Famously Unsafe: Suzuki Samurai

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Despite its troubled past in the US market involving rollover issues, the Suzuki Samurai (aka Jimney) continues to be a popular off-roader in many global markets.

A lot of SUV rollover cases can be attributed to bad driving practices, but the Suzuki Samurai isn't one such vehicle. The enduring legacy of the Samurai comes from a few different sources, but it was ultimately Suzuki itself who dealt the vehicle's death blow in North America. The vehicle is still built today, but it is no longer sold in North America and it goes by a different name, but even the narrow wheelbase remains unchanged. The history of the Samurai dates all the way back to 1967.

Although it has gone by many names, the primary one is also probably the stupidest, the Jimney. That isn't a misspelling of "Jimmy", it is named Jimney. The vehicle was originally built by a small Japanese automaker called the Hope Motor Company, and was called the HopeStar ON360. This actually contained a fair amount of Mitsubishi parts, but this didn't last long and although it isn't known exactly how many were built before the company was acquired by Suzuki in 1968, it is estimated to be as few as 15 units. When Suzuki took over, it immediately made some changes to the body and replaced the engine with one of its own.

Like the Mitsubishi engine, it displaced just 359cc and produced 25 horsepower. It was an air-cooled two-stroke inline two-cylinder. The small engine displacement and short length were designed to qualify the vehicle as a "kei car," a lightweight class of vehicle which receives very cheap tax and insurance rates in Japan. The Jimney would grow a bit and eventually abandon the kei car segment, but it remains quite small even today. The biggest change would occur with the debut of the second generation of the Jimney in 1981. This was the version which would make it over the to US in 1985 as the Samurai, and would also spawn the Indian version.

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This is currently known as the Maruti Gypsy King, which sounds like the name of a band that plays a terrible mix of sitar and flamenco music. When it arrived in the US, it had a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine that produced 63 horsepower. The problems for the Samurai started when a 1988 review in Consumer Reports stated that it "easily rolls over in turns". Consumer Reports had also said that this only tended to happen at higher speeds when there was a quick change of direction, say swerving to avoid hitting something. But it was still massively damaging to Suzuki's reputation. Sales fell off significantly and Suzuki would end up pulling the Samurai out of the North American market in 1995.

It sued Consumer Reports the following year, and although they would settle out of court eight years later, Suzuki probably came out looking worse. The problem was that a Suzuki internal memo from 1985 surfaced, saying "It is imperative that we develop a crisis plan that will primarily deal with the "roll" factor. Because of the narrow wheelbase, similar to the Jeep, the car is bound to turn over." The Pinto-like paper trail would have surely been even more damaging if Suzuki hadn't already pulled the vehicle out of North America. Suzuki would eventually admit to having knowledge of 213 deaths and 8,200 injuries as the result of rollover, and would settle some 200 lawsuits.

But the Jimney was popular with off-roaders, and continues to be in markets outside the US. High-speed direction changes aren't usually something you find a lot of in off-roading, and the Jimney's low price and very lightweight construction make it very appealing. A lot of off-roading enthusiasts still believe that Suzuki was cheated, and that Consumer Reports was out of line. It might be true that rollovers aren't something they dealt with a lot, but the numbers (not the mention the memo) don't lie. The current version debuted in 1998 and still sells reasonably well as a low-cost off-road vehicle.

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