I didn't find much about the Daihatsu Terios II that impressed me until I realised that I was comparing it with cars valued at almost double its recommended selling price.

It has neat lines both inside and out but there's not much there that visibly sets it apart from other SUVs; it's what you don't see that makes the Terios appealing.

Wheels set closely to each corner of the body make for a 1.450m track and a 2.580m wheelbase on a 4.055m body and make the vehicle incredibly stable for its 1.690m height.

Its height and large windows that provide excellent all-round views for the driver and the impression that you're rumbling along in the open air. Forward visibility from the front edge of the bonnet to the top of the windscreen is nearly 37 degrees and means you can easily navigate through narrow gaps and crowded roads.

Daihatsu says the Terios sports "a newly developed suspension system" that gives it "outstanding driving ability even when the road gets rough", but what they really mean is there are MacPherson struts in the front and a five-link rigid axle in the rear, with an optional rear stabiliser bar.

The wheels are linked by full-time all-wheel drive with a centre differential lock. A flick of switch located to the right of the steering wheel engages this centre differential to help the vehicle clamber over rough terrain or through deep mud. This the Terios does admirably, living up to Daihatsu's claim that you can take it for a "drive around town or a trip on the back roads".

It has a longitudinally-mounted engine that delivers solid performance for a plant with a capacity of 1.5 litres. Even more impressive is that it feels like it puts out more than its specified 77kw at 6000rpm and 140Nm of torque at 4400rpm.

The Terios accelerates and rumbles very much like a bakkie and its possible to gauge gear changes by the sound of the engine alone. It will comfortably cruise along at highway speeds - with power steering and road holding enough to make long journeys pleasant - but it's not going to win any awards for sprints or top speed.

Safe as houses

Still, it's got a full house of safety and drive assistance functions that I wouldn't have expected to find in a vehicle that's targeted at the lower end of the SUV market. Of course there's the usual front crash bags for driver and passenger and optional rear and curtain airbags.

Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake pressure distribution (EBD) prevent wheels locking up while downhill assist control (DAC) ensures a stable descent on icy, wet or loose terrain. Hill assist control (HAC) locks the brakes for two seconds on a steep uphill to give you time to pull away smoothly (I'm still trying to figure out how to work it successfully).

The brakes respondly crisply with no signs of fade; stomp on the "stop pedal" and the Terios will snap to a halt without even so much as a hair out of place. Very impressive indeed.

Chunky on the inside

All of this engineering is wrapped in a body design that can be summed up in one word: nice. Not stunning, innovative, agressive or even offensive - just some well-placed curves and lines that suggest the body shell was all moulded in one piece. How it won the international 2006 Red Dot Design award I do not know.

The cabin is a mix of understatement and Japanese pop design. Seats - with unobtrusive head restraints - are comfortable and there's plenty of legroom. The boot, which has a door that swings open to the right, offers 340 litres of space that can be further expanded with the rear seats folded down.

The central console is where they let the Tokyo-based appliance designer loose. Lots of shiny, silver-coloured plastic and a radio/CD player crowded with buttons marked with abbrevations that would only make sense to someone whose native tongue is not English.

The air conditioning is operated by three chunky knobs located below the central air vents. They look and operate like buttons on a toddler's toy, which is not a bad thing at all because you can fine tune the climate in the cabin by touch alone and not have to take your eyes off the road.

Verdict

The Terios is not going to win any awards for design (No really, I don't think the chaps at Red Dot's Design Zentrum in Germany had their heads on straight) but it is a remarkable SUV because it surprises with hidden talents. Well worth it, considering the price.

Prices:

  • 4x2 manual: R169 995

  • 4x4 manual: R186 995

  • 4x4 automatic: R196 995

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