Fourth-gen Suzuki Jimny may be too good at what it does best.
On a recent trip to South Africa, we had the opportunity to drive the venerable Suzuki Jimny for a few days. For those of you who don't know why this is a pretty big deal, the recently launched fourth-generation Jimny is not available in the US but is selling like hotcakes across the rest of the globe, and with good reason; it's an unstoppable off-road force.
Suzuki has been selling the Jimny in one shape or another since 1970, and the last time we could buy a new one Stateside was in 1995, a year after the release of the original Lion King movie. The Suzuki SJ410, or Samurai as we knew it, was sold in the States from 1985 and has since gained a cult following among the off-roading fraternity. The little Japanese truck was loved for its nimble off-road performance, not to mention the fact that it was an actual 4x4 with a transfer case and selectable high and low range gearing.
We first got a glimpse of the new car back in 2018 when Suzuki brought over an official test car for the World Car Awards event held in Pasadena, California, but unfortunately the waiting line for the Jimny (which has an uncanny resemblance to the Mercedes G-Class) was twice as long as the one for the BMW M5, so we never got an opportunity to get behind the wheel.
Fast forward to July 2019 and we're in Johannesburg, South Africa, probably the perfect place to put a small off-road runabout through its paces. Before taking the Jimny to a 4x4 track, we drove along suburban streets, freeways and pot-holed backroads that can swallow the bite-sized Jimny whole.
On the road, the Jimny has come lightyears from the days of the Samurai, a car which in all honestly was merely a rebranded death wish. The small offroader still uses a ladder frame chassis setup, which explains the jello-like wobble every time you shut the door (or breathe next to it) but on the road, it feels surprisingly composed. The 1.5-liter naturally aspirated engine pushes out around 100 hp and our test car came with the four-speed auto box that felt a bit slushy around town but proved to be quite nippy off the line. Getting up to cruising speed is no problem, and at 75 mph the little Suzuki will happily hum along at 3,500 rpm. Despite a buzzy engine and moderate wind noise, you could easily take it on long road trips, although it should be said that pushing the Jimny past 75 is not a pleasure.
So while the Suzuki Jimny impressed us with its surprisingly comfortable road-holding abilities, we knew that the best part was yet to come; as soon as those little 15-inch alloys hit the dirt, you realize why Suzuki builds these little Lego bricks on wheels, and why people across the world love them so much.
We chose the popular Hennops 4x4 trail, located 20 miles north of Johannesburg as our testing ground. The 6-mile trail varies in difficulty from beginner to advanced obstacles, and we were keen to see if we could conquer them all. Accompanying us on this drive was a highly modified Toyota Land Cruiser, just in case the Jimny bit of more than it could chew.
The Jimny, which drives the rear wheels when not in 4x4 mode, handles rutted dirt roads like nothing else we've driven in the States (for its size and price) and all body wobble is forgiven when you experience the way the Jimny soaks up bumps and grooves in the hard African soil. The first obstacle we encountered was a classic axle twister, which the Jimny took in its stride; stick it in four high, point and shoot. The brake-based limited-slip differential keeps traction in check, and all that is required of the driver is to point the steering wheel in the direction of the trail arrows.
The next challenge is a slippery and steep descent down a rocky hill that requires a shift into low range and a flip of the hill descent control switch. The auto gearbox does a great job of limiting engine speed in low range, but with the hill descent control activated, the car feels overly assisted, and the natural downhill crawl of the Jimny slows down even more, occasionally interrupted by an artificial jab of the brakes. What this means in real-world terms is that anyone with two hands and one foot can navigate the new Jimny down some seriously gnarly terrain.
At the bottom of the hill, we're greeted by a 50-foot long mud pool. Another offroader in a Toyota Hilux pickup (the South African equivalent of our Tacoma) had just completed the muddy obstacle and was waiting on the other side with a smug look on his face. Little did he know that the Jimny loves a good mud face mask.
The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine provides loads of bottom-end torque in low range and makes quick work of the muddy mess lying in front of us. Things are made even easier by the fact that there are no manual gear changes involved. The boxy shape of the car serves as the perfect mud canvas, and by the time we came out the other side, the gray Jimny sported a two-tone safari look. The rest of the day is spent chasing down the Hilux and sniggering every time the long-wheelbase Toyota gets caught up on a sharp rock or fails to clear a sharp break over. The Jimny simply rolls over everything put in its path without any fuss.
Suzuki has managed to refine the Jimny to a point where it can now be considered a credible daily commuter. But there is no way of hiding the fact that behind the cute new exterior looks and interior upgrades lies a true hardcore offroading machine that likes to wobble, buzz, and embarrass much bigger and more expensive offroading machines.
A manual transmission might shake things up a bit, but we found that with the automatic transmission, the Jimny makes things a little too easy and takes a lot of the thinking out of driving over scary objects. If Suzuki ever decides to re-enter the US market with its four-wheeled offerings, expect to see a bunch of red-faced Ford F-150 Raptor and Jeep Wrangler owners lining your local off-road trails.