The Daihatsu Materia has the look of a car that probably never saw a wind tunnel and is proud of it. Call it what you will - a mini hotrod or a bread van with attitude - but the latest product from the self-proclaimed compact-car specialist has loads of character.

This boxy shape is not a look that's going to appeal to everybody, least of all those who like aerodynamic curves, but I can see the Materia becoming a hit with the Speed 'n Sound brigade.

It has an urban street fighter look that lends itself to some go-faster tuning and I wonder how long it will be before the likes of SAC conjure up a tweak for its 1500cc engine.

The square, fold-along-the-dotted-lines shape makes a refreshing change. In a world full of often bland bubble cars churned out by the wind tunnel, the Materia boldly comes out and says it's hip to be square. Daihatsu sees it as a cross between a mini MPV and a hatchback so, apart from the Fiesta/Clio/Polo and the other usual suspects, the Materia also sees the Renault Modus and Peugeot 1007 as its competition.

The dinky Daihatsu has a remarkably large cabin beneath its pugilistic exterior. The wheels way out on the corners, so far out they nearly poke through the bumpers, leave all the length of the car to be used for cabin space.

As a result the Materia's passenger quarters are notably larger than the class average. With loads of legroom and a tall ceiling there's enough space to accommodate the original Material girl and a whole bunch of adopted Malawian waifs. But this isn't just a mommymobile for taking the kiddies to soccer practice; the Materia is spacious enough to schlepp five lads from the Springbok rugby team.

Versatility is also in abundance and the rear seats can be set to one of two backrest angles and they'll fold flat when you need to expand the rather small boot into panel van proportions. The boot, alas, is equipped with a mini spare wheel.

The little Daihatsu's visual charm is accompanied by decent driving dynamics. Besides improving cabin space another benefit of that wheel-at-each-corner design is the short overhangs it creates, which reduces pitching and squatting under hard acceleration or braking to give the car a nimble feel. It also lengthens the wheelbase to limit the choppy ride characteristic in small cars.

The ride quality is comfortable for this class and the Materia deals efficiently with bumps and ripples, cruising over rough roads without developing any major shakes that might threaten to separate passengers from their breakfasts.

It seems pretty solidly built, too, with no rattles evident on Gauteng's speed hump-infested roads.

Square snout

The car has very tidy roadholding, with a slick and surefooted feel that invites enthusiastic exploration of twisty mountain passes. It feels light and nimble, with limited body roll and light but not numb steering.

Under that square snout is a 76kW/132Nm, 1.5-litre, fuel-injected engine driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed auto is optional for nine grand extra.

The performance is about what you expect from a 1500, fairly nippy without being exciting. It's eager enough to make the Materia a handy little urban warrior that zips efficiently through busy traffic.

On the open road there's enough pace to occupy the fast lane but it's noisy and the engine gets quite raucous when revved hard. As a result the sound system often needs cranking up, which is probably why the super-sized volume knob is so easy to find. The six-speaker radio/CD audio system is an integrated, not an off-the-shelf type, and will take MP3 and WMA (Windows media applications).

Safety front

The Materia's R140 000 price tag comes with most of the features demanded by our material world, including air-con, the abovementioned audio system, power-assisted steering, windows, mirrors and central locking - although the last is manually key-operated and not the convenient remote-controlled type.

On the safety front, anti-lock brakes and front and side crash bags are also standard. Also included in the price is a three-year service plan, something not offered by all rivals in this class.

The Materia's cabin is a generally pleasant environment. Though its dashboard plastic isn't the rich-feeling soft-touch type, it doesn't come across as cheap either.

The interior styling is modern and pleasing to the eye, with a particularly clean, simple layout. The seating position's fine even though the steering's only adjustable for height and not reach.

As is becoming a growing trend, the instrument panel's set in the centre of the dash and the space ahead of the steering wheel is free. There's no obvious advantage to this except that all the passengers can see what speed you're doing - which is possibly not something you wish for if you have a taste for higher velocities and your grumpy mother-in-law's sitting in the back.

The Materia's a reasonably light fuel-sipper too, with Daihatsu claiming a 7.2 litres/100km average which seems feasible as our test car achieved 7.8 with a bit of heavy-footed driving.

VERDICT

Daihatsu's have seldom rated anywhere on the image meter but the Materia makes a statement. For the hip-to-be square mom or even the aspirant hot-rodder (imagine it with 17" alloys and an engine tweak), it's a fashion accessory with substance.

It's extremely spacious, well-specced and has better-than-average ride and handling.