Automakers often develop vehicles that appeal to as many customers as is reasonably possible. In some instances, however, often due to unique regulations or demands, cars with a more niche design can grow to take up a notable portion of the market. In Japan, there is an ultra-compact niche vehicle type with a significant following known as Kei cars. The word derives from kei jidōsha, which is Japanese for light automobile.
Kei cars went into production in Japan after World War II in the late 1940s. These machines were relatively small (smaller than a subcompact) due to both limited available materials and the restricted funds potential customers had to spend. Through the decades, these small cars developed a following by fans that liked their compactness and quirky appeal. One particular Kei car with a healthy following is the Daihatsu Charade.
Small, Simple, and Significant
Daihatsu, which may be an uncommon name to many American readers, was founded in 1907. It sold vehicles abroad, including in places like Europe, South Africa, Australia, and even the U.S. in the 1980s. But over the course of the last few decades, it has concentrated more on its home market.
The first generation Charade, known as the G10, was introduced as a five-door hatchback, and as a three-door hatch in 1978. It was powered by a 1.0-liter inline three-cylinder engine making 55 horsepower. The Charade sold surprisingly well in Japan and won the award of Japanese Car of the Year in 1979. It was also well received in other markets, like in the South American nation of Chile (which later got a G20 version with a 41-hp 0.8-liter-powered version) and other Latin nations.
Little But Mighty
Maintaining the theme of value for money and a 1.0-liter engine (some being turbocharged this time), the second generation Charade, known as the G11, went into production in 1983. A higher roof (known as the “Dolphin Roof”) was available for customers who needed more headroom and cargo space. A five-door notchback body style was also introduced. Power ranged from 41 horsepower from the carryover 0.8-liter to 73 hp from the 0.9-liter turbocharged Charade 926 Turbo. The latter was a road-going version of a Charade rally car that was co-developed with Italian sports car maker De Tomaso. Charade rally cars managed class victories in the 1985 African Safari Rally.
The traits of value, functionality, and the potential for performance continued with the third-gen Charade, known as the G100 or G102, introduced for 1987. The highlights of this iteration were the Charade GTti and GTxx versions, which packed 100 and 105 horsepower respectively. The 1.0-liter GTti became the first production car to produce 100 hp per liter. It was also the fastest 1.0-liter car made to that point.
By the time the fourth-gen (G200) Charade went into production, the 1.0-liter engine had essentially run its course, as the vehicle’s weight increased to meet safety and consumer option demands. The 1.0 engine was only available in limited markets. The sporty Charade GTi got a 124-hp 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine. The traditional Charade, however, went out of production after the 2000 model year. It was replaced in the subcompact/supermini, bigger Kei car market by the more contemporary Daihatsu Storia (also known as the Sirion).
Innovation for Tomorrow
In 2002, however, the Charade nameplate was applied to the Daihatsu Mira in the United Kingdom and South Africa. This was good news, as the smaller Mira platform was truer to the original Charade concept than the Storia. As such, the Charade continued on as the quintessential larger Kei car until 2013, when the name was retired from all markets. Today, the Mira continues the Charade’s tradition.
Japanese cars are gradually gaining appeal with younger car collectors. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bigger Kei car following in the U.S. and around the globe. And after Daihatsu was acquired by Toyota in 2016, we also wouldn’t be surprised to see these unique Japanese machines show up at more mainstream enthusiast events in the future.