Motoring / Road Test: Dinky toy for big boys: The small Cappuccino is strong on driver appeal, reports Brett Fraser

THE ONLY big thing about the new Suzuki Cappuccino is its price: pounds 11,995. Why so much for a car you could carry on an aircraft as hand baggage? Blame the agreement that limits the number of Japanese-built cars which can be sold here. If it is bringing in a little car, Suzuki must still make an average-size profit from it.

The tiny Cappuccino (only 129.7 inches long) looks like a motorised Dinky toy: it does not seem feasible that anyone past puberty could squeeze inside. But they do, and when they step out afterwards, they are smiling.

Suzuki has not produced a shrunken car just to be different: the Cappuccino is a product of Japanese law. Overcrowded city streets have resulted in the 'microcar' class, with strict rules governing their dimensions (including engine size). To buy a full-size car in Japanese cities, you need to provide proof that you have off-street parking, but you can leave a microcar on the road.

The tiny Suzuki is perfectly proportioned for outsmarting British urban congestion, too. It can wriggle into Mini-sized parking spaces and nip easily through gaps in rush-hour traffic. And because it looks so cute, you will even find folk making space so you can get through.

If you are thinking that in a car so small there cannot be much under the bonnet, you are right. And wrong. The three-cylinder engine boasts just 657cc (keeping it within the 660cc limit of Japan's microcar laws), but is brawny far beyond its cubic capacity. Double-overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, fuel injection and a tiny turbocharger help it to produce a mighty (all things considered) 64bhp; it can produce much more power than this, but the microcar regulations also control power output.

They limit top speed, too, to 87mph. Frankly, it is just as well, because at motorway speeds it buzzes and screeches at an unpleasant volume and is bashed about by the great winds that blow off big trucks.

On any other sort of road, though, it is party time. Because the Cappuccino occupies such a small area, you get more road to play with: B-roads become as wide as A-roads. You can experiment with the corners, safe in the knowledge that if you get it wrong you will still be on your own side of the road. The Cappuccino has rear-wheel drive, which makes it a more satisfying 'driver's' car; it is better balanced through corners than most front-wheel-drive cars, and the steering is sharper and more responsive.

Adding to the fun on the open road (and in town, for that matter) is that whizzy little engine. Its maximum rev markings begin at 8,500rpm; most normal engines would have gone pop by that point. When the turbocharger kicks in, the Cappuccino is able to stay ahead of most other traffic.

Like it so far? Drop the roof and you will like it even more. The ingenious roof is not made of canvas but a rigid plastic material. Its rear section has a heated glass window, and pivots down behind the seats when not required. The rest of the roof is in three sections that can be removed altogether for the full alfresco effect or one at a time to admit as much fresh air as you want.

If you are much over 6ft, this is not a car for you: even if you do not mind looking over the top of the windscreen, there is not enough length in the cabin for your legs. It is cosy even for short people, with the door-trim panel against one thigh and the transmission tunnel against the other. Forget about luggage: with all the roof bits stowed away, that leaves enough room for a lunchbox.

But who said sports cars were meant to be practical? Ignore the compromises, and you can have great fun in the tiny Cappuccino.

SPECIFICATIONS

Suzuki Cappuccino, pounds 11,995

Engine: 657cc, three cylinders, 64bhp at 6,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox. Top speed 93mph. Fuel consumption 35-45mpg.

COMPARISONS

Fiat Punto 1.6 ELX Cabrio, pounds 12,996

Unlike the Cappuccino, the Punto is not a sports car; but it is the cheapest cabrio for sale in Britain. It seats four, and is a hoot to drive.

Mazda MX-5 1.8i, pounds 14,495

Much dearer than the baby Suzuki, but bigger and more powerful. Great to drive and to own: MX-5s hold their value extremely well.

Suzuki Vitara convertible 1.6 JLX, pounds 11,250

Little off-roader bought for the same reasons as the Cappuccino - top-down fun on a relatively modest budget. Does not perform or handle as well.

(Photograph omitted)

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