• Suzuki's Jimny celebrates its 50th birthday in 2020.
• Four generations spawned over the last five decades.
• The latest Jimny was launched locally in 2018.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
It's taken half a century, but at last we have discovered the true meaning of the name given to Suzuki's inordinately cute off-roader, the Jimny.
Speaking at the 50 Year Celebration of Jimny production at the ADA off-road centre near Hartbeespoort dam, Suzuki Auto South Africa's Managing Director, Yukio Sato, revealed the name came about as an amalgamation of "Jeep" and "Mini", - in other words, a miniature Jeep.
Nowadays Suzuki doesn't exactly relish any reference to the Jeep brand, but when the Suzuki SJ 410 was launched in South Africa in the early 1980s, everyone referred to it as the "Suzuki Jeep". The term "Jeep" was pretty much generic in those days, to the extent where small Land Rovers were also referred to as Jeeps.
And to back this up, on the licence disc of the SJ410 we sampled at ADA, under the "type of vehicle" heading was written the word: "Jeep."
Suzuki was celebrating the latest Jimny's success here as much as 50 years of the small off-roader's heritage. Since the launch of the Jimny 1.5 here in late 2018, more than 3500 examples have found happy owners in South Africa. And that figure would have been far greater if Suzuki had been able to source enough units from the parent company in Japan.
Suzuki Auto SA management revealed that there is still a waiting list for Jimny's here, but that this is now down to a matter of weeks rather than months.
Getting back to the Jimny's heritage, Suzuki Auto SA had gone to great pains to assemble examples of all four generations of the Jimny, launched since 1970. This included the first-generation LJ 50, which was never launched here. The example at ADA was actually imported here privately from Angola, and what an interesting vehicle it is!
The LJ50 is a throwback, in that it uses a 539cc, three-cylinder two-stroke engine. Nevertheless, it features full four-wheel-drive operation through a low-range transfer case, a four-speed gearbox, and a clutch pedal that needs someone with two strong left legs to depress it! That clutch pedal took some controlling as we set off on a challenging trail on the ADA grounds that took us through forests, up a small mountain and through a slippery slate quarry.
Having grown up with two-stroke motorcycles, and owned a 1972 500cc Kawasaki triple, I fell in love with the LJ50 immediately, as all three-cylinder two-strokes have a unique sound. I also felt nostalgia for all the oil smoke trailed behind the vehicle, although later when I was travelling behind this throwback machine, I realised why two-strokes had been largely side-lined due to the noxious fumes they emit!
First four-wheeled Suzuki
Next up was the second-generation SJ410, the first Suzuki four-wheeled model to be launched here in the early 1980s. In those days the Suzuki "Jeeps" were marketed in South Africa by General Motors. Despite a four-stroke, four-cylinder engine measuring just 970cc, these little Jimny models (we hadn't yet heard of that name in South Africa) garnered a large following. There are still plenty of them running around now.
Driving at trail speeds in the SJ410, what impressed me nearly 40 years after launch was how capable it was, thanks to a good spread of torque and low body mass. But creature comfort was still minimal, and the ride over rough dirt needed extremely strong back and arm muscles, as bump absorption was of the "rock-solid" variety. Yet these are tough little off-roaders, and you still see many 410s running around South Africa today.
The next model we tried was a facelift version of the second-gen car, known as the Samurai, and this introduced coil spring suspension to range, as well as a more powerful 1324cc engine that produced over 50kW. The Samurai was re-introduced here in 1995 and was also sold under a GM distribution agreement. The ride was better in this model, but it had also put on a little weight.
The Jimny 1.3: It was in the third-generation car that the Jimny name-tag became known to us South Africans, and this was introduced here in 2008, soon after Suzuki Auto SA had begun selling cars in this country (Suzuki motorcycles have been sold here since the early 1960s). The car was more aerodynamic and driving it now, one could appreciate the extra refinement inside, as well as the extra power, which was now up to 62.5kW from its 1328cc motor.
Ride quality was improved, thanks to a longer wheelbase.
Since the latest Jimny's launch in late 2018, my awareness of this generation of Jimny has increased, and it amazes me how many are still running around our roads in daily use as a cute city car, when they are not being bashed around on off-road trails.
Driving the new Jimny 1.5 behind this convoy of "old-timers", one was struck by just how sophisticated the latest Jimny is, compared to its predecessors. The interior retains its air of retro conception, being rugged and no-nonsense, but the comfort levels of the newest model are massive compared even to the preceding Jimny model.
All in all, the 50-year nod to the Jimny was a great event and gave us a genuine appreciation for an off-roading classic. When asked by a camera crew which was my favourite car of the bunch, I opted for the two-stroke LJ50, simply because I loved the challenge of keeping that little engine on the boil. This early little first-gen Jimny also had an amazing ride quality for its time, better than some of the later generation cars, which were tailored more for on-road stability, with stiffer suspension.
But progress has indeed been massive over 50 years, and I have to concur that the latest Jimny is a crowning achievement. It is amazing that two years after launch, waiting lists for this car are still in evidence, not just in South Africa, but in many parts of the world!
Brezza - sneak preview!
At the tail end of the 50-year celebration, we were given a sneak preview of the new Suzuki Brezza. This is a small cross-over-come SUV that will be positioned, price-wise, between the Suzuki Ignis and the Vitara.
Suzuki staffers were cagey on pricing, but one could assume a price tag of under R300 000 for this smart-looking machine, which is yet another Suzuki model that is built in India. No further details as yet, but we understand it will be launched here early in 2021!