Daihatsu launched its third-generation Sirion compact hatchback on the South African market on Monday with a media presentation at the Sibaya casino north of Durban and a "ride and drive" through the northern kwaZulu-Natal canefields .

The Sirion comes to South Africa in four variants though all have the same 1298cc, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine rated at 64kW at 6000rpm and 120Nm at 3200rpm.

This energetic little unit drives the front wheels through - your choice - either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission.

There are two trim levels, Sirion and Sirion Sport - the latter adding alloy rims, a rear spoiler, front fog lights, sporty bumpers and side stone protection.

The car is blunt and cheeky, with big, rather simplistic, curves and very short overhangs. The interior, although well finished, continues the slightly "Noddy car" look with lots of rounded accents - including a speedometer in a blobby little binnacle mounted on the (adjustable) steering column and a separate little round rev-counter sitting solo on top of the fascia.

The Sirion is more spacious than it looks thanks to clever door design with elbow recesses and the front seats are far enough apart to change gears without feeling up the front passenger's right knee.

The footwells proved more than big enough for my size 10's.

There's lots of headroom, even in the raised rear seats, though the body doesn't look very tall, and adequate legroom front and back. Three seat belts are provided in the back but only a trio of very good friends would buckle up together.

There's a glove compartment, a roomy parcel shelf under the fascia, door pockets and six cupholders - one in each front door, two in the centre console and two at the back.

The boot holds 225 litres of shopping with all the seats in place but the rear bench splits 60/40 to yield up to 630 litres of cargo capacity.

The Sirion is well specced for its class:

  • Power-assisted steering.

  • AM/FM radio/CD player.

  • Air conditioning.

  • Power window lifts.

  • Central locking.

  • Power exterior mirrors.

  • Rear-window defogger and wiper.

  • Body-coloured door releases.

  • Front-seat height adjustment.

    The list of active and passive safety equipment is nearly as long:

  • Anti-lock brakes with electronic fluid pressure control.

  • Driver and front passenger crash bags.

  • Pre-tensioners and force limiters on the front seat-belts.

  • Crash sensing fuel cut-off.

  • Pillar and roof ribs for extra stiffness.

  • Pedal crash-intrusion reduction mechanism.

  • Collapsible steering column.

    On the road

    The Sirion has been designed as a shopping trolley with a very tight (9.4m) turning circle and fingertip-light electric power steering, which tightens up nicely as speed rises.

    The clutch is almost absurdly light and has absolutely no feel - which makes hill-starts something of a challenge - but the gearshift is firm and positive with a very direct feel.

    The gear lever on the car I drove also vibrated strongly all the time, accompanied by a muted buzz through the steering wheel and some thrumming from the semi-independent, torsion-bar rear suspension.

    The suspension is firm, and the car holds the road well, though the ride has a distinct "small wheel" feel rather reminiscent of the original Mini. Other than tyre noise on some surfaces and an authoritative intake roar on full throttle, the Sirion runs quietly and cruises happily at up to 150km/h.

    Given the hot, muggy conditions at the launch the standard air-conditioning was impressive; it ran almost silently and kept the cabin cooler than units in some much more expensive models from other automakers.

    First impression

    The fit of the exterior panels - especially the plastic bumpers - isn't up to European standards and slamming the doors is more a clunk than a thunk, but the interior finish and appointments will stand comparison with anything in its class, no matter its heritage.

    It's a typical Japanese mini-car - bells and whistles galore at a keenly competitive price, backed by more than adequate chassis dynamics.

    Prices:

    Sirion 1.3 manual - R99 995

    Sirion 1.3 automatic - R109 995

    Sirion Sport 1.3 manual - R109 995

    Sirion Sport 1.3 automatic - R119 995

  • The Sirion comes with a three-year or 100 000km warranty and a two-year or 45 000km service plan. Service intervals are set for every 15 000km.