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Car News:  Oversteer

Daihatsu Charade: Flash in the Econo Pan

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author photo by Aaron Gold April 2017

Introducing a new brand in the United States is never easy, and to this day I can never understand why Daihatsu tried it -- and, once they did, why they stopped.

For those who don't remember, Daihatsu was a Japanese brand that was sold in the United States from 1988 until 1992. They offered just two vehicles, the Charade (subject of today's diatribe) and the Rocky, the latter a useful little 4x4 that we'll discuss another time.

Certainly the market was ripe for the Charade: Americans had developed a taste for simple, well-built Asian econoboxes, and cars like the Toyota Tercel, Ford Festiva and Geo Metro were selling well. Bringing the Daihatsu Charade to the U.S. made sense.

When the 1988 Charade appeared, it looked like a good prospect. It was small, cute and unassuming, with slab sides and faux-fender skirts, and it was built like the proverbial brick outhouse.

But it was also expensive -- like, really expensive. The base-model Charade listed for $6,397, while the top-of-the-line sedan listed for $9,232 -- all before options. For comparison, you could buy the all-new 1988 Honda Civic as cheap as $6,095.

And it was pokey: The base model car had a shaky 53-horsepower 3-cylinder engine (manual only; thank goodness for small favors) that took 15 agonizing seconds to get to 60 miles per hour. The optional 1.3-liter 4-cylinder could barely do it in 12 seconds. (And that $6,095 Civic? 10.1 seconds, thankyouverymuch.)

Needless to say, the Daihatsu Charade, for all of its charms, did not turn out to be a strong seller.

Complicating the situation even further was the fact that Toyota held a large interest in Daihatsu, and the Charade was competing directly against the Toyota Tercel. Daihatsu America's chief operating officer also claimed that Americans sometimes confused Daihatsu with Hyundai, thanks to both having "dai" in the name. Daihatsu, he said, was tarnished by Hyundai's reputation for poor quality.

The 1990 recession hit Daihatsu hard, and in 1991 they sold fewer than 9,000 vehicles in the United States. Continued production would require engineering their cars for even tougher U.S. safety standards -- so in February 1992, Daihatsu announced that they were withdrawing from the U.S. market, having sold around 50,000 vehicles in just under five years. Just like that, Daihatsu was gone, and no one seemed to miss them very much.

The year after Daihatsu pulled out of the States, I shipped off to a car magazine in England, where Daihatsu was alive and well. (Daihatsu ran a brilliant ad campaign in the U.K. with a picture of a traffic-choked motorway and Daihatsu's British tagline: "Built to survive Japan.") One of our long-term cars was the new-for-1993, second-generation Charade. (The Brits pronounced it "Sha-RAHD.") Compared to the outgoing Charade, this was a bigger and arguably less attractive car with the 1.3-liter engine. The magazine had just gotten it to replace an older, smaller Charade, which amazed the staff by running for an entire year without a single problem.

I drove the Charade from time to time, including a weekend trip through the Cotswolds. It was the perfect car for a sightseeing trip because it was like driving air -- completely uninvolving and inoffensive (and, of course, highly unlikely to break down). This new-shape Charade had more size and (marginally) more speed than the outgoing car, and I always wondered how it might have fared in the States. Alas, we'll never know, because Daihatsu was little more than a flash in the American pan. What a shame.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Daihatsu Charade: Flash in the Econo Pan - Autotrader