When most Aussies these days buy a four-wheel drive, it seems that the bigger and more feature-packed they are, the better. Dual-cab utes the size of aircraft carriers and SUVs jam-packed with gizmos are what most seem to be going for, and the car companies are more than happy to keep providing. Remember when locking hubs were the cool thing to have? Now a Land Rover Discovery will automatically detect exactly what surface you’re driving on and make minute adjustments to all of the car’s systems to account for it.
Quite frankly, you don’t actually need any of that in reality as the car you see here – the all-new fourth-generation Suzuki Jimny – clearly proves as the cheapest road-legal off-road vehicle you can buy. It might look absolutely adorable on the surface, but it’s every bit the rugged off-roader the big boys are and shows just how little you really need all the off-roading gadgets most seem to think they need.
Priced from $23,990, the Jimny comes in just one guise for the Australian market – GLX spec in wide-body form, which is known as the Jimny Sierra in its home market of Japan – with a very short list of options including an automatic transmission and various single and two-tone paint options. It’s that simple, because this is a car that’s really meant to be.
On the inside, it’s certainly been paired back to the bare basics, not that it’s a bad thing if, like me, you value simplicity. Simple climate controls with two dials for temperature and fan speed, a simple gauge cluster with only a small screen to provide you with fuel consumption data, and a feature-packed but simple to operate infotainment system with sat nav and smartphone mirroring.
That’s about all you’re getting, however, as in every other regard, it doesn’t really have much else in there. The stereo has just two surprisingly loud speakers to cover the whole car, the four-wheel drive system is operated by a simple and dependable lever with no electronic wizardry, there aren’t any buttons or toggle switches on the door cards, the seats are fairly firm and simply go forwards and backwards with no excessive adjustment options, and not a single material would even come close to qualifying as soft-touch.
There are two very good reasons for this though. One is, perhaps rather obviously, to strictly keep it to its ultra-affordable price-point, but the other is because this is a proper off-roader. Who wants plush carpet and fine leather when you’re going to drive this in a pair of muddy gumboots? Nobody is the obvious answer to that, because what you want is an interior that will be as easy to clean as the Jimny is to drive off-road. And who wants to fuss over gauges telling them what sort of an incline they’re on or how much wheelspin they’re getting when you’re actually busy driving the thing? Again, nobody. All you need is a steering wheel, three pedals, and a couple of levers to have all the fun you could ever want in this thing.
A mere 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine lies under the bonnet of the Jimny, although its a significant improvement over the 1.3-litre unit the third-gen model came with. Producing just 75kW and 130Nm, it’s available with either a seemingly ancient four-speed torque converter automatic or a five-speed manual, the latter of which the car tested here was fitted with.
While I did drive an automatic Jimny for another publication earlier in the year shortly after its launch, the manual is the only way to go as I see it. I don’t just say that as a manual fanboy, because I’m not, it’s just that it really does transform the way that this little thing drives.
With the taller ratios of the four-speed auto doing their best to hinder the Jimny’s already limited performance, the manual feels far punchier by comparison. Although in fifth gear at freeway speeds it still sits at the same dizzying 3500rpm – not that its constantly jiggly ride and shed-like aerodynamics make it any less dizzying to begin with when a crosswind hits, which is a constant occurrence on Adelaide’s South Eastern Freeway – the shorter ratios make a world of difference when trying to extract what power it has to offer, especially around town where it helps to no end with darting through traffic.
Combine the manual’s extra punchiness with a light and predictable clutch pedal feel, a tight turning circle, tight proportions, and excellent visibility thanks to its big windows and high driving position, and its easy to see why so many people will end up using these as city cars, because it’s perfectly fit for the task.
But when you look next to the shifter and see a proper mechanical four-wheel drive selector, you remember that this thing is far more at home in the countryside. With a proper dual-range transfer box, coil-sprung live axles front and rear, and 210mm of ground clearance, it’s got all the right gear, and thankfully, it knows what to do with all of it, too.
Although it lacks locking differentials and rides on highway-terrain tyres as standard, it’s shockingly capable through even the roughest terrain. Sure, a little wheelspin will occur on looser surfaces – some decent all-terrain or mud tyres alone would make a world of difference here – but not once on any surface I pitted this little thing against did it show even the faintest sign of getting stuck.
Up loose rocky inclines, through grass up to its windowsills, on sand, and through water and mud, it never feels like it’s breaking a sweat, especially since the low-range gearing is so low that it makes this 130Nm engine that normally seems more akin to a sewing machine feel beefy and effortless, with minimal throttle input required to keep it going along nicely.
What makes the Jimny a great city car also bears a lot of relevance on its off-road performance too, as it’s tight turning circle and stubby length make it perfect for fitting through tight gaps between trees that would thwart the five-metre dual-cab utes and SUVs most Aussies gravitate towards for off-roading these days.
But above its sheer off-roading abilities and confidence, the Jimny is, quite simply, fun to drive through the rough stuff. Whether on a farm track or in muddy pit, you’ll be smiling the whole time you’ve got this thing in four-wheel drive with mud flinging up the sides of it, and I promise you that few other cars in any class will put as big a grin on your face as the Jimny can and will.
So it looks like a pretty good bet then, the little Jimny, right? Sure, its on-road performance might leave a little to be desired, but it’s incredibly adept and a real joy to drive off-road, comes with the peace of mind of a five-year warranty and top-notch Japanese build quality (it is actually made in Japan, unlike the rest of Suzuki’s Hungarian and Indian-made lineup), and it’s dirt cheap to top it all off.
Well, I only have one real word of warning when it comes to buying a Jimny, and that’s that if you want one, you better be prepared to wait to get it. Chatting with the staff at the Adelaide dealership I picked my tester up from, they told me that there at least, customers were facing wait times of up to 12 months, with over 40 interested customers who’ve put down deposits still waiting for a car. With Australia often competing with Britain and Japan for right-hand drive stock, this is a problem that’s becoming more and more common, with other cars like the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and BMW X7 also facing long wait times due to supply limitations, although only around half that of the Jimny.
With demand also comes potential price mark-ups from dealerships – earlier this year, some dealerships were charging premiums of up to $10,000 to get one earlier – so I ought to throw it out there that it pays to shop around for the best deal, even if you’re still paying over list price.
But if you ignore this tiny issue that has nothing to do with the actual performance of the car itself, there’s not really anything that would discourage anyone from buying one of these little things.
If you need to take the freeway to get to work, want the last word in audiophile-quality audio systems, value premium cabin materials, and enjoy tight sports car-like handling, there will definitely be better cars for you out there, but given this is, at the end of the day, a niche vehicle, the sort of people who will want one will buy one regardless of what I say as the supply-versus-demand issue clearly shows.
The main thing is that the Jimny does exactly what it says on the tin, and that’s what really matters. I guarantee not one person who buys one of these will be disappointed by it… when they eventually get it, but when they finally do, you can expect to see all of them with permanent grins painted across their faces.
2019 Suzuki Jimny GLX Manual List Price: $23,990 | As Tested: $24,490
Pros: Displays great confidence off-road despite lack of locking diffs, low-range gearing makes all the difference, looks fantastic, great shifter and clutch feel
Cons: Jiggly and unsettled ride, feels underpowered on the open road, feels basic inside, you’ll be waiting a while to get one
In a nutshell: It might not be the greatest car ever made, but it’s one that’ll easily be worth the wait to get your hands on.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Suzuki Australia for a week with a full tank of petrol.