We pit Suzuki's modern classic four-wheel drive against a true two-stroke classic off-roader.
This is one of the most fun cars on the planet, and it only makes 20 kilowatts.
It’s a 1977 Suzuki LJ50, and makes up the older half of this old versus new comparison. Naturally, we’re lining it up against the latest iteration of Suzuki’s pint-sized four-wheel-drive vehicles: a 2021 Suzuki Jimny.
Mechanically, these two vehicles have plenty in common: a small revvy petrol engine, live axles, ladder chassis, big tyres (for the size of the car), and wheels at the extremities of each corner.
Both have a lever-operated low-range transfer case, round headlights, and an overall diminutive size. And like different generations of a family standing together, they look a lot alike beyond their size.
The LJ50 is classic old-school four-wheel drive: squared off and slab-sided, the ribs presumably pressed in to help stiffen the thin sheetmetal. Lighting fore and aft are a no-nonsense round, and complement the sharp angles of bonnets and fenders. Fender-mounted mirrors add a bit of Japanese flavour, and those top-mounted wipers are a staple of proper old four-wheel drives.
|1977 Suzuki LJ50||2021 Suzuki Jimny|
|Price when new||$4205||$28,490|
|Engine||540cc, three-cylinder two-stroke||1.5-litre, four-cylinder four-stroke|
|Power||19.8kW @ 6000rpm||75kW @ 6000rpm|
|Torque||36.3Nm @ 5000rpm||130Nm @ 4000rpm|
Despite the passage of time, the 2021 Jimny sings from a similar hymnbook. Headlights and indicators stay round, and the flat windscreen has defied the trend of a more raked and curved design.
The new Jimny draws a lot of inspiration from LJ and SJ forebears, but Suzuki hasn't fallen into the common trap of overdoing it. I reckon Suzuki's nailed it, both inside and out. Whoever at Suzuki decided to bring back the short lever, I salute you.
Both of these Suzukis here are unique in their own respect. But the old LJ50's vintage charm give it the edge.
Firstly, it’s properly tiny. Like the Jimny, the LJ50 is a product of Japan’s local Kei regulations. This puts a cap on vehicle and engine size, and made attractive by cheaper taxes and registration costs.
Measuring in at only 3170mm long and 1295mm wide, the LJ50 sits on an impressively small 1930mm (75.98 inches) wheelbase. And being so small, it’s incredibly light. A 1976 brochure I found lists the weight at only 675kg.
In comparison, the new Jimny has followed the global automotive trend of becoming bigger and heavier: 3480mm long and 1645mm wide, sitting on a 2250mm wheelbase and weighing 1110kg.
That’s big in comparison to the LJ50, but so is a packet of biscuits. And by modern terms, the Jimny is still quite small.
Worth noting here, what we get in Australia is technically called a Jimny Sierra. Built for export markets with a wider wheel track, fender flares and a big block under the bonnet. In the Japanese domestic market, the Jimny is still available with a true Kei 660cc motor.
Another unique factor is the engine. The LJ50 is powered by a two-stroke, three-cylinder engine with 540cc of capacity. Power is rated at 19.8kW at 6000rpm and 36.3Nm at 5000rpm. And while those numbers are more reminiscent of gardening equipment, don’t write this little battler off, because it’s an enthusiastic and surprisingly willing performer.
And if you think that's small, this is an upgrade from the air-cooled, 360cc two-cylinder donk from the previous LJ20.
Two-stroke engines don’t carry a sump full of oil for lubrication. Instead, oil goes in with the fuel. And instead of doing four strokes of the piston to complete a full combustion cycle (intake, compression, combustion, exhaust), a two-stroker does it in half the time.
In order to do this, it uses ports in the cylinder walls that are opened and closed by the movement of the piston, and engine lubrication is handled by the oil/fuel mixture.
Instead of a pre-mix set-up like your whipper-snipper, the LJ50 has a separate mechanical pump for oil delivery, which comes from a reservoir under the bonnet. Special two-stroke oil is mixed with fuel just before it goes into the engine.
Two-stroke vehicles are rare by any measure, and driving one is quite unlike anything else. Firstly, the noise is incredible. Imagine something in between a giant chainsaw and a straight-piped race engine. It rips, roars, gurgles and spits. And that’s just at idle.
Thanks to the low gearing, the little LJ doesn’t feel as gutless down low as I thought. You need to get to know the gearbox and clutch to feel more confident, like any old car. But once you do, you can take off with decent composure and start shuffling through the gears.
Like those peak figures suggest, however, this engine is happiest when revving high and working hard. The sound is awesome, and the elastic nature of the power at high revs means you really need to drive the LJ50 to get the best out of it.
And because you can’t idle along at a crawl, the level of engagement you get when driving this thing off-road is off the charts. Yes, it’s slow by modern standards. But believe me, you could not care less when you’re driving it.
Put aside the fact that this tiny vehicle puts you so close to the terrain you can literally reach out and touch it. The combination of big throttle inputs, a raucous soundtrack, and this inherent ability to continually clamber and grip, makes it the most fun off-road car I’ve driven to date.
And despite being 44 years old, it’s a properly capable four-wheel drive. Off-road clearance is wonderful, despite the small overall size. And as long as you’ve got the revs up, the engine and gearing provide ample motivation.
Credit goes to the tyres; a special import by the owner. Maxxis is a brand that most four-wheel drivers are familiar with, but the current Australian website doesn’t list these Creepy Crawlers as an available option.
Not dissimilar to Maxxis's more well-known Trepadors, these are a fairly extreme off-road tyre, in the old-school 7.00-16 size to suit the little Suzuki. And while highway driving and turn-in feel might not be their forte, they offer stacks of low-speed grip in even the sloppiest and slipperiest of surfaces.
In comparison, the Bridgestone Duelers on the Suzuki Jimny look a little uninspiring. But to be honest, they did perform quite well on the same tracks as the LJ50. The coil springs and wider track of the new Suzuki allow it to flex up better through the ruts, but the advent of modern traction control makes a big difference to drivability.
Although the modern four-stroke engine is nearly three times the size of the older counterpart, the new Jimny still enjoys being revved like the old model. The lack of low gearing and low-down torque – there is a low-range transfer case, but it's not as low as we'd like – means crawling isn’t the Jimny’s forte; you need momentum (and a little wheel spin) on your side to get into the sweet spot.
The smoothness and quietness of the modern engine are something of a revelation as well, but part of me still yearned for more raucous noise as my ears still rang.
And once you’re in that sweet spot of momentum, the Jimny is an impressive off-roader. A lot of it boils down to the same small and lightweight nature that is common of all Suzuki four-wheel drives. With less metal, glass and rubber to shift, the Jimny is able to drive through and around other obstacles that will see others falter.
And it’s a lot more fun than something bigger, as well. It’s not the same raw and unbridled excitement that comes with the old Suzuki, but it definitely carries the same spirit.
It’s something like the off-road equivalent of why an MX-5 has the potential to be more fun than an Aventador, because you’re able to drive the wheels off it and push its limits before you reach yours. The Jimny is approachable, but also needs to be driven hard to get the best out of it.
This is especially the case when you’ve got the five-speed manual. It's what we've got, and is the better choice than the automatic.
Having these two four-wheel drives out in the bush together was a special day, and the experience highlighted just how closely Suzuki has stuck to its original ethos with the Jimny. Just about everything else out there has become bigger, softer and heavier, more docile, modern and homogeneous.
The LJ50 is an incredible experience to drive, especially off-road. But how closely related the Jimny is, in both experience and ethos, is something of a surprise. I knew I would love both vehicles, but didn't realise how closely the apple had stayed to the tree.
Suzuki’s design that incorporates plenty of throwback cues without overdoing it is a masterstroke, but the actual engineering and experience of the two vehicles aren’t hugely dissimilar. It's a runaway success for the Japanese brand, because Suzuki has stuck boldly to the original design. That’s something worth celebrating.
It's especially poignant as Suzuki celebrates 50 years of the four-wheel drive in Australia this year. It was 1971 when the LJ10 first landed on our shores.
Many thanks to Matt and Nichole for bringing the wonderful Suzuki LJ50 out into the bush for the day. It's worth noting they drove over 250km that day to help make this story happen. No mean feat in anyone's book, especially in the wet weather.