The Little Off-Roader That Could

The Suzuki Jimny Is the Best Bad Car I’ve Ever Driven


February 19, 2018 Cars By Photo by Andrew Connor
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Let’s get this out of the way: the Suzuki Jimny is an objectively bad car. Its acceleration is objectively bad. Its top speed is objectively bad. Its interior, ride quality, handling and brakes? Bad, bad, bad, bad. It takes about 14 seconds to get to 60 mph, tops out at 87 mph (if you can even get there), requires you to stomp on the brakes to come to a stop and will shake and rattle and squeak all along the way. This, however, is all irrelevant.

Saying that a bad car is good, not just in spite of but because of its faults, is a cliche that’s been around at least as long as car reviews have. I suspect this is a reaction to the rapidly-changing automotive landscape, where electronics and advances in engineering have made cars…far more than just cars. The desire for something counter to modern cars — something simple yet flawed
— is understandable, especially when it comes to off-roaders. Simple and flawed off-roaders from decades past fought wars, built societies and explored the world. The Suzuki Jimny has always been one of those cars. It still is.

It debuted in 1970 as the LJ10, a tiny soft-top three-seater (a spare wheel took the spot where a fourth seat should have gone) with a 359cc two-cylinder engine air-cooled engine. This, on paper, would not seem like a recipe for a world-class off-roader, but the Suzuki’s compact body and nimble chassis could take it places larger 4x4s couldn’t go. Within the next few years, Suzuki would produce hard-top and pickup versions with larger engines, making it a workhorse star in places like Australia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. Two more generations would eventually debut: the SJ in 1981 (sold in the US as the Samurai) and the JB in 1998.

The Jimny currently is stuck in 1998. Save for mild changes the Suzuki Jimny that debuted 20 years ago is nearly identical to the Suzuki Jimny sold worldwide today. It’s still a bare-bones, body-on-frame box about 11 feet long. It has a 1.3-liter inline-four, five-speed manual and a part-time 4WD system that changes from 2WD to 4WD or 4WD-L with the push of a button — and an audible thunk that’s disconcerting the first time you hear it and satisfying from there on out.

Suzuki Jimny Specs

Engine: Naturally-aspirated 1.3-liter I4
Transmission: Five-speed manual; four-speed auto
Power: 84 hp @ 6,000 RPM
Torque: 81 lb-ft @ 4,100 RPM
Drive: Part-time 4WD
MSRP: ~$17,906+
Learn More: Here

The rental-spec Jimny I drove for a week while on vacation in Costa Rica had roll-up windows. It had patterned cloth seats that look like they belong back in 1998. It had a head unit that looked and functioned like it was pulled from an Autozone clearance bin. I’m sure higher-specification Jimnys feature slight improvements in all these areas if you’re willing to pay for them, but even so, this is, again, all irrelevant. A Jimny is not about convenience, comfort or playing music; it’s about going off-road without a fuss. Nearly three million Jimnys have been sold across the globe for this reason.

Imagine, if you will, a steep gravel incline before you; it’s pocked with large rocks and deep pits. You put the Jimny into 4WD-L, pop the shifter into first, rev the hell out of that pint-sized engine and begin to slowly crawl up the hill. You place the wheels at the crests between the road’s bumps — which you can do because the Jimny’s visibility is excellent — and ascend to the top, surefooted as a mountain goat. When you make it, you’re greeted by a lovely view of the Pacific ocean, a reward for your hard work.

About a year before traversing such a hill in the Jimny, I spent some time off-road in a $200,000 Range Rover Autobiography. (I’m reluctant to use the verb “driving” because the Autobiography pretty much did that all on its own.) I couldn’t help but think of this experience when driving the Jimny up that hill because I have no doubt the Autobiography could magically handle that road without any human input. And that fills me with existential dread. A car that can drive itself off-road only reminds me that I — a flawed meat sack of a human with hopes, dreams and fears — am woefully imperfect because a truck can drive itself better than I can. But you know what’s also imperfect? The Jimny.

The Jimny, like me, has to work to get up that hill. Nevermind that its ride-height and wheel articulation give it an advantage. It’s still a machine that requires patience, skill and hard work to wrangle into the difficult spaces you point it toward. It makes me feel far more alive than if I had done the same tricky route in a big, numb truck laden with cameras and radar. At the top of that hill is the point at which I embrace the Jimny’s imperfections. It is there when every moment behind the wheel, spent grinning like an idiot because I know it’s capable of more than the passersby think, culminates. It’s at this point that I begin to lament that this car is sold in almost every country in the world except for the United States.

Critics would likely say that the Jimny is too small, too basic, too slow and too cheap to meet the modern US car buyer’s expectations. This doesn’t seem fair — I know of plenty of small, basic, slow and cheap cars that are sold in the US. The Nissan Sentra comes to mind. Having driven a Sentra, I can confidently say that car does not redeem itself in the same way that the Jimny does, which makes its exclusion from our shores all the more unjust.

At the Geneva Auto Show this year, Suzuki is expected to roll out the fourth-generation Jimny. Spy shots indicate this will be the same little, boxy old-school off-roader it’s always been, but with a new neo-retro design. It looks delightful, frankly, but if you live in the US, your chances of driving one here are about the same as you getting struck by lightning twice on the same day you win the lottery. If you live just about anywhere else, consider yourself lucky — you can still buy one of the purest, simplest off-roaders ever made.

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