The little engine that could

19 July 2013 - 02:55 By BRUCE BENNETT

IF YOU want to do some challenging off-road driving but don't have the money, or the need, for a big bad-ass 4x4 like a Range Rover, Land Cruiser or even a Hilux, look at a used Suzuki Jimny.

It may resemble a toy car but the fact that it has a low-range gearbox should give an indication of its ability. If you're planning to take friends along, get something bigger - or maybe a couple of Jimnys, because they are relatively affordable.

Like all Suzukis, the prices have gone up since they were first introduced to South Africa. Five years ago a Jimny would have set you back just over R150000, making it the cheapest 4x4 with low range available in South Africa. Now a new one goes for R202000. These days you could pick up a used 2008 model - or even newer models - in the region of R125000 to R130000. There are not hundreds around, though.

A good used Jimny is likely to be a real gem. The 1.3-litre engine puts out only 63kW and 110Nm. But its low weight and modest dimensions, combined with a good turning circle and ground clearance, make it nimble off the beaten track; and the 4x4 and low range give it amazing bundu-bashing ability. It is hard to believe such a cute vehicle can also be so macho. It is necessary to try one in real off-road situations to see how good it is.

Don't worry about the road being in bad condition. You'll get to your destination even if there is no road.

On the highway it is a different story. If getting there is half the fun, you'll have a long time to have fun while driving to get to whatever back-of-beyond place you are headed.

The Jimny will do 140km/h, but the motor is revving at 5000rpm at that speed. Cruising at 120km/h the motor will be working hard, at 4000rpm. This is the open-road speed limit but everyone knows that, on SA highways, you have to stick to the slow lane if you're doing 120 - and you have to plan your overtaking carefully.

In city driving it has enough punch to do more than just keep up. But the car's lack of length, as well as its specialised off-road suspension, means you feel the bumps and potholes. The fuel tank is on the small side - 40 litres. You should get about 500km between fill-ups, at about 7.3l/100km. The boot is tiny, but the rear seats fold flat.

The cabin is rather basic-looking but a 2008 Jimny will come with CD/radio, aircon, electric windows and mirrors. Storage space is minimal and leg-and-headroom is not great.

A 2008 Jimny comes with ABS brakes, power steering, two airbags, alloy wheels (with the spare mounted on the side-opening rear door) - and three buttons that allow you to choose between 4x2, 4x4 and 4x4 low.

So, would I buy one? Y-e-e-es, if I was going to a hard-to-reach place with one companion and couldn't afford a Land Cruiser.

Another "low-cost" 4x4 is the Daihatsu Terios Off-road, which has a 1.5-litre motor. It's a little faster on top speed than the Jimny, but it has to work hard to do it. It is extremely capable off-road, although it doesn't have the Jimny's low-range box, and can take five occupants. The Terios doesn't have the Suzuki's cuteness factor. Also, used 4x4 off-roads seem to be even more rare than used Jimnys.