Not taking yourself terribly seriously is always an attractive trait (that's why I go to such lengths to look a trifle foolish in these photos). Indeed, public figures such as Russell Brand and George Osborne have achieved a great deal by not taking themselves terribly seriously. (What's that, Osborne is being serious? Oh.)
In the automotive world, not taking yourself too seriously has become a trend of late, as anyone who visited the Tokyo or Frankfurt motors shows would confirm. And I'm not just talking about concept cars that you can cuddle or that look like Muppets; there are actual people driving around in Mitsubishi iCars and Dodge Avengers. And here's the Daihatsu SpongeBob SquarePants or, as they prefer to call it, the Materia, a Chrysler PT Cruiser drawn using only a ruler.
It certainly attracts attention, although I did often wonder whether the looks I received were more of pitying concern than admiration. As I passed by, my face fixed with a look intended to convey that I was driving the car ironically, people seemed more often than not to chuckle ruefully and shake their heads in a "Well, if he wants to spend his money like that, it's his business" kind of way. Not taking yourself seriously is all very well, but it is a thin line between being George Clooney and one of those people who think it's funny to run a marathon dressed as an ostrich. (OK, maybe not that thin.)
Ultimately, whether the Materia turns out to be a success will come down to how good a car lies beneath those Frankenstein looks, and on that, the jury is divided.
The Materia follows the Nissan Cube, a similarly square-cut mini-MPV exclusive to the Japanese market that was a massive success in Tokyo and spawned models such as the Honda FR-V and the Vauxhall Meriva.
Those upright dimensions do create a remarkable sense of interior space; it's like sitting on a train. There is loads of – admittedly unnecessary – headroom, and a great deal of rather more useful rear legroom and boot space (both adjustable thanks to a sliding rear seat).
The only catch is that the seats have been cunningly designed to cause maximum back pain and are covered in psoriasis-inducing, itchy nylon. The rest of the interior is not much better. The steering wheel is thin and mean and the gear stick far removed from the business of changing gear – using it is like stirring a pot of marbles. But performance is perky enough if you thrash the 1.5-litre, 102bhp engine, and they aren't asking an awful lot for it – these days under £11,000 is small Fiat territory.
Driving a car that makes people laugh is all very well, but there may be times – say, immediately after having learnt that your mother has thrown out all of your old Top Trumps, or when your wife has just told you that she thinks your hair is disappearing faster than ever – when being pointed at by strangers might not lift your mood. Is the world ready for the car as cartoon character?
It's a classic
If Daihatsu thinks the Materia will make people take it seriously, it should think again – there is still much work to be done in this regard, no matter how worthy its cars have been or how good the Materia is.
Daihatsu, which stands for "Osaka", the company's base, and " engine manufacture" – has made its name building small, often quite funny-looking cars and tiny off-roaders. Its smallest model, the Midget, was a three-wheeled delivery van-type thing – essentially, a motorbike with a flat-bed on the back – powered by a two-stroke, 12bhp engine. The Midget was a huge success, selling in the hundreds of thousands from 1957 to 1972. In fact, so iconic did it become in Japan and other Asian countries (where it was named the Bajaj) that Daihatsu – by now owned by the mighty Toyota – updated it with a four-wheel version in 1996.Reuse content