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Sports cars these days are too grown up. What happened to the weird little niches that used to exist? Sure, cars like the Fiat Barchetta, Nissan Figaro, Pontiac Solstice, Ford Puma, and Mazda AZ-3 were never going to become sales success stories nor are they going to be displayed on a Concours lawn anytime soon. But these weird and wacky sports cars gave the everyday buyer a slightly more left-field alternative to the usual Miatas, Boxsters, and Z4s.

One of the cutest was the first-generation Daihatsu Copen. Copen, according to Daihatsu, means “Community of Open car life.” Catchy name. Introduced in 2002, it was sold for a decade with production ending in 2012. The early ‘00s were a great time for trendy hard top convertibles with manufactures pumping out models such as the Peugeot 206CC, Opel Tigra, and even the Chevy SSR.

The popularity of the original Copen led Daihatsu to bring it back without too much time lost, unveiling a second generation in 2014. It proved to be a surprise hit for Daihatsu with over 10,000 units sold in the first year.

Five years on, the Copen has expanded its range to three different versions with a special limited run fixed-roof Coupe announced in early 2019.

What Is It?

This is the sportiest offering from Japan’s number one seller of kei cars. Over 26,000 Copens have been produced since 2014. While that only accounts for less than one percent of all the cars Daihatsu produced, it shows that Daihatsu isn’t averse to making a car largely for fun’s sake, though this does fit nicely into the rest of the company’s youthful-oriented lineup.

The Copen comes in three different variations. There’s the Robe, which is the more conventional version of the second-generation Copen. There’s the Cero which takes inspiration from the rounder and cuter design of the original Copen. And then there’s the XPlay, which is what I had. You can get it in colors other than bumblebee, if you’re curious.

The somewhat Pontiac-esque styling is a direct production translation of the D-X Concept first seen at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show. It’s meant to represent a “tough and aggressive” new style of sports car. While its rugged, almost off-roady styling might suggest it’s made for tackling tough terrain, the XPlay is still very much a front-wheel-drive roadster.

One of the most unique features of the second-generation Copen is something called “Dress Formation.” A brilliantly Japanese name, Dress Formation works in conjunction with the Copen’s clever new D-Frame chassis. Basically, the chassis is rigid enough it doesn’t actually need help from fixed body panels. Instead, the Copen’s body is made from 13 pieces of resin that can be removed and changed at your local Daihatsu dealer should you so choose. It’s the same for some of the interior trim too, so if you want to change colour of your Copen, or just a body panel or two, then that’s completely possible. For buyers of the Robe and Cero you could transform your car from one design to the other as well, and vice versa. It’s not totally unlike the brilliant Mazda MX-04 concept of the 1980s Bubble Era.

Being a kei car, the Copen is limited to certain length, width, engine size, and power restrictions. But the pay off is lower cost of ownership with cheaper insurance, tax, road tolls, and in some cases parking. Daihatsu had to be clever with the packaging of the Copen as a result. The Copen is a strict two-seater; there aren’t any pretend seats at the back. With the roof down, there’s practically no way to access anything inside the boot. On the flip side, with the roof up, you’ve got access to that entire roof storage area. Cargo space is pretty generous, I guess, when it’s raining.

Specs That Matter

Under the stubby little bonnet is a 658cc turbocharged three-cylinder gas engine with Dynamic Variable Valve Timing. As per kei car regulations, it produces a max of 64 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque.

What’s officially untested is the car’s 0-100 km/h time, but I’d put it down as roughly 10 seconds. Power is sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual or a CVT. Top speed is limited to a mere 87.5 mph, and yes it is possible to max it out quite easily if you’re asking.

Like all kei cars, the Copen is restricted to 133.66 inches long and 58 inches wide. Unlike more conventional kei cars chasing as much room as possible, the Copen isn’t disproportionately tall. It’s a sports car not a van, and it measures in at 50.40 inches tall. The Copen is a little car, and it only weighs 1,873 pounds, and the small 7.9 gallon fuel tank reflects that. However, in theory, it should last 400 miles though realistically I was getting closer to 260 miles.

How Does It Drive?

This was one of the few genuine surprises I’ve had. The Copen is actually pretty fun. Its tiny three-cylinder engine need to be worked hard but is happy to be pushed. It’s surprisingly responsive too, given it’s got a turbocharger. Keep the gears low, be generous with the throttle, and it’ll get up and go. Eventually.

It’s not fast by any measure but is quite nippy. There’s a twin exhaust which makes a meaty sound, too. It’s not particularly loud, but has just enough to make you feel like you’re in a sporty car.

By far the most surprising part of the Copen is how fun it was around corners. I had expected it to be a wobbly thing. Far more show than go. But its electric power steering felt like a natural hydraulic system. There’s a nice weight to it with decent feedback to enjoy being behind the wheel. And the chassis is pretty balanced for a front-wheel-drive car. It was never out of control when pushed to its limits. You always got the comfort you could push this little thing to ten-tenths and it wouldn’t bite back. If you take driving more seriously, a LSD is available an option on the manual.

The manual box, though, wasn’t anything to write home about. It was perfectly fine at its job, but felt like any other manual box you’d find in a kei car. You get a light and easy clutch rather than a sporty and mechanical feeling one like that in a Miata. The brakes (discs at the front, drums at the rear) were much the same: hardly sports car level but they were adequate for what the Copen could do.

The suspension belies the Copen’s pedestrian heritage as well. At the front is a fairly straightforward MacPherson strut set up, while the rear has even simpler torsion beams. No double wishbones here.

Aerodynamics has improved drastically over the previous Copen, with Daihatsu claiming a 60 percent decrease of rear lift giving the car more stability at higher speeds. You certainly felt that on the motorway where most kei cars suffer from buffeting and often bounce around at higher speeds. The Copen felt planted, by contrast, almost like a normal-sized car.

Part of the reason why the Copen’s handling was surprising was because of the rigidity of the chassis. Daihatsu set up an entire new team to develop the D-Frame chassis using the basis of the framework from the first-generation Copen. The company addressed issues of the previous cars and worked from there to fix and improve on with this second generation.

Daihatsu’s D-Frame chassis provides three times more rigidity more than previous Copen without relying on the exterior body. Daihatsu calls it a new chassis frame structure with the front, side, rear, and floor seamlessly joined as one. There are also reinforcements along the sub-floor tunnel and crossmembers.

All of this revision is also how Daihatsu was able to announce the second generation within 18 months of discounting the old Copen.

What’s Great

The manual Copen would be an ideal car to learn manual in or just as a first sports car. It’s incredibly easy to drive. There’s great visibility with normal sized wing mirrors and you can actually see out the back of it, roof up and roof down. The same can’t be said about the Honda S660 which has the smallest rear window fitted to a new car and the thinnest wing mirrors.

Like the S660 though, its tiny size means you can throw this around anywhere in town and it’ll fit. It’s as fun to drive around urban areas as it out on a twisty mountain road. If you had to commute in this everyday I guarantee you’ll always et a smile or two out of it. So will everyone who sees it. Perhaps because it looked like a baby Tonka truck Transformers in this yellow and black color combination, but everyone who saw the car smiled or gave an approving thumbs up.

It’s quite practical too, with the roof up. The boot space is huge with enough space for a set of golf clubs. It’ll easily take up most people’s weekly shop in there. Just don’t put the roof down as you won’t be able to get anything out of the boot. On the plus side, the roof is mostly electrically operated. You just have to manually undo the latches inside but the rest can be raised or lowered with a button. The whole thing takes about 20 seconds.

It’s also much cheaper to run than a conventional sports car. Filling up the Copen from near empty to full cost about $30, for reference the Alpine A110 was about a $70 fill up with similar range. The difference in road tolls was also noticeable, I can see why the idea of a kei sports car might appeal to some buyers.

What’s Weak

If you’ve read the Jimny, Dayz, and S660 reviews you’ll be aware kei cars are more suited for urban driving. The Copen is no different. Motorway cruising is definitely not its forte. There’s a lot of road noise that gets into the cabin and seats weren’t great for trips over two hours. I suspect the optional Recaros would fare better.

The suspension that works great around corners managing body control does have a downside; it’s quite firm. You can feel all the bumps and imperfections on the road and there’s very little dampening.

It had unfathomable release levers for the fuel cap and bonnet. I had to spend a good 15 minutes trying to find how to open the fuel cap at a gas station. Turns out there’s an unmarked lever under the central armrest. To open the bonnet, there’s yet another random unmarked lever you have to pull in the glovebox. Why it’s not on the driver’s side I don’t quite understand.

It’s showing its age and lacking in standard gear. Newer kei cars come standard with things like auto wipers, auto headlights, and a reversing camera. The Copen does, however, come with heated seats, which is useful in a convertible.

Like other kei cars, the Copen makes sense in Japan. It might work in some Asian and European markets, but even I get the feeling it wouldn’t make sense in America. I’ve driven on American highways. It’s just far too small.

Value

It’s hard to say no to a brand new, manual, hard-top convertible sports with a full new car warranty for a smidgen over $16,000. It also comes with pretty much everything you’d need as standard such as automatic climate control, keyless entry and start, and LED headlights. The options are more like accessories such as BBS wheels, HKS sports exhaust, HKS sports suspension, and various carbon/aluminium trim.

The cheapest Miata is the equivalent of $7,500 more than the Copen, but that’s before you take into account the added benefits of owning a kei car in Japan. Expect cheaper tolls, lower insurance, and discounted auto taxes.

The Copen’s closest and true rival is the brilliant rear-wheel-drive Honda S660. Both are priced almost identically and are subject to the same benefits of being kei cars. The main difference is the S660 is more of a weekend toy than a car you’d be able to live with everyday. Certainly having one as your only car would be a hard case to make to anyone. The front-wheel-drive Copen might not have the same excitement factor as the S660 or the superstar looks but it’s far more usable as a daily and more bearable on the motorway.

Verdict

Personally, I don’t quite understand the XPlay. It’s an odd little niche. I can’t quite imagine what kind of person would want their mini sports car to look like an off-road buggy. Perhaps beach types and those who venture out into the wilderness often. It’s not for me, but I’m glad weird little cars like this still exist.

As for the Copen itself, that’s a bit easier to reckon with. It does come with comprises, as all kei cars do, but the novelty and fun more than make up for it.

The more normal (ish) Robe and Cero versions would each make a fine first sports car for anyone wanting to get to grips with driving a manual, living with a two-seater convertible, or even legitimately as a first car.

It’s sporting enough to let you have fun and the cute character will always put a smile on your face. If anything, it deserves more competition.

Data Via: Daihatsu Japan

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