Nothing about this odd little car’s oppressively grey cabin is at all modern – not the brittle plastic dash, nor the thin and scratchy carpets – but the interior light is from another age altogether. Rather than sitting flush against the headlining, the Suzuki Jimny’s cabin lamp is a clumsy, blocky lump of clear plastic that hangs down from above like an illuminated prolapse.
In fact, every corner of the Jimny’s cabin is comically out of date.
You wouldn’t believe it was even possible to find a supplier who could manufacture such state-of-the-ark manual heater controls today. But here it is: a brand new 67-plate car with the kind of interior you haven’t come across since you were carted to school in short trousers.
When it was a shiny new model, though, Suzuki’s mini off-roader probably felt right up to date. Because, believe it or not, the third-generation Jimny is now 20 years old. For all these years, it’s gamely plodded along like a faithful old Labrador, watching on in bewilderment as the world changed around it, as whole new sub-genres of 4x4 emerged and interior lights receded elegantly into headlinings.
Only now is the Jimny set to be replaced. Suzuki is poised to reveal an all-new Jimny, only the fourth iteration to appear since the original made its debut way back in 1970. This isn’t a story about how miserable the car’s cabin is, though; Instead, it’s a fond farewell to an unsung hero, one last hurrah for this venerable 4x4.
Clearly the two aren’t direct rivals. In fact, the optional extras fitted to this £100,000 Range Rover Autobiography cost significantly more than the Suzuki. But for most people, myself included, a Range Rover is the epitome of the off-road vehicle. The benchmark. And we could think of no better way to wave goodbye to the Jimny than to demonstrate exactly how brilliant it is at scrabbling through mud. What we’re about to witness is perhaps the cheapest, and certainly the oldest, off-roader on sale going toe-to-toe with the most prestigious and sophisticated 4x4 money can buy.
Many people wouldn’t believe the Jimny is capable of proper off-roading. Little 4x4s are so often favoured by people who’ll never take them off-road – the school-run, hair salon set – that it’s easy to dismiss them as imitation off-roaders. In fact, the Jimny has a tough ladder frame chassis and a switchable low-range transmission that means it will get through pretty much whatever gloopy terrain you dare aim it at.
Not that I knew any of this as we pulled up to Avalanche Adventure in Leicestershire one Tuesday morning. I’m not really an off-roader, you see. The plan was for me to lead the way through the muck in the Rangie and see if the Jimny could follow. In my ignorance, I was expecting to arrive at the muddy quarry, point the car’s bluff nose at the first gentle incline I could find, power up the slope on an effortless wave of V8 turbodiesel torque, laugh like a madman as editor-at-lunch Matt Prior admits over the radio that he’s stuck at the bottom in the silly little Suzuki, then drive right on home again in leather-bound luxury. I even wore my much-loved bright red trainers, so confident was I that I wouldn’t be hanging around for more than 15 minutes.
I should have worn my walking boots. This Jimny is a top-spec 1.3 SZ4, which costs £14,784. Its rippling four-cylinder petrol engine pumps out 84bhp. To be fair to the Jimny, though, it does only weigh 1090kg, meaning it’s just a little heavier than the Range Rover’s tailgate.
Expecting nothing at all of the Suzuki, I lead the way in the Range Rover, Prior following close behind. I keep it fairly straightforward to begin with, heading off around a muddy, rutted right-hand bend that disappears behind an earth bank.
It is no sweat for the Rangie and the Jimny, a narrow, upright white block in my mirrors, tags along behind. I head down a reasonably steep grade, Hill Descent Control managing my speed with total authority and not a trace of wheel slip. The Suzuki glides down effortlessly in pursuit.
For the next 10 minutes, I try everything I can to get to that blasted white block stuck. We plough through thick, sloppy mud, the kind you could lose a wellington boot in. We climb up the steepest climb in the quarry, a sharp two-storey ascent over dry, dusty earth that the Range Rover hauls itself over without pausing for breath. We bounce over mud ruts so deep and hard-packed, even the Rangie scrapes its belly.
Everywhere I go, that infernal Suzuki follow just yards behind. Then I see it: compared with many of the obstacles we’ve dismissed already, it doesn’t look like much, but I reckon it could well be the climb that undoes the Jimny. It isn’t high, no taller than the Range Rover’s roof line. But the ascent is quick and sharp, the mud looks heavy and sticky and the approach is made up of some of the wettest, slickest, most chocolate-pudding-like mud in the entire quarry.
I point the Range Rover towards the ramp and stand on the throttle. The hefty 2.6-tonne beast thunders towards the incline, hits the base of it and climbs for a split second. Then it comes juddering to a halt, all four wheels spinning away hopelessly as I keep the throttle wide open for a second or two. We’re stuck.
I lift off, select reverse and back away from the slope. The challenge is set. If Prior and the Suzuki can climb to the top, we’ll have witnessed a memorable victory for David over Goliath. It feels like a big moment. Matt pauses for an instant, then unleashes every one of the Jimny’s throbbing 84 brake horsepower.
The little white Suzuki gently edges towards the slope. It isn’t a fast car. It hits the base of the rise and seems to bounce upwards, but then it gets caught at a 30-degree angle, suspended in heavy mud, looking as though it might tip over backwards. After a frantic four-wheel scrabble, Prior backs out of it.
It’s all square. But Matt fancies another shot. More speed, he reckons, more commitment. This time, rather than becoming suspended in the clay, the blasted Jimny hauls itself up and over the top of the rise, coming to a triumphant halt above it. Balls.
I line up for my second attempt. I go in a little harder this time, but as the car hits the rise, it slips over to the left a little, banking at an awkward angle as the wheels spin away furiously.
We’re going nowhere.
Remarkably, the little Suzuki Jimny scaled a grade the Range Rover wouldn’t get over.
I accept responsibility for that, though. I’m not a skilled off-road driver – Matt is, as you can tell from his headwear – and I just wasn’t willing to launch somebody else’s extremely expensive luxury 4x4 at an immovable mound of earth any harder. Nonetheless, the point was proven. The Jimny really is a genuine off-road machine. I just had to have a go for myself. It feels hilariously small inside after the Range Rover, as though you’ve stepped out of a ballroom and straight into a shoebox.
I hit the button marked 4WD-L, which engages the four-wheel-drive system and low-range transmission, then pull away kangaroo-ing like a learner driver. First gear in low range is comically short. Second gear is the one. Even so, the engine seems to constantly spin somewhere between 4000 and 6000rpm, everything feeling so hectic, whereas in the serene Rangie you hardly trouble the engine beyond idle. You bounce around and get thrown this way and that in the Jimny, too, arms twirling madly at the steering wheel, which turns over four times lock-to-lock.
The traction those four skinny all-season tyres find in the wet stuff is hardly believable. And I just love the feeling of all four wheels spinning in the muck like tops as the car hauls itself through. Compared with the Range Rover’s quiet corner of a library, it’s like being in the midst of a violent riot. I just love it.
It’s as though Caterham has built an off-roader, I think to myself on the way home. The Jimny gives you nothing you don’t need, but everything you do need is executed brilliantly. That’s why the third-generation Jimny deserves one last moment in the spotlight. Even after all these years, it remains one of the most characterful, capable and entertaining 4x4s at any price.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE JIMNY?
Suzuki has yet to officially reveal the fourth-generation Jimny, yet some leaked pictures reveal the direction that will be taken. The new car’s chunky, square-edged styling – reminiscent of a mini Mercedes G-wagen – suggest it will remain an honest, utilitarian machine.
It’s important the latest model retains the surprising off-road ability of the car it replaces, because that’s the thing that has made the Jimny such a likeable car for so long.
The more up-to-date cabin is a welcome addition, though. Can this Jimny possibly last the next 20 years?
How to buy a used Jimny
Despite being on sale for so long, there isn’t a wealth of used Jimnys to choose from. The 1.3-litre petrol engines are due a cambelt change every 80,000 miles, so check for proof that this work has been done if necessary. A wheel wobble at 50mph or so could be more than just an unbalanced wheel – perhaps a worn kingpin, knackered bearing or tired CV joint. If the four-wheel-drive system doesn’t engage as it should, the problem could be as simple as a cracked vacuum hose. Finally, check the underside for signs of impact damage. The ladder frame chassis is strong, but not unbreakable.