The kei car. Often fun, quirky and small enough to squeeze into Japan’s strict kei car regulations. What comes to mind for many is the Suzuki Cappuccino, or even the Honda Beat, both having been around since the 1990s, but in 2003 the Daihatsu Copen was injected into the open-top kei car market giving those who were looking for an affordable roadster food for thought.
It oozes character, has an electric folding roof as standard, and its fizzy three-cylinder turbocharged engine and tight chassis make it a hoot to drive. However, buying a Daihatsu Copen is a bit like owning a Husky puppy – it’s cute but it’ll require attention and can be a big commitment.
The Daihatsu Copen range
Unveiled in 1999, the Copen had a 67bhp turbocharged 660c engine and was available with either a five-speed automatic or four-speed manual. Although never officially intended for Europe, it found its way there and became increasingly popular; however, due to the 660cc engine not meeting various European emissions regulations, the Copen was given a Toyota-derived naturally aspirated 87bhp 1.3-litre variant which meant that it could be driven in Europe. Unlike the Cappuccino’s manual roof, the Copen had a roof that would open in Mercedes-Benz SLK fashion and tuck itself into the boot. Cars also came with 15in alloys, twin airbags, air conditioning, a CD player, a twin exhaust system and electric windows. Buyers could also opt for a red leather interior with heated seats and a replica Momo steering wheel.
Engine and transmission
The 660cc (JB-DET) engine has a lot of charisma but needs to be well-maintained. It was recommended that the oil was changed every six months, or 3000 miles, and if not done, it can lead to turbo failure. If the turbo does go, it currently costs around £1000 for a new one, or around £500 for a used one, and parts may need to be imported from Japan which will increase the price. Spark plugs are also known to work themselves loose and fire themselves out of the engine, due to high compression, which will cause further damage. The 1.3-litre units are rather solid if serviced at the recommended 9000-mile intervals. The four-speed automatic is better than the three-speed found in the Cappuccino and is known to be reliable – the same can be said about the five-speed manual. Both the 660cc and 1.3-litre Copens weigh just under 900kg which means the 660cc can cover the 0-62mph sprint in 11.5 seconds while the 1.3 will do it in 9.2 seconds.
Although the 1.3-litre was built for the European market, its bodywork and chassis weren’t ready to suck on the salt from the British roads and cars were known to rust around the wheel arches, boot lip, crash boxes and exhaust – it’s worth prying the plastic wheel arches open ever so slightly to check for any heavy rust spots. When it comes to aesthetics, there’s a plethora of aftermarket parts available to improve the Mk1 Audi TT-like looks, such as mesh grilles, tonneau covers and luggage racks that straddle the rear boot lid.
Things are tight, and even when not using the armrest between the seats, you’ll still find yourself rubbing arms with some of your passengers. If you’re over 6ft, the Copen might feel like you should be wearing it as a shoe rather than driving it, and although this issue is almost resolved by dropping the tin top, it’s not practical to do so all year round. When buying, it’s worth trying out the roof. If it opens and closes slowly, this could be the sign of the hydraulic pump failing and with years of dirt and grime building up in the fluid, the roof could eventually stick halfway open or fully retracted leaving you soaked if it’s raining. Roofs are known to squeak and rattle but there are adjustment points that can be tightened while a spray of WD40 would also help. Open the boot with the roof latched in place and check for dampness as this could be due to the central brake light seal failing and filling the boot with water.
Like most kei cars, the Copen isn’t designed for hardcore driving being only equipped with drum brakes on the rear. Kei cars are driven a lot in Japan and if your car has been imported, there could be a chance that both the brake discs and the pads could be worn out. Brake pads can be found for around £40 while brake drums can cost between £50 and £77 in current prices. Many owners opt to change their rear drum brakes to disc brakes. It should feel tight in the corners although when the roof is dropped, there may be some notable scuttle shake.
What we say about the Daihatsu Copen
There are plenty of convertibles on the market and it’s understandable why people would opt for the Mazda MX-5 or BMW Z3. For those who fancy something a bit different, the Daihatsu Copen makes plenty of sense. There’s a supportive Copen community on social media who have already been through any woes and have plenty of advice to give. Even in 2023, the Copen still turns heads and if you pass a fellow Copeneer on the road you’ll most likely flash your headlights at each other in excitement. Don’t be put off by the low power output as the Copen will provide oodles of driving entertainment. Decent turbocharged examples start at around £3,000. 1.3-litre cars start at around £4,000, with clean low-mile examples fetching £7,000.
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