The latest iteration of Suzuki’s small 4x4 (with the big heart) is, as ever, eager to please. We introduce it to its ancestors...
Call it a symptom of homogenised mass production but in a market brimming with myriad models tailored to cater for virtually every consumer’s taste, most modern vehicles lack character. It’s a sad but true statement. By contrast, during its tenure in our test fleet, Suzuki’s Jimny exuded so much personality, it’s quite clearly an exception to the rule.
In a July 2009 test, we mused about the “smile factor” of the previous generation and the March 1984 assessment of the SJ410 stated: “It offers an attractive alternative to the larger, heavier and more expensive 4x4s that don’t look nearly as much fun.” And, after driving the well-kempt ’84 example owned by Gavin Wileman, we could not agree more with our CAR predecessors’ conclusions.
But let’s take a step back. Small Suzuki 4x4s have a cult following around the world and South Africa is no exception. Don’t be fooled by the Jimny’s dinky dimensions and modest outputs, however; its legendary status is well deserved. Countless “David versus Goliath” tales of the Suzuki’s off-road prowess have been told around braai fires. The fact that it is affordable, reliable and cheap to run also count in its favour. The first version was not officially offered in South Africa but all its successors, up to the current (fourth) edition, came to market.
The all-new Jimny, although still chunky in proportions and diminutive in size, looks more substantial than the vehicle it replaces. The main reason for this is its revised width, which has increased by 45 mm (along with 40 mm wider tracks), because the Suzuki is (surprisingly) 50 mm shorter than before, which enhances its boxy profile and – paradoxically – widens the newcomer’s stance. What’s more, Suzuki designers did a commendable job of combining important styling cues from the past in this modern incarnation.
Familiar touches include the round head- and foglamps, a clamshell bonnet, the horizontal slots in the grille, those flared wheelarches and the upright windscreen. The combination of retro lines and bold Kinetic Yellow finish drew a lot of attention to the test unit wherever it went.
Inside, the dials retain their classic orange-hued look but the touchscreen infotainment system and climate control interface modernise the cabin appreciably. The plastics are certainly harder and scratchier than those you’d find in small hatchbacks costing R300 000 but the panels seem well screwed together and this test unit’s cabin proved rattle-resistant.
Front passengers enjoy acceptable shoulderroom because of the Jimny’s upright sides, which contrast with the extreme tumble-home design of some crossovers. The two rear seats offer limited legroom (although headroom is sufficient) but getting in (and out) past the sliding front seats requires extreme gymnastics. When the rear pews are in use, there is barely space for a briefcase in the load bay; we expect they will usually be folded down for the sake of utility. It’s also a pity the seatbacks’ hard-back covering offers little in the way of grip for loose parcels. There is no cover to obscure items from prying eyes, either.
Other drawbacks include too few oddment storage spaces and, where they are provided, such as in the door pockets, they are too shallow to be of real use. What’s more, the steering wheel cannot be adjusted for reach, there is no space next to the clutch pedal for a footrest and a hump in the floor ahead of the passenger seat compromises your fellow front occupant’s leg comfort.
Find a comfortable driving position, however, and matters improve. Visibility outward is good, the vague steering (recirculating ball instead of rack and pinion) is light and the long-throw gearlever gives access to positive shifts.
The Jimny is powered by a new 1,5-litre, naturally aspirated engine (code name K15B), which delivers peak outputs of 75 kW and 130 N.m. The tested 0-100 km/h time of 12,77 seconds is middling, even if a second faster than the previous version. Admittedly, the motor was never expected to provide fireworks. It’s willing enough but needs to be revved vigorously if quick progress is required.
Short gearing and only five forward ratios (it cries out for a sixth) mean the engine’s revs sit at 3 870 r/min at the national speed limit, which hinders the Jimny’s long-distance potential compared with more practically packaged mainstream crossovers (not helped by extreme wind rush and road roar). This, however, did not prevent one member of the team and his family from undertaking a 450 km day trip with the test unit. Interestingly, the fact that the SJ410 struggled to reach 80 km/h on the day of the shoot shows how far technology has progressed.
Compared with its immediate predecessor, the Jimny is more stable and refined on-road but still susceptible to crosswinds. Our brake tests revealed the ABS has its work cut out to deal with the weight transfer of the short-wheelbase vehicle and its high centre of gravity. It managed an average stopping time of 3,38 seconds during emergency-stop testing, which we rate as “average”.
The general ride quality is improved, especially on dirt roads, owing to the soft spring and damper setup (rocking the vehicle when stationary results in large lateral movement) but there’s a considerable amount of body lean seemingly at odds with modern motoring. The solid-axle arrangement can contribute to choppiness over bumpy asphalt and, should you need to drive somewhere in a hurry, the Suzuki must be cornered with care; plenty of body roll presents when it changes direction. This is still much improved dynamic behaviour compared to the SJ410, which warns its driver to avoid making sharp turns in its handbook…
As expected, the Suzuki excels off-road. We put the Jimny through an obstacle course and thick sandy area at Honingklip 4x4 course close to Bot River in the Western Cape before making it scale a rocky incline. The little 4x4 has serious hardware such as a ladder-frame chassis and a longitudinally mounted engine mated with a robust manual transmission. The low-range transfer case sends drive to all four wheels mounted on solid axles when 4H or 4L is selected via the stubby lever, which makes a welcome return.
Impressive approach, departure and break-over angles, a result of the short wheelbase and truncated overhangs, allow the Jimny to scale most obstacles without brushing them with its chassis or bodywork. Brake-based limited-slip differential (LSD) functionality is provided but it isn’t as effective as a mechanical unit; the Suzuki can lose momentum on axle-twisters. We also found the hill-descent control slightly too fast on rocky sections.
Sand driving, meanwhile, was a cinch once the traction control was disabled. Even CAR’s interns with little sand-driving experience managed to carve up the play area and exit the Suzuki with a broad smile on their faces.
Suzuki has retained the defining qualities of the previous two generations of the Jimny: small size; go-anywhere ability; relatively low running costs (its fuel route figure was 7,1 L/100 km, slightly higher than we would have hoped for); and an adorable character. Unfortunately, it also inherits many of the problems that plagued its forebears, including heavily compromised practicality and on-road driving manners.
Despite that, however, Suzuki's order books are bulging, confirming our suspicions the little 4x4's emotional appeal is stronger than ever. It unashamedly sticks its tongue out at the pretentious, front-wheel-drive crossover cohort.