by That Car Guy
It was the dawn of the present-day SUVs, say around 1990. The Ford Explorer and Mazda Navajo were brand new. The huge Chevy Suburban and Blazer had been with us for some time, but their uses were still somewhat commercial, or they made great work vehicles. The word "craze" did not apply to those behemoths, but when SUVs became mid-sized, their sales took off like rockets!
At the same time, the Suzuki Samurai was on the outs because, like Mayberry's Otis Campbell, it had a reputation for being a little "tipsy". Yet there seemed to be a market for a compact SUV, especially for thrifty folks like yours truly.
Enter Daihatsu. The name "Daihatsu" is a combination of the first kanji for "Osaka", and the first kanji of the word "engine manufacture". When put together, they are pronounced "dai hatsu". With only two vehicles in its American lineup (1988-1992), Daihatsu struggled to keep up with the established brands. They only offered the compact Charade and Rocky. The Charade was a car, and a bit "plain" at best.
The Rocky was a small SUV that, had it been a bit more refined, could have been a big hit in our market. Comparing the Rocky to the more-familiar Samurai just seems natural here.
I had the pleasure of keeping a new Rocky for a few days as a test vehicle back then. In addition to highway driving, I took it off-road on some farms, but nothing real serious. My attitude was to return the vehicles in as good of shape as I received them, if not better. So forging streams and jumping dirt mounds was out of the question.
The Rocky had the tight, well-built feel of all Asian vehicles of the time. All the pieces fit together well. If I had not been in need of a pickup truck with an open bed to tote smelly fossil fuels around in, the Rocky would have been a good candidate for my next vehicle.
Its styling was pleasant enough. The character lines all flowed together, door hinges were concealed, and the wheel arches and large tires were macho enough to say "rugged", but without being a Jeep poseur. The design looks clean today.
Like the Samurai, all Rockys were 2-doors with manual transmissions and 4-wheel-drive. The Rocky had a 5-speed; the Samurai had a 4-speed. Air conditioning was extra. They were both also some sort of open/convertible-type vehicle; the one I drove featured a hinged hard top over the front passengers. A soft canvas top covered the back, and a rear hardtop was an option.
The Rocky was JUST big enough to live with. I enjoyed the Samurai (aka SJ-410) that we rented in The Bahamas, where there were no interstates and the fastest speed limit was 45. But back here in the states, a little more mass is needed to feel safe above 55. If you've ever caught a wind gust while in a high-profile vehicle, you know what I mean. At least the Rocky felt adequate on the highways of Middle Tennessee.
The low sides of the Rocky were its lack of power and poor interior design. With just 1.6 litres and 94 horsepower, doing burn-outs while leaving the drive-in were impossible. Zero to 60 times were "leisurely". Top speed? In one of these vehicles? Uh-uh, not while I'm in it.
I'm not a big guy, but my right knee almost became sore from bumping the obtrusive radio/HVAC control housing. To live with a Rocky, some form of padding there would have been necessary. The radio was way too low to safely reach while driving; most newer vehicles have reversed this placement of the radio and A/C controls.
verdict of the Rocky was that it was a glorified Samurai, and maybe a
bit better planted on the road. Today, a new Rocky-type vehicle could
be a success. Just give it some decent power, a few comfort goodies,
and please remove that awful knee-knocker.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)