How often do you look forward to getting a loaner car? Maybe it depends on who you're taking your car to. The Jaguar dealership is probably going to give you something a little nicer than Big Al's Body Shop and Cajun Home Cooking. This morning it was time for me to bring in my Suzuki Wagon R for some routine maintenance, and I was hoping that maybe I'd be lucky enough to get something like a Honda Fit for the day. Oh, to see triple-digit horsepower once more!
The Wagon R is a Kei car, which I discuss often on the blog, but for newcomers, they're a class of Japanese automobile which are taxed very low because their physical dimensions and engine outputs are heavily limited by regulation. Consequently, they're very compact cars. The engine can't have a displacement of greater than 660cc or put out more than about 63 horsepower. You can identify them at a glance by their special yellow license plates. My Wagon R is sluggish, to put it mildly, which is why I was relishing a day spent in even the dullest of commuter conveyances, as long as its engine had more than a liter of displacement to its name.
I pulled into the shop at 9:30 am on Saturday morning and parked next to a beat-up first-generation Daihatsu Move, which you can see above. "I hope they don't stick me in that thing," I remember thinking. Far be it for me to complain about a free renter, but I've had some stinkers in my day (I once spent two weeks behind the wheel of a musty Ford Contour, which was clearly not the favored child of that particular body shop). I strolled into the office and gave the Suzuki keys to the friendly staff, who happily led me back outside to the Daihatsu. We'll give you a call when your car is ready, the lady told me.
With keys already waiting in the ignition, I wafted a bee out of the car, which had flown in through the wide-open windows. A hood scoop popped up from the tiny engine bay, which seemed to me like painting cheetah spots on a sloth. The interior was well-worn but tidy enough, at least for temporary duty. The steering wheel felt slightly greasy, perhaps inevitable given that it was a vehicle owned by an auto garage. Upon starting the thing, it rolled easily away from idle, which I attributed to the flimsy, lightweight construction of the car. The brakes seemed like more of a suggestion to stop the dainty beast than anything capable of scrubbing off speed, and tremors aplenty emerged from the engine bay at the first stop light. "I may as well wring as much as I can out of this this little crapbox," I decided as the light turned green.
As if motivated by a stubborn desire to prove me mistaken, the spunky Daihatsu roared off the line once I gave it the beans. After a brief pause at about 3000 rpm, the car lurched forward with an unmistakable whine coming from the engine bay. I couldn't control my astonished giggling. You could have recorded it and used it as a dog whistle. The hood scoop wasn't for show after all - this thing was turbocharged!
I didn't confirm the exact year, but it was a 1995-1998 first-gen model. In my disappointment over receiving the car, I'd neglected to read the prominent "Twin Cam 12V EFI Turbo SR" stickers on its flanks. Packing all-wheel-drive and an intercooled turbocharged four-cylinder (most Kei cars only sport three-cylinder engines), this special edition of the Move was as hot as any Kei car was going to get. With the extra machinery, it's likely it weighed in at the max quoted range of 800 kg, or 1764 lbs. Your average passenger car is about twice that heavy nowadays. One shudders to think of how a car like this would fare in a collision with a modern automobile, or even a very large insect. But light weight is one of the most important aspects of performance in any car, and it doesn't get much lighter than that.
Further stabs at the throttle proved conclusively that this was a peppy little box on wheels. Copious turbo lag meant that you could count to three before the acceleration built and rocketed the car forward. Far from being annoying, it became an enjoyable game of timing to try and ensure the surge appeared on cue after an opening appeared on the densely-trafficked roads. The accompanying turbo whine filled the cabin, as if the car had entered warp speed. In the end, I was never actually going very fast - 60 kph (about 37 mph) was about as quick as one could realistically go given the density of turns, cars, and other obstructions on Japanese roads. But getting up to that speed was always a hoot and a half. The torque supplied from the turbocharger meant that acceleration came where it was needed most, namely at low speeds on roads where you're constantly slowing down or stopping. Japan simply doesn't have the real estate to put turn lanes everywhere, so you'll often find your progress halted whenever a car has to turn across traffic or just slow down to make a left turn. You're not likely to be going more than 50 kph in the first place, and if you can grunt your way back up to that after slowing or stopping, especially with an entertaining turbine symphony, you'll be that much happier as a motorist.
The steering was an absolute delight as well. It was light, accurate, and blissfully devoid of the electronic disconnect which reviewers grouse about in modern cars. I can't much speak to the handling limits of the car, as I have nowhere near the driving ability to assess what it's truly capable of. But as I took in into some mountain passes to give it more of a shakedown, it more than held its own in the twisty bits. Body roll was minimal, but the weak brakes made steep downhill driving rather nerve-wracking. It's likely that the stock brakes weren't terribly fancy to begin with, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the rotors and calipers were past their maintenance schedule. The greenhouse was astounding, granting a level of visibility that simply isn't present in modern cars. It's hard to tell in the pictures, but the roof is extraordinarily high - you could probably comfortably drive this little subcompact even if you're well over 6 feet tall. All the more baffling for a Japanese-market car!
The Move merely laughed at what is normally the greatest bane of the Kei car - hills. Most Kei cars are front-wheel-drive, and being limited to such a modest power output means that they barely manage to wheeze up inclines, of which there are many in a country as mountainous as Japan. But the Move's all-wheel-drive preserved acceleration as the weight of the car shifted rearward, and the turbo's torque provided all the push that was necessary. As I wove through the mountain passes to a neighboring town, it attacked each turn and straightaway with aplomb, seemingly happy to stretch its legs. Despite the copious rattles in the car, (the rusty tailgate creaked over nearly any bump, which was actually quite charming) it conveyed a great sense of stability and confidence in spirited driving. It would probably be a lot of fun on a race track.
A drive through the Japanese countryside is a treat even in the dullest of automobiles, as you weave through steep, forested hills with no shortage of ancient shrines and sleepy villages. To an American like myself, the country has a certain density to it that's endlessly intriguing. It feels as if at any point, you could stop the car and spend an entire afternoon peering around every corner of the area. I pirouetted my way around the passes to the next town over, but I knew I'd need to be back in the early afternoon to pick up my sluggish little Wagon R. As if to underscore my point about relative speed, I spent the trip back following a Honda Fit Hybrid, which was at no point in any danger of me catching up with it. But I bet I got a lot more enjoyment out of flogging my little Daihatsu, even if the wind noise from the A-pillar grew to a dull roar over 70 kph.
Sadly, just after 2 pm, I got the call that my car was ready for me to pick it up. I realized that my enthusiastic morning spent exercising the turbocharger had emptied a quarter of the gas tank, so I put two liters of gas back in it to help assuage my guilt. Saturday afternoon traffic was fairly heavy, but I tried to get one last dose of the morning's magic before I turned into a proverbial pumpkin. Pleasant as ever, the staff led me to my car and I waved goodbye to the little Daihatsu. My Wagon R was just that much duller and slower on the way home, although its brakes are wonderful for a car of its size. Perhaps, as is a common theme in Japanese stories, it is better to part with fond yet brief affection as we return to our inexorable duties in life.
There are assuredly a wide variety of contemporary automobiles that would leave the Daihatsu Move Turbo SR in the dust. A BMW M3 of the period, or possibly even the most pedestrian 318ti, should have no trouble running rings around the little breadbox. A decent motorcycle would pass it a dozen times over. Heck, even a Camry V6 could probably leave it in the dust. But it scarcely matters. I'm far from the first and I certainly won't be the last to express this sentiment, but driving a small, cheap car quickly is simply entertaining. Indeed, what constitutes "quickly" is heavily dependent on your frame of reference. A modern sports car would surround you in far more steel and smooth out much of the road's imperfections with an advanced suspension setup. But the constraints and tactile feedback you get from an older car like this Move make you feel no less engaged in the act of driving, even with the fairly primitive 4-speed automatic transmission. You're moving around a lot and having a great time, which is really the whole point, isn't it?
At several points I caught myself thinking that I'd love to have it as a daily driver. It's not that the car doesn't have its flaws. Fuel economy seems to be unimpressive for a car its size, it would simply be obliterated in any traffic accident, and the rust and brakes hinted that it's not aging gracefully. But these are all forgiven once you cane it around a little bit. This is a cliched expression in automotive reviews but it's true: This car puts a smile on your face.
(More photos are available on Flickr, if you want to check them out.)