The South African launch of the long-wheelbase Daihatsu Terios started with a bang - lots of them, in fact, as the convoy arrived at Kagga Kamma private nature reserve in the middle of an awe-inspiring thunderstorm and sheets of rain.

The 40km or so of well-graded gravel road up to the lodge would normally be a doddle for any competent soft-roader but with water running 50mm deep across the road in places and soft, gluey mud on the insides of most corners it became something of a challenge - one which the Terios met with impressive assurance, however.

Daihatsu has lengthened the second-generation Terios by 315mm to 4370mm (still petite by SUV standards) and wheelbase 105mm to 2685mm to create this additional derivative.

All the extra volume is in the tail - the front overhang is actually 5mm less than that of the standard Terios while rear overhang has increased from 800mm to 1015mm.

This has allowed Daihatsu to offer an extra row of seats; the Terios LWB is available either as a seven-seater with a 190-litre boot or a five-seater with more than 600 litres of luggage space.

The third row is surprisingly roomy; the only space restriction is that the floor is higher than that of the rest of the vehicle but the peanut gallery isn't only for children. It's perfectly adequate for adults on short journeys.

And if you opt for the seven-seater format you can still fold the second and third rows to create a cargo bay with a completely flat floor capable of swallowing a two-seater couch or 26" mountain bike.

Said floor is only 640mm off the ground and flush with the rear door sill to make loading bulky or heavy items easier.

The rest of the interior décor is (almost) standard Terios with comfortable, fabric-upholstered seats, height and reach-adjustable steering column, power mirrors and windows and wide-opening (80 degrees wide!) doors.

The layout of the instruments in their triple binnacle has been revised, however, and there's a new centre console (still cheap-looking silver plastic, I'm afraid) with an uprated, MP3-compatible sound system and new, simpler and more stylish aircon controls.

There's one more, rather weird, change: the indicator and windscreen wiper stalks have been transposed, with the indicators on the left and the wipers on the right rather than the other way round as on the standard Terios.

A Daihatsu SA staffer explained that the company never used only one supplier for any given component - to avoid supply problems - and that the switchgear for the long-wheelbase Terios was supplied by a different contractor.

Full-time all-wheel drive

Under the bonnet, however, there's the same 1.5-litre engine, pushing out a claimed 80kW at 6000rpm and 141Nm at 4400, driving through a five-speed manual gearbox and a straightforward, full-time, all-wheel drive.

It powers the front and rear axles in a 60:40 ratio under normal circumstances but can feed all the power to one axle if it detects wheelspin on the other.

There's no low-range and there are no manual front hubs to lock, only a small button low down on the right of the fascia that locks the centre differential to feed power 50:50 to the axles on very loose surfaces.

Daihatsu quotes fuel consumption of 8.1 litres/100km, exceptional for any seven-seater.

A two-wheel drive model is available - but only as a seven-seater - with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission; neither was, however, present at the launch.

Which was just as well as we left the lodge well before the crack of dawn the following morning to tackle a fairly robust 4x4 route - made more so by overnight rain - that culminated in an intimidatingly steep and very rocky section into and out of a deep ravine.

Leaping and bounding

The Terioses (Teriae?) were unfazed, their accurate if rather remote power-steering seemingly immune to bump steer and the fierce but well-modulated brakes allowing gentle progression from one wet, slippery rock to the next on the way down.

Then a bootful of revs took each vehicle leaping and bounding (the Terios is, after all, a remarkably light and compact SUV) up the opposite slope and out, picking up considerable respect from their drivers along the way.

The rain held off, apart from a shower or two as the convoy picked its way more than 100km through the southern Cederberg on soggy gravel roads that became rougher as we passed deeply isolated farms with names such as Dwarsrivier, Sanddrift, Zonderwater (understandable, I suppose, this preoccupation with water of South African farmers) and Welbedacht, then over the treacherous Uitkyk pass to the Algeria forest station.

The cars were covered in mud up to the door handles and their dampers took some strain on the increasingly bumpy road but apart from a puncture (ironically on the sweep vehicle) and a bent exhaust hanger (10 minutes with a Leatherman fixed that) seemed to suffer no ill-effects.

Then we deflated the tyres and went duning in thick, very soft, golden sand near Lamberts Bay on the West Coast. The Terios, with its tiny engine (by off-road standards) and high-revving power delivery, needed a lot of revs to get up the steepest of the dunes and would dig in immediately if you lifted your foot even a little before you reached the top.

Tail-dragging in the gullies

The deep gullies between the dunes also highlighted the long-wheelbase Terios' one weakness compared to the standard model.

The extra rear overhang has reduced the departure angle from a class-leading 37 to 21 degrees and after a couple of hours in the dunes only one out of seven still had a rear number plate!

But this is a seven-seater, multipurpose SUV we're talking about; if heavy-duty 4x4-ing is your game get yourself the standard-length Terios Off-Road with raised suspension, uprated dampers and extra power.

The 300km drive back to Cape Town highlighted a compromise that affects every Terios derivative - the high-revving little engine sounds very busy at highway speeds and needs frequent stirring of the gear lever to maintain forward progress on inclines.

But Daihatsu's long-wheelbase Terios demonstrates that you don't need a five-litre V8 and a million rands' worth of electronic gadgetry to take your family into the wild blue yonder.

And, given the current preoccupation with rocketing fuel prices, it may just be an SUV whose time has come.

Prices

4x2 seven-seater - R194 995

4x2 seven-seater a/t - R203 995

4x4 five-seater - R208 995

4x4 seven-seater - R213 995