The majority of Japanese cars built to Kei Car specifications tend to be boxy, quirky affairs. Cars like the Daihatsu Copen, however, prove that when a sports car is designed to comply with the tax-friendly regulations, the results are fun, cute and completely charming.
The Copen was one of the longest-living open top Kei Cars, with production running from 2002 to 2012. After a brief hiatus, Daihatsu launched a second-gen model in 2014, with all-new styling, a greater scope for customisation inside and out, and much-improved fuel efficiency.
The two seat, 3.4 metre-long roadster’s party piece came in the form of its retractable hard top roof. Constructed from aluminium – as opposed to the steel used elsewhere in the Copen's body and chassis – the extra level of security and a weather protection make the Copen an ideal everyday sports car in the UK. As a result, it was officially imported to Britain from 2005, as well as many other international markets.
Though Kei car regulations restrict engine capacity to 659cc and 63bhp, outside of Japan the Copen was offered with a larger 1.3-litre naturally aspirated unit. While the Japan-spec model delivers fairly modest performance figures, the sub ten-second 0-62mph time of the larger engine helps the Copen to feel genuinely sprightly.
Kerb weight sits at a miniscule 830kg, so regardless of which unit is driving the front wheels, there’s huge fun to be had by using the tiny dimensions and darty chassis to maintain momentum through the bends. Of course, one or two concessions need to be made for the tiny Copen. The ride is a little bouncy, and practicality will never be a strong point for a roadster comfortably shorter than a Citroen C1.
Which one to buy?
Early versions of the Copen were only offered with the Japanese market, 659cc turbocharged engine. It’s characterful and enjoyable to work hard, but for many, the 1.3-litre sold from 2005 onwards will be the better choice. With 86bhp and 89lb ft of torque, it covers the 0-62mph sprint in 9.5 seconds to the 659’s 11.3, yet achieving an official 47.1mpg, it’s 3mpg more frugal, too. The smaller engine was offered with a choice of manual or CVT automatic gearbox.
Equipment levels are generous, with air conditioning, electric windows and remote central locking offered as standard, while heated leather seats are a frequently-found option. The overwhelming majority of Copen owners choose to keep their cars unmodified.
Performance and specs
Engine 659cc inline four
Power 63bhp @ 6800rpm
Torque 80lb ft @ 3200rpm
Top speed 106mph
Fuel consumption 44mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• Rust can be an issue for Japanese market cars – where roads aren’t salted during the winter – once they’re brought over to the UK. The most common place from which Copens sprout rot is the trailing edge of the rear wheel arches.
• Alloy wheels are known to suffer from corrosion, too. Refurbs should rarely set you back more than £60 per corner.
• Both engine types are generally reliable, though the 659cc needs regular oil services. The recommended intervals stand at every 3000 miles or six months
• Standard exhausts are known to have a weak point: the joint around the silencer is weak, leading to cracks and eventually leaking. As a result, many Copen owners have replaced the OEM system for aftermarket stainless units
1999: Daihatsu Copen Concept revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show
2002: Copen production begins
2005: Update introduces 1.3-litre engine, produced for worldwide markets
2012: First-gen Copen production ceases
2014: Production of the second-gen Copen begins
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
With approximately 1,900 Copens still zipping around UK roads, the market offers plenty of choice, so there’s no need to panic buy the first one you find. Early turbocharged models are available for less than £2,000, enough to bag a good privately-sold example with around 60,000 miles on the clock. Similar cars are generally priced around £500 higher at dealers.
The more desirable 1.3-powered model start from around £3000, climbing to around £5-6000 for low-mileage late models. Barely a handful of the second generation Copens have reached the UK. The cheapest used versions start at around £8000, but import and type-approval costs would need to be factored in over and beyond that figure.
Words: Alex Ingram