South Africa has become the first country to launch the 1.3-litre version of Daihatsu's cute little hard-top Copen convertible two-seater - the rest of the world is still driving the turbocharged 660cc version.

The Copen, nicknamed since its launch about three years ago in Japan as the SLK of the minicar world because of its Mercedes-style folding metal roof, arrives here equipped with a tuned version of the engine already used in the Daihatsu YRV.

The original engine was a transverse-mounted, all-aluminium, quad-valve, 659cc unit with four cylinders and its turbocharger was designed exclusively for it to pull from 2000rpm.

Maximum power was 45kW and the motor could spin to 8500rpm, giving the car a top speed of about 170km/h and a 0-100 time of around 10 seconds.

The 1.3-litre unit chosen for South African application is rated at 64kW at 6000rpm and 120Nm at 4000rpm - and the dizzy speed of the 660cc engine has been calmed by a limiter to 6750rpm.

Fun makes up for flaws

The result is very little clout below 4000rpm and above that things sound a little rough and strained. The clutch for the five-speed gearbox (no, ma'am, there's no automatic) takes up suddenly - achieving smooth take-offs took some practice! - and the shift is notchy but its short throw very precise.

What the Copen might lack in sheer grunt it more than makes up for in fun. The tiny car weighs only 850kg - thanks in part to having an aluminium bonnet, hard top and boot lid - and will be good for about 170km/h - the same as its predecessor.

Handling is superb and steering super-precise, though pleasantly firm at speed. Seekers of comfort won't get it from the Copen - the ride for the Macpherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension is firm to the point of harshness.

Daihatsu took pains to explain that the car was designed from the wheels up to be a roadster and not a coupe with the roof removed but there is still a fair amount of shake left in the shell - which is tiny.

Factor off the scale

Anybody taller than 1.75m will be uncomfortable - the car will become a tight fit, especially with the roof in place. The footwells are so narrow the left-foot rest is actually behind the clutch pedal!

Despite all that the fun factor - at sea level in Durban or Cape Town, for instance - will be off the scale. I'd go to work early just for the ride, though the driver has to work at it to get it to go just like British sports cars of the 1950's and 1960's - it's almost a reincarnation of the Austin-Healey Sprite!

Its looks are unique - if not downright weird. Its Noddy-car appearance is amusing; there's a bit of Audi TT, a bit of Porsche and a touch of the new Beetle in there in degrees that will differ according to the beholder but no matter which way you look at it, the Copen is far prettier with the top down.

And talking of the top, it's quick. Release two clips joining the roof frame and the top of the windscreen, press and hold a button next to the gearshifter and the whole thing is over in 20 seconds.

There's a wind diffuser and two chromed rollover hoops behind the seats, which have manual adjustment for reach and rake - but not for height. The steering wheel is adjustable for reach and height but even at its highest remains too low for a tall driver to achieve a relaxed driving position.

It also obscures some of the instruments.

And the price...

So what do you pay for this unusual piece of minicar engineering? The answer is a hefty R189 995 but that's R10 000 less than the competing Opel Tigra and the Copen comes with a three-year or 100 000km warranty and a three-year or 60 000km service plan.

Service intervals are 15 000km with an oil change every 7 500km.

Standard on the specs list are leather upholstery, power windows and mirrors, a MoMo steering wheel, air-conditioning, radio/CD, power-assisted steering, anti-lock brakes with pressure distribution control and emergency braking assistance, 15" alloy rims, two crash bags, impact beams in the doors, central locking and an engine designed to drop out of the bottom of the chassis during a serious shunt.

Bad news is the fuel tank capacity - only 40 litres of unleaded which will probably take you about 400km because you're going to push the engine to perform out there on the open road where Mr Plod is not watching.

Such are the dimensions of the little Copen that the inclusion of a spare wheel would have caused severe luggage congestion so, instead, there's a "mobility kit" to mend the hole and pump up the rubber.

Finally, if there was any doubt about the newness of the cars, the chassis number on the bright yellow unit I drove was 00000064!