In another look at alternative kicks in the modern driving sphere, Warren Green takes a Suzuki Jimny on and off road, celebrating life at a lower but no less engaging pace
Photography by Ben Midlane
The roads are such a serious place to be these days. Cameras are everywhere, there’s non-stop roadworks, multiple average speed zones on a motorway run, and the cost seems to be ever-increasing as well. I even passed a “Community Speed Watch” point yesterday with some old dude holding a clipboard because he probably had nothing better to do, and imposing his misery on others. Add to this the impending doom of Clean Air Zones, and the Government pushing EVs on us for “the sake of the environment” (don’t get me started on that one); suddenly, looking at the roads as a fun place all starts to get a bit murky.
Yet it’s “fun” that I’ve been craving for a little while now. I refuse to believe it’s gone forever. Sure, there’s track days but the weather hasn’t been ideal for the Cup 2s on my car of late, and it’s not a cheap game to get into either. I used to love driving when big brother wasn’t casting his beady eye down on me. The feeling of jumping in the car and being able to go anywhere, finding twisty back roads to push your car on, and concentrating so much about keeping it on the straight and narrow, that all your troubles and stresses disappeared for that short period of time. It was like therapy for me, and I’m sure many others as well.
So what a breath of fresh air it was when I got behind the wheel of a Jimny recently, thanks to Premier Automotive in Rochdale. I sat in the car and this freeing sense of being able to go pretty much anywhere, roads or no roads suddenly seemed very present. The last time I felt this was when I first drove to the Isle of Man. I remember driving off the ferry and hitting the mountain just a few minutes later. With no speed limit to worry about, it felt like you owned the road. It’s not too dissimilar in the Jimny, for different reasons of course, but nobody is more surprised than me.
The first thing you notice when walking up to the Jimny is its diminutive size. It’s only 3.65m long, 1.65m wide and 1.7m tall. Length-wise that’s under 1 metre longer than a Smart car, and over 1.5 metres shorter than most other cars in this sort of sector, making it very easy to park, but yet it’s somehow still relatively spacious inside. The doors feel light but solid when you open them, and you can climb into the cabin with relative ease, as it’s not up in the sky like a Defender, although the driving position is still very commanding. Once you’re in, you start to notice the materials aren’t as bad as you’d expect. Okay, they aren’t luxurious, but they’re better than something like a Dacia Duster which is similar money.
The “Zook” feels like a proper off-roader rather than an SUV. In fact this one only has two seats as the emissions were so bad, Suzuki couldn’t afford to keep paying the EU fines and rebadged it as an LCV. Overall it’s the same car as the four seater, but it has a larger load area thanks to the missing rear bench, a steel bulkhead and a different road tax band, meaning it’s £275/year at the time of writing. It needs to be insured as a van but I personally found this cheaper than a car quote.
You start the car by physically turning a key, and the 1.5 litre petrol engine quietly fires up, purring away quietly at idle. It almost feels quite civilised, but there’s a rough and ready feel, building into that old-school, back-to-your-driving roots scenario that the car seems to ooze out of everywhere. The clutch is quite light and city-car-like, whilst the long gear lever reassuringly clicks into each of the five gears with a solid feel.
Setting off from a standstill requires a good amount of revs and I have to say I stalled the car more than once; you get used to this though. So it’s quite an unusual choice of engine as you’d expect something with more low-down torque/power (130Nm and 100bhp), but let’s not forget that this car is under £20,000. If you’re a VAT-registered business, you’ll be saving 20% on that too. Therefore I think the budget-friendly power plant is suitable, and dare I say it adds a lot of character to the whole experience. This isn’t a dynamic car, and I feel too much power could quickly overwhelm the chassis and steering, although aftermarket Supercharger and Turbocharger kits are available.
Once you’re moving, you first notice that the engine does need quite a lot of encouragement to add any kind of pace. The suspension is soft and compliant, and the brakes are surprisingly strong due to the low 1000KG kerb weight of the car. It’s when you come across a corner that things get interesting though. There’s more body roll than a Red Arrows manoeuvre, and the steering wheel turns a good 10 degrees or so before it actually starts to transfer any steering angle to the road below. To me though, this is exactly what I expected, and in fact what I’d hoped for. I hate things to be perfect, and driving around these “issues” is what gave me the most smiles during my time with the car. You actually have to concentrate when driving again. It’s not quite the level of Derek Bell on the Mulsanne Straight in a 917, but you have to have your whits about you that’s for sure. We’re all so used to modern lounges on wheels, that I actually welcome a vehicle that’s as visceral and demanding as this on a day-to-day basis.
The car features a rugged Ladder-Frame chassis meaning that on-road manners do suffer a little. There are jitters when you hit bumps, and the cabin is relatively loud, but the car is still very useable even at motorway speeds. On this matter, I drove the car to Mexico and found it quite stable at 90mph.
However it’s off-road where things get really fun. This is truly where the Jimny shines, and it just eggs on the adventurer inside you to come to the fore and go wherever your eyes direct you to. It’s freeing, and it’s interesting. It’s fun because not many other cars can go where the Jimny goes, and I tried out multiple types of surfaces to really see what the car would allow me to do.
The first thing that impressed me when taking the car off-road was the performance with the standard 195 section Bridgestone Dueler All-Terrain tyres on the 15” wheels. These are more on-road than off-road biassed, so I expected the car would limit me on loose surfaces, especially as it’s two wheel drive unless you engage one of the 4x4 modes (high or low). Yet quite often I only needed to engage four wheel drive if things got really slippy. With a careful right-foot, I didn’t come across any scenario that stopped me, but I did notice that the ratios of the low-range 4x4 mode could be a little jarring and would make the Jimny skip a little at times. It’s nothing that wouldn’t be manageable, but if you intend to off-road most of the time, it may be worth looking into reduction gears.
There’s no central diff on the Suzuki so you do need to be mindful of transmission wind-up. This is where the tension builds up in the transmission whilst four wheel drive is engaged. Basically, only use 4x4 high or low if you’re on surfaces that require it. Slippy and gravel roads etc are ideal, but if you drive it in four high/low on dry tarmac, you’ll end up causing damage at some point.
The “Zuki” drives Green Lanes like a walk in the park. Its small size, reasonable ride height and four wheel traction all help to get you from A to B with relative ease. Of course there’s many companies out there offering modifications for the car already, including front and rear locking diffs, lift kits, LEDs brighter than the sun and much more, but in reality, for 99% of the time, the standard car will be more than enough for the majority of owners.
The nice thing about this particular vehicle is that you feel you can really use it to its ability. It’s not an £80k car with lots of electronics, it’s a £20k car with everything you need, but nothing you don’t. That steel body will hammer back out if you ever dent it, and the components won’t cost a lot to replace if you damage anything. It has reasonable safety kit including forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist and auto high beams, but other than air conditioning, cruise control and electric windows, that’s not far off everything that’s featured in terms of tech. It’s simple, no-frills motoring, and with that comes worry-free fun.
There’s that word again, “fun”. It’s cliched but honestly, that’s what this car is all about. It really does remind me of the cars I had when I was younger, but with some modern advantages, and the ability to go pretty much anywhere I please, within reason of course.
However, not everything is rosey, and there are a few downsides to the Suzuki Jimny. Firstly there’s that performance, or should I say lack of, especially up-hill. There’s only a small amount of technology in the car, halogen headlamps and steel wheels rather than alloys. The upright screen is surely going to attract stone chips, and the tiny 40 litre tank is going to mean you become good friends with your local petrol station attendant pretty quickly.
None of this really matters though. In fact I feel Suzuki should be applauded for building such a fun, back-to-basics car and going against the grain. The need to rev the car and drive it through the gears is actually pretty exciting, as well as meaning you’re unlikely to be speeding through any cameras due to the level of power on offer. The lack of tech means there’s less to go wrong. The halogen bulbs can be swapped for H4 LEDs. The steel wheels can be hammered back into shape if they’re bent by rough terrain. The large, upright windscreen allows for excellent visibility, adding to the superb awareness of what’s around you due to the boxy shape.
The fuel tank though is the only thing that is an actual issue. The car was achieving around 36mpg for me throughout my 1300 mile trip, and this meant quite a few fuel stops due to the long distances, as I’d only achieve around 260 miles between fill-ups. There is an aftermarket 80 litre tank available, and of course you could always add a lightweight roof rack and look at carrying extra fuel in Jerry cans for big trips. Be aware of the grey area surrounding this though; extraneous fuel can be deemed as “hazardous” depending on the police officer that pulls you over.
When my test drive ended I was actually quite sad, so much so that I ordered a Jimny for my business. It’s the perfect daily for me and I now find myself surprisingly excited, feeling a new car chapter in my life is waiting to start. The Jimny is a glorious car when you look at it for what it is. It has fun pumping through its fuel system, and it has to be a future classic as cars like this don’t exist anymore. It’s class-leading because there’s nothing else that’s really in its class, and with only 500 per year hitting UK shores, it’s a rare car that stands out. There’s just not many cars you can say that about these days, especially at a price-point of under £20,000 on the road.
I’m not saying it’ll replace your sports car, but in this transitional period from now until combustion cars are banned in 2030, it’s a great way to find that buzz on the road that you’ve probably been missing for a while.