Road test: Daihatsu Charade GTti

Tiny triple

I suppose that the last three-cylinder car to appear in these pages was a two-stroke Saab, or just possibly a DKW. Neither had pretensions to a sporting character, though both had competition careers off the public road. But what Daihatsu offers at the top of its baby Charade range is what it claims is "the world's most powerful 1-litre car" — 993cc and 99.2 bhp.

This tiny triple relies on a small turbocharger for its muscles, and being a flyweight 2624 lb, the Charade GTti is not only quicker than direct rivals such as the Suzuki Swift GTi and Fiat Uno Turbo, it even matches the 1800cc Golf GTi in outright acceleration, both breasting the 60 mph tape at around eight seconds. Such performance needs an equally good chassis, and the little Daihatsu's all-MacPherson strut layout is tweaked to give surprising grip from its modest 175/60 HRI4 tyres.

Wrapping all of this in a rather cute but relatively practical body shape brings up yet again that staple question "what is a sportscar?" If performance is the key, this must qualify. A brief chirp from the slender front tyres, followed by a compilation of whizzing and whirring noises as three little pistons and 12 tiny valves turn four-star into fast figures, helped by unstoppable revs and a crisp gearchange almost as light as an ENV pre-selector on a vintage sports-car; these are the lasting sensations of what looks like the sort of economy city-car in which Japan specialises, but which will out-perform many sports-cars, and even out-corner some.

The three-cylinder solution has low-friction advantages for small engines. Some time ago, BL demonstrated astonishing fuel-efficiency figures with an experimental vehicle using such a powerplant. Daihatsu's commitment to this concept results in a complete line-up of triples all of identical 993cc capacity, from a straightforward two-valves per cylinder economy unit of 51 bhp, through a 47 bhp diesel turbo and a 67 bhp petrol turbo to the GTti engine which operates at near racing-car output levels of 100 bhp per litre.

Not that this puts Japan in an undisputed lead, for BL's aged Metro engine in revised 1-litre form leads the plain petrol Daihatsu in fuel economy; it is the blown Japanese triples which step up into a new league, and especially the GTti. In fact Daihatsu's claims about the power output of this unit hang on a definition: there is another 1-litre car of even greater power.

Two years ago at the Tokyo Show, Nissan unveiled a concept car called the Saurus. Low, stark, and free from weighty comforts, the mid-engined open two-seater followed the outrageous Lancia Delta S4 rally-car in boasting both turbocharging and supercharging. It was clearly not a practicable production car, no matter how much fun it looked. And yet a few have been made, specifically for a one-make race series in Japan. It is arguable whether this qualifies as a production car; but definitions apart, the Charade GTti is almost absurdly rapid for something which looks as if it could be carried away under one arm.

One of these Charades lurks in the Standard House car park, so I was already familiar with the invigorating rasp from its tiny twin exhausts poking under the rear valance like two drinking straws. Amongst turbo cars, only the Porsche 944 shares this characteristic of an exciting exhaust note. But the car's eager nature embraces more than this. Sitting inside, the egg-shaped car tapers away from the front seats, sharply up ahead and more gently behind, the roof curving smoothly down to a small air-trimmer above the rear window.

In pursuit of aerodynamic and packaging efficiency in this very small car, the area of opening panels almost outweighs the fixed bodywork. The doors take the cant-rail with them when open, increasing entry height and disposing of separate gutters, while when the rear hatch is open there is effectively no tail-end panelwork left, only the lights and bumper. This makes for easy loading, though the cargo space with the rear seats up is inevitably extremely limited. Folding the seats gives the Charade an immediate edge on that other Oriental hot-shot, the enjoyable Honda CRX, very much a kindred spirit in its appeal, but whose useful hatch opens on to a barely adequate luggage space.

Four people can squeeze into the Daihatsu, but it means compromising the otherwise comfortable driving position to allow a modicum of extra legroom for the two in steerage. And what is gained on the aerodynamic swings is lost on the ergonomic roundabouts, for of course the fallaway roof-line is bad news for the rear occupants. However, the 2 + 2 facility is a handy one; nor does it mean sadly diminished performance. With three up, one being far from slender, our Charade tackled a spirited drive from Tunbridge Wells to Eastbourne with commendable briskness.

On this sort of road, steady bends and crests liberally endowed with sheep-like queues of coast-bound drivers who have never heard of a safe braking distance, the ability to whip up to overtaking speeds is essential, and the Daihatsu seemed virtually as fast three-up as it had been solo; perhaps the turbo was working harder longer and thus responded more or less immediately when wanted.

Not that it makes you wait at other times: the diminutive size of the engine and its dainty turbine allows the system to whip into action with hardly a pause, and that very slick gearchange is a pleasure to use. Maximum torque arrives at 3500 rpm, which is healthy for a multi-valve, and since the power goes on swelling up to 6500, there is an excellent band to play with. What is more, the red sector on the tach begins at 7500 and stretches to a frenetic 9000 rpm. I did not take it that far, but at up to 7500 rpm the engine feels relatively smooth, more buzzy than a four, but quite pleasant, especially with the exhaust snarling shrilly behind.

Daihatsu's acceleration figures give 7.7 seconds 0-60 mph, though I could not get it below eight seconds, and testing apart the GTti covered about 32 miles per gallon of fuel. It sounds an ideal combination; only the top speed of 115 mph looks modest in comparison to the acceleration, but that is no snag. The benefit of a strong maximum speed inset the appeal of reaching it but the performance reserves it leaves at around 60-80 mph, and though the Charade's peak is not unusual, it nevertheless has a nice degree of urge on the motorway, thanks to the turbo.

Reconciling comfort with grip is never easy in a very small car — witness the jarring ride of the Fiat Uno Turbo. Daihatsu's middle ground is well placed but not very wide, in that it seems to be optimised for speeds between 30 and 50 mph, becoming a little crashy through urban pot-holes and slightly soft in the tighter dual-carriageway curves. Diahatsu has maximised the wheelbase with virtually no overhang front or rear, and this shows in a generally comfortable ride, though a small amount of pitching is evident on undulating roads.

No front-wheel fight comes back through the rack and pinion steering, and the steering response is firm and predictable, if a trifle low-geared. Internal design is rather dull and typical of every small Japanese car; no ergonomic complaints, but in this case disappointingly at odds with the exceptional performance.

From the good upright position this compact car can be accurately placed, which was a boon on our Eastbourne trip. Our objective was a show of competition cars organised by Eastbourne and Ram Motor Club, which turned out to be a remarkably professional showing with some 80 cars of various sorts on display. As a side-line, there was something called a Road Safety Competition starting from the car park, involving some tight manoeuvring around cones. As this was all untimed and a test of skill, not speed, I entered the Charade.

It turned out to be a larger affair than I had thought, involving a 60-minute tour of the town under the eye of a number of observers who marked entrants off on positioning, observation and anticipation. After that it was back to the car-park for several tests of agility where the Charade shone, being able to zig-zag in and out of garages of cones with the minimum of reverses. Then came the test I always enjoy, where one stops 20ft from two vertical poles and instructs a helper to move them closer or further apart, the aim being to stop between them with the minimum clearance. I made it with bare millimeters on each side of the mirrors, more by luck than judgement, but it still was not enough to win; I had to make do with second, and a nice silver cup.

Droning around the M25 afterwards, the GTti turned out to be reasonably quiet thanks to the diminutive turbo engine and the careful streamlining, the bulk of the noise coming from the tyres which, though of no great width, do thump over irregularities such as cats-eyes. Long journeys would be more restful if the seat cushion was longer, but the seats were otherwise up to the mark. With the exception of the width of the rear pillars, visibility is good, and a rear wash/wipe is standard. Electric mirrors are also part of the package, but the other features such as power windows, locks and sunroof will cost extra.

At a starting price of £8199 it would he unfair to carp at these omissions, since this represents remarkable value for this extremely rapid little car. Direct rivals include the Fiat Uno Turbo and Peugeot 205 GTI. Of these the French car certainly has the best chassis, but costs £1200 more, while the Fiat has an extremely hard ride, costs £700 more and is slightly slower in acceleration, though it is roomier inside. What the Daihatsu offers is its astonishing performance, good road-holding and handling, and a confident posture on the road.

Why it is called "Charade" I have no idea, but then the Japanese have their own ideas on using the English language. However, in any tongue, fun means the same thing, and the GTti says it loud and clear. GC