Daihatsu's almost comically tall and skinny Terios was the first compact SUV on the South African market with permanent all-wheel drive when it was introduced in 1997. It was a surprisingly competent dirt-road tool and built up a loyal following, so much so that global sales remained constant even during its run-out period.

Now Japan's self-styled compact car specialist has released the second-generation Terios: slightly longer, more powerful and, crucially, 190mm wider - both inside and out. It was launched in South Africa on Friday (May 26) in a range of three models: the trademark full-time all-wheel drive with manual or automatic transmission and a two-wheel drive version in manual only.

The styling has morphed into something a lot more purposeful than its predecessor, wider at the bottom than at the top with prominent wheel arches. There are large combination headlight/indicator units at either side of a split-level grille with a small air intake in the conventional position and a larger one in the colour-coded front bumper.

The Terios retains the strong C-pillar and wraparound rear side windows of the previous model but the wheels are closer to the corners, giving the new Terios a 45mm longer wheelbase, conferring some useful extra cabin space and creditable approach and departure angles (thanks to short overhangs) of 38° and 37° respectively.

Motivation is provided by a new 1495cc DOHC engine - actually the familiar 1.3-litre Sirion unit with its stroke lengthened to 91.8mm - for which Daihatsu claims 77kW at 6000rpm and 140Nm at 4400, quite high revs for a substantially undersquare engine.

Nevertheless, it spins willingly, if vocally, to its power peak and will take the Terios up to an easy 140km/h cruise with a bit more to come, even on the Highveld.

The power reaches the 16" alloy rims via a five-speed manual or straightforward four-speed automatic transmission and conventional transfer case, giving a 50:50 power split.

There's an electronically lockable centre differential but no traction control so, if you get one wheel cocked off the ground, it will spin and the other wheel on that axle will lose all power - but the other axle's wheels will continue to pull at full strength.

Daihatsu quotes fuel consumption of 7.9 litres/100km for the manual and 8.4 litres/100km for the self-shifter but we'll take that under advisement until we've had one on review and run a tankful of unleaded through it.

Articulation

The front suspension is by Macpherson struts while the rigid rear axle has a multilink set-up including two very substantial trailing arms and coil springs, allowing 200mm of ground clearance and an unexpected degree of articulation and enabling the 4x4 versions to acquit themselves surprisingly well on the obstacles of the 4x4 trail at Leopard Rock, north-west of Pretoria, with its steep slopes and loose, fist-sized rocks.

This is still primarily a road vehicle, however; and behaves creditably on tar without excessive body roll or pitching.

The power-assisted steering is as welcome in the dirt as in shopping mall car parks but becomes a little too sensitive at highway speeds. The Terios never quite "goes to sleep" and you have to concentrate all the time to prevent it from wandering slightly on a freeway.

The engine is longitudinally rather then transverse-mounted, so the two-wheel drive model is rear-wheel driven; making it the smallest rear-wheel drive vehicle in its class.

The brakes - discs front, drums rear - have ABS with electronic brake-pressure distribution and brake assist - which works; stomp on the middle pedal a little too sharply and the Terios almost stands on its nose!

Comfort zone

The driver's seat is height-adjustable through a 46mm range; even at its lowest, however, the driver's hip point is 740mm above the ground giving easy access and a commanding driving position.

The steering column is also height-adjustable, as are the front seat belts, so anybody from the most petite suburban mom to a full-size boerewors bliksem should be able to get comfortable.

The smooth, rather plain, fascia has a large binnacle with three deeply recessed dials for speed, revs, fuel gauge and coolant temperature - so deeply that the front-seat passenger can't see them at all.

Everybody can see the bold centre console, however, finished in silver plastic (and yes, Cyril, it looks as cheap as it sounds) housing the integrated radio/CD player (hooray, not worth trying to steal) two unexpectedly neat air vents and the chunky controls for the air-conditioning (standard across the range), cleverly laid out and so intuitive in operation that as soon as you've learned which is which you can adjust the cabin climate without taking your eyes off the road.

There's also an oddments tray at the bottom, a fair-sized glove compartment, front door pockets and map pockets in the back of the front seats - as well as six cup holders (for five people!?)

Standard issue includes central locking, power windows and mirrors and a 12V power socket.

Extra width

You could also get a couple of the abovementioned large lads in the back; 80 percent of the space between the axles is devoted to the cabin and rear legroom is unexpectedly generous.

Despite the new Terios' extra width, however, the rear seat is only suitable for three adults for short trips, even though Daihatsu provides head restraints and three-point seat belts for them.

There are crash bags for both front occupants, an emergency fuel cut-off and automatic door-lock release; the front seat belts have pre-tensioners and load limiters.

The full-sized spare wheel is on the rear door, which swings open to the right; thanks to careful rear axle design and the absence of a spare wheel well the floor of the 380-litre boot is only 640mm high for ease of loading.

The rear seat is split 60:40 and can be folded to make enough space for a mountain bike; more importantly, the floor is flat - all the rear-seat mounting points are recessed.

Prices:

  • 4x2 manual: R169 995

  • 4x4 manual: R179 995

  • 4x4 automaticl: R189 995

    The Terios comes with a three-year or 100 000km warranty and a three-year or 60 000km service plan. Service intervals are 15 000km.