Biggest isn't always best, and the alternative is a dying breed of four-wheel drive. We take a closer look at two surviving examples of short-wheelbase life.
Pajero, LandCruiser Prado, Bundera, Patrol, Jackaroo, MU, Vehicross, Maverick, Defender, Terrano. Once upon a time, there was a glut of short-wheelbase four-wheel drives available to the Australian buying public.
In fact, the first iterations of Land Rover and LandCruiser four-wheel drives that landed in Australia were short-wheelbase variants. But those days are now gone, and shorties are now in short supply.
The Land Rover Defender will be back in 2021, but it won’t be the same as the old one. And with a wheelbase measuring in at 2587mm (101 inches), you could argue whether the new Defender is a true shortie or not. I’m not sure, either way.
The old Defender, for the record, measured in at 92 inches. A proper shortie, no question about it.
|2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon||2021 Suzuki Jimny manual|
|Engine||3.6-litre petrol V6||1.5-litre four-cylinder|
|Power||209kW at 6400rpm||75kW at 6000rpm|
|Power to weight ratio||109kW/t||69.8kW/t|
|Torque||347Nm at 4100rpm||130Nm at 4000rpm|
|Transmission||Eight-speed automatic||Five-speed manual|
|Low-range ratio/crawl ratio||4:1/77:1||2.002:1/36.233|
|Approach/rampover/departure||42/27/31 degrees||37/28/49 degrees|
|Tyre diameter||32.1 inches||27 inches|
|Price (before on-road costs)||$66,950||$28,490|
These two left over are also true to form: the Jeep Wrangler and Suzuki Jimny. And they are two four-wheel drives that should be celebrated.
It’s an exercise in fun over function, and something only an enthusiast would truly consider. You’re trading in load space, ride quality, passenger capacity and comfort, and (arguably) value for money, for something that is just more fun.
For off-roading, there is something special about a short-wheelbase rig. Along with being lighter and more manoeuvrable, they also seem inherently more alive, bouncing around a little more, and reacting more acutely to angles.
And with the rare opportunity to bring these two surviving shorties out into the bush for a day of fun, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate them together.
The Suzuki we have here is more than half the price of the bigger Jeep, coming in at $25,990 before on-road costs. You can opt for a more expensive four-speed automatic over the five-speed manual gearbox, but options beyond that point are minimal.
Worth noting, constrained supply and huge demand mean many are spending more than the advertised price on Jimnys, for either new or near-new models.
The Wrangler, on the other hand, is a limited-edition Rubicon Recon, which is priced from $66,950. Expensive, yes. But this is an all-you-can-eat Wrangler experience.
On top of the Rubicon off-road goodies like heavy-duty locking differentials, 4:1 transfer case and BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tyres, (amongst other things), this specification also includes an up-specced interior with leather trimming, heated seats and steering wheel.
And there are only 40 of these coming to Australia amongst a total haul of 100 Recons.
However, the short-wheelbase Wrangler Limited is also available in standard Sport S or up-specced Overland guises, costing $51,950 or $61,450 (before on-road costs) respectively.
Interestingly, both of these four-wheel drives are petrol-powered, with both also resisting the advancement of turbocharging and electrification.
Suzuki’s 1.5-litre, four-cylinder power plant makes 75kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm, which shifts the 1110kg of kerb mass with enthusiastic vigour. It’s not fast, but it’s a lot of fun.
Even if you absolutely loathe shifting your own gears, I urge you to test-drive and consider a manual-geared Jimny instead of the automatic. The light clutch pedal, easy gearbox and revvy nature of the engine really suits the little Jimny, and the extra gear ratio goes a long way to liven things up.
There is no such choice for the Wrangler in Australia, despite a six-speed manual gearbox being offered in native America. Instead, eight automatic gears are spun by a familiar 3.6-litre petrol V6 engine. Making 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm, this more muscular engine is equally happy to rev out and seek that torque in the upper reaches of the tachometer.
Shorter diff ratios (4.1:1) make the Rubicon a little more aggressive off the line despite the taller mud tyres. And although Australia is still dearly in love with turbo-diesel power plants, this petrol engine does suit the Wrangler’s application quite well. Fuel economy isn’t great, however: the claimed 10.3 litres per 100km on the combined cycle is challenging to match. Our usage saw more like 12.0L/100km.
On the other hand, Suzuki claims 6.4L/100km on the same cycle. But our time with the car saw a number in the high 7L/100km range. Plenty of off-roading and enthusiastic town driving could see this number creep up; we spent our fair share on the highway.
But hey, this isn’t the kind of car you buy for practical and pragmatic reasons, right? You buy it because you want it, and you want to enjoy it.
And in terms of enjoyment, both of these four-wheel drives proved to be very good off-road. They’re very different to drive overall, and provide their own sense of fun.
It’s kind of obvious, but the Wrangler Rubicon is the most capable of the pair. The gearing, clearance and protection – all of which is factory-fitted – make this one of the most, if not the absolute most, capable four-wheel drives in standard form.
It also forms the argument of why the Rubicon is the pick of the Wrangler range. And if you want the truest Wrangler experience, then a short-wheelbase Rubicon is what you want.
And that’s the fun element of the Wrangler. It’s capable enough to take you straight onto some butt-clenching tracks, up steep rutted climbs and through dodgy-feeling side angles.
You don’t need to worry so much about incurring damage, because ground clearance is in such great supply. And when that runs out, you’ve got steel protection in all of the right spots. We found the main weakness was the low-slung numberplate, which was able to bend and scrape enough without breaking.
It inspires confidence, and often boils down more to the mettle and ability of the driver rather than the limits of the car. Like I said in the main review of the Wrangler, it’s a cheap form of competitive amateur motorsport, pitting man and machine against obstacles crafted by geology and erosion.
While the Jimny might not keep up on the tough tracks, the driver won’t care. Why? They’re having too much fun.
It’s the off-road equivalent of driving a slow car fast, similar to how a Kia Picanto GT can possibly deliver more driving mirth than something faster, costlier and more exotic.
That’s not to say the Jimny isn’t capable, because it is. Even though the tiny Bridgestone Dueler tyres might not bristle hairs like a set of Trepadors, they seem to find all kinds of grip in soggy and slippery conditions.
Why? What’s the secret? Weight. Or, more accurately, lightness. Along with having good clearance, two live axles and four coil springs, the biggest asset of the Jimny is how small and light it is.
Because it’s lacking that awesomely low 77:1 crawl ratio and automatic gearbox like the Wrangler, the Jimny needs to be driven very differently. It needs to be driven more as well. The engine can bog down a little at low revs, so you find yourself feeding in and backing off the throttle a lot, feeling the car react to your inputs enthusiastically. Often you can’t crawl slowly, so you find the happy balance of controlled momentum, bouncing through and around obstacles with hilarious abandon.
“Hello, elephant in the room. What’s your name?"
“Safety? Good to meet you.”
Both of these cars fall behind the current standard of road safety by garnering recent three-star ratings from ANCAP. While both vehicles are undoubtedly safer than comparable older vehicles, the simple fact that these two cars fold up worse in a crash than just about anything else on the showroom floor needs to be considered.
Occupant protection was a lowly 60 per cent for the Wrangler, while the Jimny does slightly better at 73 per cent. However, neither one is good. And neither should be on your consideration list if safety is important.
The Wrangler has removable doors and panels – something that doesn’t help crash safety. However, both vehicles carry time-honoured and traditional 4x4 mechanicals: live axles hang from a steel ladder chassis, and the body is bolted down on top. Clearly, this kind of design is a challenge to make safer in comparison to vehicles with unibody designs and independent suspension.
Yes, both of these cars struggle to score higher than the mid-sevens overall. But I don’t think it matters much.
That's because both the Jeep and Suzuki are awesome, and unique offerings in this day and age. Those who want one will gloss over the lack of safety and practicality, because the heart wants what the heart wants.
And I totally get it.