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KEI CARS Small, Tenacious Nippers

Honda S660 Mugen RA

Daihatsu Copen Robe

Daihatsu Cast Sport

 

Have you noticed the influx of small cars with 660cc engines to our shores? These are called Kei cars. Hailing entirely from Japan, Kei is a small car class there which was formulated for use in the tight urban areas and Kei car owners enjoy lower taxes, among others. The latest Kei regulations state that the car may be no more than 3.4m long, 1.48m wide and can have an engine of no more than 660cc with an output of no more than 64bhp.

That’s quite restrictive, you may say. But the innovative Japs have managed to build a whole range of vehicles within these boundaries. Two seat coupe? Two seat convertible? Four door four seater? Microvan? Pick-up truck? Refrigerated truck? Mini off roader? You can get all these bodystyles in Kei dimensions.

Our group test features two sporting Kei cars that have become much more affordable now. The Honda S660 is Honda’s two-seat sports car in the Kei range with a mid-mounted engine, rear-wheel-drive, canvas ‘targa’ style roof and hardcore sporting aspirations. Then we have the Daihatsu Copen Robe, more of a boulevard cruiser with is a front-engined, front-wheel-drive convertible with a proper boot and a metal folding roof.

These both have a 660cc turbo (yes, TURBO) three-cylinder engine, which outputs the requisite 64bhp. But what if you have a family, and need a four-door-four seater? Must you give up the sporting tag? Fear not, we throw in the Daihatsu Cast Sport here, which also has a 660cc, forced-induction powerplant. Another candidate for this tag would be the Suzuki Alto Turbo RS, but that’s something we have all heard of before. The Cast Sport, not so much. Hence it’s inclusion here.

Three small cars. Three passionate petrolheads (one north of 6-feet tall). Makes for an interesting group test, doesn’t it?

 

Exterior

All three of us liked the S660’s looks. “It’s like a mini NSX” says Ryan. “The way you can see the engine through those slats, the functional side scoops…”. Avinda agrees “the S660 wins in the looks department”, and Ashraaq feels that the “S660 looks aggressive and purposeful”.

However, the Copen shape looks good too. While it may be perceived as a “ladies car” due to the curvy design, we don’t think so. Ryan feels that the design is very balanced and the BBS alloys give the car that extra touch, while Avinda appreciates the “British Racing Green with tan interior” colour option that can be gotten.

On to the Cast Sport. This has a “GTI vibe” to it says Avinda. Red accents, wheel design… The Cast Sport also does away with the ‘boxy’ design that four-door four-seat Keis have taken, choosing a more rounded design instead.

The Cast Sport and the Copen both have metal roofs – you have to release two latches in the cabin and then thumb the button for the roof to motor down. The S660 on the other hand has a folding canvas ‘targa top’ esque panel that stows in a box within the front clamshell. Removing, folding, stowing and re-fitting is entirely done by the driver (or passenger).

Look at the height differences – 1.18m for the S660 versus 1.6m for the Cast Sport! Since the Kei class is restricted in length and width, they tend to use the third, unrestricted dimension to extract more space.

To summarize, for the three of us, the S660 wins the beauty contest thanks to looking in no small part like a shrunken NSX in some ways. It’s like the designers were given a sheet of paper, blank but headlined “Mini NSX Concept” and told to run with it.

 

Mech & Tech

All three cars have 660cc three-cylinder engines with turbochargers and put out 64bhp. The S660’s engine sits behind the passenger cabin and drives the rear wheels, while the Copen and Cast Sport are both front-engined front-wheel-drive configurations. All three cars have CVT transmissions with simulated seven-speed ratios, shifted by steering wheel paddles.

The Honda’s engine is a VTEC Turbo Earth Dreams unit while the Copen and Cast Sport have the same KF-series DOHC engine with dynamic variable valve timing. The Honda unit makes its maximum power a little lower (6,000rpm) than the Daihatsu duo (6,400rpm), and has 12Nm more torque at 2,600rpm than the Daihatsu duo which make their peak torque at 3,200rpm)

The S660 has disc brakes all round while the Copen and Cast Sport make do with discs at the front and drums at the rear (all with ABS and EBD). Stability control is present too.

Dampers are where it gets interesting. The S660 gets Mugen dampers (being a Mugen edition car), while the Copen gets Bilstein dampers (which prominently display the Bilstein logo on their yellow casings). The Cast Sport has TRD (yes, Toyota Racing Development – don’t forget Daihatsu is part of Toyota) dampers. The S660 was also sitting on meaty 195-section rear tyres that try as we could, weren’t willing to unstick.

 

Driving Experience

How do they drive? Very differently! The S660 was a screamer! Those intakes are by your ears, you get a tiny power window between the seats that has the sole purpose of deafening you, and that engine doesn’t seem to be muted much. It’s always screaming, even at mid revs. However, Ashraaq felt that the S660’s engine wasn’t so rev-happy in the true Honda sense. “It always seemed to strain to reach 6,000rpm and felt more comfortable being shifted at 5,000rpm instead”. The Copen (and the Cast Sport) were much more willing to touch their 7,000rpm redlines with ease.

In terms of handling the S660 was found to be the most entertaining, however opinions on whether that appealed or not were differing. “When I drove the Copen, I had a smile on my face” says Ryan. “It’s like a mini GT car. Not a screamer, but something you can drive for long periods of time”. On the S660, Ryan felt it made you work harder “you can feel the weight shift. You can’t be as aggressive as with the Copen and fling it into a corner without needing to think carefully”.

Avinda agreed that “the Copen is a very steady car and they have done wonders with the handling. Very composed at any speed”. He also agreed that the S660 was more weight-shifty but enjoyed it. “I found that really fun, the fact that you had to plan your way through corners a bit more”.

Ashraaq liked the twitchiness of the S660’s rearwards bias but was surprised by how much fun the Copen gave him, while requiring less effort. “It’s a more forgiving car” he said “The S660 makes you think more, and perfect your lines”.

We all found the Cast Sport to be a safe handler but it surprised us in terms of how much longer and harder you could push it than one would expect from such a tall-ish vehicle. You can take corners flat-out or just lift off when your instincts are telling you to give it some brake. However, Avinda felt that the Cast Sport’s seats were too flat. “you can’t push it around too much, because you have to then work on not getting yourself flung off the seat”. We all agreed on that factor but noticed that the Cast Sport had a front ‘bench’ of sorts, with an armrest you could fold upwards. The other two had individual buckets.

 

Living With Them

All three testers agreed unanimously that the most livable was the Daihatsu Cast Sport. It’s got a rear seat (which can be slid fore and aft to allow you to determine if you want more rear space or more boot space), a boot and four doors. While the front seat is a bench, it makes it more comfortable with that centre armrest, or if you want to cuddle with your significant other. It’s got a double-DIN stereo and an airy cabin that totally belies the Kei-car constraints its built to.

Let’s move to the S660. This car is the most impractical. Ryan feels that “the S660’s screen on the dash is cool with the G-force display and all, and has a exciting “blow-off” valve noise”, which we all echo. However, the S660 is not a usable car unless it’s usually you and only you on the commute. There’s no space to stow even a laptop bag if you are planning to carry a passenger. Ashraaq says “with some careful planning, you might be able to fit some overnight clothes into the 10kg-rated box in the frunk” (which holds the toolkit and tyre repair kit as well). However, you need to pack directly into it and will not be able to take the roof off, as this is where the roof would stow. Being someone who likes to pack extra clothes, this is clearly not for him.

The S660’s radio is integrated into the dash tightly and is Japanese so you can listen to a grand total of two English channels in Sri Lanka. You get phone integration also, and two speakers. That’s it. You can’t change the stereo as it’s not a standard size. Maybe kits do exist for this but will require some dash surgery.

Avinda also observes that “there’s only one cupholder which neither driver nor passenger can reach, its all the way behind their elbows”! “While the photoshoot was going on, Ashraaq and I went in the S660 to the supermarket to buy some drinks. We bought one ‘mega’ bottle and it had to be kept on the floor next to Ashraaq’s legs” says Avinda.

The Copen is more practical with that folding metal roof. It’s got a decent boot if you keep the roof up, and a livable boot if you put it down. It’s also got a slightly more spacious-feeling cabin, a tad more comfort-oriented (albeit Recaro) seats and a proper, double-DIN multimedia system.

Avinda sums up the comparison between these two with “The S660 is always playful while the Copen is more liveable”.

If it seems like we are bashing the S660 a bit here, be assured we are not. It’s just that we tried long and hard to see how it could be used practically by a couple, and we just couldn’t figure out how we could fit our better halves and laptops at the same time in this car to do the daily commute. One person will have to take the bus…

Can Kei’s do the outstation jaunt, particularly to the hill country? Of course, they can! (Ashraaq regularly goes to Kandy and beyond with his wife in her WagonR Hybrid) So don’t let that small engine displacement put you off. You just need to be a little more committed and focus on maintaining a decent clip. Smoother is better.

 

Safety

They’ve all got two airbags, ABS, EBD and stability control systems, plus being Japanese they are engineered to protect the occupants while deforming around them. They also give you thrills at sane speeds which we think is a huge safety point – while a 250+bhp car can take you to 100km/h without even rippling your shirt, these cars give you excitement even at 50km/h if you want it.

 

Fuel Economy and Price

We didn’t test fuel economy, because, well we were having too much fun and forgot all about it. But seriously, if you buy a S660 or a Copen (or even a Cast Turbo), you can expect 10km/l average under normal driving (that is, not driving like a lunatic, nor like your typical hybrid driver at 30km/h). The Honda has a 25L fuel tank while the others have 30L tanks, and given how one is likely to drive the Honda, its best to plan your fuel stops and make them with some ‘reserve’ in the tank.

The Cast Sport was purchased for Rs. 3.6 million in January. Given the ever-strengthening Yen, the price is likely to have increased since then. The S660 is approx. 4.9 million and the Copen Robe is approx. 3.9 million. A regular S660 would be cheaper, but minus the Mugen bits.

 

Final Words

Time for the verdict, and it was no easy task to reach one. Each car has its own merits and shortcomings, and each car is great in its own unique way. First off, the S660. We all loved it but agreed it was too impractical unless we were three single guys, or could afford it as the weekend toy, the second car.

The Cast Sport is a great choice if you have a family but want a competent turbo Kei and don’t gel well with the Alto Turbo RS’ looks. It handles nicely and is something that will not stick out too much, but those who know cars will respect it for what it is.

That leaves us with…the Copen. And it’s our unanimous choice (a tough choice though). The Copen is the perfect compromise between practicality and fun if you desire two seats and some fresh air in a well-rounded (literally and figuratively) package.

However, walking away from an S660 would a hard act, and if there was a manual S660 thrown into the mix, well…who knows!

 

Thanks to Thiran Perera and Yoga Perera of Autoland for lending us the Honda S660 Mugen and the Daihatsu Copen Robe to feature on this test, and to Jan Sellayah for letting us play with his Daihatsu Cast Sport.

 

SEATS Recaro or Mugen?

Both two-seaters here come with special seats. Mugen (S660) and Recaro (Copen). Which set did we like better?

Avinda liked the Copen’s Recaros, while Ryan and Ashraaq would choose (by a tight margin) the Mugen seats.

 

REFLECTION S660 up KADUGANNAWA

It was a few days after the test. I was settled in the back seat of my brother-in-law’s L200 at 10pm on a Friday night, going to Kandy to spend the weekend with the in-laws. We were on the A1, approaching Kadugannawa. The crocodile of vehicles slowly made their way up the hairpins, slowed down by lorries that should have been taken off the roads ten years ago…a long and slow commute on what has got to be one of the most scenic yet clogged roads in the country.

A flash of white caught my eye. It was an unregistered S660, top open, windows down, being driven up the hill with impunity. Sometimes on the wrong side of the road. The driver (was it the new owner, or the car sale representative?) was no doubt having fun wringing it out. It reminded me of a small fly, darting between lumbering beasts, bobbing and weaving, buzzing away. This is the territory an S660 would feel most at home on; twisty mountain roads (sans the traffic) where each turn brings new opportunity to enjoy that lively chassis and hear the engine roar. Who needs multimedia or passengers?

Ashraaq Wahab

 

Tech Specs

Car                          Honda S660           Daihatsu Copen Robe         Daihatsu Cast Sport

Engine

Displacement         658cc                      658cc                                      658cc

Cylinder/Valves      3 / 12                       3 / 12                                       3 / 12

BHP @ rpm            64 @ 6,000             64 @ 6,400                             64 @ 6,400

Nm @ rpm              104 @ 2,600           92 @ 3,200                             92 @ 3,200

Mounted                  Rear-mid                  Front                                       Front

Transmission

Type                       All have CVT with 7-speed simulated manual mode and paddle shifting

Driving                   Rear wheels           Front wheels                          Front wheels

Suspension

Front                       Mugen dampers    Bilstein dampers                   TRD dampers

Rear                        Mugen dampers    Bilstein dampers                   TRD dampers

Brakes

Front                       Ventilated disc       Ventilated disc                       Ventilated disc

Rear                        Disc                        Drum                                       Drum

Misc

Length (mm)          3,395                       3,395                                       3,395

Width (mm)            1,475                       1,475                                       1,475

Height (mm)           1,180                       1,280                                       1,600

Kerb Weight (kg)     846                          870                                          850

Fuel Tank (l)             25                            30                                            30