Why I love the Suzuki Cappuccino: in praise of K cars

Published: 21 August 2009

► A love letter to the Cappa
► The quirky Suzuki Cappuccino
► Tim Pollard blogs on K cars

The best cars are those that are borne out of necessity. The original VW Golf appeared at a time when the world had been plunged into unrest over oil shortages. Britain’s Mini, too, was launched as the zeitgeist changed from post-war to the dawn of the modern age. So it should come as no surprise that some of the most interesting small cars come from that hotbed of technical innovation, Japan.

Japan is a horribly overcrowded island, its 127 million inhabitants making it the tenth most populated country on the planet. Move into the big metropolitan cities like Tokyo and you’re slap bang into high density development that struggles to contain its 35 million dwellers. High rise is the way to construct, teeny-tiny the way to drive.

So it was that in 1949 the Japanese government mandated new Kei car (keijidosha, or light automobile) rules, designed to encourage smaller, more efficient vehicles with commensurate tax, insurance and parking benefits. Many of the small cars you spot haring around Japanese cities are K-cars, identified by their yellow licence plates and staggeringly small footprints.

Japan’s Kei car rules explained

The rules are pretty straightforward nowadays. K-cars have to be less than 3.4m long and 1.48m wide, while the engines can be no bigger than 660cc and develop less than 64bhp. Japan’s car makers responded in kind with a range of startling cars, from the contemporary Mitsubishi i and Daihatsu Copen, to the more classic Honda Beat and Autozam AZ-1.

It’s the latter that I’ve fallen for in a big way. I’ve never driven a Beat or mid-engined AZ-1 gullwing, but a decade ago I tested a Suzuki Cappuccino and was hooked (as admitted previously on CAR Online's forum). And just to check my specs weren’t rose-tinted, I’ve been out this morning and driven one around Peterborough.

Suzuki Cappuccino: a brilliant K-car

The Cappuccino is so short and narrow, I walked past it in the secondhand car lot this morning. Purely for research purposes, I lay down beside this silver example to give you some idea of the scale in our gallery above. But dip down, climb in and – yes – all 6ft 2in of me fits in comfortably. The Cappa feels like an old car now (ours was an M-reg 1994 model) and the plastics are brittle and shiny with the patina of age. But the cabin is cosy, wrapping around you and its 1395mm width is the most striking dimension – this is one narrow car, designed for downtown Ropongi not Reading. You’ll occasionally nudge elbows with your passenger.

The Cappuccino’s ace card is its brilliant bodyshell. It’s a bit too cutesy and round from certain angles – blame the curvy lamps front and rear – but it has a clever targa top that lets you flip between coupé, T-bar, full targa or (swivel the hinged rear window down) full convertible. Brilliant! Who needs a folding hard top when you can have all the stages in between too?

Does the Suzuki Cappuccino deliver on the road?

In full cabrio mode the Cappuccino’s looks improve immeasurably and our example looks slick in shiny silver, marred by just a few bubbles of rot around the arches and sills. And that sporting pretension, those twin engine vents, are reinforced by a slick, buzzy drive. We turned up unannounced and the Cappa started first time, its 660cc triple catching immediately and settling to a warbly idle.

Being turbocharged and weighing a flyweight 725kg, the Cappuccino really flies (and such dieting is great for its eco credentials, too). It’s not brutally fast by today’s standards, but many examples are tweaked with uprated blowers and exhausts. Rather performance is well judged, the engine eager to rev and the gizmo-free handling as fun as I remembered it a decade ago. Log on to Youtube and you’ll discover that the Cappuccino is a Japanese drift favourite, although I should also point out that many have been crashed as a result of terminal, SWB-tricky oversteer.

It really is a car for all seasons, a leftfield sports car for those who appreciate small cars and clever engineering. I’ll probably own one day, although there is one very good example why you’d have to really want to spend £2000-5000 for a decent Suzuki Cappuccino: Mazda’s more grown-up MX-5.

But that car’s nowhere near as frothy as a Cappuccino. And it never will be.

With thanks to Premier Car Trade Centre Peterborough, which sold this 94M Cappuccino with 72k for £2990. Click here for more info

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet