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Daihatsu Materia 1.5

Click to view picture galleryFor some people the Materia
  is a cult car. But don
t let that put
  you off because beneath its
  funky, edgy lines is a five-seat,
  fully functional mini-MPV...

DAIHATSU'S FUNKY MINI-MPV COULD BE JUST THE THING FOR MADONNA, but would she herself as a 'Materia Girl'?
There's an outside chance that she might. In Japan, similar compact city cars such as the Materia perfect for Japan's congested roads and near-absence of parking spaces are known as Kei-Class cars. And very popular they are too.

We drove a Materia down to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and found that it attracted its air share of attention. No, really it does. The first question about the Materia is "What is it?"
And like "Are we there yet?" you find yourself reiterating the same reply over and over again.

Their curiosity satisfied, many people expressed an interest in the Materia exactly like the one we were driving. Finished in lustrous metallic black, it really did look the business. The colour was perfect for the Materia's wheel-at-each-corner bluff, boxy and angular styling. Flared wheel arches wrap around polished 9-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels wearing 185/55 Bridgestone rubber, adding to the Materia's strong road presence.

Body-coloured bumpers, side skirts, door handles (these, by the way, have a very slick action and feel great to use!) and door mirrors and interesting taillight units that curve into each wheel arch are polished, finishing touches.

While it carries off an undeniably clever bit of 'eye-candy' design on the outside, the Materia's boxiness works even better seen from the inside, where space is maximised with a capital 'M'. Headroom is amazing — perfect for outings to Royal Ascot; the men won't even have to remove their top hats in the car! Entry is easy, through deep wide-opening doors.

Thanks to a generous 2.54-metre wheelbase, the Materia can accommodate a five-a-side football team or a complete nuclear family (two adults and 2.4 children). When you look around, the sheer amount of interior space really takes some beating. Notably, there is plenty of rear legroom for the three back seat passengers — in fact, in their rearmost position they offer more legroom than in many big saloon cars. To give you a better idea, one of our passengers was a stockily-built 6' 3" and he fitted in with room to spare. Moving the split 60:40 rear sliding seat (in total, it has 160mm fore/aft adjustment) to its furthest rearward setting maximises passenger space.

In this configuration, there is still 181 litres of boot space. However, slide it to its most forward position and you have 294 litres for luggage. Go one step further and fold the rear seat and you have 619 litres of space in the load bay. The high-opening rear tailgate, incidentally, opens flush with the load floor for easy loading and unloading. The boot floor is just the right height for sitting on — either for picnicking or to remove muddy wellies. And under the boot floor is a large full-width multi-section storage tray with seven compartments.

Privacy glass comes fitted as standard but, surprisingly, visibility out remains good. The driver sits tall thanks to a command driving position (seat and steering wheel height adjustment) and both front seats offer good support and comfort. Sitting behind them, the lot of rear passengers is much improved by the multi-adjustable backrest that offers ten different inclined settings from near upright to approximately 45 degrees. And should you ever have need of it, it can, like the front seats, be fully reclined to form a bed!

Cabin ambience is enhanced by the swooping, stadium-shaped arc of the fascia and the high-gloss black finish to the central audio unit and side air vents and the acrylic instrument panel all look particularly smart. We liked the centrally placed instrument arrangement — it was easy to take in information at a glance and it's neatly done and doesn't dominate the cabin like the MINI's dinner-plate sized set-up. Cabin 'design' touches include speaker surrounds that glow blue when live and acrylic black panels but overall the interior is sensibly laid out and functional — witness the abundance of bottle/cup-holders: no less than nine. Other nice touches include the wide, cloth covered outer armrests on both front doors, a handy pull-out coin drawer in the centre stack and the foolproof, easy-to-use audio controls.

Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, electric windows and door mirrors, Radio/CD player with six speakers and MP3 capability, rear privacy glass, rear parking sensors, driver and front passenger front and side airbags, ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, alloy wheels and Isofix child-seat mounting points on outer rear seats. Note that should a child seat need fitting on the front passenger seat the airbag can be easily switched off using the ignition key.

So much for the basics, but how does the Materia drive? Under the bonnet lives a four-pot 1.5-litre petrol engine that puts out 102bhp and 97lb ft of torque at 4,400rpm. The twin overhead camshaft unit features variable valve timing and it's a game and gutsy unit, although power drops off a bit after 5,000rpm (it's red-lined to 6,500rpm). Our regular test route includes a really steep and twisty hill — add a few straw bales and it would make a great hill climb. The Materia scored well there: working the revs and gears, it really flew up the hill. Despite the longish throw, gear changes are accurate and you're never in any doubt as to which gear you've just selected.

Officially, it takes 10.8 seconds to reach 62mph from standstill and the top speed is 36mph above the UK's legal limit. Cruising along at legal motorway speeds is most certainly not a problem and progress is very smooth and quiet, with 80mph equating to 4,000rpm.

Driving controls are light and responsive and the manual five-speeder shifts smoothly and the brakes (ventilated disc up front) do their job unobtrusively but very effectively, providing quick straight-line stops when needed. All-round visibility is first class in spite of wide C-pillars; the rear screen is almost full body width, so rear visibility is actually very good. The short bonnet means the driver can see both front corners, so placing the Materia is easy. And, particularly useful, all three rear headrests drop down low when not in use.

All of which makes driving it around town a hassle-free experience and underscores its commuter car suitability. And on the motorway and out on the open roads it gets along quite nicely, thank you. Over a week's testing we recorded an overall fuel consumption of 36.1mpg.

Priced at 10,995 with the five-speed manual 'box (there is a four-speed automatic version at 11,295), the Materia won't break the bank. Although the lack of a diesel engine option would not so long ago have been seen as a handicap of sorts, with the price of diesel pulling well ahead of petrol at the pumps, a petrol engine is now something in demand. Official consumption figures are 31.7, 39.2 and 46.3mpg respectively.

Daihatsu lists the Materia's key competitors as the similarly-sized but more conservatively styled Renault Modus and Vauxhall Meriva. Physically, the Materia's length of 3,800mm falls between the Modus (3,792mm) and the Meriva (4,042mm) while its width of 1,690mm is almost identical to the 1,695mm of the Renault and the 1,694mm of the Vauxhall. At 1,635mm tall, the Materia trumps them for height. However, when it comes to interior dimensions the Materia's 1,420mm cabin width far exceeds that of the Modus which can only muster 1,280mm. This, combined with the 1,950mm interior length of the Materia's squared-off passenger compartment (Vauxhall Meriva 1,825mm) offers excellent usable space. For the record, the Materia's passenger space matches that of a large family car.

Driving the front-wheel drive Materia is no hardship. It is quite tall but from behind the wheel there is no sensation of height — body roll is well under control and it handles tidily. Our test car's ride, put to the test on the country roads from Kent to Goodwood (a 200+ mile round trip), was firmly damped but smooth enough most of the time — it's not troubled by speed humps but really bad road surfaces are felt! We arrived at the Festival of Speed in good humour and, unlike an 007 cocktail, not shaken.

The Materia's power-assisted steering is easy on your arms around town — where you appreciate the minimum overhangs and tight 9.8 metre kerb-to-kerb turning circle (and the parking sensors!) — yet not so light that it caused us any problems outside of urban areas. The only caveat — it really shouldn't be unnecessary to mention — is that the Materia is a mini-MPV, not a mini-GT. So don't expect it to attack your favourite B-road like a trackday special. That said, it's game enough and we did have fun through some narrow, windy Sussex roads on the way to Goodwood and back.

So, 11K well spent? Well, there aren't that many 11,000 cars that will turn as many heads as a Materia, and for some buyers that alone will be enough. If you're coming to it with your head rather than your heart, you'll appreciate the mini-MPV functionality and the family-friendly roominess afforded by its wide cabin, as well as its five-year unlimited mileage warranty with UK roadside recovery.

This style of car is currently enjoying a cult following in both Japan and the United States. In the UK it will probably be driven by a cross-section of buyers from 18-year-olds to mothers with an eye for design right through to young-at-heart retirees. Buyers and passengers will, without doubt, appreciate the Materia's easy-to-live-with and 'just get in and go' character. —

Daihatsu Materia 1.5 | 10,995
Maximum speed: 106mph | 0-62mph: 10.8 seconds | Overall test MPG: 36.1mpg
Power: 102bhp | Torque: 97lb ft | CO2 169g/km