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Want a new Toyota for less? Why Australians need Daihatsu to return with affordable, quality rivals for the Suzuki Jimny, MG3, Hyundai Venue and MG ZS

Current Daihatsus like the Rocky and Taft (pictured) are proving popular overseas as cheap, characterful Toyota alternatives.

What a Freaky Friday mess we’re in.

The number of new cheap cars is dwindling. Prices are skyrocketing. And the least expensive Toyota now costs more than an equivalent Mazda or Volkswagen.

Is it time for Daihatsu to return to Australia?

One of Japan’s oldest manufacturers (it turned 70 this year) and a wholly owned subsidiary of Toyota since 2016, the charming carmaker beloved for its affordable small cars and SUVs popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s has been absent in this country for nearly 16 years.

But, unlike other brands that have exited Australia over the years due to a lack of sales, Daihatsu was yanked from our market despite being established with a strong following and a respected, even progressive model range.

Indeed, famous nameplates like Rocky, Feroza, Charade, Applause, Terios and Sirion gained favour because of their low running costs and high reliability ­– attributes buyers appreciated over a 42-year period, starting back with 1964’s Compagno.

So, why was Daihatsu discontinued?

Toyota, which had a controlling 51.2 per cent stake when it pulled the plug on Daihatsu in Australia in 2006, said it was due to slowing sales and increasing competition, though you could also argue it was eliminating an in-house rival as well.

"When Daihatsu first entered the Light Car market, there were 10 competing brands and now there are 23, each fighting a market segment where margins are historically low," is how then-Toyota Australia sales director Dave Buttner (who went on to head Holden until a few weeks before its demise in early 2020) rationalised the cull at the time.

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But while a crowded cheap end of a market may have been true then, today the number of participants has plummeted, with only seven brands offering cars/SUVs under $25,000 heading into 2022 – Kia, Suzuki, MG, Volkswagen, Fiat, Hyundai and Skoda. Yet sales in the micro and light classes have rocketed by 75 and 30 per cent respectively while small SUVs have leaped by 115%. Crikey!

The new cheap small car exodus in Australia also means the $17,990 (driveaway) MG3 now commands nearly one-third of all sub-$25K new-car sales, while the MG ZS (from $21,990 driveaway) dominates the booming sub-$40K SUV area, snaring a 15 per cent share… and rising.

Meanwhile, Toyota has abandoned the bottom end of the market completely, leaving MG and others to build new brand loyalties with buyers who cannot afford the $27,603 (driveaway ex-Melbourne) required to purchase a new base Yaris in a non-metallic colour.

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Representing a $10,000 jump since the beginning of 2020, it is the first time in 62 years that Toyota in Australia has priced itself so far out of reach of so many new-car buyers.

Time, then, for Daihatsu to come back as a surrogate Toyota brand that people still remember so fondly.

Here’s our pick of models we’d like to see in Australia.

Daihatsu Rocky

A one-time direct competitor to the small-but-mighty Suzuki Jimny/Sierra 4x4, the Rocky evolved into the Feroza, until the Terios replacement arrived in 1997, ditching the off-roader-focused ladder-frame chassis for a monocoque body (but live rear axle).

Today’s A200-series Rocky is a Terios descendent, with car-like construction on an all-new electrification-ready transverse-engine platform dubbed DNGA-A, small SUV proportions and a scaled-down Toyota RAV4 styling, giving it a contemporary look and feel inside and out.

Measuring in at 4.0-metres long, the chunky Daihatsu is only slightly shorter than a Mazda CX-3 but almost 100mm taller. And though their wheelbases are comparable, there’s a greater sense of cabin space in Rocky due to that extra height and deep windows. A perfect urban crossover, then. There’s also a Toyota-badged version known as the Raize that’s such a smash hit it occasionally outsells the Corolla in Japan.

Under the bonnet is a choice of 1.0-litre turbo or 1.2-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder engines, driving either the front or all four wheels via a CVT auto, while a 1.2L ‘e-smart’ hybrid has just been revealed. Being a fresh design (it launched as a 2020 model year), the Daihatsu features advanced driver-assist safety tech like AEB for a five-star safety rating, as well as all the prerequisite multimedia systems.

Manufactured in Japan, Malaysia (as the Perodua Ativa) and Indonesia, if Toyota could land the Daihatsu Rocky locally near its circa-$22,000 home-market pricing, we predict Australians would flock to this stylish small SUV big time.

Daihatsu Charade

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Daihatsu beat everybody to the punch in 1977 with the Charade – an advanced city car offering front-wheel drive, a crisp five-door hatchback body and three-cylinder engine efficiency. That specification describes most superminis nowadays.  

After four generations in 20 years, that model turned into 1998’s M100 Sirion, then morphed into the 2004 Boon (engineered by none other than Tetsuya Tada of Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ fame) not long before Daihatsu disappeared from Australia. Two redesigns later, there’s a third Boon series – or, essentially, the eighth-generation Charade.

But that’s not the car we’re talking about here. Launched in 2016, the existing M700 series is reportedly not long for this world. However, speculation suggests that a successor due in Japan next year might be Yaris-based. Whether it will be merely a rebadge or restyle with a unique Daihatsu identity remains unknown. 

 Whatever the case, with the ‘D’ logo on the grille and (the appropriately-named) Charade sticker on the rear deck, a sub-$20K lower-priced Yaris-derived supermini would go gangbusters in Australia. 

Daihatsu Myvi/Sirion

Daihatsu has a 20 per cent share in Malaysia’s state-owned Perodua and supplies technology and direction for models such as the MG3-sized – and, more importantly, priced – Myvi.

The latter was once merely a rebadged Daihatsu Sirion/Boon, but the existing, angular Honda Jazz-like third-generation model was designed and engineered with Daihatsu’s help expressly as an entry-level proposition, and exported wearing the Sirion badge in various markets.

The latest version in its highest grade offers a high standard of safety like AEB and six airbags, for a five-star ASEAN NCAP crash-test rating for not much money, as well as a familiar, previous-generation Yaris-derived 1.3L and 1.5L four-cylinder petrol engines, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmission.

We’re not talking state-of-the-art sophistication here, then, but with prices in the $17,000 region, the Myvi/Sirion would at least offer Australians a new, Toyota-adjacent alternative to the MG3 and (smaller) Kia Picanto, with all the essentials like safety and auto, as well as a decent amount of space and pace.

Daihatsu Taft

No, not a hairspray from Schwarzkopf, but a small crossover with Hummer-like styling for Arnold Schwarzenegger-wannabes.

Related to the Rocky small SUV, Taft used to be an acronym for ‘Tough and Almighty Four-wheel Touring vehicle’ – a name that also once graced the well-known small 4x4 off-roader series sold in Australia as the F10/F20/F25/F50 Scat (!) from the mid-‘70s to 1984  (and briefly as the Toyota LD10 Blizzard) until the first Rocky came along.

Today’s Taft is pure Japanese Domestic Market Kei Car glamour, meaning a sub-0.7L three-cylinder engine in regular or turbo tune, CVT, FWD or AWD, a narrow track and a big fat attitude. It also now stands for Tough Almighty Fun Tool. Bless.

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Not the usual recipe for success in Australia, granted, but as a price-point alternative to the Suzuki Ignis, it certainly stands out and features a very cool interior design to match the striking exterior presentation. Especially with its Suzuki Jimny-meets-Toyota FJ Cruiser looks.

If it were priced from $15,500 (base FWD) to $22,500 (Turbo AWD flagship) like in Japan, Daihatsu might find itself with a cult hit on its hands. Explains how 18,000 were sold in its first month earlier this year.

Is Taft daft? Would you like to see other Daihatsu models like the Rocky and Charade return to Australia? Let us know. Toyota might be listening.