2023 Toyota Copen GR Sport
Country of Origin: Japan
Design Info: A front-wheel drive kei roadster, the 2nd generation Copen features a retractable hardtop and is built on the Daihatsu D-Frame, a monocoque chassis offering 50% more rigidity than the 1st gen. Most unusually, the Copen was also offered with interchangeable body panels (like the BMW Z1) allowing the owner to change the car’s color and even shape as desired. The Toyota GR Sport version, as compared to the base model, sports no Daihatsu (or Toyota) logos, instead featuring large C emblems and small GR Sport badges. The GR Sport also features a further tuned sport-oriented suspension, more aggressive styling, and factory-fitted BBS wheels and MOMO steering wheel. The manual transmission Copens weigh under 1900 lbs.
Engine Info: All second-gen Copens are powered by the Daihatsu KF-DET turbocharged I3, which (as limited by Japanese kei car regulations) displaces 658 cc and produces 63hp.
Type: The Copen GR Sport is a dedicated kei sports car, most comparable to the Honda S660, although older kei sports cars like the Honda Beat, Autozam AZ-1, and Suzuki Cappucino remain relatively competitive because little in kei car regulation changed between the 90s and today.
History: Daihatsu began in 1907 as Hatsudoki Seizo Company, a firm founded to domestically develop and build engines in Osaka. The company built its first vehicle, a three-wheeled motorcycle called the Type HA, in 1930, and quickly followed with a consumer model, the HB. In marketing the HB was called “Daihatsu”, a sort of portmanteau of “Osaka” (the pronunciation of the kanji for the beginning of Osaka becoming “dai-” due to the new combination) and “Hatsudoki Seizo” (Japanese for engine manufacture). Hatsudoki Seizo would continue producing three-wheeled motorcycles through the 30s and, due to consumer demand, began building three-wheeled trucks in the early 50s. In 1951, the company was renamed Daihatsu.
Sales of the Daihatsu Midget commercial truck hit a good stride in 1960, with over 100,000 on the road by the end of the year. Changes in Japanese laws regarding the auto industry in 1962, however, left Daihatsu in danger of being overrun by global competition. After 60 years as an independent company, in 1967 Toyota purchased a significant stake in the company, after reaching a cooperative agreement with the leaders of Daihatsu, forming a working partnership. By the late 90s, Toyota would finally purchase a majority of the company stakes.
Starting prior to the partnership with Toyota, Daihatsu launched the Compagno in 1963. Significant for being Daihatsu’s first car to feature the company’s stylized D logo, the Compagno was also the first Japanese car to be officially imported into the UK for sale. The Spider 1000 model, launched in 1965, would also be Daihatsu’s first foray into sporting vehicles, and a race car based on these mechanicals, the P-3, would be built in 1966.
Daihatsu continued building a range of small passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, many (but not all) following regulations for the Japanese kei segment, which offered benefits for owners including lower taxes. By the 90s, a niche within this segment opened up with a demand for fun, sporty vehicles focusing on enjoyment at lower speeds rather than pure performance. Daihatsu got involved in this market with a two-seat spider version of their Leeza, which in its standard form was a small hatchback which had just been updated with a turbocharged 660cc motor thanks to an increase in engine size limit from 550cc in 1990. The Leeza Spider was only sold for two years, with only about 200 made, as the base Leeza was discontinued for the Opti. Unfortunately, there was no immediate successor for the Leeza Spider
By the time the Copen appeared on the market, the kei sports segment had effectively died off with the ceased production of the AZ-1 (1994), Beat (1996) and Cappucino (1998). Even so, the Copen was launched in 2002 and remained on sale for ten years, including exports to some markets with a larger, more powerful 1.3 liter four-cylinder. Over 50,000 Copens were made through 2012.
The second gen Copen (originally styled Kopen, for “Kei car, open-topped) was shown as a concept in 2013 and began production in 2014. Special versions included the Cero, with body styling similar to the first gen models, and the appropriately named Copen Coupe, a limited production fixed-roof hardtop. Daihatsu began a design study with Gazoo Racing, and late in 2019 the Copen GR Sport went on sale.
The Copen’s only direct competitor, the Honda S660 (essentially the Beat reborn) ended production in 2022, once again leaving the Copen to soldier on alone as Japan’s sole kei sports car. With any luck, the car will continue forward as the entry level GR sports car, possibly with another big update in the next few years. For now, its future is unwritten.
Why it’s cool/unique/significant: Kei sports cars are an extreme exercise of performance and fun on a budget, not just of money, but size, displacement, and power. Despite their apparent status as economy cars, in truth they lack much in the way of practicality due to their extreme small size and subsequent sacrifices in service of their sporting aspirations. In many ways, kei sports cars are some of the most traditional: light, affordable roadsters meant to be fun to drive at any speed. A design like the Copen would not have been out of place next to Austin-Healey Sprites, MGAs and their like at the turn of the 60s. As cars have gotten larger, more complicated, and yes, faster, some of that pure essence has been lost, with even relatively small sports cars like the Miata much heavier and more refined than those latter era roadsters. Even the Copen, with its retractable hardtop and turbocharged engine hasn’t completely avoided modernization. But it has retained a little more of that old school idea of what a sports car is than most of the other performance-oriented cars in the world today.