DAIHATSU’s sold in South Africa in recent years have filled only niche markets, with the Charade and Cuore being the most noticeable of the models. The cars are intentionally small in size, but the Sirion conveys this design philosophy to a much lesser degree than most of its siblings. The first Sirion was available from 1998 but, owing to quirky looks, only sold in small numbers. This new version is a radical departure, styling-wise, and two derivatives are offered, standard and Sport.

Our first test covers the Sport automatic. The difference between the basic model and the Sport can best be seen up-front, where the dual grilles of the sport are slightly larger and filled with a plastic honeycomb mesh. Oversized foglamps, looking more like “spots”, add to the aggressive appearance. Bumpers and mirrors are body-coloured.

Black head- and tail-light surrounds, a rear spoiler and side skirts complete the scene, complimented by a set of alloy wheels. These are 14-inchers, same size as the base model’s steel wheels, so some may prefer to save the R10 000 additional cost of the Sport version and opt for a set of aftermarket 15- or 16-inch wheels with a wider profile to really fill those generous arches. The front seats are plainly shaped, with little side support. The driver’s seat is height adjustable, as is the steering column, and a comfortable driving position is easily achieved. The rear seats offer excellent legroom and above average headroom, but squab length is on the short side (in usual Japanese fashion) for adequate thigh support. The squabs can be pulled forward and dropped down to provide extra loading space, before the final utility stage of folding the backrests – which have two rake positions – down to create a flat load area.

Interior space utilisation, especially for storage of small items, is very cleverly executed. Apart from the usual drinkholders in the centre console, unused space in the front doors has been made available for cups or other small items, narrow door pockets also come in handy, and two large, open bins beneath the facia can be used for larger objects. Although rubber linings are missing, the depth of these will ensure that items stay put. Then there is the smallish glove compartment, and another central bin with a flimsy lid, able to hide three CD’s.

Instrumentation is quite funky, with a semi-circular speedometer incorporating a digital fuel gauge in front of the driver and the podmounted rev-counter sitting on its own to the left. This was appreciated by some testers, but not all: the pod’s silver finish caused a reflection in the windscreen. No temperature gauge is fitted, not a problem as long as you know when the car is about to overheat... Fortunately in the Sirion, two warning lights are fitted, one red and one green. Both light up on starting, as a globe functioning check, giving some peace of mind that you will be forewarned of danger.

Other controls are straightforward but the electric mirror buttons are halfhidden low down to the right of the steering wheel. The sound system is a pleasure, simple to use and providing good sound quality. So much classier than the sub-standard aftermarket stuff usually supplied in this price range.

While the luggage space is reasonable for a small car, at 192 dm3 with utility space of 1 000 dm3, it’s a pity that the Daihatsu designers did not have a chin-wag with their Honda Jazz counterparts to exchange some ideas. Even with the narrow, spacesaver spare, the floor of the boot is rather high, which is a wasted opportunity when you look underneath the car and discover that there is a vast unoccupied volume that could easily have been utilised for extra luggage room and a full-size spare.

Performance is adequate for a 1,3-litre automatic. Gearchanges are smooth and quite rapid but, unfortunately, the gearchange buttons found on the steering wheel of the previous model are not fitted to the latest version. This would have provided a great (and fairly inexpensive) boost to the sporty pretensions of this vehicle. Happily, one of the gears can be manually controlled via an overdrive switch on the gearlever for cutting out top (fourth) gear. This is very useful, even necessary, in traffic to reduce back - and - forth hunting through the ratios.

One nice feature carried over from the previous model is the way that a gear can be held by pulling the shifter back, allowing the revs to spin all the way to the limiter at 7 000. In other words, not overriding the driver’s decisions. In this way we were able to improve our acceleration figures from zero to 100 km/h by a few tenths, instead of letting the box change gears at about 6 300 r/min. Top gear is very much an overdrive, as can be seen from top speed results, where third will stretch to 6 300, but in fourth the revs drop dramatically tabout 4 400, far enough down the power curve for the speed to slowly drop off.

Test summary

The previous Sirion had a sporty powertrain and ugly looks, whereas this one has the looks but not quite the same sporty performance and dynamics. But it still has fair go, good space, better standard features than most, and - best of all - a truly competitive price, especially in standard form. In fact, our test car, finished in “shining red” paintwork, may just reflect the faces of rival manufacturer’s sales staff when comparing space, spec levels and corresponding prices. A 2 years/ 45 000 km service plan also reduces costs slightly. Daihatsu in Japan is managed by Toyota Motor Corporation, which should add some peace of mind to customers. This car should boost Daihatsu sales significantly, and we expect the manual version to provide even more fun, and hopefully, it will not have a beeper to irritate you when reversing, as this one does.