Curbside Classic: 1990 Daihatsu Rocky SE – Technical Knockout

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(first posted 12/18/2015)     “A what??”  That response probably greeted quite a few of the 50,000 US consumers who bought Daihatsus during the 5 years when they were offered for sale here.  The brand was never sold nationwide, never built up name recognition, and vanished before many people knew it existed at all.  This particular car is a rare surviving example of a Rocky, Daihatsu’s mini-SUV that was sold from 1990 until the company’s 1992 withdrawl from the US market.

The Rocky was a good vehicle – well-built, reliable, and an excellent off-roader. However it was doomed from the start.  Products from little-known companies always face an uphill battle at first, but the Rocky was hampered by a recession, a poorly planned sales strategy, and shifting consumer attitudes about what an SUV ought to be.  Daihatsu was the last Japanese manufacturer to enter the US market, and became the first to leave; the Rocky’s story can serve as a textbook example of how not to introduce a new product line in America.

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While Daihatsu may be unknown in the US, the company has a large global footprint. Founded in 1907, Daihatsu is Japan’s oldest carmaker, and by the 1980s sold vehicles in 133 countries.  However, Daihatsu was atypical of most Japanese carmakers – it was one of Japan’s smallest carmakers, and was heavily dependent on both its domestic market (78% of sales) and on light truck sales (76%).  That added up to a troubling mix as Japanese domestic sales slowed down throughout the 1980s, prompting other manufacturers to rely more heavily on export markets.

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The huge US market was an irresistible draw for Daihatsu, and the decision to sell cars here was made over many years.  Company officials watched the progress of other Asian newcomers to the US – namely Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Suzuki and Hyundai.  All began selling cars stateside in the 1980s, and all had achieved a certain degree of success – or at least, none had given up yet.

1988 Daihatsu Brochure C
Daihatsu’s 1988 entry into the US faced immediate headwinds.  First, consumers were tiring of economy cars like Daihatsu’s planned mainstay, the Charade.  Second, a recession in 1990 dampened new car sales across the board.  But Daihatsu’s biggest problem was distribution: the company never sold cars nationwide.

1992 Brochure HQ
Despite anticipating 750 dealers coast-to-coast, Daihatsu’s network peaked at about 250, and never extended into the Northeast or Midwest.  That complicated advertising, making national ad campaigns impractical – Daihatsu never ran a network TV ad.  Numerous press reviewers commented on Daihatsu’s “spotty dealer network.”  Given that only 10% of Americans even recognized the company’s name (according to Daihatsu’s own research in 1989), this became a damaging situation.

1990 Charade
The first US-market Daihatsu was the Charade, debuting in 1988 as a hatchback and adding a sedan in 1990.  Unfortunately, buyers started turning to larger cars instead of subcompacts at around the same time.  Despite some positive attributes, the Charade never distinguished itself enough to persuade many buyers to take a leap of faith on a company they had never heard of.

Daihatsu Taft
In addition to subcompacts, Daihatsu also bet on small SUVs – a type of vehicle with which the company had considerable experience (as a bonus, SUVs were exempt from Japanese import quotas).  Since the mid-1970s, Daihatsu had produced small 4x4s, and the Rocky traces its lineage to the Daihatsu Taft (above), which bore more than a passing resemblance to Toyota’s Land Cruiser.

1x Rocky
The Taft was replaced in 1984 by a vehicle that was called the Rugger in its home market, and Rocky most everywhere else.  With a square, two-box design, the Rocky eschewed the traditional Jeep/Land Cruiser look for a then-contemporary 1980s approach.  It was an updated version of this car that made it to US shores in 1990.

1987 Samurai

When Daihatsu was formulating its American sales strategy, particular attention was paid to Suzuki, whose Samurai achieved a quick following after its 1986 US introduction. The Samurai, a diminutive mini-jeep, achieved popularity not just among off-roaders, but also among city-dwellers and (often as 2nd or 3rd cars) well-off baby boomers.  Buyers were attracted to its affordability and maneuverability, and they judged the bouncy, primitive Samurai to be fun.

Bad times, however, crashed down on the Samurai and on the mini-jeep market in general with a 1988 Consumer Reports article proclaiming the Samurai as a deathtrap due to its susceptibility to roll over in emergency maneuvers.  Though many questioned Consumer Reports’ methodology, the article’s effect on buyers was chilling – Samurai sales plunged immediately, and consumers lost interest in vehicles that resembled it.  The Rocky, which bore more than a slight similarity to the Suzuki, was introduced about a year later, while the rollover story was still fresh in people’s minds.

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Daihatsu felt that one of the Rocky’s attributes in particular would blunt Consumer Reports’ impact – the Rocky’s wide track.  Indeed, the Rocky did feature a wide track (57.9”), visually augmented by fender flares that made the tires almost resemble outriggers.  Throughout the Rocky’s short life, ads touted it as having the widest track in its class.

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The wide track, combined with generous ground clearance and an independent, double-wishbone front suspension provided Rocky with stability and impressive off-road capabilities.  On-road, these features compensated somewhat for the Rocky’s diminutive 85.6” wheelbase.

1990 Brochure 1
Additionally, the Rocky was heavier and felt sturdier than most of its competition.  According to road tests of its era, the Rocky did not exhibit the feeling of tippiness common to mini-jeeps, and was likely the best-riding vehicle in its class.

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Power came from a 1.6-liter, 16-valve 4-cylinder engine producing 94-hp at 5,700 rpm – a competitive power plant, and one able to move the surprisingly heavy 2,800-lb. Rocky to 60 mph in about 12.5 seconds. Fuel economy was not a strong point, however.  Very low gearing meant the Rocky turned 3,000 rpm at 55 mph, leading to both city & highway mileage of 23 mpg.

Comparison Name
Rocky’s US introduction was not without some controversy.  MGM/UA Films sued Daihatsu regarding the name “Rocky,” claiming it infringed on the company’s trademarked movie series.  The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money and an agreement that Daihatsu would never allude to Sylvester Stallone’s character in its marketing efforts.  As a not-so-subtle reminder of the suit, some marketing materials throughout the Rocky’s lifespan conspicuously mentioned that the car was named for the Rocky Mountains.

Rockys came in two trim levels – the entry-level SE seen here, and a slightly better equipped SX.  SE models came equipped with basic upholstery and painted metal interior door sills, and featured options such as a 4-speaker stereo, air conditioning, power steering, a tilt wheel, and an off-road package.  The SX added upgraded interior trim and conveniences, plus more available options.

1992 Brochure 1
A soft top came standard on the SE, while a removable hardtop was optional on the SE and standard on the SX.  1990 Rocky list prices started at $10,987 for an SE soft top and rose to over $15,000 for a fully-loaded SX.

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4wd came standard on all Rockys, though for 1990 the system consisted of manual locking hubs, long after auto-hubs became commonplace. No automatic transmission was offered.  Such a combination guaranteed that folks looking for creature comforts in their SUVs would look elsewhere.

1994 Tracker
The Rocky’s closest competitors were the Geo Tracker / Suzuki Sidekick twins.  Though priced similarly, the Rocky was about 6” longer than the Tracker, 4” wider and generally felt more substantial than the Tracker, Sidekick or Samurai.

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But the small SUV market was changing, and the Rocky represented the old, rather than the new approach. Such vehicles gradually gained more car-like amenities and comforts, and merely hinted at (rather than focusing on) off-road capabilities.  Conversely, the Rocky made no attempt to conceal its rough-hewn nature.  That was part of its appeal, and ultimately part of its undoing.

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Some of these shortcomings were addressed in subsequent years. More optional equipment was added over the Rocky’s 3-year US run, including power windows/locks, alloy wheels and auto-locking hubs.  But these additions were not enough to compensate for a package that was not quite in keeping with the times.

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In 1990, our featured vehicle’s year, Daihatsu America, Inc. sold only 4,354 Rockys (and 10,630 Charades), often at heavily discounted prices.  Such low sales figures simply could not justify its parent company’s ongoing investment.

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Daihatsu’s foray into the US market did not last long.  In 1992, the company called it quits, after selling only about 50,000 vehicles.  American consumers barely noticed Daihatsu’s departure; the company attained a miniscule 0.07% share of the US car market.

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The Rocky was a good, well-built car, and a very capable off-roader. Upon its 1990 introduction, a US newspaper reviewer wrote:

“If the Rocky SE is representative of the machines Daihatsu has to offer,
the company is going to be doing business in America for a long, long time.”

24 months later, the company withdrew from the American market.

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Many factors converged to thwart Daihatsu’s US plans: a poorly-timed recession, a limited model range, difficulty in launching a new brand without name recognition, fickle Japanese import quotas… the list goes on.

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But most importantly for the Rocky was that the car was several years too late.  Rustic and quirky mini-SUVs had their moment in the sun, but by 1990 the SUV market was becoming big business, with Explorers, Cherokees and the like pushing the market to new levels of mainstreamness.  SUVs were becoming larger and more comfortable, with off-road capabilities taking a back seat to creature comforts.

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Even smaller SUVs started adding amenities and eventually adding another set of doors.  Within a few years of the Rocky’s US departure, new compact SUVs such as Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CRV became sensational sales successes.  Meanwhile, the Rocky faded further into obscurity.  Simply put (and with apologies to MGM/UA), Daihatsu was TKO’d; it simply brought the wrong kind of equipment to the fight.

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The Rocky’s story is a testimonial to the difficulties of breaking into the US car market.  It was a good, solid vehicle, built by an experienced manufacturer, but doomed by circumstance and an imperfect sales strategy.  It deserved at least a fighting chance.


Related:  CC 1989 Daihatsu Charade: Treat and Retreat