CC Capsule: 2004 Suzuki Alto Lapin “Quatre” by DAMD – Gimme Four

It took me close to four years. I kept bumping into all manner of Mitsuokas, mock BMC Princesses, shrunken VW vans and the like. Heck, I even found yet another of those extremely odd (and very rare) Mitsubishi Flying Pugs recently. But the one I always really wanted to see up close was the Suzuki Lapin that pretended to look like a Renault 4. It was almost worth the wait.

So what’s all the hubbub? I assume we’re all somewhat aware of the Renault 4 (1961-93). Millions of them were made, although few found a home in North America. But the rest of the world, especially South America, Europe, North Africa and Japan, took to it in a major way. Plenty are still puttering about Tokyo.

But what of the Suzuki Alto Lapin, then? That side of the equation is a kei car, essentially a re-bodied Alto. Suzuki has spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s turning the Alto into a turbocharged hairy-chested sporty little rocket. As a result, they found that women were not overly keen on them. To address this, Suzuki designed a cutesy (or kawaii, in the local vernacular) variant called the Lapin (French for “rabbit”), which hit the dealerships in January 2002. The model was a huge hit with its intended audience and is currently on its third generation.

When he saw the new Suzuki, the CEO of kit-maker DAMD (Dream Automotive Development & Design) thought it reminded him of the Quatre, i.e. the Renault 4. They started selling kits in late 2003 and have continued ever since, though they only fit the 1st gen Lapin (2002-08), not the subsequent ones.

It’s a pretty extensive body kit: a very convincing Renault 4 hood and grille (complete with a period-correct version of the marque’s rhombus-shaped logo), GTL-style plastic cladding for the side, a worthy attempt at aping the R4’s distinctive taillights, chunky gray bumper with black overriders and, for a reason I cannot fathom, a tailgate window appliqué that bisects the screen in two, à la early VW Beetle or split window Corvette. The Renault never had that, so what is the justification for it?

Nothing out of the ordinary inside, except that aftermarket steering wheel, but that’s not part of the DAMD package. A 4-speed auto on the tree is standard for all 1st gen Lapins. It’s mated to a 54hp (or up to 64hp with a turbo) 660cc DOHC 3-cyl. – not a millions miles, size-wise, from the Renault’s little 4-cyl.

You have to admire that DAMD attention to detail…

They even re-created Renault’s late ‘60s / early ‘70s badging. Adding another carmaker’s logos on a JDM product seems to be completely fine for the authorities. Just as putting a great big divider on the rear window is. They say that Japanese motorists must follow strict rules – and they absolutely do, but they clearly also have a lot of leeway on certain fronts. None of this would fly in places like Australia, Europe or the US (and many others), I should think.

I was never a huge fan of Renault 4, for some reason, but I quite like this nipponized version. It’s kind of like the way Japanese restaurateurs interpret Italian, French or Spanish cuisine: incredibly genuine techniques and ingredients are coupled with completely alien adaptations to suit local tastes and supply chains. That can lead to some major uncanny valley moments, but the end result can also be outstanding in its own right.