinder turbo-charged EcoBoost engine. It is claimed to deliver 123 hp., and 38 mpg in the city, and 54 mpg on the highway!