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Suzuki Jimny: You don’t mess with imperfection

Some cars are so good you don't want to change a thing... while others are perfect in their imperfection

The CarAdvice Melbourne office has just had not one, but two 2019 Suzuki Jimnys pass through its garage – one auto, one manual.

As unlikely as it seems, this tiny little shipping crate on wheels is shaping up to be one of 2019s hottest new releases. Every time we mention it on the site or on social media it attracts a swarm of comments and reactions.

It’s not hard to see why either. Despite the march to slowly transform the automotive landscape into a sea of crossover-styled hatchbacks that promise a lifetime of adventure seeking but never venture beyond a Westfield carpark, the Jimny sticks to its guns as an off-roader.

It’s not the only car to do so. The new Jeep Wrangler, new Mercedes-Benz G-Class and carbon-dateable Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series maintain a similar focus, but none of those cross the sub-$25k barrier. In fact, a JL Wrangler is almost double that, even in its most basic form.

And here’s the thing. The Jimny is a fairly specialised piece of equipment. It’s tiny because it needs to fit into Japan’s domestic market Kei-classification – a set of road tax rules that see overall size and engine displacement capped.

In Australia, it breaches those rules with wider wheel arches and a bigger engine, because Suzuki knows that a 47kW 660cc three-cylinder engine probably won’t be as well received Down Under as it will in a market where it’s incentivised. Thus we get a ‘big block’ 1.5-litre four-banger pushing out 75kW.

Cue the first point of imperfection then. Performance.

At just a touch under 1100kg the Jimny probably doesn’t need a lot of it, but 75kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm aren’t terribly inspiring and tend to look even less so on paper. Our commenters have called for more and the 1.4-litre turbo from the Vitara and Swift Sport often gets name-dropped as a suitable replacement.

And yet... as soon as you drive one, you realise the current outputs are actually rather decent. While the pair-o-Jimnys were in the garage we put them against the stopwatch and clocked 0-100 km/h times of 14-ish seconds.

Before you throw your hands up and complain about how dangerous that is, I have some heart-breaking news. It’s not really dangerous, just inconvenient.

Even more remarkable, the Jimny still feels rather spritely from behind the wheel. You’ve gotta work it to get the best from it and it still has to function as a whole dynamic package which includes such shortcomings as a very short wheelbase, narrow track, and soft high-lift suspension.

So while 103kW and 230Nm of Swift Sport power seems like a good idea, it’s probably ludicrous. In fact, I’d even suggest 82kW and 160Nm (the latter from 1500rpm) as per the Swift GLX Turbo’s three-cylinder engine would not only be a better outcome power and torque-wise, but also keep weight down, having a minimal impact on the pertness of the Jimny package.

Which brings me to another point, the imperfect transmissions.

You have a choice of five-speed manual, or four-speed auto. By contemporary small car standards those are probably one and two gears off the pace respectively. I even expected the four-speeder might be a bit of a dog.

It wasn’t though. It works really well, and I mean really well. Keep in mind it isn’t dealing with massive amounts of power in the first place and the coding for the auto gets to be basic and uncomplicated.

The manual is just as effective. Long throws, and perhaps not the most precise shift gate, but the transmission matches the engine. You don’t rush it, you drive it.

Which ties in nicely with another thing I kept thinking while driving the Jimny: Mazda MX-5.

The MX-5 is another light, compact car, albeit one with a bigger, more powerful 2.0-litre engine (and a same-sized but more powerful 1.5-litre that doesn’t sell nearly as well) designed for an entirely different purpose.

It also has a pair of rather lovely transmissions, a six-speed auto and a six-speed manual, both crisp and delightful.

Except an MX-5 is really fizzy at the top but an engine that can rev beyond 7000rpm isn’t what the Jimny needs, nor is a close ratio, tight-gated six-speed manual.

There’s plenty of scope for Suzuki and Mazda to join forces (they already have on Kei cars in Japan) with both adept at decent handling mainstream cars. Suzuki’s strength in lightweight compacts and Mazda’s expertise in adding premium-ness could be a match made in heaven, but that’s another consciousness stream for another day.

The thing is, the Jimny doesn’t get anything new in the powertrain department because longitudinally-mounted, low output compact cars are an absolute rarity. Every powertrain specialist in the world offers a low-cost transverse solution to mate with efficient front-wheel drive runabouts, but poor old Suzuki has to raid its parts bin for delivery van bits that are decades old.

Because they’re cheap, because they’re proven, and because it’s highly unlikely that anyone isn’t going to buy a Jimny because it lacks a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.

Price is – potentially – another Jimny sore point. It’s a $23,990 proposition before on roads plus $2k more if you want an auto. That’s led to a few friends asking, rhetorically, if that’s a bit too much for a car filled with rock hard interior plastics, and a minimal amount of equipment.

I disagree. Sure a sub-$20k entry ticket would be nice. Everything would be better if it were cheaper but the last Jimny was $21,990 and while the new one might use a lot of carry-over parts it also adds a lot more fancy bits and bobs.

A touchscreen nav system with smartphone mirroring, climate control, autonomous emergency braking with lane keeping assist, side and head airbags, LED headlights, a leather steering wheel and a bunch of other junk you probably don’t strictly need but get anyway join the standard equipment list compared to the previous model.

The interior even manages to tread that find line between rugged utility and utilitarian chic. You can’t hose it out, there’s carpet on the floor and fabric-trimmed seats, but you also don’t feel bad about jumping in with dirty boots or copping a spray of mud with the windows down.

Hell, the boot isn’t even big enough to carry a regular grocery bag with the rear seats up. That’s fine too, because when you fold them the cargo bed is plastic lined, ready to accept you sodden wetsuit, sandy beach gear, mud-soaked waders, or anything else you wouldn’t happily throw in a carpeted boot.

The only real issue – the one that’s much, much harder to ignore – is the Jimny’s safety standing. While it comes with AEB, LDW, stability control and six airbags, it manages to get a three-star safety score according to ANCAP.

That’s far from ideal (and there are a lot of reasons why) but it’s still better than the one-star 2019 Wrangler and the last Jimny was never rated. So, there’s a very, very, very real chance this one is a heap safer. If you had to pick a 20-year-old previous-gen or a new Jimny to have a stack in, it's hard to imagine many people would opt for the older car.

That’s still no excuse, but the idea of the Jimny as specialised equipment rather than family transport for the masses surely grants it some leeway.

The thing is, every car we talk about on CarAdvice gets some kind of feedback from readers about things they’d like to see improved, changed, or modified. It happens to Corollas, it happens to Rangers, I mean, it even happens to Ferraris and Rolls-Royces.

The Jimny is by no means immune. You might want it to be more powerful, more sophisticated, more spacious, or more high tech but if you do that you might not have a Jimny. You might end up with something that’s closer to an ASX, it might become a RAV4, or it could even morph into an 86 if you get too carried away.

All fine really, but the quaintness, the ruggedness, the decidedly retro look and feel, the mechanical simplicity, the light weight, and the go-anywhere confidence all start to erode. If a Jimny was ‘perfect’ would it still be a Jimny?

Of course not, and you don’t mess with imperfection.

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