ON TEST: Suzuki Jimny SZ5

On Test, Suzuki

The new Jimny has created quite a buzz since it was revealed – we’ve certainly given it plenty of page time – but now we’ve lived with one for a week we know it rather well. It’s infectious and unerringly endearing, and thusly we spent A LOT of time in it. So here’s what it’s really like.

We’ll start with the bad things about it. Don’t blink, though – this bit will be over faster than you can say ‘I want one’.

First, the paint finish is terrible. It looks fine from the outside, but under the bonnet it fades off to the point where, by the time you get to the bulkhead, you’re looking at pure body-in-white. There’s overspray in places, too. If this weren’t a new car, we’d have had ringer alarms sounding loud and clear. It’s one of the very few areas in which you can see that they’d done it on the cheap.

Secondly, the seats could do with more support under your shoulders. They’re okay, but that would make them better. The fabric in which they’re trimmed doesn’t feel very long-lasting, either.

Third, the pedals are positioned a bit oddly, with a huge gap between the clutch and brake and a tiny one between the brake and throttle – which in turn is right up against the wall of the footwell. This is presumably so you can brace the side of your foot while being bounced around by the terrain, but it means that until you get used to it, you can find yourself pressing the wrong pedal. But you’ll want to drive it that much that you’ll soon get to grips with it.

Fourth? There is no fourth.

It’s not what you’d call a comprehensive list of black marks. Not much of a case there, at any rate, for any of the seemingly infinite people who’ve been raving about the Jimny on social media since they first saw a picture of it to lose interest in it.

And boy, have they been raving. We’ve seen the odd grumpy retort from people who think they’re clever because they remember a thing called the Suzuki LJ, and the Jimny looks a bit like a modern copy of it, but it’s overwhelming: we all want one. Even the journalists on the press launch all wanted one. And most of Japan wants one, too, with a waiting list which, based on early production volumes, at one point stood at four years.

What’s the formula behind this extraordinary popularity? The Jimny’s looks have a great deal to do with it, of course – but so, we think, is the fact that Suzuki hasn’t tried to fix what wasn’t broke. It still has a ladder chassis, beam axles at both ends and a part-time transfer case that’s operated by a lever – not a button. It’s still a wholeheartedly mechanical 4×4 – and it still comes at a price that makes every one of its rivals look like a cloud floating in the sky. The entry-level SZ4 model costs £15,499, while the SZ5 is £17,999 or £18,999 with an auto box.

It’s difficult to call the Jimny a lot of car for your money – because there’s not a lot of it. But it’s definitely a lot of off-road ability for your money. AND there’s an absolute shedload of charm.

For such a compromised day-to-day vehicle to achieve such immense popularity speaks volumes for its ability to make people’s hearts rule their heads. Either that or it’s not really as compromised as you’d expect.

It’s certainly not as cramped as you’d think, especially if you’re going on what the old Jimny was like. It’s not stretch-out-and-burp spacious, but two big blokes can sit in the front without any awkward personal space issues cropping up. It’s definitely roomier than a Defender, which isn’t exactly difficult but is impressive given the dimensions of the Suzuki.

The view from the driver’s seat is good, with a nice, high position that gives you as commanding a view as is possible from such a small truck. You don’t tower over traffic the way you do in a Land Cruiser, but you certainly don’t feel invisible either. As aforementioned, the seat itself isn’t as supportive as we’d like, but it’s not a backache special and having done seven hours in it in the course of a single day, we wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

The dashboard is made from hard plastics, which is more appropriate than cheap. And they certainly don’t feel cheap, either – it’s all stout and dense, with solid build throughout and good, chunky controls. There’s a smallish media screen which is mounted in a console protruding out from the upper facia, making it look acceptably like it’s meant to be there; it’s not the best of its kind for the clarity of its graphics and interface alike, but it does the job smartly enough and lets you connect your phone through Apple CarPlay and so on.

We should add that the media system is standard only on the SZ5 model. So too, among other goodies, are alloys, LED headlights, climate control and heated front seats, all of which add up to a pretty well loaded Jimny.

Even the SZ4, however, gives you air-con, cruise control, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and front fog lamps. Which is a lot more than any version of the old Jimny could muster. This model doesn’t offer the option of an auto box, however, and it has a restricted range of paint colours, but we can certainly imagine Suzuki devotees seeing it as the one to go for. In fact, one of Britain’s best-known devotees has done just that, and you’ll see the results in these pages a few issues down the line.

Getting back to the cabin, the rear seats are predictably short on leg room. There are double-cabs with less, but don’t expect to get comfortable unless you’re either enviably young or enviably petite.

For cargo carrying, the boot space behind the rear seats is eye-openingly small. There’s a lift-up panel for access to a couple of bins beneath the floor, but you still needn’t expect to get much in there – an average visit to the supermarket, or enough recovery gear to get you out of most situations off-road, but even then you’ll have to load carefully to avoid either crushing your eggs or getting a snatch block on your toe when you open the back door.

Talking of the back door, when it opens it reveals a really big, square aperture posing almost no obstructions to getting bulky items on board. And when the back seats are folded down, they leave a flat floor with a hard, smooth surface which means the Jimny is actually quite a spectacular proposition as a miniature van. It’s a bit all-or-nothing, but if you’re in a position where you can run it as a two-seater plus cargo space the space behind you is very usable indeed.

To this end, it may be worth noting that an aftermarket van conversion is due to become available in the first quarter of 2019 – and that you’ll be able to claim your VAT back on it and/or run it as a commercial vehicle for income tax purposes. Watch this space, as they say…

If you believe some of the stuff that’s been said about the Jimny by the mainstream motoring press, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s like driving an old Series II Land Rover on the road. We’ve become used to disagreeing with others in the motoring media when it comes to off-road vehicles, and this is no different.

Around town, the Jimny is not slow. Its engine revs away happily, and its transmission whines in a sound-deadening-is-for-sissies kind of a way, but while there’s no great shove of torque it’ll still pick up its skirts without the need for any extravagant downshifts. When you do need to change gear, the box is light and precise.

Naturally, it doesn’t glide around like a Range Rover. You hear the drivetrain and you feel the bumps, but you don’t need to get upset about it. The suspension draws the sting, even if the body’s being jostled around; it’s uncouth, maybe, but absolutely not loutish.

It’s fun to steer, too, with the feeling of a direct mechanical connection to the ground. People who’d sooner be driving a hot hatch might point to a lack of feedback, but there’s certainly no shortage of feel – and once you’re used to it, you can chuck it around corners with complete confidence.

This translates into a performance on A and B-roads that’s lively, vigorous and full of fun. No, it’s not fast, and when there’s a mobile chicane to get past you need a lot of road and at least one cog drop to wind it up for a heroic overtake, but the good news is that makes 50mph absolutely hilarious. Just as it romps around joyously in town, it leans from side to side in fast corners with the sort of seat-of-your-pants verve it is very difficult to experience without breaking the law.

Being part-time four-wheel drive, you could lose the tail end if you really give it death, but that doesn’t compromise its chuckability one bit – even on wet roads. It has been slagged off for lacking grip at the ragged edge, but we’d gently suggest that it’s on beam axles and high-profile tyres for a reason. Guess what? If you try to drive it like a racer it won’t be happy. Guess what else? If you try to drive it like a racer you are wildly missing the point.

On the motorway, we expected it to be breathless, unstable and deafening. It’s none of those things. For sure, the engine is spinning away by the time you reach a real-world cruising speed (by which we mean a bit more than a slavishly obedient 70), and there will be times where you wish for a sixth gear, but even then it’s entirely possible to have a normal conversation. You’re not shouting, not straining to hear or be heard, and we say that after seven hours on board.

You don’t need to be making constant adjustments to the steering, either, and while the ride isn’t silky smooth it’s certainly not harsh. With the cruise control set and the stereo doing its thing (it’s adequate, but won’t blow your windows out), you could drive all day with no concerns.

The foregoing should be reassuring to everyone who fancies a Jimny because it’s a cool car. But the point is that it’s made for off-road use – and we’ve found that even on standard tyres, its ability to keep going in really nasty conditions is exceptional.

We’re not talking about bottomless mud, which is just a test of your tread pattern; this was in a quarry with firm ground hidden beneath a top two or three inches of saturated clay mud. In these conditions, which are typical in Britain, you want tyres about you that are lean – and the 195/80R15s that come as standard are just that.

With its light weight and four-square stance, the Jimny is easy to place on the ground. Its small proportions mean it tends not to fall into ruts created by Land Rovers, too, which is good news as clearance beneath the axles isn’t huge. What’s really noticeable, though, is just how tractable it is – not just at romping up hills with your foot to the floor, but at keeping moving, often at a snail’s pace, over ground which seems completely devoid of friction.

We’d like it if Suzuki were to put a locker in the rear axle, however. At times, when approaching the limits of articulation, we found that it would start spinning opposite wheels a little early, we’d guess as a result of its light weight. Those limits are about where you’d expect; the beam axles have enough travel to pass muster, though the real benefit they bring is in how easy they’ll make it to fit a suspension lift.

With the bigger tyres this will allow, we’d imagine you’ll use low first more or less exclusively off-road. As it is, the Jimny’s gearing is perhaps a trace on the high side; we were able to use second for general tooling about without it feeling over-geared, but hill descent control is fitted as standard and we can imagine it being pressed into service. Certainly, if you’re an old hand at the Suzuki game, you’ll know all about Rock Lobster transfer box conversions, which allow for a much deeper range of ratios in low box, and we don’t see the new model doing anything to put an end to demand for these.

Even as standard, however, you’ll be able to reach a lot of places in a Jimny. With nothing more radical than a set of mud-terrains, it will perform remarkably well off-road – we can picture it providing an excellent form of personal transport for people working in the estates or agricultural sectors (which Suzuki says is exactly what it’s built for), and if you want to wipe the floor with all comers in an FVT trial there could be no better vehicle to turn up in. This is a seriously agile, amazingly tractable and very manoeuvrable vehicle whose out-of-the-box abilities are sky-high and whose potential is almost limitless.

The new Jimny is every bit as good as it looks. And it looks amazing. It’s well made, generously equipped and more practical than you’d give it credit for – and it’s an absolutely cast-iron prospect as an everyday drive, just so long as you get what it’s about.

It should go without saying that it’s in its element off-road – and it really is. But that doesn’t come at the expense of on-road manners the way people seem to assume it does. What’s most remarkable about the new Jimny is that it’s not just good in the areas in which it’s built to specialise – it’s a sound performer in almost every way, and one which absolutely deserves the star treatment it’s being given by Britain’s 4×4 fans. If you’re in the market for a new workhorse, and rather than needing to haul and tow huge masses you need to get yourself and a boot’s worth of gear to somewhere hard to reach – there is no reason to look elsewhere. Choosing a one-tonne pick-up in that situation is taking a gun to a knife fight.