Minor makeover for Suzuki’s cute little Jimny 4x4 gives us all the excuse we need to get reacquainted. But does a design dating back to 1998 make any kind of sense at the end of 2012?
What: Suzuki Jimny 2013 facelift
Date: December 2012
Price: £11,995 - £13,800
Available: On sale now
Key rivals: Dacia Duster, Fiat Panda 4x4, standard superminis, second-hand Land Rover Defender
We like: serious four-wheel drive hardware in a super small package, incredibly willing, charismatic, well priced
We don’t like: engine can be hard work, outdated on-road experience, lacks safety kit
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In many respects the Suzuki Jimny is a car out of time. This ‘latest’ version was first introduced way back in 1998 – making it one of the oldest vehicles currently on sale in the UK.
In fact, you have to start thinking in terms of Caterham Sevens and Land Rover Defenders to find anything that’s older. It is – definitively, given the separate ladder-frame chassis design and the rigid axles – an anachronism.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its place. Or its appeal.
Quite simply unique in the UK market place
For the Jimny is, quite simply, unique in the UK market place – as the only supermini-sized machine with proper grown-up four-wheel drive hardware, including a low-range transfer case for when the going gets really slippery. The only thing close is the Fiat Panda 4x4, and that’s much less hardcore.
It also weighs just 1,090kg, which altogether makes for the kind off-road agility that has garnered it a strong and faithful – possibly cult – following. There’s a reason it hasn’t changed much in 14 years; according to Suzuki’s European Chairman Takanori Suzuki, it still delivers “precisely what its customers expect.”
For 2013 Suzuki has, however, treated its tough little terrier to a bit of a makeover, mostly centred around an updated front end design. There’s a new bumper, grille and bonnet with bonnet scoop. On the inside, top spec versions get air con and leather-look vinyl seat upholstery.
This was easily enough of an excuse for us to go to Croatia and drive one.
There’s only one engine choice for Jimny buyers in the UK: a relatively modern 16-valve, all-alloy 1.3-litre petrol with variable valve timing. It produces a mighty 85hp and 81lb ft of torque. Which doesn’t exactly sound like a lot. Until you remember there’s not much to the car, either.
It’s actually a rather sweet revving unit – which is good news given you need to dial up plenty of numbers on the tacho to get anything like a lively response. We’re talking around about 3,000rpm here. Get caught below that on a hill and you’ll be down-shifting in a hurry or practically going backwards.
No, refinement isn’t brilliant, but the noise it makes is far from unpleasant, so zooming along over any kind of terrain where you have to concentrate isn’t going to trouble you. A lengthy motorway schlep may be an entirely different matter, but that wasn’t the kind of driving we were doing.
And we don’t suppose many owners do that, either. Instead we found ourselves convoying up the side of a Croatian mountain. This involved ‘roads’, but often only in the sense that we weren’t physically forcing our way through any undergrowth; the surfaces mostly ranged from dirt track to rocky causeway.
The Jimny never even blinked. Though it would probably be a lie to say all four wheels were always in contact with terra firma. The issue with the engine’s limited low rev response is easily solved, too: you simply stop, put the clutch in and switch the gearbox to 4x4L by means of a button on the centre console.
This ‘low-range’ setting reduces the gearing, to the point that you’ll soon find you’re haring up hillsides in fifth; more practically, it also has the effect of increasing traction – ideal for loose surfaces. And snow.
We can’t entirely say the Jimny is always comfortable once you’re out in the wilderness – the short wheelbase means you can expect to get bounced around, especially if you aren’t overburdened with mechanical sympathy (ahem) – but it is most definitely capable.
For despite the rigid axles – which basically mean each pair of wheels is joined together by a solid bar, rather than suspended ‘independently’ – a three-link set-up with long travel springs gives the Suzuki an impressive amount of chassis articulation. Allowing it to clamber over or around all kinds of obstacles.
Copes with a great deal of abuse
With this, the low weight and the four-wheel drive it’ll cope with a great deal of abuse. Having a separate body and chassis helps as well (that’s the ladder-frame part; the body is just bolted on the top rather than forming an integral part of the structure). You’ll need a Jeep or a Land Rover to catch it cross-country.
On the downside, none of the off-road gear is particularly useful when you’re restricted to tarmac. It’s nowhere near as compromised as a Defender – the steering’s light and it has a reasonable turning circle, for starters – but the ride will always be jiggly, and there’s a general fuzziness about its every reaction.
If you’re coming at this from the perspective of a modern car owner you’re going to need to do some serious recalibrating. It’s not terrible by any means – just don’t expect to go chasing hot hatches around corners. Still, being so narrow and with such great all-round visibility, it is remarkably at home in city traffic.
The interior is much like the rest of the Jimny, really – which is to say the kind of functional that charms rather than offends you. The plastics are robust without being awful, all of the secondary controls are easily understood, and it’s more than bearable over medium distances.
Passenger and luggage room is tight – the Jimny is just 3.7m long by 1.6m wide, the boot is only 113 litres big – and we can’t say we’d relish spending much time in the back.
The closest it gets to high technology is represented by the air conditioning on the SZ4 and the buttons that control the four-wheel drive. But considering the asking price and its off-road credentials, there’s not much to say in complaint.
This is a basic vehicle: there’s no stop-start, brake energy regeneration or any other form of active fuel saving innovation. That said, you can select a front-wheel drive only mode to reduce consumption in regular driving. The official figures claim 39.8mpg and 162g/km CO2.
You will drink much more juice off-road as you’ll be relying on lower gears for more of the time. But anyone seriously interested in this kind of activity already knew that. A four-speed automatic is available in place of the standard five-speed manual; it’s much slower but the on-paper efficiency penalty is slight.
You’ll struggle to find a crumple zone
As for safety. Well. Hmmm. The Jimny is a 14-year-old product based on design concepts that were so far from the cutting edge even then that you’d only find them if you opened the spoon drawer.
Euro NCAP has never tested it. (Rumour is the dummies threatened to strike. Yes, we made that up.) The ladder chassis probably is tough, but given the Jimny’s size you’ll struggle to find a crumple zone unless you count the cabin.
The softly-softly brakes are great for avoiding locking up the wheels when you’re interrogating the scenery, less reassuring on the road. The only electronic aid is ABS. But it does have two airbags. Serious mud-pluggers tend to install rollcages – on the outside.
To say the Suzuki Jimny isn’t for everybody is amongst the biggest understatements since Apollo 13. Creature comforts are few and far between, its on-road manners are from another era, and we really don’t recommend you crash it. But that doesn’t necessarily make the Jimny a bad car.
Like the Land Rover Defender, it fills a niche that nothing else caters to – at a more compact scale. Taken as such it is endearingly capable, a car not only out of time but devoid of any other ambition. There’s something refreshingly honest and appealing about that.
It’s also worth noting that owners love them. Many are repeat buyers, and due to the Jimny’s unique status and dependable reputation it also holds its value very well. Anyone in need of an affordable off-road solution really should give it a try.
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