Motoring

Suzuki Jimny: the evolution of the little 4x4 that could

We get behind the wheel of several incarnations of this Japanese off-roader to see how things have changed since it first debuted in the 1970s

10 January 2021 - 00:01
The evolution of the Suzuki Jimny.
The evolution of the Suzuki Jimny.
Image: Supplied

The Suzuki Jimny is to the 4x4 fraternity what the Mazda MX-5 is to the sports-car world. For the uninitiated, the diminutive size and simplistic approach adopted by either might elicit a condescending chuckle. Those in the know are aware that both are pedigreed horses that excel in their respective courses.

There is good reason why the Japanese off-roader is mentioned in the same breath as other legendary box-shaped machines with basic constitutions designed for overlanding purposes. Land Rover Defender, Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, Jeep Wrangler and Mahindra Thar. All hugely capable - but bring a Jimny to a muddy jamboree and you might just be surprised at the upstaging that could ensue.

Bring a Jimny to a muddy jamboree with the Defender, Geländewagen, Wrangler and Thar and you might just be surprised at the upstaging that could ensue

Everyone loves it when the little guy wins. And that dynamite-in-small-package factor is why it is easy to have a soft spot for the Suzuki, which celebrated its 50th last year.

We recently explored the heritage of the breed at a special outing in the North West. From past to present, each iteration of the Jimny was presented before us for evaluation.

THEN

Genesis is marked with the LJ10 series in the year 1970. The automaker basically mimicked the philosophy espoused by the war-hardened Willys MB utility vehicles, but in shrunken form.

We drove a cheerful, yellow 1976 example of the generation, which by that time had evolved sufficiently to warrant a new moniker: LJ50. The numbers are amusing. You get a 539cc petrol engine with three cylinders, outputting 24.5kW and 52Nm. Probably less than what an electric kitchen whisk makes. It weighs a modest 670kg.

But my smirk became a scowl after depressing the clutch, which is as heavy as bricks. It might look like a toy, but the LJ50 needs some manhandling for it to go.

The accelerator had to be mashed to extract the most from the meagre two-stroke motor and the unassisted steering wanted to be muscled. Finding the gears in its four-speed transmission required stirring, with a vague feel through the gates. Without safety-belts (or a roof), the prospect of rolling imbued me with fear.

But in the excitement of trundling up a rocky countryside hill, notions of peril are forgotten and the plucky LJ50 makes progress like a confident mountain goat. Grins are worn on the faces of both occupants. Four wheels, a seat, virtually no electronics or creature comforts, it represents a purity that one will rarely experience.

By contrast, the SJ410 of 1981 errs on the plusher side. We have safety-belts this time, and an Autodek radio system with rotary dials. Weight has gone up (890kg) but so has power. A 970cc petrol with four cylinders delivers 33kW and 74Nm. It has a wonderfully tactile, analogue feel, with gearshifts that snick into place so satisfyingly, my colleague wanted to record a sound clip for use as his message notification tone.

The follow-up SJ413 (1984) is a bit less endearing somehow. Yes, it has a meatier displacement (1,324cc); but the zesty, energetic sense that warmed us up to its forebear appeared to have waned. This time, a five-speed manual facilitates transfer of the quoted 45kW and 96Nm.

In 1998, when the JB43 series was launched, Suzuki wanted to make the Jimny a more viable daily driver. The model received a host of luxuries its predecessors went without. It gained air-conditioning, coil springs (the old versions were equipped with the leaf variety) and a new engine. It weighed just 10kg more than the SJ413 and packed a 1,298cc unit good for 63kW and 110Nm. It felt like a Rolls-Royce compared to that hardy, rudimentary old LJ50.

NOW

And that brings us to the present model: the JB74. A whole lot more grown-up from a refinement perspective, with treats like a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a touch-screen infotainment system. But that is not to infer it has gone soft.

Four-wheel drive, low range and a 210mm ground clearance allows it to trek through just about anything you will encounter in the wild. The 1,462 petrol four-cylinder is rated at 75kW and 130Nm.

But in addition to the capability and cuteness factor, the attainability of the Jimny remains a major calling card. With prices starting from R307,900, it remains one of the most accessible ways to get in to the authentic 4x4 fold.

The biggest downside has to be its road manners. For all the strides the model has made in its evolution, it is still a fidgety thing at speeds north of 100km/h. Still, cruising in the slow lane gives others more of a chance to admire and coo affectionately.