First Drive: 2020 Suzuki Jimny

Compared with many of today’s compact SUVs the 2020 Suzuki Jimny is slow, crude, and cramped. It drives a lot like a mid-’80s rear-drive Japanese car. But it’s also so honest and unpretentious, so full of character and charm, and so surprisingly capable at doing what it was designed to do that it makes you smile every time you slide behind the wheel, something that’s unlikely to ever happen getting into a Toyota RAV4 or Chevy Equinox.

In today’s fast-paced, ultra-connected, digitally enhanced automotive world, the Suzuki Jimny is one of life’s simple pleasures.

It’s a simple pleasure with a complicated back story, though. Our Jimny tester was one of the last in the Suzuki U.K. press fleet, as the vehicle has been withdrawn from sale—less than two years after its launch—so Suzuki can meet stricter European passenger vehicle fleet average emissions targets in 2021. And it’s forbidden fruit for U.S. consumers, Suzuki having abruptly exited the American market in 2012 (unless Toyota suddenly comes to the rescue with a harebrained but technically plausible plan we concocted). All is not lost, however: A two-seat version with steel wheels and basic interior trim is coming to Europe next year to be sold as a commercial vehicle.

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The 2020 Jimny traces its roots back 50 years, to a tiny, Jeeplike 4×4 called the LJ10. Launched in April 1970, the Suzuki Jimny LJ10 had a ladder-frame chassis, leaf-sprung live axles front and rear, and a selectable four-wheel-drive system with a low-range transfer case and no center differential. It was powered by an air-cooled, two-stroke, two-cylinder engine that displaced a mere 360cc and produced a breathless 25 hp. It would do 47 mph, flat out. But with a curb weight under 1,400 pounds, it would scamper over rocks and through mudholes like a mountain goat.

Fast-forward half a century, and the Jimny still has a ladder-frame chassis, live axles front and rear, and selectable four-wheel drive with a low-range transfer case. It still looks a bit like a baby Jeep. Some things have changed, however. The front and rear axles are now coil sprung. Under the hood is a water-cooled 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine whose spark plugs fire every fourth piston stroke. The engine makes four times the power of the LJ10’s tiny two-stroke but only takes the fourth-generation Jimny to about twice the top speed. Blame frontal area and weight: The 2020 Jimny is 13.7 inches wider and 2.2 inches taller than the LJ10 and weighs almost twice as much.

It still scampers through the rough stuff, though.

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That’s because the Jimny—143.5 inches long, 64.7 inches wide, 67.9 inches tall, and weighing just 2,500 pounds—is incredibly small and light by 21st century standards. And it has a chassis designed for serious off-roading. Ground clearance is 8.3 inches, and minimal overhangs deliver a 37-degree approach angle and 49-degree departure angle. Breakover angle is 28 degrees. For context, a two-door Jeep Wrangler is 23.3 inches longer, 9.2 inches wider, 5.7 inches taller, and is 1,500 pounds or more heavier, depending on model. In Rubicon spec, the two-door Wrangler boasts a better approach angle than the little Suzuki—43 degrees—and has the same breakover angle, but its 37-degree departure angle is worse.

The Jimny’s 1.5-liter four-banger develops 100 hp at 6,000 rpm and 95 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm and drives through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. It’s a thrummy little engine, but a willing worker and happiest if you keep it spinning at 2,000 rpm or more. The manual Jimny will bowl along the freeway at 70-75 mph all day long, the engine turning 3,400-3,600 rpm in fifth gear. The ride is what you’d expect from a relatively tall, narrow, light vehicle with a short wheelbase and live-axle off-road suspension: busy, with plenty of fore-aft pitch motions.

Control weights—steering, braking, clutch—and shift feel of the five-speed manual transmission are vintage late-’80s Japanese, light and slick. And although the Jimny is always jitterbugging about on anything other than a perfectly smooth road, it feels as tight as a drum, with none of the subtle shimmies and shudders you often notice in a body-on-frame vehicle. The least sophisticated element of the on-road drive experience is the transfer case noise. It’s not the high-pitched whine that used to blight old Defenders, but more of an industrial white noise, loud enough to mask the engine note at cruising speeds.

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Activating the Jimny’s 4WD system requires successive tugs on a stubby lever behind the shifter to get the driveline out of two-wheel drive and into high-range 4WD and then low-range 4WD. Pull the lever back from 2H to 4H—at speeds up to 62 mph—and a light on the dash tells you 4WD is engaged. Selecting 4L, which engages a 2.00:1 reduction gear in the transfer case, requires coming to a full stop, just like in Jeeps, Land Rovers, and Toyota Land Cruisers. An audible beep lets you know you’re good to go, and warning lights on the dash show the stability control and forward collision alert are disabled. The 4.43 first gear, 4.09 final drive, and 2.00:1 reduction gear gives the Jimny a crawl ratio of 36.2:1 in low range. Nowhere close to a Wrangler Rubicon, but again, it weighs substantially less.

The Jimny’s 4WD driveline has no center diff; the front and rear axles are locked together in both 4WD modes. But it isn’t entirely old school, having “virtual” front and rear limited-slip differentials, as well. If the wheels diagonally opposite each other break traction, the brake on each electronically activates to stop it spinning and ensure maximum torque goes to the wheel that has traction. It’s an ingeniously simple, low-cost solution to an off-roading scenario that has caught out more than a few experienced drivers over the years.

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Dependable traction, light weight, good ground clearance, and compact dimensions make the Jimny a better performer off-road than its engine’s modest power and torque figures would suggest. Serious off-roaders would like more axle articulation, and the standard issue 15-inch wheels and 195/80 Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires are definitely road-biased, but both issues are easily fixed with aftermarket lift kits and wheel/tire combos.

Ironically, the same qualities that endow the Suzuki Jimny with solid off-road capability make it a surprisingly good city vehicle, especially in somewhere like London, where streets are narrow and traffic is heavy. All-round visibility is very good, and the Jimny’s slab sides and square corners make squeezing through tight gaps between cars and trucks a breeze. At 3.8 turns lock to lock, the steering feels a little low-geared, but the tough suspension and tall sidewall tires shrug off gnarly cobbled streets and rim-crunching potholes.

The interior is, like the drivetrain, a mix of ’80s Japanese hardware and 21st century technology. The seats are cloth and manually adjusted, and there’s a tiny information screen jammed between a speedo and tach whose orange graphics were hip when David Lee Roth quit Van Halen. The first time. But standard equipment on the top-of-the-range SZ5 also includes modern goodies such as cruise control, lane departure and forward collision warning, smartphone connectivity, and a nav system with traffic updates. Air conditioning, power windows, and privacy glass are also standard on the SZ5, which in the U.K. retailed for the equivalent—on today’s exchange rates—of about $25,000.

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What makes the Suzuki Jimny so oddly appealing—apart from its off-road chops and chunky industrial-chic design—is that it’s… a real driver’s car. Whereas in most modern SUVs you’d be bored and frustrated tooling along at the speed limit on a winding road, in the Suzuki you’re deeply engaged in the art of driving. You’re mindful of momentum, of making sure you have the right gear at the right time, working to steer and brake smoothly, and watching for lumps and bumps in the road that might catch the chassis out. It’s a bit like driving a classic car. Suddenly, the world seems a calmer place; the frenetic pace of modern life slightly eased.

Yes, the simple pleasures in life are often the best.

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