Suzuki Jimny - Best budget 4x4xfar?

Suzuki’s new Jimny may look like a toy car, but it has off-road ability way beyond the backyard sandpit.
Suzuki’s new Jimny may look like a toy car, but it has off-road ability way beyond the backyard sandpit.

Suzuki has brought back South Africa’s favourite small 4X4, but is the Jimny worthy of the Samurai sword of honour?

The Suzuki South Africans have the fondest memories of was the old SJ series and Samurai models. Though on-road ability was at best utilitarian and generally quite tiresome, off-road these tiny, box-shaped, 4X4s were adept at usurping much larger, fancied 4X4s on challenging trails.

After an absence of nearly nine years, the spirit of the Samurai has been rekindled as part of Suzuki’s South African redeployment in the guise of the newly launched Jimny.

It might have a typically silly Japanese production name, but there is nothing inane concerning the engineering.

Staying true to the Samurai roots

Suzuki has an enviable reputation of building small city cars, with the company preferring to keep things simple and efficient.

Witness then, the disarmingly cute Jimny - silhouetting a shape only 3.65m long and 1.6m wide. These dimensions obviously render a small interior, but both off-road and around town, the nimble nature afforded by Jimny’s tiny size is a huge boon.

Interior design is vastly improved in comparison with the old Samurai. Instrumentation is now properly legible; not the world of orange found in the old Samurai range. Beyond the cleaner instrumentation design you get dual airbags, electric side mirrors, central locking, a CD front loader and air-conditioning is standard too.

It’s not nearly big enough to take four adults on a weekend away. But when adventuring two-up, the front seats are quite comfy and, with the practically superfluous rear seats folded flat, there’s 324l of luggage space available.

Small-scale, yet robust engineering

Keen not to disappoint fiercely loyal SJ and Samurai owners, who regard their vehicles as authentic 4X4s instead of SUVs, the Jimny is built upon a rugged, full-box section chassis, suspended by rigid axles both front and rear.

With a 1.3-litre, double-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine up front, the Jimny weighs in at only 1 070 kg - almost unfathomable for something equipped with low-range.

And yes, we did say low-range. Don’t be fooled for a moment by the cute styling and small engine capacity, this is a vehicle designed with real 4X4 use in mind. Gone is the traditional secondary transfer case lever though, replaced with a more contemporary, centre console-mounted electronic push-button transfer case selector.

Although the Jimny makes do without a rear differential lock or modern traction control programme, the basic engineering blend ensures it’s well versed in Karoo koppie-climbing.

Only 190mm worth of ground clearance might sound a bit on the exposed side, yet the 2.25m wheelbase is proportionally so short you hardly need more clearance. Add to this a 37 degree approach angle, and 46 degrees worth of departure clearance (a Defender 90 only has one degree more) and the potential spectre of ability becomes clear.

Any doubts concerning performance are quelled too when you consider Jimny has a 58.8kW/ton power to weight ration, despite only producing 63kW and 110Nm. In comparison a Defender 90 only sports a 47kW/ton power to weight ratio…

In essence then it’s a city car body riding atop a raised rugged box-section chassis enabling copious clearances thanks to rigid-axle, long-travel coil sprung suspension. Powered by a 1.3-litre endowing Jimny with a power to weight ratio well within reach of much larger competitors the question is whether it really turns all this potential to performance off-road.

The little 4X4 that can?

Suzuki set us off in the Small Karoo valley outside Calitzdorp on a steeply meandering climbing route that peaked at 600m across 4km. Very tight, with nice, slippery Karoo shale everywhere.

As we set off to the route departure point I was bracing myself for the fearsomely bouncy ride characteristic of rigid-axle suspended vehicles, especially so when combined with a severely truncated wheelbase such as the case with the Jimny.

By the time we had engaged low-range and were ready to start the off-road ascent, I was actually bothered by the unexpectedly good levels of ride-comfort – expecting a severely diminished off-road capability as the trade off. I was proven thoroughly wrong.

The Suzuki chassis engineers have done a remarkable job refining the Jimny’s ride-quality without diluting its off-road ability.

In second-gear, with low-range engaged, it simply climbs like a Sherpa. The tiny dimensions and consequent turning circle of only 9.8m enables one to attack obstacles on the optimal traction line despite spatial constraints that would necessitate three-point turning in nearly any other 4X4. The quick steering action allows a nimbleness that is massively reassuring when making half-metre-at-a-time off-road adjustments.

Even without a rear differential lock or electronic slip-countering systems traction is surefooted. Though it’s no GSX-1000 superbike clone, the little 1.3-litre engine is expertly matched to the gearbox ratios, especially first and second gear in low-range, ensuring commensurate torque is spread through the drivetrain to keep going – you’re not going to stall it off-road.

On our way down back to camp I expected the Jinmy’s lack of displacement and petrol-engine compression to run away with it downhill a bit. In first gear, low-range engine braking was plentiful and reassuring on the decent, and if you get panicky and feel the need to feather the middle pedal there is ABS.

Despite the superb ride quality, plentiful traction, and a drivetrain well matched to the Jimny’s size, there are some design foibles concerning the ergonomics.

Suzuki is obviously not accustomed to South African specification customers - especially when designing small 4X4s. The Jimny’s non-adjustable steering wheel position and lack of seat adjustment render a driving position that is hardly ideal for the average 1.8m driver.

The electric window controls are mounted in mouldings positioned at a height that scuffs your knee incessantly when driving and a dash-mounted brace bar would be nice for the front passenger too.

Beyond these ergonomic issues the Jimny is an awfully desirable little car. It looks great in an authentically Japanese way, thanks to its diminutive, Samurai-shaped proportions. It’s as well kitted as you could expect in the segment, with perhaps only an iPod interface the serious interior equipment omission.

Too cute for its own good?

Weekend adventurers fed-up with their SUVs being denied trail success due to a lack of low-range and properly sorted off-road suspension will find a unique and capable companion in the Jimny; although it’s strictly a two-person car.

Whether most people can live with the 140km/h top speed or 0-100km/h performance of 14.1 seconds is an open question to be resolved by market response; though the low-range off-road ability and 7.2l/100km fuel economy provides a strong counter argument, especially in the current global climate of efficiency-minded motoring.

Though styling and image could prove to be too cute, repelling some adventure buyers, serious 4X4 enthusiasts will no doubt see huge merits in Jimny’s relative mechanic simplicity…

Jimny’s key appeal is in the ownership sensibility of something which has significant off-road ability without anti-social, urban excess dimensions or titanic fuel consumption. At only R149 900, I expect Suzuki will be unable to import even nearly enough units.


Suzuki Jimny

  • R149 900

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Who do you feel was at fault for Verstappen and Hamilton's Italian GP crash?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
25% - 951 votes
41% - 1573 votes
They were both at fault
34% - 1319 votes