The absolute nadir (Nader?) of Suzuki in America was when Consumer Reports announced to the world that OMG, tall and narrow off-roaders do roll over. The fallout of this scandal would taint the image of the Suzuki Samurai forever in the American market, and ensured that the later, ironically more stable, Suzuki Jimny, never made it across the pond.
It’s a crying shame, because the Jimny is the Mazda Miata of the off-road world.
Launched in 1998, the Jimny is a more modern version of the old Samurai, with coil-sprung live-axles, a stronger ladder frame and a more powerful 1.3 liter engine. This 2012 variant differs very little from the original “wide-body “ Jimny, the main difference being push-button transfer case controls on the dashboard and a slightly less rural selection of interior plastics.
The looks are timeless. The distinctive grille is two bars short of a Jeep copyright lawsuit, and the only nod to modernity up front is the black eyeliner around the reflector headlamps. The recent facelift also features a front bumper cribbed from the Cayenne Turbo. Otherwise, the Jimny’s square-jawed but cutesy looks give it the kind of charm that makes college girls go ahh.
As such, it’s not a car that would appeal to the typical SUV buyer. While there’s enough space inside for Shaquille O’Neal, he’d have to stick an arm out one window and a leg out the other and make everyone else take the bus. The rear seats are about as comfortable as a Geo Metro’s, and to fold them flat, you have to remove the rear squab entirely. ISOFIX LATCH? Keep dreaming. Trunk space is about deep enough for a large suitcase, stood on end, or a really big one with the seats down.
The Jimny I’m driving right now is a basic widebody model. As such, it lacks airbags, power-windows, painted body-cladding and alloy wheels. I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a generic Japanese 1DIN stereo last seen on a 1995 Civic. There are no front cup holders. They’re behind the hand brake. I suppose this is to keep flailing arms from spilling hot coffee all over the cabin when you’re rolling over. Important if you’re driving for Consumer Reports.
So it’s not traditional SUV fodder, but for those who actually need one that goes anywhere, few come close to the Jimny. The omnipresent whine from the chain-driven transfer case is a reminder that this car is built for one purpose. To go where man only has walked before. Vacuum-locking hubs and competent low-range gearing allow you to climb steep inclines with ease. The Jimny’s light 2,250 pound curb weight lets it glide over ground that bigger off-roaders sink into. There are no paths too narrow for the Jimny, and obstacles that would rip out a Hummer’s fancy front wishbones are easily skirted.
On off-road trails around Asia and Europe, the Samurai and Jimny are as ubiquitous as ratty Civics at an autocross. Sure, there are more powerful, more capable and more desirable rigs, but none as cheap and cheerful. The Jimny is so popular that there are even aftermarket kits to turn it into a tube-frame rig.
Of course, the Jimny does have its downsides. The steering and gearbox are rubbery, but so’s your mom, so quit complaining. More seriously, losses through the transfer case and the heavy drivetrain limit fuel economy to around 30 mpg on the highway. The disc-and-drum brakes are nothing to write home about and the skinny 205/70R15 tires are vulnerable to de-beading when deflated for hardcore rock-crawling. The jiggly ride is particularly disconcerting. Twin live-axles give the Jimny better articulation than a professional pole-dancer but make the ride lumpier than her motel room mattress. There’s a front anti-roll bar to steady the handling and prevent tip-over, but I’d sacrifice it for even more articulation, safety be damned.
None of this really matters, though. On-road or off, the Jimny is down and dirty fun. I’ve driven cars with five times the power and perhaps ten times the comfort, but very few with half-as-much personality. Compared to the sterile and antiseptic calm of a Land Rover Discovery, the Jimny is a breath of fresh air. While Suzuki is planning to launch a new small crossover with a more modern unibody chassis and transverse engine for the global market, there are still no plans of retiring the Jimny.
Like the Jeep Wrangler or the Land Rover Defender, it’s just one of those cars that’s just too right to kill off.
The test unit used for this evaluation was provided on loan by Rolf of 4x4ph.com, who also provided off-road support on the test drive. This is the writer’s last drive for independent web publications, as he has moved on to one of Top Gear’s Asian web portals.