By on July 15, 2013

Suzuki_Cappuccino_91-97_30

The little red car sat squat and low on the street looking for all the world like the product of an unlikely tryst between a Dodge Viper and a child’s pedal car. It was a classic two seat sports car, with short rear deck, small passenger compartment and “long” hood that stretched away from the driver just far enough to cover the engine beneath it. The proportions were right, but the actual numbers were ludicrous: 81 inch wheel base, 54 inches wide, a curb weight just a touch under 1600 pounds and 660 CC engine with a maximum horsepower rating of just 63 horsepower. This was going to be an experience, I knew, but first I had to figure out how I was going to fit behind the wheel.

Many of us in the Western Hemisphere live in awe of the Japanese Kei car. A special category of micro-car, the Kei is limited in overall size and engine displacement by law. People who buy Keis benefit from a reduced vehicle tax and are also exempt from appearing at the local police station to prove they have a place to park their car before they are allowed to register it with the DMV. Kei cars come in all sorts of configurations but are for the most part utilitarian cars that strive to be small on the outside but as large as possible on the inside. Like the vaunted Mitsubishi Zero fighters of the second world war, Kei cars trade weight for performance and many of them are quite spry on the road, but lack the solidity of other small cars.

Autozam_AZ-1_001

In the early 1990s three Japanese companies, Suzuki, Honda and Mazda under their Kei car specific Autozam brand, introduced competing sports cars. All three are worthy of mention in any article about small sports cars, with the Autozam AZ-1 and the Honda Beat being mid-engined rear wheel drive machines while the Cappuccino is a front/mid engined car also with rear wheel drive, and, since they all were built to meet the same legal standards all have virtually the same weight and horsepower numbers. Driving dynamics of the AZ-1 and the Beat, unfortunately remain a mystery to me because, unlike the Cappuccino I didn’t happen to have a student who owned one.

image48

Taka was a cool dude. Tall and thin, but not especially handsome, he had the demeanor of a Japanese rock star. At 23 years old, he melted all the high school girls’ hearts whenever he slipped into the school and poured his lanky frame into the seats of our waiting room. It would have been easy for him to effect a snide, superior attitude but since his day job was running a backhoe for the Japan Rail company he was surprisingly down to earth. The little red sports car he drove fit him perfectly in size and attitude, at once glamorous and attention getting while at the same time firmly grounded in the real world and with humble underpinnings.

800px-Suzuki_Cappuccino_front_20090514

The Cappuccino was a tinny little thing of Lilliputian proportions and I realized as I approached the driver’s side that I was going to have to seriously contort myself if I was going to get my modest 6’1” 240 pound all American beef fed frame behind the wheel. My first attempt at a normal entry failed miserably. Next I tried stepping into the car with both feet, something that was only possible because of the car’s open top, and sliding down the seat back; no dice. Finally I pivoted my hind-end out the open door, put my hands on the black top and crab walked my way into the saddle.

My unconventional entrance worked, but now I was stuck with the steering wheel inches in front of me and the foot well so filled with my legs that I could only find the pedals by sense of touch. They were there, impossibly tiny and just millimeters from one another. Taka guided me. “Off to the left of the clutch is a dead pedal to rest your foot on.” He told me. It made all the difference and although I still felt pinched, the unseen world beneath made at least some semblance of sense.

When the door closed I found myself fully entrapped in the little car. Its high door sills precluded resting my arm on the edge of the window and the tiny console on my left just large enough for my elbow. The shifter was there, striking me in the middle of my fore-arm rather than fitting my hand, but as Taka climbed in next to me I turned the key, found the gear and hit the gas.

We headed out down the narrow, one way thoroughfare in front of my school to the main road that ran alongside the Uji river. It was a terrible road to drive, a narrow strip of pavement that ran precariously atop a levy intended hold back the river should it approach flood stage. The few guard rails that the Japanese government had decided to place along it at odd intervals always struck me as being much too close and I had avoided this road for many months as my Supra felt far too wide for it. It was, however, one of the few roads in town that didn’t have a stoplight every fifty feet and so it was a good place to air out a car – if you had the guts.

Uji_里尻_Ujicity_Kyotopref_Kyotoprefecturtal_road_241_Mukaijima_Uji_line

The narrow road seemed surprisingly wide from the cockpit of the Cappuccino. The little car wound out in first gear, and hissed energetically through its pop-off valve as I pushed in the clutch for the shift to second. There was another rush of acceleration and another gratifying hiss and the car scooted under my butt as I wound up the revs high enough for the turbo to have a real effect. The wind blew across the hood, over the windscreen and tousled my hair and the little car came into its own as I slung it into the curves that followed the river’s every bend. Despite the cramped quarters, the little car felt natural under me, pulling me out of the tiny cockpit and my focusing my attention onto the road ahead. Like a motorcycle I had the sensation of flying and the little car responded to my every input with razor sharp handling. The road rushed forward to meet us and I entered the zone where my driving inputs were purely mechanical, each happening a moment after my mind had already swept past that place on the road.

Taka’s hand on my arm brought me back to the real world and I suddenly realized I was flogging his pride and joy a little harder than I probably should be. We hit the turnaround and I brought the car back a little less energetically than I had taken it out. Back at the school we grinned stupidly at one another and I began the task of extricating myself from the seat I had taken so much time to clamber into. What a ride.

With my feet once again on terra firma, the car resumed its comically small proportions and the normal world reasserted itself. My initial thoughts about the car were, I decided, right. The Cappuccino is one part supercar and one part toy and all kinds of fun. Safety issues aside, it is a shame we don’t get more little cars like this in the states. Everyone wants to be a hero, and this is a car that could make a hero out of everyman. That’s O-kei with me.

Suzuki_Cappuccino_rear_20090514

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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58 Comments on “Two Guys, One Cup: Behind The Wheel Of Suzuki’s Littlest Sportscar...”


  • avatar
    friedclams

    Funny you posted this, I just took my son to a Microcar show here in Boston… they had all sorts of diminutive cars that I’ve only read about: Isettas, DKWs, Crosleys, a GoggoMobil… but the only Japanese one was an old Subaru 360. No kei cars at all. I think the seating issues you described (let alone safety federalization) precludes them ever being sold here, unfortunately. Although I do note that a modern Fiat 500 didn’t exactly hulk over the others, that’s still a tempting option…

    • 0 avatar
      Rod Panhard

      You missed the Nissan Figaro.

      • 0 avatar
        friedclams

        Oh yes, I did see that. Is that really a kei car? I thought it was more of a retro roadster like the original Miata. Despite my habitual anti-retro prejudice, that was a cute car. Thanks for refreshing my memory. I’m guessing you brought that gorgeous Panhard, if so I am addressing royalty!

  • avatar
    retrogrouch

    Two guys and a cup?

    “And none of this:
    • Puff pieces on luxury cars
    • Everyone’s-a-winner comparisons
    • Repackaged PR-generated content
    • Pornography, fetish stuff, and vanity publishing
    • Fiction”

    I’m not complaining. I’m just wondering.

    • 0 avatar
      rnc

      “Two guys and a cup?” – Perhaps that says more about you than the article itself, my first impression was the tea cup ride at disneyworld.

    • 0 avatar
      Jellodyne

      Did the article strike you as fetish stuff? Or one of those other things?

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      OK, while I’m fully in favor of the “no puff pieces” etc. standard, I’m hardly going to take a puritanical attitude towards them. I can understand that standard to be there to insure that the overall content of the site doesn’t get watered down to insignificance, but I’m always open to some bending of those standards if the article is interesting and covers some car that I can’t possibly have a chance of driving.

      And I’m wondering about your objection.

      As the car is not available in the US, its hard to call it a puff piece. And it certainly isn’t a luxury car.

      Nothing was compared. It was an (admittedly friendly) look at a car most Americans will never see. OK, he wasn’t critical in the usual TTAC tradition, nit picking problems all over the place.

      There’s no prepackaged-PR content.

      Unfortunately, there’s neither pornography or fetish stuff. (Yeah, there were some things I enjoyed about Bertel besides his insider focus.) OK, there’s some vanity in playing with someone else’s interesting car and writing about it – but considering that two hours ago I didn’t even know this car existed, I’ll be tolerant in this case.

      It was not written as fiction.

      Perhaps the problem is that the article was positive, didn’t slam the manufacturer, the car, the concept, or attempt any of the above to make the aforementioned look foolish? I’ll live with it. I’d really prefer The Truth About Cars, rather than The National Enquirer Car Blog (which this site has occasional dipped into in the past).

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      The car’s name is Cappuccino and it’s roughly the same size as a Venti from Starbucks. Why does everyone assume smut first?

    • 0 avatar
      Dirk Stigler

      Don’t be a jerk. It’s clearly a reference to “K-cup” as in the coffeemaker.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Safety issues, hell. We should be able to get kei cars in America for those who really want to drive them. I’d love to have one of these in the garage along side the Solstice. And I’d happily sign whatever paperwork necessary exempting myself (and my heirs) from personal injury lawsuits, or whatever other crap the lawyers can come up with, to own one.

    The impossibility of getting such cars is just another example of what a country full of cringing wimps we’ve become.

    • 0 avatar
      wagonsonly

      Agreed. Motorcycles aren’t my cup of tea, and the risk factor in driving one is unacceptably high to me (partly because of other drivers, but mostly because I have a lousy sense of balance). But I would never support banning other peoples’ preferred mode of transport just because I don’t like them. Kei cars, on the other hand, are probably safer in a collision than a bike – yet are banned from our shores because of emissions and safety regulations. One would imagine that Japanese emissions standards applied to a 0.6L engine ought to be fairly green, and that the safety of these cars, while obviously disadvantaged in a collision with a Suburban, is still probably pretty decent compared to what was on sale here (and still road-legal) from the ’50s through the early ’80s. I look forward to the day I can put a Cappuccino or AZ-1 in my garage (3-4 years) along with a Subaru R1 or R2.

      • 0 avatar
        dolorean

        I’m all for motorcyclists being allowed to drive highway speeds with no helmet; however, I also believe that they should be held liable for their own hospital bills if and when they drop the bike. Same with these little cars.

        I do take exception to “Safety issues, hell.” By this argument, if I want to drive a ’79 Econoline with no brakes and loaded with pig manure at high rates of speed through a school zone, I as an American should be able to, because safety issues are worth ignoring. There’s nothing stopping anyone from finding and driving a Go-Go Mobile or Nash Metropolitan or a Smart Car if they want small transportation. But I would prefer that they had passed a reasonable safety inspection first.

        • 0 avatar
          slow kills

          One of the beauties of motorcycling and bitty little cars is acknowledging your own vulnerability. This thrusts reality in your face, and if one is too foolhardy to deal properly the odds are overhelming that they will be the victim of their own stupidity and not innocent people nearby.

          Contrast that with the obscene ‘big SUV’ safety school, where one takes glee in their ability to plow into most other vehicles and leave them maimed or dead while personally escaping unscathed.

          Give me the nation of ‘dangerous’ cars with no morale hazard. I too will sign every waiver in triplicate.

          • 0 avatar
            Syke

            And . . . . . ride a motorcycle or tiny car long enough, and you develop automatic reflexes in your driving way beyond those owned by a driver of a “big SUV” (or whatever equivalent). You turn into a safer driver, because you have to.

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      Also agreed. We’re told on one hand to reduce fuel usage and pollutants, yet if we want something to take up less footprint, it’s a Smart car-only. Here in OK, we have a legal option for driving kei-class (I believe) mini-trucks. You see quite a few coming in from ranches and farms where they are really useful for making runs into town for supplies at 40 mpg.

      On the other hand, someone will eventually sue after being run over by an SUV-driving cell phone-addict…

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      “The impossibility of getting such cars is just another example of what a country full of cringing wimps we’ve become.”

      Thank you. They’re safer than motorcycles.

      Maybe a special license requirement like a motorcycle endorsement would enable some of these neat little beasts to be sold legally here, although I’m not optimistic on that front.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The whole microcar things is an intersting concept, and I, for one, appreciate the review . . . especially the part about trying to fit in the car. At 6’4″ I had the same issues with a female associate’s Fiat X-1/9 that was parked in front of me in my firm’s parking garage . . . which I ultimately solved by unlocking the steering column, taking the car out of gear and manually pushing it to another vacant spot.

    Safety issues aside, you’ve just discovered what made — in objective terms — low-performance European sports cars of the 1960s fun: light weight.

    Actually, I did fit quite comfortably in a car that weighed 100 lbs. less than yours . . . although it may not have made the dimensional requirements. That would be my 1968 Karmann Ghia. With dual Holleys and appropriate intake and exhaust manifolds, together with some ignition modifications, my car probably had about the same HP as the one you drove, even though lacking the turbocharger. Notwithstanding its top speed of 85 mph, it was a ton of fun to drive . . . and its “perceived speed” was quite high.

  • avatar
    cpthaddock

    Thanks for an enjoyable read. Your description of ingress and egress challenges reminded me of several larger vehicles that have been surprisingly unaccommodating to my 6′ 250lb frame. I remember in particular the Saturn Sky / Pontiac Solstice twins which struck me as being engineered on the reverse of Dr. Who’s Tardis principle – i.e. even smaller on the inside than the outside might suggest – must to my disappointment.

  • avatar

    Fourth Stage ep.11

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      To be honest, that one felt a little contrived… not that many of the “races” in the cartoon weren’t. Still, I’d much rather spend my money on an underpowered, open-top Cappuccino. ;)

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, but you thought the “gum tape death match” was contrived?

        I understand there is a lot more back story in the comic, the father was a much more abusive drunk in the books and Takumi had a much tougher life. I must confess, however, I haven’t read the manga bit I was looking for them in the used book stores when we went to Japan last year.

        • 0 avatar
          niky

          Well, not the actual use of gum-tape, no… :p

          Still haven’t gotten a copy of the Fifth stage, though I’ve been meaning to.

          • 0 avatar
            hoff02

            Recently discovered Initial D via Netflix and was hooked in 2 epsiodes. The show struck a pretty strong balance of technical information, drama, and character development I thought. I can only imagine how good the Manga would be. I agree that sometimes the show went a little too contrived or obvious, but nothing that seemed overly detrimental. When I saw the photo for this post – Initial D was actually my first thought!

          • 0 avatar

            Seen this article I did about the scene back in the day?

            http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/strange-days-strange-places-my-life-as-a-japanese-street-racer-wannabe/

            Some of the scenes in Initial D are a bit contrived, but kids really did stupid stuff like that. I discovered the series after I returned from Japan in 2010. I was jonesing for something Japanese and found it on Netflix. Great series that rings really true to me – the Japanese voice actors are especially good.

            About the only other anime series this good is Area 88. If you guys like fighter jets, check it out.

          • 0 avatar
            hoff02

            I did read that article Thomas, loved it. I actually discovered Initial D a week or two after that or I would’ve appreciated the commonalities a little more with that post (fun to look back at it now). I obviously have no way to judge the true face behind a show like Initial D, but between reading reviews and commentary such as yours, I’m even more appreciative that something like that caught a fair amount of truth to it for documentation of sorts. They may have been mostly claptrap machines driven by punk-kids, but it kind of rings similar to the car spirit in America during the ’50′s and ’60′s. Either way you slice it, those were some glory days for the automobile in each respective country.

            I may have to track down Area 88 now…

          • 0 avatar

            The only redeeming feature of Fifth Stage so far was the moment when magical shota’s balls dropped at the sight of Mako’s slender legs.

        • 0 avatar

          The contrieved part was that the rain had to start falling in precisely the right moment. Both Ryousuke and Nobuhiko confirmed that it would’ve been a clear loss for Takumi in the dry, but we can’t have that, can we?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Sounds like a lot of fun ! .

    This is the typ of article TTAC is most loved for : an Automotive Journalist test drove a car and then wrote about it in easy to understand terms .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    koshchei

    Attractive in a really quirky way. Pity that at my height, there’s simply no possibility of even fitting into one.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    I must use this as a fine example of a fairly well-written article that would have benefited greatly from the necessary discipline of some strict editing. The gist is good but there are extraneous details and restatements that should have been pared out.

  • avatar
    LeBaron

    About the same proportions as the MG Midget. If Wikipedia is to be believed. I could argue that the MG was better looking…at least until they hung the crash bumpers on it.

    At a more “conservatively” proportioned 5’4″ <150 lbs I wouldn't have any issues fitting in it.

    Paul

  • avatar
    countrypete

    I have one of these here in New Zealand. It’s an absolute hoot to drive, with a redline of 9,000rpm (or is it 9500?). Because it’s light, it’s pretty quick, and on a twisty road there are few everyday cars that will keep with it. I don’t drive it often, but if I’m in a bad mood go out for a thrash, and come back happy!

  • avatar
    rolladan

    My favorite kei car ever! Ill never fit my 6’5″ ass in one but that’s gotta be a blast to drive. Any pics of you sitting in it? Or sitting on it may be a better description….

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    Not far from my first car: 1969 Triumph Spitfire; 58″ wide, 83″ wheelbase, 1680 lbs., 75hp/75 lb/ft from 1296cc agricultural 4.

    The MG Midget was even smaller. Today’s US-available lightweight roadster, the Mazda Miata, is almost 68″ wide, has a nearly 92″ wheelbase, weighs about 2480 with a stick and delivers 167hp/140 lb./ft. from 2000cc. Huge.

    In 1969, among the era’s land barges, a Spit seemed very small, but somehow not as small as it seems today parked next to a Miata or a Porsche Caymman. Now, this Kei two-seater is perceived as a micro-car. In 1969 a micro car was the occasional Isetta brought over by a GI. That Triumph, and its successors I graduated to through the early 80s, routinely gave 42mpg at aggressive highway speeds. Sure the double-nickel was entrenched in the northeast, but open road at 80 was the stealthy way to roll. Street driving around town, fuel economy was 32 – 37mpg.

    I’m 6’3″/ 180 lbs. I don’t fit in a Miata, but I had no trouble slipping into a Triumph Spit. The Brits knew space utilization and they didn’t have to cope with modern crash standards airbags and conveniences taking up space. This Suzuki’s motorcycle mill no doubt spins more freely than the Triumph’s coarse tractor motor but nevertheless, despite having 300+, 400+ and now 500+ HP cars in my garage since, I never had more fun driving than in the succession of sub-2000 lbs. / sub-100hp Brits I kept in service in the 70s and the first half of the forgettable 1980s.

    Odd as they could be, I always had a soft spot for Suzuki cars. In the late 70s I lived in Micronesia for awhile. Very few paved roads. Nothing is ever really dry there. There was hardly any A/C present. Leather quickly rotted to green mush. I saw people evacuated for full-body skin fungus. The Toyota and Datsun pickups of the day disintegrated as quickly as six months, hissing like a heap of Alka-Seltzer left out in the rain. American Jeeps oxidized only a little more slowly. But the little Suzuki 4wd reduced-scale “Jeeplets” were paragons of reliability and durability, and their 600cc motorcycle engines + light weight allowed you to hump them all around the volcanic islands without incident. They were tiny enough to be driven on narrow paths through coconut forests yet grunty enough to climb steep hills. And they seemed to never break.

    A sub-2000 lbs. roadster or 2 seat coupe that I could “wear” around my frame, with a stick and a free-but-still-rorty engine would get a spot in my driveway almost before I could ask “How much?”

    Phil

  • avatar

    i had a honda beat for about a year and change in the mid-90s. i was living in hamakita in shizuoka prefecture at the time and my employer generously bought me a red one, insured it, and paid for my petrol. i’d wanted one for years so when i actually had the car, it was hard to suppress the disappointment.

    the beat was a honda today with the ends swapped. it was loud, which was okay, and raucous, which wasn’t so okay. but its biggest sin was its handling. it didn’t. i’d moved from california, where i’d abandoned a 1990 model miata mx5. the comparison was grotesque. the mazda was an excellent handling car. the honda was a slug.

    the beat looked great, though. it attracted all sorts of looks. but that may have just been a reaction to the big ugly gaijin behind the wheel.

    always wanted to try the cappuccino …

  • avatar
    Sam P

    5’10″ and 160ish pounds these days.

    I’d probably fit. Make mine an AZ-1.

    http://bringatrailer.com/2013/02/27/micro-supercar-1992-mazda-autozam-az-1/

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    For you six-footers with your beer bellies this size car wouldn’t fit . But for a 5′ 5″ little dude like myself who prefers a stick and doesn’t care about all the amenities , it looks about perfect .

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I’m 6’2″ and was able to fit in a Midget with some room to spare. I would love to try a Cappuccino just to see how I fit and how it drove. Well us Americans will be eligible to get a legal one in a few years.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    No one mentions the king of kei-cars Daihatsu Copen?

    The european version has a 4 stroke na engine that pumps out a “massive” 87bhp. The weight is about 1800 pounds.

  • avatar
    hoff02

    Thomas – I just wanted to say I love your stories of your times and car experiences in Japan during this time period. I was a tad young at the time to truly appreciate this golden era in Japanese automobiles, but as I get older I have gained a great appreciation for the unique time this was in Japan car manfacturing. Cars like the Cappuccino and Beat show a side of these companies that seems to have fallen too far out of favor in the current corporate realm – but your articles are like time capsules that remind one of better days. Keep up the great writing!


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