Was Suzuki's iconic miniature off-roader’s long-overdue overhaul worth the wait?

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Revitalised utilitarian icons must be a bit like buses; only, rather than waiting minutes for one before several arrive in a rash, the gap is decades long.

Already this year Mercedes has launched a painstaking new interpretation of the G-Class for the modern era. Meanwhile, prototypes for an all-new Land Rover Defender have also been seen roaming the Midlands. We've also had the first freshened Jeep Wrangler for a fair old while, and then there is this: the tiny Suzuki Jimny, which Suzuki hasn’t really touched for two decades.

Return to circular headlights is redolent of the original 1970 LJ10, and those LEDs are standard on SZ5 models. The five vertical grille openings come from later generations of Jimny

You might well wonder why it would. Built to adhere to pocket-size Japanese kei-car regulations, the formula Suzuki concocted for the original ‘Light Jeep 10’ of 1970 was simple but effective. That’s why this fourth-generation car remains usefully small, authentically gifted off-road and enviably inexpensive.

With such a small footprint, it’s a veritable hard-hat on wheels, and you’d expect it to contribute powerfully to global Jimny sales already approaching three million. Especially given the warm reception for an unashamedly retro exterior design, which impertinently echoes that of the far more exclusive G-Class.

But, ultimately, the job of the Jimny is more than that of a kitsch fashion accessory. These are working cars – tools that go almost anywhere and often change the lives of their owners for the better. It’s why, on a recent road-testing excursion to rural Wales – farming country – the little Suzuki attracted far more honest attention from locals than the Porsche 911 GT3 parked adjacent.

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It’s also why Suzuki is concerned its Kosai production lines cannot meet demand, such has been the level of interest since its launch at the Paris motor show.

What, then, can those excited prospective customers expect? Let’s find out.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - hero side

Suzuki might have overlaid Mercedes-Benz G-Class styling cues atop an overall aesthetic that has since day one been inspired by the Jeep Wrangler, but the car before you is unmistakably a Suzuki Jimny.

Much of that has to do with its size – marginally wider and taller but shorter than before, the new car is only a touch longer than a Volkswagen Up and, somehow, would negotiate precisely the same city-centre width restrictors as the supermini. The boxy geometry gives it stature, however, as do a serious quartet of wheel arches that are absent on the even more diminutive, fully kei-spec model found overseas.

I reckon this new Jimny is right up there with the Alpine A110 in terms of visual appeal. It’s a truly wonderful piece of design, and one of the best-looking cars we’ve road tested this year

That Japan special derivative will drive its four wheels with a tiny 650cc engine but British examples will use a naturally aspirated, four-cylinder 100bhp 1.5-litre petrol unit (up from 1.3 litres) mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. The former makes for a marginally more fuel-efficient car – 35.8mpg plays 32.2mpg on the WLTP cycle – but neither is quick, with a 0-62mph of around 12sec and a top speed in double figures.

Not that the focus here is on-road driving. As ever, the hardware says ‘boulder track’ far more than it does ‘B-road’. The Jimny retains a separate ladder chassis beneath a steel body – the former half as stiff again as before – with three-link, rigid-axle suspension at both ends.

Suzuki has also added two extra cross-members to the ladder frame to improve durability and further increase stiffness, while the car’s front axle housing is now made of more robust high-tensile steel. While the Jimny benefits from a selectable low-range transfer gearing – its driveline mechanically switchable between ‘2WD-high’, ‘4WD-high’ and ‘4WD-low’ modes – what you don’t get is a set of mechanically locking differentials. Suzuki instead uses an electronic traction control system that automatically brakes a slipping wheel to redistribute torque asymmetrically.

Were you to scale the Jimny up a few sizes, the resulting off-roader would be the class of the field by many of the metrics that define such vehicles. As it happens, this little 4x4 is still impressive, with 210mm of ground clearance, an approach angle of 37deg and breakover and departure angles that better the Wrangler’s.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - cabin

While the new Suzuki Jimny’s cabin is undoubtedly a vast improvement over the 20-year-old interior of its predecessor, it still seems to stumble as often as it soars.

Its boxy body makes for excellent visibility, yet the steering column’s inability to adjust for reach means some drivers may find its driving position a touch compromised. The controls, meanwhile, have all been quite clearly designed for ease of use when not travelling on smooth road surfaces (fiddly infotainment system aside).

Angular look of dashboard, complete with faux exposed bolts, makes for a cockpit that’s plainly functional but also has plenty of charm

Buttons and switches are large, chunky and easy to reach from the driver’s seat, all of which are good things. When you touch them, however, you won’t be overwhelmed by the apparent quality or the sense of durability of the materials used. The row of switches at the bottom of the centre stack – those for the windows, traction control and hill-descent assist – feel particularly flimsy.

Then there are the rear seats, which will comfortably accommodate a couple of children (adults are an inevitable squeeze), yet if you elect to keep them in place, you’ll have practically no usable boot space. You might find you’re able to find room for a carrier bag or two back there, but that’s about it.

Folding the seats down liberates a more useful amount of space for luggage (up to 830 litres) but renders the Jimny a strict two-seater; although a standard 50/50 split-folding rear seat means you can, at least, strike a halfway-house solution.

The obvious consequence of all this is that, unlike so many SUVs, the Jimny would make for a compromised family car. It’s a car in which the school run would be possible but not easy, and in which a weekly shop with a couple of kids might be a stretch. As a second-car-in-the-household, however – one ready to regularly work off-road, but perhaps not have to carry or do much else – the car could make practical sense.

The Jimny SZ5 makes use of the same 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system as you’ll find in the Suzuki Swift supermini, which includes features such as Bluetooth connectivity, satellite navigation, DAB radio and voice control. The downside is that it also suffers from the same pitfalls.

The menu screens aren’t particularly graphically detailed or intuitive, and it takes a bit of time to wrap your head around how it all works. The inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, however, goes a long way to mitigating the impact of all that, certainly to the point where your mirrored smartphone screen would become your go-to preference for everyday use, and you’d interact with the factory infotainment only when you had to.

SZ4 and SZ5 models come with the same two-speaker sound system, which isn’t great. Sound quality is quite weedy and, as the engine is so loud at motorway speeds, the need to turn the volume up only makes things worse. It’s by no means unbearable, but is also far from a selling point.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - engine

Optimal straight-line performance on dry Tarmac isn’t going to be of huge concern for Suzuki Jimny owners more interested in their car’s ability to trundle down farm tracks or haul itself up rock-covered slopes effectively, but it ought to be good enough not to be a barrier to everyday use of the car: and, over shortish-range trips at least, so it proves.

The car’s 95lb ft peak torque isn’t a great deal for any genuine off-roader to depend on, and isn’t particularly accessible either, needing 4000rpm to chime in. A fair amount of welly is therefore required to get off the line in what feels like a smooth and remotely urgent fashion. That said, once you’ve properly acquainted yourself with the car, the Jimny isn’t that taxing to drive around town, although the bagginess of the five-speed manual gearbox’s shift action is a bugbear.

Old-fashioned 4WD system needs manually ‘shifting’ between front-drive, four-wheel drive and four-wheel drive ‘low range’ modes. Simplicity suits the Jimny

The Jimny managed to record a two-way average 0-60mph time of 11.9sec, which is respectable enough. It accelerated from 30mph to 70mph through the gears – as you might when joining a motorway – in 11.6sec, a second quicker than the entry-level petrol Dacia Duster we road tested earlier this year. The potency of the car’s engine certainly feels a touch limited on the road, and that motor is strained at high revs and on the motorway (not least as a result of the car’s short gearing).

But the rest of the time, the Jimny doesn’t seem to have to struggle too hard to get out of its own way. The previous Jimny’s 1.3-litre four-pot was hardly a beacon of refinement, and it seems Suzuki has done little to improve things with the latest model’s new 1.5-litre engine.

At a steady 70mph cruise, our sound gear measured noise in the cabin at a fairly persistent 70dB, while a wide-open throttle at the top of third gear saw this rise to 75dB. Admittedly, this is better than the old diesel-powered Land Rover Defender managed (73dB and 78dB respectively), yet as with that now discontinued conceptual rival, you’d likely still hesitate at the idea of using the Jimny regularly as a long-distance tourer.

Given the Jimny’s modest kerb weight – we measured it at 1112kg – the car’s shortage of stopping power came as a bit of a surprise. It needed 73.1m to come to a halt from 70mph, which is the sort of result you rarely see even from an off-roader on hybrid off-road tyres, and even allowing for the dampness of the surface on our test day. The car pitched unusually severely under hard braking, and its Bridgestone tyres seemed to skate over the surface of the road.

The need for the Jimny’s engine to spin away at a relatively fierce rate of knots at motorway cruising speeds also made for a fairly ordinary touring fuel economy figure for such a light modern car: a sustained 70mph run extracted an indicated 35.4mpg reading from the Suzuki’s trip computer.

In both respects, however, this car wasn’t ever likely to record results competitive with those of rivals engineered to serve, at worst, in a muddy car park; and the ones it did post shouldn’t discourage a prospective owner in need of its dual-purpose remit.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - suspension

Where the Suzuki Jimny’s ladder frame and rigid axle suspension have allowed its predecessors to go further off road than many larger and more sophisticated – not to mention more expensive – SUVs, they’ve been equally responsible for the little Suzuki’s trying on-road manners.

And while this latest model may have arrived some 20 years after the third-generation Jimny first went on sale – and while in some ways it might have sugared the pill, which we’re about to describe – that same trade-off is still alive and well in 2018, much as the car’s disarming looks would make you wish otherwise.

The Jimny’s ride is tough to tolerate, but the car’s tiny dimensions, upright windscreen and raised driving position mean you bob along roads with terrific visibility and a real sense of fun

It’s at low speeds where the Jimny’s ride and handling is at its most frustrating, particularly on the craggier stretches of road that are so prevalent here in Britain. Its ride is busy and unsettled, with sharper edges especially capable of sending reasonably forceful jolts into the cabin.

At a brisk open-road trot, the ride settles down a touch and the suspension begins to iron out longwave compressions with a decent sense of pliancy. But there are also times when vertical body movements are so sudden, pronounced and under-damped that it can feel as though the car is about to lift itself clear of the surface of the road – and so it’s best to maintain some awareness of the Jimny’s on-road limitations at all times.

As for the steering, Suzuki has elected to fit the Jimny with an electrically assisted recirculating ball rack. At 3.9 turns lock to lock, it’s particularly slow-geared because that’s how you’ll want it to be off road; and so, back on the road, it tends to require a generous scale of input from the driver. The slow gearing does have the effect of making the Jimny more stable at motorway speeds than it might otherwise be, though. Equally welcome is the rough but helpful impression that the rim provides as to how hard the front tyres are working.

Off the road is where the Jimny’s manoeuvrability really shines. Its lack of weight, tight turning circle and small footprint lend it impressive nimbleness on tricky terrain that would catch heavier 4x4s out, with only the harshest of surfaces proving a challenge. Wading depth is perhaps a bit meaner than you might hope (320mm), but it’s more than enough for the sort of work your average Jimny driver will likely require.

It’s on Millbrook’s Hill Route where the Jimny’s off-road friendly underpinnings and box-on-wheels body design really do their best to undermine its stability.

Numerous directional changes uncover exceptionally loose body control, while the slow gearing of the steering rack requires a fair amount of flailing at the wheel to persuade the Jimny to change direction in the manner intended. Damp surfaces emphasised its already limited front-end grip, too, but there was at least a degree of feel transmitted through the steering wheel.

The electronic stability control seems to need to grab quite harshly at the brakes at times to keep the body in line and shiny side up – but, since it’s effective, you’ll be glad of it if you need to rush the car down a treacherous road.

The engine struggled at times to maintain pace up some of the steeper ascents, but is certainly well capable of serving up speed on a level grade.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - hero front

Some would consider it greatly ironic that, even though every car manufacturer and his dog seems to have launched a ‘B-SUV’ supemini-based crossover in the past five years, it remains so difficult to find a small car with four driven wheels for less than £25,000; and very difficult indeed to find one available for less than £20,000.

The latter do exist. But even in that context, a proper dual-purpose 4x4 with live axles, low-range gearing and the sort of rough-stuff readiness that the Jimny offers, starting from little more than £15,000, is almost in a league of one.

Practicality, fuel economy and dynamics count against the Jimny as a family car but, as a blue-collar, mud-plugging off-roader, it’s near unimpeachable at the price

It’s not hard to imagine a buyer with a need for a car more rugged than a Fiat Panda 4x4 or a Dacia Duster, for a similar price, who wouldn’t rather spend 50% more on a basic light pick-up; although it’s certainly hard to imagine they’ll be queuing around the block. But Suzuki won’t be expecting to shift Jimnys in their thousands, at least not in the UK – which is why these cars have such long product life cycles.

Residual value forecasts for the car have yet to be made, but they’re unlikely to be of much import to Suzuki Jimny buyers anyway.


Suzuki Jimny 2018 road test review - hero static

Beneath the new look and technical overhaul, the essence of Suzuki’s miniature 4x4 remains largely untouched.

Most importantly, the Suzuki Jimny is a hugely competent off-roader that’s capable of going places where more expensive SUVs would have a tough time following. At its price point, rivals with a comparative ability off the beaten track simply don’t exist. And, for many, that will be the only thing that matters.

Charming 4x4 is capable and affordable but retains its dynamic foibles

However, just like its predecessor, the new Jimny remains a compromised vehicle for on-road use. While many of its dynamic shortcomings – its choppy ride, cumbersome handling and limited grip level – can be forgiven, it’s a shame Suzuki didn’t achieve a more modern-feeling blend of off-road capability and on-road handling security and drivability.

As it is, the Jimny’s off-road capabilities earn it a ranking berth among the niche rivals, but its dynamic flaws will likely prevent it from achieving the breakthrough market success its visual appeal might otherwise merit.

Even so, it’s one of the most likeable cars we’ve tested this year – and that has to count for something.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Suzuki Jimny First drives