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There has been a lot of fuss surrounding small SUVs in recent times, but there’s one car – the Suzuki Jimny Sierra – that has been on the market since 1998.
It has seen a few updates over the years, the most recent of which saw the 2015 Suzuki Jimny Sierra model arrive on sale with electronic stability control late last year.
Aside from that potentially life-saving technology being added, the 2015 version has a few minor styling tweaks compared to the existing version, including new 15-inch wheels and new interior treatments including an updated instrument cluster, new steering wheel and revised seat trim.
Those features aside, this is essentially the same car as was on sale throughout the late 2000s.
That means it still has a simple, tight interior with four seats. The Jimny Sierra measures just 3.67 metres long, 1.60m wide and 1.70m tall, and rides on a 2.25m wheelbase – so it’s not surprising that the car feels small inside.
Some of the quirks of such a narrow cabin include electric window toggles that are set in tandem rather than alongside one another on the driver’s side. And there’s hardly any door storage, only slim pockets with elasticised bands that are really only good for maps (no doubt that’s what they were designed for).
There are, however, a few bottle holders (one in front of the handbrake and two arrears), and the small area in front of the gear shifter is about the right size for a smartphone and wallet.
Backseat passengers also get bottle holders above the wheel-arch-covering plastics, but the amount of space in the two back positions is also pretty tight.
This area is best left for adults who would consider themselves petite, or kids. During our time with the car, a pair of young testers (four-year-old Roman and eight-year-old Charlotte) found the back to be comfortable enough, though Roman stated “this car is really slow”. More on that later.
Still, those in the back seats have easy access to the very slim boot, which offers just 113 litres of cargo space (enough for a few bags of groceries). Folding the seats down allows up to 324L of capacity.
The vibe of the cabin is no fuss and no frills. There are hard plastic surfaces, and a stereo system that was at the peak of its game about a decade ago.
The two-speaker unit (yes, just two) has a CD player and radio, but there are no mod-cons such as USB or auxiliary inputs, and Bluetooth phone connectivity isn’t available, even as an option.
The seats are comfortable, but this is a confined space that means people who wear shirts tagged with L on them or stand taller than a Great Dane may be a little uncomfortable.
That said, the Suzuki Jimny Sierra is mixing it with some of the smaller cars on sale, and it does so despite being the most affordable serious off-roader you can buy.
Pricing starts at $19,990 driveaway for the five-speed manual and $21,990 driveaway for the four-speed auto model. Add $475 for metallic paint.
The auto was the version we tested, and as with the manual it is powered by a 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 62.5kW of power at 6000rpm and just 110Nm at 4000rpm.
As you could probably guess, this engine and gearbox doesn’t make life easy for the Jimny, or its occupants (yes, even with half-sized humans in the back it notices the extra weight).
It requires plenty of revs to stay at highway speed (3500rpm on the freeway), and the engine’s lack of torque means steep hills and high speeds aren’t compatible.
The nature of the drivetrain means the engine will call upon lower gears to enable the car to keep pace, but even so this is - as they say in the classics - a gutless wonder. On one of our favourite test hills in the Blue Mountains the little Suzuki SUV dropped to second gear, where many other cars – including the likes of the 1.3-litre Toyota Yaris tested recently – can make it up in fourth.
It regularly runs out of puff, even with the right foot flat to the floor – and it makes for a frustrating drive experience at open road speeds.
In the urban environment the engine isn’t as much of an issue: it still takes some coaxing and firm right-leg application to get up to speed, but generally cruises along at 60km/h. The indecisive nature of the gearbox means it can swap between cogs more than is comfortable, though.
And because you’re working the little engine pretty hard at all times, the Suzuki’s fuel use isn’t what it could be. The claimed consumption is 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres for the manual and 7.4L/100km for the auto, though we saw measured usage closer to 9.5L/100km over our time in the car.
Let’s just put this out there - this isn’t a car that we’d want to drive on a day-to-day basis… unless our commute consisted of a rugged track littered with rocks, boulders and all other sorts of slippery crud.
That’s because this is a Suzuki Jimny Sierra - a little four-cylinder truck with a proper 4WD system, including low-range.
Choosing between 2H (the default rear-drive mode), 4H (4WD high-range) and 4L (4WD low-range) is simple. There’s a shift-on-the-fly pushbutton 4WD system that allows you to engage the front hoops (4H) at speeds up to 100km/h, though selecting 4L - low-range gearing for slow-speed crawling – must be done at a standstill.
We used all three modes during our off-road test near Lithgow, NSW, and found that this was where the Jimny felt at home.
Up a steep, craggy hill that most all-wheel-drive SUVs would struggle to come to grips with (literally), the Jimny hoisted itself (and three burly blokes – myself, Trent Nikolic and Anthony Crawford) up the slope with an unexpected level of ease.
CarAdvice’s resident off-road expert Trent Nikolic said he didn’t expect the Jimny to scramble quite as well as it did. In 4L mode the drivetrain was apportioning torque to all four corners of the car with a level of sophistication and cleverness that most other off-roaders would struggle with.
Part of its excellent off-road ability comes down to its very short wheelbase and its excellent approach and departure angles, 34 degrees and 46 degrees respectively. That means you can descend and ascend tracks that would see other larger trucksters searching for an alternative.
Like all serious off-roaders the Jimny sits atop a ladder-frame chassis, three-link coil-over suspension front and rear. That suspension allows excellent wheel travel and articulation at all corners, and over several off-kilter sections of track the Jimny never felt off-balance.
While there’s no locking rear differential – something that would have helped the Jimny scramble up the hill with even better traction – the amount of mechanical traction on offer from the Jimny was downright astounding, particularly considering the fact the car was wearing stock road tyres (Bridgestone Dueler 205/70/R15s) during our test.
It is easily one of the most capable off-road vehicles you can buy for the money, let alone the fact it costs about a third of what you’d have to pay if you wanted something with as much capability but with a little more comfort, size, power and a Toyota badge.
Empirically they are quite strong in terms of reliability, and Suzuki offers a five-year/140,000km warranty. Capped price servicing is available for the Jimny, which requires maintenance every six months or 10,000km for up to five years/100,000km (average cost: $274 per visit).
This is a car with a specialist pedigree, and if you need a budget off-road vehicle you should check it out because there’s daylight between it and the next most-affordable off-roader on the market. We’d give it 9 out of 10 for its off-road ability alone.
However, that’s not part of our judging criteria for this day-to-day driving review, and because of the Jimny's lack of equipment and its snails-pace engine, it can't garner quite that sort of score.