Suspended animation

Courtsey of the private enterprise company Rare Imports we can bring you the class confrontation amongst Japanese micro sports cars this month; Honda Beat versus Suzuki Cappuccino.

In fact we could bring you the tale of almost any other non-imported Japanese car, for that is the Rare Imports speciality, and it is proving extremely popular in Britain with over 20 of the £35,000 to £60,000 (depends on specification, whether new or secondhand) Lexus (Toyota) Coupes sold in Britain during August 1992. The Berkshire-based company also serves European markets, where there is also a demand for the enormous variety of models the Japanese do not sent to us.

At prices from £11,300 (but more commonly delivered at closer to £12,500 with alloy wheels and optional stereo installed) the Honda Beat was the most popular Rare Import offering when we tried it. Since then news has filtered through from Japan that the Suzuki Cappuccino and the Oriental version of recession have forced Honda to “suspend” Beat production. There is still plenty of stock in Japan of the innovative mid-engine miniature, but the announcement that Suzuki GB Cars are to sell the turbocharged Cappuccino in the UK (predicted 1993 price on the 1992 Motor Show stand: “around £13,000 complete with ABS and air conditioning”) has brought new impetus to Rare Imports’ immediate availability of Cappuccinos at “prices from £15,500.”

Before we slide behind the wheel of the original Sprite-sized tiny technocrats, let us just establish who Rare Imports are, for those (like us) who like to know who they are dealing with when bypassing official importers. The company is the brainchild of Clive de Carle. In its 20 months of trading eager buyers have forced them to employ seven staff, including full-time sales assistants in the UK and one Japanese resident to conquer the mountain of official export paperwork. The incoming stock journeys from Japan to Holland to await owners who want “the unavailable to be available” in the words of the appropriate slogan. De Carle is secretive about many areas of his business, especially the number of cars he brings into Britain. Yet there is no doubt he has a lot of experience in the tricky business of trading across barriers — De Carle was one of those enterpreneurs who defied Arab embargos on British Leyland (imposed for trading with Israel) and supplied Land and Range Rovers to the Middle East.

Rare Imports is far from the only concern in the UK serving the pent-up demand for models that are not officially sold outside the Japanese domestic market. But it has established such a solid niche in the UK that even the official Honda network has some dealers buying their Beats from Rare Imports. We even found a Nissan dealer buying used Honda stock locally. Rare Imports backs its service with a one year warranty of its own, insurance and service advice plus an air freight service for unobtainable parts.

There are problems to owning a Personally Imported Car, particularly if it is involved in an accident or an item of high technology fails. However, if you are a determined customer in any European market Rare Imports is probably the place to enquire. De Carle Associates act as UK agents for the Jersey-registered Rare Imports Ltd. They can be contacted in Britain under the phone number 0734 713244 (Fax 0734 712794). Or write to them (appointments are necessary to view) at: The Little Lodge, The Avenue, Bucklebury. Berkshire. RC7 6NT.

Leafy lanes unfurled obediently, leading to the heart of the Berkshire countryside and the HQ of the Rare Imports organisation. Journey’s end is a picturesque wooden lodge the local tourist board would kill for, if it could acquire exclusive photographic rights. The secluded gravel drive is full of the cars that the Japanese (mostly) do not send to Europe. Honda’s intriguing micro sports car (the 3-cylinder Beat) dozed alongside the luxurious Lexus Toyota V8 Coupe. Toyota’s astonishing cheap gullwing door coupe. Sera, was another of many new and used Japanese cars now being offered to Europeans at prices from £7000 and £60,000. Subsequent visits revealed ever more intriguing Japanese stock including the Suzuki Cappuccino, a more adult and practical, front engine/rear drive, version of the two-seater theme than the mid-motor Beat.

The Suzuki has an extremely comprehensive equipment list including air conditioning, but ABS and an air bag are reserved for a more expensive model, which also has a traction control device! You can see the main technical features of the smallest Japanese sports cars compared below, but it is worth emphasising that the first impressions of both put the Suzuki in the different class that you would expect from the prices. Superb metallic paint, finely detailed cowled headlamps and a neatly engineered multiple option hard top, sit well with an interior that looks like pure leather, but is actually composed of high grade plastics.

The Honda was appraised in the summer, the Cappuccino taken in autumn, but both were days of strong sunshine and memorable pleasure. At a base of £11,300 for a low-mileage used example or a basic new one, the Honda Beat in red came across as an affordable and breezy sportscar. The main drawback is predictable: the mid-engine allows absolutely no boot space. Just stowing the camera gear was a major enterprise. I could not get a Honda-supplied alloy briefcase in, never mind weekend luggage. There are no door pockets to compensate for the cramped accommodation; the Beat is obviously intended for local buzz-bomb duties in Japan, not European leisure breaks.

The simple dashboard with its motorcycle-style 10,000 rpm tachometer (red-lined at a dizzy 8500 revs) foretells long spells of fun motoring ahead, and so it proved. The zebra-stripe seats are not particularly supportive as you instinctively fling the Beat from corner to corner at minimalist speeds and maximum fun quotient, but the steering is as light and direct as I remember from the Spridget era, though it lacks both the dimple-by-dimple feedback and kickbacks of the Sixties British breed. To my surprise I found the Beat has both power assistance and four-wheel discs; the braking is as prompt as you would hope in such a flyweight, and I would have thought they could have done without the servo-assist. The ride is no better than you’d expect from a wheelbase of under 90 in, but the startling grip plus a playtime engine with co-operative flick-switch gearchange ensure you do not remember the ride for long. It can feel vulnerable in this 10 ft 7 in long device, but the grip from the Bridgestone RE87 tyres defies their modest 165/65-14 dimensions. Yet there is so much fun to be had that you forget you are far too old to be having such enjoyment.

It does not matter that the Honda actually costs £12,500 with options, for its triple cylinder engine offers scaled down sporting thrills that the owner of the substantially more expensive (and available) 2-seater Honda CRX would not appreciate. I know — I have owned two of the Honda CRX breed. Their compact charms are those of a small coupe, not an open sports car of the Beat’s carefree character.

As I have said the Suzuki immediately struck one as the more “grown up” sports option. One magazine summarised it perfectly when they said it had the looks of a shrunken TVR Griffith. This is extremely apt, especially in the lines of the rear hard top section (which can be left self-standing), until you take pictures of the back, when the tail lights seem bigger than the diminutive rump. A trio of crescent-shaped dials, including an unnecessary 12,000rpm tachometer in black and white, sit in the finely finished Cappuccino cabin.

Our example was kindly loaned by owner, Elizabeth Gray. The Suzuki had covered over 8000 miles and felt in the best of health, the mid-range power in a completely different league to the sky-high, change gear NOW, abilities of the Honda. Maximum torque is thrummily present by 4000 revs and “only” 6500, halfway up the grandiose scale, is required to release maximum power. However, it is obviously a Japanese tradition that these small sports cars (the Cappuccino is under 11 ft long and some 4 1/2 ft wide) carry an 8500rpm limit, even when they have such magnificent small-capacity pulling power available. Again Bridgestone 165/65-14 covers adorned light alloy wheels, but this time they were branded RE 76 and could not contain wheelspin, if the throttle was fully depressed to exit a junction.

The handling has much in common with the Honda, or an MX-5 Mazda, with just a hint of wheelspin available in the lower gears. Ride quality on a short wheelbase was not in the Mazda class, nor was the gear change, which, though mostly effortless, could balk at reverse from rest. The Honda is slightly superior in this department. The Suzuki has considerable motorway cruising ability, beyond that of the Honda. At 8500 it scuttles to little over 50mph in second, exceeds 80mph in third and settles to the 140km/h (87mph) mandatory maximum marking on the speedometer at a busy but sustainable 5500rpm. The Honda needs 6000 to sustain the equivalent of 70mph, but the writer preferred the “micro 911” engine note to that of the slightly more mundane Suzuki. After a week of trips exceeding 50 miles in length, however, the Suzuki could emerge as the more serious sports car. It simply is that bit more civilised, remaining an outstanding choice for any kind of urban traffic work (especially with the hard top retracted) when its performance and modest dimensions make it the nearest rival for a motorcycle that you will find on four wheels. Out of town, the extra performance of a machine like the Caterham Seven would be superior, but anywhere near city limits the Suzuki (and the Honda) slip through two way traffic with exhilarating ease.

As the strongest possible contrast, and a relaxation from the frenetic performance of the baby Honda and Suzuki, Rare Imports pressed us into driving the Lexus V8. It was a wise decision. At the other end of the Japanese spectrum, the silken 4-litre Lexus SC400 Coupe is nearly 16 feet of suave design packed with every technical marvel including satellite TV screen navigation. Toyota insist we call these V8 saloons and coupes by the Lexus name, and they are fine cars worthy of that profitably separate identity. Driving the Lexus Coupe upstaged the cream of European coupes that I have experienced in the past 12 months. These included the Mercedes SL range (which I admire), the Jaguar XJ-S (a religion requiring increasing faith in old icons) and the BMW 850i. I should say that both BMW and Mercedes have expanded their premier coupe lines recently, and I have not experienced either V12 Mercedes or the 5.6-litre V12 BMW 850i, as developed by BMW Motorsport. However it still seems unlikely that these would overcome the utter civilisation at speed of the Japanese coupe; we only wish it was a new Jaguar.

Toyota officials told us, “it is unlikely that the rarities such as you drove will come in. There simply isn’t a European version of the Lexus Coupe, for example. We’d love to bring it in, it’s obviously a very fine car that would challenge the BMW 850i and Jaguar XJS, but there is no plan to do this”. Predictably, the official British importers of Japanese cars do not bubble with enthusiasm for the unofficial import activities of concerns such as Rare Imports. However there are signs the UK importers are waking up; the Cappuccino’s official UK debut is expected in 1993, along with examples of the Daihatsu MIRA micro car. We saw a front-drive example of this enormous range at Rare Imports. Complete with searing red body kit and “acceleration like an Astra GTE”, the 660cc triple with intercooling and turbocharging was available in the UK for “about £11,500.” Honda, Suzuki and Toyota, all were deeply impressive examples of the sheer breadth of Japanese automotive ability today.