By on March 22, 2010

What a difference twenty years makes. The eighties was the Japanese decade, when they were going to take over the US, if not the world. They bought prime real estate assets like Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. They wrote books telling the US how to fix its problems. And their car makers were swamping the US like a tsunami. The last of the holdouts, Daihatsu, finally showed up on our shores at a rather inauspicious time: 1988, one year before the great Japanese stock market collapse. Did Daihatsu’s failure and retreat in 1992 have to do more with Japanese hubris in trying to sell a “BMW quality” Geo Metro, or was the Charade just an overpriced charade? Or is there a difference?

Let’s just say that among other things, Daihatsu’s timing generally wasn’t so hot, and their judgment questionable. Gasoline prices had been dropping all through the eighties. Buyers were abandoning small hatches for bigger cars and SUVs, and the Geo/Chevy Metro (Suzuki Swift) pretty much had the bottom feeder market to itself, modest sized and priced as it was. But Daihatsu priced the Charade substantially above the Metro, despite its similar size and 1.0 liter 3 cylinder engine.

Daihatsu tried to create an upscale image for the Charade, making or implying references to “BMW style quality” in a small car. Well, it was the time that Toyota peaked in terms of content quality, and as Toyota’s captive mini-maker, Daihatsu probably and rightfully tagged along. American car mags generally agreed in their tests of the Charade, duly impressed in its build and material quality. Its interior alone looks more Camry than Metro. The little three pot impressed with its flat torque curve and eager-beaver demeanor, even if objective performance wasn’t significantly different from the Metro. And forget about smoothness with only three cylinders.

I have to admit to liking the styling of the Charade, and it did exude a more substantial image than the lowly Geo, probably in part to its significantly wider stance. And its handling was pretty consistently praised too; with a little more power and style, the Charade could have been the Mini of its day. Perhaps that’s what it was trying to do, but it came off way too business-like and with not near enough self-conscious style and verve. The Nissan Pao of the same vintage had plenty of that, but that cutie was a limited production only model, and never officially imported.

The Charade was built in a turbocharged version, the GTi,  with a whopping 100hp, but not for us. And a little turbo-diesel was also available in other markets. Speaking of Daihatsu’s other markets, it wasn’t just the US that they retreated from. In 2005, they pulled the plug on their Australian operations, after some forty years. And there are rumors that Chile, one of the Charade’s most popular export markets, may be next to go.

Toyota took a minority ownership stake in Daihatsu in 1967, and upped that to 51% in 1999. Daihatsu was the source for kei-cars for Toyota, allowing it to not spread its resources into that narrow segment. But there has always been an overlap with Daihatsu’s larger cars, many of them having been Toyota rebadges. That’s not the case with the Charade, but Toyota’s Tercel was clearly stepping all over it, especially in the US. It begs the question as to whether Daihatsu has a real future as a word brand, or whether it will eventually be absorbed fully into the Toyota family.

Daihatsu added a four-door sedan sometime along its brief four-year assault on the US market, and in addition to the two extra doors it also sported an extra cylinder, to/and boot. They also sold the rugged Rocky, a compact Jeepster also just a cut above the popular Suzuki Samuari. We’ll take a look at one soon. Anecdotal evidence suggests the Charade had typical Toyota reliability from that era, as there are a fair number of them still on the streets on the West Coast. Considering that only some 15k units were sold in 1989, that tends to support that supposition. Try finding a Peugeot 504 today, another victim of the US market about the same time as Daihatsu. I’ll keep looking for the 405, but it didn’t take much to stumble on these Charades.

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31 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1989 Daihatsu Charade...”


  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Actually, the last year for the Peugeot 504 sedan was ’79, and the wagon was ’83. Replaced by the 505, which ran to the end of Peugeots in the US in ’92. Superb cars, I owned 2 504s and 3 505s back in the day. Maine was a relative hotbed of Peugeots back then, we had THREE dealerships in this little state. Sadly, the cars are long gone, I have not seen one in the wild here in several years. We never had a Daihatsu dealer that I know of, I don’t think I ever saw one on the East Coast. Maybe one or two with California plates.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    It’s a charade alright; pretending to be a car.

  • avatar
    obbop

    What trim level provided those nifty fuzzy dice?

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “The eighties was the Japanese decade, when they were going to take over the US,”
    From where I’m standing , they succeeded.
    This Charade is the car that gave Daihatsu real credibility. Today VW make loads of 3-cylinder engines , and BMW are rumoured to start soon.Diahatsu were the first. Toyota have to be conservative , but Diahatsu don’t. I don’t see any of these any more , tinworm has got the better of them in the european climate.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Let’s review the market…
    Chevy had the Sprint, which was a cheap Suzuki. It was a dated design and was cheaply assembled. It looked cheap, smelled cheap, and ran cheap. The value of this car was highly questionable.

    Yugo. This newsmaking lemon arrived in 1987 as a dated Fiat or something or other, and it reeked of cheap and laughable quality issues.

    Hyundai. New to the market with dated Mitsubishis, Hyundai looked pretty good for two years or at least until their cars fell apart. They had price, size and what appeared to be a reliable product familiar to many Americans under the Mitsubishi label. Hyundai teetered on extinction by 1990 with it’s poor reputation.

    Ford Festiva. The best of the bunch in this class from 1988 to 1992. It was a Ford, but a Mazda 121 design. It got excellent reviews for it’s quality, size and value. It was cheap, but had Mazda quality fit and finish. Most importantly – it was the only car in this class with a dependable four cylinder with gas mileage in the upper 40s. The Festiva also benefitted from the kudos received from a similarly named Ford, the Fiesta from Germany. With this kind of positive history, the Festiva was a winner for Ford.

    By the time the Daihatsu arrived, it was too late. Ford had a better car with local dealers, and the market for new cars from overseas went sour with the Yugo and Hyundai problems. American buyers in that market had been burned by these new labels and would have been disinterested in the Daihatsu even if it was a BMW in disguise.

    I had a 1988 Festiva LX. I paid $6888 for it in November 1987. It got a high of 52 mpg during it’s first year, and stayed in the 40s throughout the time I drove it. I expected to keep the car 2 years and expected it to fall apart. It never did. I kept it until the year 2000 and 285,000 miles. Two months ago, it was sitting in a used car lot for $900 with 412,000 miles on the odometer. That is a whole lot of driving for only $6888. I wish I bought three Festivas before they were phased out for a pitiful Ford Aspire in 1993.

    So, I think that is why the Daihatsu didn’t find enough love in the States when it was launched in 1989. Even the market itself for this kind of car dried up. The newly designed three-cylinder Geo Metro/Suzuki Swift took what the Festiva didn’t of a shrinking car market. (The Metro looked cool compared to the boxy Festiva, but it was a disposable car built-wise. It’s three cylinder wasn’t very good.)

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      Never was enamoured of the looks of the Festiva compared to the Mark I Fiesta, but I’m not surprised to hear your Festiva went over 400K. I’ve seen more than a few over 250K, though they seemed to have rust issues in the midwest.

      There was a really short run of custom Festivas, called SHOguns –

      Basically an American tuner take on the Renault R5 Turbo – SHO V-6 stuffed in behind the driver seats, chassis upgrades, etc.

      I think the guy who did them built 10 or so.

    • 0 avatar
      OldandSlow

      You left out the Ford Escort – which offered a stripper 2 door model that was priced favorably versus the Charade.

      The second generation Escort circa 1991 forward were ok by the 1990′s standards, as were the Dodge and Plymouth Neons which came later.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, you left out the Honda CRX HF as your choice of gas sipping point A to point B grocery getter on your list. Admittedly no back seat unlike other cars in this category but fun to drive, bullet proof reliability, four cylinders under the hood, and 50 MPG if you babied it.

    • 0 avatar
      zbnutcase

      The Festiva was a KIA product, and if the Metro engine wasn’t very good how come I see so many more Metros plying the highways??? Sorry bud, but the Suzuki was a VASTLY better rig. And I have never even owned one, but had a few friends with them. ‘nutcase

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      zbnutcase is right. Your Festiva was a Kia.

      If I was driving a 80s Kia, I surely wouldn’t be dissin’ anything made by Suzuki.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      The Festiva may have been built by Kia to keep costs low, but it was basically a hand me down Mazda 121 as noted earlier.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Ah yes, the late 80′s econoboxes: I had a Ford Festiva, not the cheap LX model but the fancier LS or something like that. I was quite happy with it, other than the Yokohama tyres it came with were made out of absolute bakelite. Lasted 50k, but a couple of time when the car shot loose on me on wet roads (not attempting any fancy turns or anything like that) is, unfortunately, my best memory of the car.

      And it was NO comparison to it’s predecessor, a ten year old Fiesta S. That’s the car that got me turned on to German cars – something that still affects my buying habits.

      Then, I got my live-in girlfriend a new Geo Metro LSi – every option available except the automatic. Cheap but nice. I have very fond memories of that car.

      And she traded in a bottom of the line, 4-speed transmission, Mercury Lynx on the Metro. (Relatively) big, stark, not bad on gas, and it did do it’s job. Which was keeping an impoverished, in debt, convenience store clerk in transportation.

      I think fondly of the Festiva, and especially of the Metro. Would love to find a five-door version with a stick that’s not beat to death.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I think we may have forgotten the Pontiac LeMans from this time period, a recycled Opel Kadett built in Korea (Daewoo) with the Pontiac nose on the front of it.
      What I really remember was a customer in 1991 who wanted to trade in his 1990 LeMans on a Toyota Tercel (from worst to bad?). Blue book at the time was $600 for the car. He took the deal.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “And there are rumors that Chile, one of the Charade’s most popular export markets, may be next to go.”

    Yes, I hear that everything in Chile has been shaken up.

    Rim Shot

    I know bad taste.

    But comedy isn’t pretty.

  • avatar
    Bancho

    Wow, if there’s one thing I truly hate about all cars of this era it’s the stupid motorized seatbelts. I know it’s not specific to this car but the interior shot photo just brought it all back to me.

    I remember the ads for the Charade making all sorts of claims (more front legroom than a Mercedes?). They didn’t seem to be such bad cars and I actually rather liked the Rocky. I owned a 1989 Geo Spectrum (aka Isuzu I-Mark) at the time.

  • avatar
    Garak

    I remember test driving one of those years ago, most likely an 1.3 liter fuel injected model. It looked like that white sedan. The interior felt like it was from a child’s toy, and the car had scary handling and also very bad brakes.

    The straight line acceleration, however, was incredible, or at least it felt that way due to the flimsiness of the car.

  • avatar

    Two months ago, it was sitting in a used car lot for $900 with 412,000 miles on the odometer.

    Buy it back. You know you want to, it still loves you and is waiting for you. Seriously, you gotta bring it back home, it’s a wheel of circles thing.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Ah yes the GTti, now that was one of the finer hot hatches. I took it for a spin back in the day and while it wasn’t as hyper-hyper as the Peugeot 205 GTI, it was still plenty fun. And the Charade as such was so good that CAR Magazine described it as “the shape of things to come”. They were wrong, as so often, but one still wonders why Daihats didn’t follow up at all.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    The LX in 1988 meant that the car was loaded with every option available, even remote control mirrors. Instead of an automatic or a four speed, it had a five speed manual. Instead of skinny tires, it had expensive wide sports radials which changed how the car handled for the better. It had an extra sliding storage box under the passenger seat. Instead of cheap seats, it had reclining folding, split rear with adjustable head rests all around. This LX model must not have sold as well as expected because it was phased out within the year.

    Mazda designed this 121/Festiva with a five speed manual, so these little cars got great gas mileage, and were also fun to drive. But you know this market – Americans wanted an automatic transmission. Well, these little 1600 pound motorcycles-with-doors weren’t designed for that, but Mazda came up with an automatic anyway and most Festivas had them. And they sucked to drive; slow, slow, slow! When Mazda turned the Festiva into an Aspire, they added another 300 pounds to the car, so it got even slower, even with a manual transmission.

    This little car was worn out and not worth $900. The LX interior wasn’t cared for anymore and it was missing several parts that would have made it a collectable, and I knew it had probably had a decade of mechanical issues simply from the odometer reading.

    But I definately know it was mine, because I checked under the floor mat where I accidentially singed a spot in the carpeting when I was installing the amber fog lamps back in 1987. The car was brand new then, so I never forgot that “first cut” stealing from it it’s “showroom virginity”.

    Yeah, I have great memories with this car because it continually exceeded expectations. Like I wrote before, I wish I bought three of them. While I wouldn’t have wanted to get into an accident with it, it was a super way to race around the mountains, rowing it up and down hills with that smooth Mazda transmission. That engine was great!

    So, if you are interested in this car – remember to avoid the automatic transmissions, get the widest tires you can special order for it, and search for the LX option in 1988. I still do from time to time.

  • avatar
    Wolf

    Paul : being a frenchy, I can get you pictures of every 405 you’d ever want (a friend of mine still has a Mi16 405).

    Same goes for most french cars, just mail me with what you want !

    Sincerely yours,

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Wolf; that would be cheating! I can get any picture of just about any car ever made at Google Images, but that’s not the point. This is a treasure hunt! And I will find a 405, as well as a 504, a 604, and most of all, my beloved 404!

  • avatar

    Motorized mouse-trap passive belts were an abomination.

  • avatar
    Turbo60640

    I had a silver 2-door 1990 Geo Metro with the 3 cylinder engine. It got great mileage and was virtually problem free for the 2-3 years that I owned it.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    I had a 1988 Ford Festiva LX with the 5-speed manual. Man, was that car fun! Not quite a Mini Cooper but not far off for its time. While its tossability in the twisties might be expected (with those wider LX tires), I was amazed how solid and stable it was on the highway. No, it wasn’t truly fast but it felt very quick. The interior could fit four adults in surprising comfort. And I had no trouble bringing home a brand-new TV set – in the box – with the rear seats folded down.

    I was living in Florida when I bought it. When I moved back to the Northeast, it held up amazingly well on the mean streets of NYC. It never failed me, got highway mileage in the mid to upper 40s (I ran it pretty hard) and still managed 37mpg in the city. I traded in the Festiva when I bought a new 1998 Ford ZX2. The new car was also a blast but I was sorry I couldn’t buy another new Festiva at that time. Truly, less can be more.

  • avatar
    kadett72

    Argh, Daihatsu!
    That will never become a classic in Denmark, and neither will any of the other strange vehicles Daihatsu brought to the country.
    I agree that 504 is a classic, especially the Familiale, but I haven’t seen one lately. They probably all went to Africa.

  • avatar
    niky

    Almost bought a three-door one of these, several years ago, to commute in, because I was getting sick of paying through the nose for gas and depreciation on my 626.

    And while I was enamored of the Charade when they were new, time wasn’t very kind to the car… it handled like a kart… but not the good kind… more like a golf kart on bed springs… the chassis had lost all backbone, steering was truckishly loose, and the little three-pot felt more like a two-pot with a clattering emptiness where the third piston should go.

    Still… quite fascinated with the GTti, though those are quite rare around these parts. A few tweaks and you can get it down into the 14s… a proper build would put this 1 liter car into the 13s…

    -

    Funny thing about the Festiva… that’s the car that actually made Kia’s name in some parts of the world. Even funnier, those cars are easier to keep on the road than the Charade… Parts are cheap and plentiful, and as long as you maintain them well and avoid dings and scrapes, you can avoid the perennial rust problem, as well.

    The Charade is infinitely prettier, though. And it lends itself well to modification, restification and wacky electric vehicle conversions.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Ugliest. Car. Ever. Built.

    When we gonna get another TWAT awards, BTW

  • avatar
    AnthonyG

    The Ford Festiva was sold as the Kia Pride in the UK from about 1993 through to the end of the 1990s. It sold pretty well, and was regarded as a tough, basic, reliable car.

    There are still a few trundling around in rural areas, if the rust bug dosen’t take hold they are virtually indestructable.

    Early ones came with factory fitted whitewall tyres, which hadn’t been seen over here since about 1961!

  • avatar

    the gray Daihatsu Charade as there are pictures of farther up the page Who owns it? there is a picture of the interior where there sits a part in which I have been looking long after. so I’d like to buy the part if possible? someone who can help me with this?
    I’m talking about the plastic console there sits around gear lever :)

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Always thought that Charade was the silliest / stupidest car model name since the Isuzu Impulse .When they were new I briefly considered a Charade as a commuter car , mainly because you could get a relatively well equipped car if you were willing to pay more , and they offerred an optional sunroof , which I wanted .


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