The latest in a long line of proud off-roaders has a big dose of retro charm. But what's it really like on- and off-road?
Once upon a time, 4WDs were a rare commodity in Australia. They were expensive and not that many companies made them. A basic tool, 4WDs were used only for transport when roads were rough or non-existent.
4WDing was a bit different in those days. No creature comforts, no air-con, no automatic transmissions, no trick traction-control systems. If it were a story, there would only be a handful of characters worth a mention: Land Rovers and LandCruisers were prevalent. The G60 Patrol would pop up every now and then, and Jeeps were a rare commodity.
There’s no doubt that although it’s a little battler, the lineage of pint-sized Suzuki 4WDs is one of the true greats, right from those early days. It’s been a constant companion over the years as well, since coming into Australia in 1975. That was the LJ50 back then, a really tiny 4WD powered by a 550cc water-cooled, three-cylinder two-stroke motor. It made 25kW and 56Nm, which pushed the 600kg vehicle through live axles, leaf springs and a low-range transfer case.
Soon after, 800cc of furious four-stroke power followed with the LJ80 in 1977. And by furious, I mean a single overhead cam and 31kW. It was also available as a long wheelbase single-cab trayback called the Stockman. 1981 saw the start of the Sierra name, with engines going to 1000cc and then 1300cc over the years. Coil springs were adopted in the mid-’90s, and Holden sold its own versions under the Button plan called the Drover. In 1998, the Jimny name took over with an all-new design.
Since that very beginning, little Suzuki 4WDs have been loved and depended on by generations of Australian 4WDers. Cockies and stationhands used them to great effect mustering stock and negotiating rough, muddy landscapes right across Australia. When bigger and heavier 4WDs were getting stuck, little Zooks were skipping over the top or skirting around the side.
They were simple and reliable units, two traits absolutely crucial to success once upon a time. When recreational 4WDing took hold, the Suzuki’s appeal and fanbase only grew. Older models still have a strong, cult-like following these days. Many Australians cut their teeth in the bush and on the beach behind the wheel of a Sierra.
Along with being capable and frugal, the LJ/Sierra/Jimny 4WDs have also always nailed another brief: fun and driving joy. While redlining in top gear at 85 clicks and denting the roof with your head is far from fun on the highway, many have put up with the shortcomings over the years. Why? Because of the sheer enjoyment that came with getting off-road. The Jimny is fun, smile-inducing, engaging. Addictive.
Now, the lineage lives on with the new 2019 Suzuki Jimny. It’s an all-new design that pays a deep homage to those that came before it. Rather than continuing in the same pseudo-modern vein the previous Jimny started in 1997, the new model jumps backwards with a boxy shape, flat sides, round headlights and its own take on an iconic grille. Back to the future, retro-cool, whatever you want to call it, I reckon Suzuki has nailed it.
It's sharply priced as well – $23,990 will get you one (before on-roads) with a five-speed manual gearbox, while an additional $2000 will net you a four-speed automatic gearbox. Options? It's $500 for a flash paint colour, or go $1250 for two-tone.
While being yet another 4WD on offer in a cluttered market, the Jimny stands alone in many respects. It's a live-axle 4WD with great off-road capability, and still slides in under 25 grand. It's made in Japan, bolted together very well, and tugs at the heartstrings like a $300,000 supercar. If you're into it, that is.
If you are into it, you’re probably willing to accept the Jimny warts and all. The Jimny’s ANCAP safety rating is a real blight on its prospects, and its slow and noisy nature could become tiresome.
The Jimny is low-geared and feels top-heavy because of the soft coils and dampers that let it tip over a bit in corners. Steering needs big inputs to get it shifting, and you'll find yourself using the third pedal aplenty. In other words, there are lots of nicer and easier drives out there, especially in the competitive small-SUV set. While it unequivocally falls behind other cars, it’s worth noting the traditional 4WD feel of the Jimny is engaging and refreshing, and makes it quite unique compared to, well, anything else new. It's not a car that feels like it drives itself, and nor does it want to.
The engine is the biggest ever in the Jimny’s history, as well as being the most powerful and torquey. The 1.5-litre four-cylinder gives you 75kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm. Staggering, right? It's an all-new engine from Suzuki, which is somehow smaller and lighter than the outgoing 1.3. Forty litres of 91RON petrol will fill the tank, and give you a rough range of around 600 kays, with a combined consumption figure of 6.4 litres per hundred kilometres quoted. Our testing was a bit higher than that, but we were either sitting in traffic, belting along at 110km/h, or crawling for hours in low-range.
The engine runs through a five-speed manual gearbox on our tester (we’ve also tested the auto, click here for that one). It’s a part-time 4WD, with a lever-operated (yay) transfer case. At idle, the engine is whisper-quiet despite an obvious lack of sound deadening. It’s a quiet operator on the road as well, except for when you call on all that it has to offer (read: accelerating). It’s not offensively noisy, but the amount of revs you need to get moving does generate a bit of noise.
Safety is the number-one big issue prospective buyers will have to confront. The 2019 Jimny scored three stars in its ANCAP test, which noted issues around structural strength and airbag inflation. While the Jimny does have AEB as standard, there have been some issues raised around its accuracy, and ANCAP scores it weakly against pedestrians. In other scenarios, the AEB system performed well.
With the Wrangler (another live axle, ladder chassis 4WD) getting only one star in recent Euro NCAP testing, the Jimny’s unimpressive performance raises questions about the safety of more traditional 4WDs that haven’t gone down the well-trodden path of monocoque and unibody designs, and independent suspension that reduce the amount of steel underneath the body. One should probably consider that while these set-ups are brilliant for hard and sustained off-road use, they will never be as safe as some other ‘softer’ SUVs without the inherent off-road capability.
One exception to this rule, if it is one, is Toyota’s 79 Series LandCruiser Cab Chassis. It’s still got parts dating back to when Moses was a boy, but Toyota has managed to transform this ancient 4WD with a big diesel motor, live axles and a ladder chassis into an ANCAP success story despite not having advanced active safety features. Single-cab utes have a five-star rating from 2016, while the rest of the range goes untested.
The next irksome point for the Jimny is the warranty. While many manufacturers have forged their way ahead with bigger warranties, the Suzuki offering looks a little light-on with only three years and 100,000km. Suzuki does look to goad you into a six-monthly servicing schedule through an authorised dealership by extending that warranty out to five years and 140,000km. Each service is listed at $269 every half year or 10,000 clicks, going up $30 at each 40,000km or two-year interval.
One great thing about the Jimny is how little has changed in the big picture. Some of the core, most important ingredients are all there from a mechanical point of view. Coil springs and live axles are something of an oddity these days, and only shared with the returning Jeep Wrangler. Interestingly, the Jimny uses radius arms for control at the front and back, along with a Panhard rod and an anti-roll bar at the front.
The transfer case has a 2.002:1 reduction, which teams up with 4.425:1 in first gear and 4.090:1 in the differentials for a maximum crawl ratio of 36.233. It’s not really very low compared to other serious off-roaders, and is made worse by the rev-happy nature of the little petrol engine: peak torque comes on at 4000rpm.
You need to adopt a slightly different driving style to accommodate this. Idling slowly like a diesel is out of the question, as you need to get up to 2800–3000rpm for the engine to hold its nerve up steep climbs. That being said, it’s the same sort of reduction that older Jimnys and Sierras have used since the very first models. When you do get it right off-road, you quickly realise the little Jimny is properly capable. Its small size and weight are its greatest allies off-road. It’s kind of half side-by-side, half four-wheel drive.
Fifteen-inch wheels sit right at each corner of the Jimny wrapped in a fairly tame 195/80 tyre. That’s 27 inches in the old money. While it doesn’t have the raw ground clearance other larger 4WDs have, the Jimny does have stacks of real-world clearance for off-road work. A high-pinion front diff and a smart underbody design make the most of the available clearance underneath, and the approach (37), departure (49) and rampover angles (28) are all very good.
Add that light overall weight lets it grip like buggery, and you’ll be able to overcome obstacles larger 4WDs might baulk at. We barely had any issues at all bottoming out. The end result is something that gives you confidence and ability up some seriously gnarly terrain.
All-Grip Pro is what Suzuki has called the traction-control system that is used in the Jimny, which essentially is an off-road traction control that runs through the ABS module. Jimnys of days gone by haven’t had an effective system, and it’s good to know that they have got this new set-up dialled pretty nicely. Wheel spin gets picked up quickly, and brakes redirect that torque pretty deftly to other wheels.
Although it has no standard locking diffs or LSD (hello aftermarket industry!), you’ll have to be going pretty damned hard to outstrip the ability of the standard traction control. Rather than worrying about lockers to start with, a good set of grippy all-terrains or mud terrains would give you a solid bump in traction off-road.
Hill descent control is another new feature on the Jimny. In high-range, it holds you at 10km/h, which is pretty fast for anything remotely challenging or steep off-road. Jam that lever into low-range and it drops down to 5km/h. It’s not as good as others that can go down to 2km/h or 1km/h and have adjustable speeds, but it’s nice to have and seems well calibrated.
The toughest challenge we put the Suzuki up against was South Basalt Knob, a steep and twisting track that runs you north out of Talbotville in the Victorian High Country. Sharp switchbacks, rock steps and powdery wombat holes make this track a proper challenge, and one that you typically wouldn’t run an unmodified 4WD up.
Whereas other vehicles bottomed out or could only choose one or two lines, the Jimny’s nimble nature had a huge advantage. You can choose lines others only dream of, and the traction control worked well to control wheelspin when articulation runs out. That boxy shape and flat windscreen aren’t just all about looks, either. You’ve got great visibility for negotiating technical tracks, and you can see (and feel) exactly where each wheel is placed. You feel very connected to what’s going on, which helps with your own ability in getting the most out of the Jimny.
The interior of the new Jimny is pretty good. It’s all hard surfaces and basic plastics, but the design and layout are functional and good-looking. Analog dials in front of you hark straight back to the SJ Sierras of old with their orange colour and ’80s-inspired fonts, and there’s a fairly rugged overall feel with the centre stack design. It’s down to business, and comfortable and functional enough to get a thumbs-up. That being said, don't expect it to stand up in comparison to other small SUVs in terms of niceness. It's definitely more spartan than splendid.
Something the old Sierras didn’t have was Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which the new Jimny scores through a 7.0-inch touchscreen high up in the middle. It’s a decent system that is quick to react and has all of the features you’re looking for. Some might not like the sliding-touch function for volume, however. There’s a USB and 12V cig socket handy, along with a fairly modest amount of storage for odds and ends. Don’t forget, this is a very small car.
I’ve got a habit of sitting quite close to the steering wheel with my seat almost bolt-upright, and I slotted into a driving position comfortably and quickly. Soon enough, the window was open and elbow was poking out; it’s that kind of car. Those of us taller and longer-limbed are fairly well accommodated as well, with a seat that slides back a fair amount, and a reasonable amount of headroom.
Second-row comfort is, naturally, a bit lacking. Although you can fit four in total into the little Jimny, you probably won’t be crushing a Nullarbor drive without any back-seat complaints. And you’ve got precious little room available for anything else when you’re using all four seats.
Fold down the second row (or better yet, pull them out altogether) and you’ve got an enticing little space for groceries and gear in the back. I say enticing because I immediately felt like I was planning or renovating some kind of tiny home. If you plan smartly and pack the essentials lightly, you could absolutely set up a Jimny for weeks away at a time.
You won’t have room for a hot water system, 110L fridge, double swag and four camp chairs like your mate in the 200 Series LandCruiser, but take a leaf or two from the book of a hiker’s set-up, and you could have a lot of fun seeing Australia. Many have done it with older models, and I imagine many more are planning big trips with the 2019 Jimny.
I’m sure many keen punters will be investigating body lifts, big springs and what’s involved in fitting 31s and 32s under this modern legend. You’ve probably seen the ARB Jimny that looks resplendent with a lift, all-terrain tyres and some barwork.
While all of that stuff is mighty tempting, it’s important to note that Suzuki has done a great job with this little battler straight off the bat. Sure, you can make it more capable with extra clearance and more rubber, but it’s a really solid performer straight out of the box. Better tyres would be a big help, no doubt.
Put up with the old-world charm of high revs, high noise and plenty of body roll, and you’ll have a car you can be genuinely enthusiastic about. However, you’ll need to be aware that it’s far from the safest option in the event of a crash. It’s not completely awful, but there are better options out there.
There's a chance many will cross-shop this Jimny with other small SUV options that will have a bit more bang-for-buck against their name. They'll be safer and more efficient, and a lot nicer to drive on-road. Regardless of being 2WD or AWD, they will have a transverse engine with transaxle, along with a unibody set-up and independent suspension. There's nothing wrong with it per se, except if you're heading off-road. What makes the Jimny more expensive is an engine, gearbox, transfer case and two live axles, all bolted to an old-fashioned ladder chassis. It's a much more expensive way to make a car.
Chances are, you’re not buying this thing as a family car, which softens that blow of safety slightly. However, it cannot be completely discounted. If you’re buying it for fun and excitement, however, along with a good dose of solid off-road capability, then I reckon you’re barking up the right tree.
Throw some decent rubber onto it, and you’ll have something capable of taking on some tough tracks, as well as plastering a big, ridiculous smile across your face. It’s a modern classic in my books, and I would love to own one.
NOTE: With the boys focused on the content and keeping themselves from getting bogged, we've used interior shots from our upcoming Jimny automatic review with this story.