Daihatsu Boon x4

More than meets the eye!

Editor's note:
Last issue, we ran a piece on the JDM Suzuki Swift GT from SCC's newest Japanese contributor, Takezo Okiyama. This month, he reports on Japan's mini-Evo and Subaru's upscale version of the STI. Okiyama will continue to provide us insight on the Japanese sport compact scene until you tell us otherwise. Let us know what you think.

The EVO and STI's little brotherOK, so some of you may remember seeing the name Daihatsu before. The company tried to do business in the US about a decade ago, but like the Japanese and American World Cup soccer teams, it made an early exit after a half-hearted effort. Now it has the embarrassing reputation as the only Japanese car company that failed to do business in America. Not long after its exit from the States, Toyota bought the struggling company and assigned it to build and market compact cars, mostly kei-cars (660cc mini cars).

Ever since, Daihatsu has rarely registered a blip on the enthusiast car radar, even though it produced one successful kei-car after another. But a couple of years ago, things began to change. For some reason, this unassuming company began building cars with a sporting edge, like the Copen (a kei-car convertible that was a big hit in Japan last year) and now, the Boon X4, a turbocharged, five-door, all-wheel-drive hatch that has the soul of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX STI.

From the outside, the Boon X4 looks like almost any other compact five-door hatch around (save the subtle hood scoop). Americans may be hard-pressed to distinguish it from a Honda Fit, but there's a lot more here than meets the eye. For starters, the engine is a screamer. Under the Boon X4's small hood is a DOHC, 16-valve, inline four. This is a different animal from the base Boon which comes equipped with either a 1.0-liter engine (codenamed 1KR-FE) or 1.3-liter (K3-VE). The X4 takes the de-stroked version of the latter (from 79.7 mm to 57.5 mm, making it a 1.0-liter) and then adds a turbocharger and intercooler so it can meet the regulations for Japan's kei-car rally series. The result is 133bhp at 7200rpm and 98lb-ft of torque at 3600rpm.

This isn't much, but Daihatsu has found a way to transform this modest output into an exhilarating drive. Mated to the engine is a close-ratio, five-speed manual gearbox with a nice solid feel, well-defined gates, and throws that need just a wrist-flick.

The Boon X4 is far from fast in a straight line. The normal version (the white car in the pics) runs to 60mph in 9.8 seconds. A special tuned version, called the D-Sport, does the deed in an agonizingly lethargic 11.5 seconds (the reason it's slower than the normal X4 is all the extra stuff like the roll cage and body kit). More than twice as tardy as the 5.2 seconds posted by a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX RS.

But wait. Around Fuji Speedway's drift course, where there are no long straights, the Boon X4's best lap time of 37.1 seconds and the D-Sport's 34.2 are only a tick or so away from the pace of an Evo or WRX (32.60 and 32.70, respectively).

How? Balance. The Boon X4 has excellent handling balance that all starts with the vehicle's suspension and all-wheel-drive system. It has MacPherson struts up front and a three-link goemetry at the rear. It has been tuned for performance, so it's pretty stiff, using components and settings from the European version of the Boon (called the Sirion). The front anti-roll bar is especially firm, giving the Boon X4 rock-solid rigidity during turn-in. The all-wheel-drive system is traditional viscous coupling, but the front incorporates a limited-slip diff. During normal driving, the thing is essentially a front-driver, but Daihatsu says the all-wheel-drive unit has been tuned to provide rear-drive feel through corners.

On the Fuji Speedway course, this is quite evident, especially with the D-Sport. Steering is quick and sharp and the entire car reacts like it's an extension of your body. The first thing you notice is the rigidity of the chassis. The front tires absolutely bite into the tarmac, as the rest of the vehicle follows suit. The balance here is neutral, although it'll understeer through really tight turns. Take a corner extra hard and you'll get the inside rear wheel airborne.

The X4 and D-Sport are especially adept at direction changes. The car's diminutive size (overall length is 142.9 inches with a wheelbase of 96.1 inches) makes it easy and fun to toss through a slalom. And the engine, despite its mediocre output, comes on right when you need it - at the corner exits. It's the type of car that has a modest learning curve, so many will have no problems just jumping in and going fast right away.

After driving the Boon X4 (both normal and D-Sport versions) back-to-back with the WRX STI and Evo IX, it's clear there's a connection between all three. Each provides turbocharged power on demand, with amazing rally-inspired all-wheel-drive handling.

Only the Boon X4 does it on a smaller scale, with a much smaller price (about $15,500 for the normal X4, the price of the D-Sport was unavailable at the time of writing), making it one of the best thrill-for-the-buck (yuk-for-the-yen?) cars in the world. With cars like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa being sold in the US, perhaps it won't be long until you get to drive the Boon X4.

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