It was the dawn of the present-day SUVs, say around 1990. The Ford Explorer and Mazda Navajo were brand new. The gigantic Chevy Suburban and Blazer had been with us for some time, but their uses were still somewhat commercial or they made great work vehicles for the horsey crowd. And even though they were enormously popular, the word “craze” did not apply to those behemoths. But when SUVs became mid-sized and even smaller, their sales took off like rockets!
At the same period of time, the miniscule Suzuki Samurai was on the outs because, like Mayberry’s Otis Campbell, it had a reputation for being a little “tipsy.” But there were few offerings in this size, and there seemed to be a market for a compact SUV, especially for thrifty folks like yours truly.
But with only two vehicles in its American lineup history (1988-1992), Daihatsu struggled to keep up with the established brands; they only offered the compact Charade and the Rocky. The Charade was their version of a subcompact car, and it was a bit “plain” at best.
I had the pleasure of keeping a Rocky for a few days as a test vehicle when they were new. In addition to highway driving, I took it off-road on some farms, but nothing real serious. My wish 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, and all of the pieces fit together quite 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 the effect of being a Jeep poseur. I think the design looks clean even today.
And 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 on both vehicles. 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.
I think the Rocky was a small SUV that, had it been a bit more refined, could have been a big hit in our market. And even though there is a little size difference, comparing the Rocky to the more-familiar Samurai just seems natural here.
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? Ummm… please, 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. Further complicating matters, the radio was way too low to safely reach while driving. The comfort controls were atop the radio; most newer vehicles have reversed this placement of the radio and A/C controls.
Our final verdict of the Rocky was that it was slightly larger and even slightly more-glorified than the Samurai, and maybe a bit better planted on the road. But other SUVs did not need to worry about losing much market share to this vehicle, and in fact, they didn’t.
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.