Small Wonder: 2018 Suzuki Jimny driven

Here’s something unexpected to kick things off: Suzuki UK simply cannot secure enough of the new Jimny from Japan to satisfy demand. We are not talking by small margins here either; at the last count it had 10,000 expressions of interest for its diddy off-roader, which is approximately six times more cars than it is able to supply on an annual basis.

Given that the previous version of the Jimny, which had been on sale basically unchanged for 20 years, had barely registered on most car shoppers’ radars, the surge in interest for the newcomer can only be attributed to its design. For here Suzuki has surely put on a masterclass in how to modernise an automotive icon, morphing its durable little off-roader into something so trendy that you’ll just as likely see one buzzing around the streets of Shoreditch as you will scrabbling through an actual ditch.

Interesting thing is, for all the progress made in the styling, this new fourth-generation Jimny is a similar vehicle to the one it replaces, in ways that are both brilliant and bad. Most importantly, it is underpinned by an updated version of the old and very strong ladder-frame chassis, and has rigid axles for maximum go-anywhere toughness. Yet is has also been subtly improved in every way as far as its off-road potential is concerned. The overhangs, for example, are even shorter, the ramp breakover angle is greater, the ride height has increased, and the body is more rigid.

The Jimny’s drivetrain can be manually switched between two- and four-wheel drive via a lever inside the car, a further shove of which engages low range gears for the trickiest of conditions. There’s a new hill descent control system to help modulate your speed into that ditch, and a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine plus an off-road optimised traction control system in order to drag you back out again.

On the subject of engines, Suzuki admits it considered using its 1.0-litre turbocharged Boosterjet for the Jimny in order to reduce emissions, but deemed the linear power delivery of the 1.5 as better for off-roading. While not the most refined of engines, with 100bhp and 95lb ft of torque there’s enough guts to it to keep you moving at a decent pace, but almost more impressive is the way it’ll pull the Jimny along at tickover even when you’re bumping up and over harsh terrain.

Which is where, of course, this car belongs. Even on standard road tyres this is a ferociously good off-road vehicle, scrabbling, hopping, skidding and bumping over pretty much any obstacle in its way.

What’s more, because the Jimny is so small it can be threaded through the narrowest of gaps, while the thin windscreen pillars, flat bonnet and windows that dip towards their front edge all help with visibility and positioning. Which, trust us, are two things that are incredibly useful when you’re halfway through a marsh with a rock-strewn, 90-degree uphill left-hander to negotiate.

Whether the Jimny is ultimately as capable as the kind of larger 4×4 that you’d traditionally associate with being brilliant off-road (think Land Rover Defender or Jeep Wrangler) is a moot point, in part because the Suzuki’s size and weight mean there are some places it’ll go that others simply won’t fit, but also because with prices starting at £15,499 it is a fraction of the price. (If that still sounds steep don’t forget you can buy a perfectly serviceable example of the third-generation Jimny for less than £2,000.)

Along with its mechanical robustness and unfailing reliability, this keen pricing is core to the Jimny’s appeal. It has, after all, always been an affordable workhorse that could be relied on to get the job done without fuss or frippery.

Where it wasn’t so accomplished was in the simple day-to-day duties where 99 per cent of cars earn their keep. It wasn’t that the Jimny couldn’t be used to buzz to the shops or schlep 90 motorway miles for that 9am meeting, just that it wasn’t at all good at it. Blame the cramped cabin, the harsh and noisy ride, woeful steering and a distinct lack of modern comfort or safety features.

The new Jimny addresses some of these weaknesses, but only to a point. It now has collision avoidance technology such as autonomous emergency braking, for example, but still only managed to score three out of five stars in Euro NCAP’s industry standard crash tests.

Similarly, while it is quieter and more comfortable than its predecessor in terms of on-road performance, it is still noisy and bumpy by the standards of almost any other small car, and the steering remains as vague as a cornered politician.

Then there’s the interior space, or rather the lack of it. The boot and rear seats, for example, essentially occupy the same area, so you can’t use both at the same time. Suzuki counters this by extolling the practicalities it has been able to provide, such as the way the controls, including the touchscreen infotainment system (complete with Apple CarPlay), can all be operated when you’re wearing gloves, or the fact that the tailgate is now wider than before to improve access to the boot. That might all be true, but a Volkswagen Up is still a more practical car.

What’s important to understand here is that rather than being inherent flaws with the Jimny, these issues are simply the compromises one must accept in order to benefit from having such good off-road performance for such a low price. Jimny owners have known as much for years and enjoyed their cars accordingly. What remains to be seen is whether the same will apply to those who are new to Suzuki’s brilliant off-roader, and ordering it for the way it looks rather than what it can do.

Whatever the case, the way Suzuki has so skilfully updated this heroic little car without harming its core appeal – or annoying its loyal customer base – is truly to be admired.

Price: Suzuki Jimny SZ4 from £15,499. As tested SZ5 £17,999
Power: 100bhp @ 6,000rpm
0-62mph: TBC
Top speed: 90mph
Fuel economy: 35.8mpg (WLTP Combined)

Suzuki Jimny Mk3
If you love the idea of the new Jimny but don’t want to wait months or maybe even years to get your hands on one, help is at hand in the shape of… the old Jimny. Truth is, while improved in an appreciable number of areas, the latest Jimny is not a vastly different car to the 20-year-old model it replaces. Both have the same ladder-frame chassis and four-wheel-drive system, and both are hilariously good fun when taken off road. In fact, you could even argue that a used Mk3 Jimny is the better vehicle for anybody wanting to venture off the beaten track for the first time, because if nothing else you probably won’t worry as much about scratching it.
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