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The author of this story measures 1.71m (five feet seven-and-a-bit inches) tall.
That hardly makes for a giant among European males, but size – or rather a lack of it – is an important prerequisite for carrying out this particular test.
Because this is a realm where two eccentric dwarves of the automotive world compete, the Suzuki Cappuccino and Honda Beat, both fun cars born into the roadster boom of the early ’90s – not in the same format as the all-conquering Mazda MX-5, which appears as a giant in comparison, but as diminutive kei cars.
The kei class comprised mini-cars that enjoyed useful tax advantages in their home country of Japan, and more importantly did not demand proof of a parking space before purchase.
Most were boxy wagons with up to seven seats – practical, for sure, but mostly rather fun-free aside from their cheeky looks.
Just occasionally, however, high-quality technology could be found lurking within the permitted 3.30m by 1.40m footprint – hardly more floor space than a go-kart takes up.
So where better for these bonsai athletes to do battle than the go-kart track in Lüneburg, northern Germany?
As we take to the tight, sinuous little circuit, the first impression is that, far from feeling clumsy and oversized, these two motoring mice feel right at home within its narrow confines.
The ideal line is found quickly and the cars make it easy for you – not least because their extremities are so intuitive to find, and you never have to worry at any point whether some of the panelwork is lagging behind.
Usefully, because they were mainly sold in Japan – with a few official exceptions, not least the 1110 Cappuccinos that were brought to the UK from 1993-’95 – the steering wheels are on the ‘correct’ (right) side of the car.
The Cappuccino has ‘a compact body that is close to the size of your body’, according to Suzuki’s press bumf at the 1991 Tokyo motor show, where both of these mini roadsters were launched.
Considering its stubby 3295mm overall length, ‘our’ 1996 Suzuki pushes an absurdly long bonnet ahead of it – clearly signalling the front-mid mounting of its three-cylinder turbocharged engine.
As a result, in the second half of the vehicle, the passenger compartment is constricted for length as well as width (at just 1185mm from door-top to door-top).
That said, there is even less space in the 1993 Honda, in which the occupants sit amidships with just 1165mm of internal width to accommodate two sets of shoulders.
A pair of NSX-style air intakes located behind the Beat’s short doors reveal the siting of the normally aspirated three-pot motor, mounted just behind the driver’s neck and giving the Honda its neatly balanced proportions.
Yet while they take opposing approaches, both cars make the most of their engine and passenger compartment positioning between the axles to give near-perfect weight distribution.
In comparison to the Honda the Suzuki feels a more mature car, but the two share all the same inherent disadvantages – except that the Cappuccino is fully weatherproof when its complex five-piece hardtop is in place, and then even offers a little luggage space; with the roof down the tiny boot is almost entirely taken up by those panels when they are carefully stowed.
The roof itself is a neat design, turning it from a coupé to a targa, a T-top or a full convertible depending on which panels you leave in place.
Every millimetre of space is carefully considered – you can’t be wasting it when there is only 4.62m2 to play with!
That means an approach to interior design that majors on minimalism – little more than a driver’s workplace with sparse switchgear set into a dashboard that is an archetype of ’90s hard plastics.
There is at least a radio slotted into the usual space for the Suzuki – in the Honda, you had to opt for a custom installation in the large gap below the ventilation levers, and the only nod to luxury is the electric windows.
As for luggage space, you’ll have to remember to pack light in a Beat: there’s a tiny cubby for the bare essentials to the left of the battery in the rear compartment, while the storage area in the front is little more than a glorified glovebox.
Returning to the track, it’s not simply the fact that these pared-back sports cars fit around you like gloves that makes them perfect partners on this winding blacktop; they are also aided by advanced underpinnings, with independent suspension all round as well as finely tuned springs and dampers combined with the inherent agility of rear-wheel drive.
Diving into the chicane, hot on the heels of the Honda, the slightly indecisive steering of the Suzuki requires a bit of extra cranking and its softer set-up is quickly revealed.
Rolling on its springs, the Cappuccino is quicker to break away at the rear, and spins an inside wheel when accelerating hard out of the tighter turns – there’s no limited-slip diff, and limited grip from the 165/65 R14 tyres fitted all round.
Despite having a smaller contact area on the road surface – with slender 155/65 R13 tyres up front, and 165/60 R14s to the rear – the Honda has no such problems.
The Beat dives into corners in a playful way, its roadholding completely neutral, and without the power to leave you fearing an unexpected departure thanks to its mid-mounted engine balance.
At 9.2m its turning circle is a touch larger than the tiny 8.8m of the Suzuki, yet it feels alive on the track, and incredibly nimble.
A big part of that sense of liveliness comes from the Honda’s remarkable power unit.
At the time, kei cars were only permitted up to 660cc displacement, with a 63bhp maximum power output, and to achieve that figure Suzuki strapped a turbocharger – with charge-cooling, no less – to the Cappuccino’s 657cc triple.
It dampens the intake noise somewhat, sounding conspicuously cultivated as it delivers a useful 63lb ft of torque at a relatively low 4000rpm.
The Beat, in contrast, is a screamer. Honda, Formula One World Champion from 1988-’91, was keen to bolster its reputation for technical excellence and came up with a three-cylinder, normally aspirated 656cc unit that revved to a dizzying 8500rpm.
Sophisticated intake technology employed separate throttle butterflies to finely meter the fuel-air mixture for each combustion chamber – the kind of kit you’d more commonly find in competition engines.
Grumpy-sounding at idle, the triple gets ever more robust as the revs climb, with its modest 44lb ft of torque not arriving until 7000rpm and peak power 1100rpm later, just before the needle enters the red zone.
As you might expect, little happens below 4000rpm, which means that the five-speed manual ’box needs to be stirred eagerly – but that’s no chore with this short and crisp shift.
Such is the Honda’s youthful vigour, it comes as no surprise to discover that the Beat was developed by one of the youngest groups of designers in the company’s history, with an average age of just 29.
The upbeat Beat really puts you in a good mood on winding roads, but it’s hardly an obvious choice for everyday use: even trundling along at 60mph the engine is turning over at a faintly absurd 6000rpm, and if you want to overtake or cruise on the motorway, you will quickly be approaching its 85mph maximum.
Chuck in the fact that there is no proper luggage space and that tall people will scrape their heads on the hood when it’s in place, and it’s not exactly the most practical classic.
That’s not to say it won’t prove reliable: it feels solidly built, and the highly engineered mechanicals are remarkably durable.
The Cappuccino’s slightly duller response on the track makes it the more comfortable daily driver.
That responsiveness is dulled still further in our test car by its four-speed automatic ’box.
It’s never the sportiest of transmission choices, but proved popular in the domestic market and offers surprisingly rapid and well-timed changes, with hardly any torque-converter slur, so there’s not much to complain about.
The Suzuki is the more familiar sight in the UK, where it was an officially listed model, but it remains a rarity in the marketplace due to the number that have rusted away over the past three decades.
Today, you’re as likely to find a ‘grey’ import as an original UK car – and for the Beat it’s grey all the way, the roadster never having been offered here new.
Nevertheless, there’s always a smattering of them in the classifieds, and they offer superb value for such a rare and fascinating sports car, with prices for well-used examples dipping below £5000.
If you do unearth a Beat, be prepared to search around for parts. Panels are available direct from Japan at reasonable prices, but you’ll have to pay shipping and import duties on top.
Usefully, Honda recently announced that it would be reproducing hard-to-find bits such as tail-lights.
The situation is little better for the Cappuccino, though there is some dealer support and there are more used components available thanks to cars being broken over the years – and, once again, prices from Japan are sensible.
Ultimately, however, these are only really important considerations for drivers of up to 1.71m high – anyone taller simply won’t fit comfortably under their roofs.
Neither of these Lilliputian sports cars would make much sense as everyday cars outside of their homeland, where space remains at such a premium, but both are brilliant fun when the streets turn narrow and winding.
In the final reckoning, though, the pointy Honda twists the screw one turn further in every respect than the Suzuki.
Images: Christian Bittmann
- Sold/number built 1991-’98/28,010
- Construction steel monocoque with aluminium bonnet, boot and roof
- Engine all-alloy, dohc, 12v 657cc triple, with turbocharger and electronic fuel injection
- Max power 63bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 63lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual or four-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear multi-link, lower wishbones; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs
- Length 12ft 9¾in (3295mm)
- Width 4ft 7in (1395mm)
- Height 3ft 10¾in (1185mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 9in (2060mm)
- Weight 1599lb (725kg)
- 0-60mph 11.3 secs
- Top speed 85mph
- Mpg 41
- Price new £11,995
- Price now £4-10,000*
- Sold/number built 1991-’96/c33,600
- Construction steel monocoque with box-section tunnel and side beams
- Engine all-alloy, sohc, 12v 656cc triple, MTREC electronic fuel injection
- Max power 63bhp @ 8100rpm
- Max torque 44lb ft @ 7000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear struts, trailing links, twin lateral links, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs
- Length 12ft 9¾in (3295mm)
- Width 4ft 7in (1395mm)
- Height 3ft 10¼in (1175mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 5¾in (2280mm)
- Weight 1675lb (760kg)
- 0-60mph 12.1 secs
- Top speed 85mph
- Mpg 39
- Price new not available in UK
- Price now £4-8000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication