BUYERS GUIDE - WAGONS SMALL
We’ll never know, but it probably happened at the Berlitz language school in Tokyo – with a starry-eyed Suzuki junior marketing executive sitting in English class, dreaming of the day he’d be allowed to name a new model. ‘Mnemonic’ was the word that fascinated him and that was the word he’d use as the base for the new model name – ‘Jimny’.
Greco-Japlish apart – and obeying the direction of the Immortal Bard who told us that names don’t matter a sniff of rosewater anyhow – the Jimny was the replacement for the little Sierra and had more market appeal than its predecessor did. While being essentially as box-shaped as the Sierra the Jimny had much more style.
However, the original Jimny arrived in 1999, at a time when most small-4WD buyers were more interested in 4WD image than actual off-road ability, so sales were limited mainly to genuine enthusiasts. That’s how it’s stayed, with Jimny owners able to go some places that large 4WDs cannot. The Jimny is the
beachfront king and is also a brilliant mountain goat.
The 2019 Suzuki Jimny retained the core character of the original small, lightweight 4WD vehicle, after nearly 50 years of worldwide popularity.
The Jimny preserved its functional exterior and interior, body on frame construction, live axles front and rear, low-range transfer case and part-time 4WD.
Modern upgrades included Dual Sensor Brake Support (DSBS), hill descent control, lane departure warning, six airbags, high beam assist, Electronic Stability Control (ESC), traction control, reversing camera and LED headlights as standard equipment.
Its more powerful and fuel efficient 1.5-litre petrol engine had a claimed output of 75kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm of peak torque at 4000rpm, driving through a standard five-speed manual transmission or four speed automatic transmission.
The transfer case ratio was 2:1 in low-range.
Other specifications were: daytime running lights (DRLs) 178mm multi-media satellite navigation; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; reversing camera; climate control air conditioning; cruise control; Bluetooth connectivity; front fog lamps; 15-inch aluminium wheels and privacy glass.
Heritage design elements were included
in the new design, including round head lamps with independent indicators and a grille with vertical bars.
Six body colours were available, including a new kinetic yellow.
Pricing at launch in early 2019 was $23,990 RRP for the manual and two grand more for the auto. Metallic paint was an additional $500 and two-tone colour was an additional $1250.
Towing capacity remained 1300kg, with a braked trailer that had a ball weight of 75kg maximum.
The Sierra and early Jimnys used to a popular choice for motorhome owners wanting to flat-tow a runabout vehicle with an A-frame coupling, but the necessary neutral gear position in the transfer case has been deleted. There is a transmission modification available in the after-market to allow it, but then you can kiss your warranty goodbye. The Grand Vitara is now the only easy choice for A-frame towing.
On and off road
Our 2019 MY Jimny test vehicle was a manual five-speed model, with metallic blue paint and it attracted more attention from bystanders than our mate’s Ferrari. Everyone seemed to love the look of the 2019 Jimny.
Getting comfortable was easy, with interior dimensions that allowed one of our larger testers – around 120kg of him – to slot behind the wheel without difficulty. Forward and side vision was very good and a large rear-view camera screen aided the internal and external mirrors.
There were back seats, with adjustable-rake backrests, but adults would want to spend only minimal time there. Small kids would be fine and rear seat access was easy enough for them.
The seats folded flat, to form a cargo area that could hold just enough lightweight camping kit for a couple. A young family of four would need to couple up a camper trailer.
Our initial drive was on freeways, in strong wind conditions and the little two-box bodywork, with as much streamlining as a house brick, didn’t like it very much.
The engine buzzed at 3500rpm at 110km/h and, while it didn’t feel at all stressed, its fuel consumption rose well above 8L/100km. In contrast, it drank at only 7L/100km at 90km/h, which is just as well, because the fuel tank holds only 40 litres.
The combination of poor aerodynamics and a short wheelbase also made progress slightly erratic as the little Jimny moved around in the wind. A highway hauler it ain’t!
However, on secondary bitumen roads, in the 80-100km/h band, the Jimny was in its element. Somehow, Suzuki’s suspension engineers had developed a coil spring suspension package that controlled the live front and rear axles much better than most Japanese makers can deliver in heavier, longer-wheelbase wagons.
Only large cross-road ruts overcame the suspension dynamics and sent the little bombshell sideways, at which point the stability control system’s selective braking straightened it out again.
It was great fun, swapping cogs through the twisty bits, where the Jimny showed its motorcycle DNA with a nice howl from the exhaust pipe when the revs built up. Those buyers with more sedate progress in mind would be better off with the automatic, because the revvy engine does need frequent gear changes to keep it in the 3500-6000rpm sweet zone.
The Jimny also loved dirt roads and could be steered with enthusiasm, using the stability control system to correct any out of shape behaviour. It was also easy to flick it in and out of 4×4 mode through soft or slippery patches.
Off-roading was the Jimny’s forte, thanks to its compact dimensions, excellent ground clearance and deep-reduction low-range gearing. Its narrow track allowed the driver to select the optimal path in severe terrain, where larger, wider vehicles were committed to one choice.
However, water crossing enthusiasts would need to fit extended axle and transmission breathers before venturing into puddles deeper than the wheel hubs.
There was only mild traction-controlled wheelspin when the little beast lifted its wheels and nothing on our test track fazed it. Hill descent control worked well and would be a boon in the automatic-transmission model where geared braking is bound to be minimal.
We didn’t get the opportunity to beach-test it, but we know from experience that the lightweight Jimny does sand better than any other vehicle in the market.
So, the Suzuki Jimny preserves the marque’s traditional nimble handling, great economy and brilliant off-road ability, and is one of the very few vehicles that’s bush-ready, out of the box. Despite all that, the Jimny has limited market appeal.
Its very compactness is the principal limiter, because it’s best as a vehicle for two, who don’t need to take much with them. It can tow, of course, but needs to couple to a lightweight camper with no more than 75kg loaded ball weight and that’s hard to find.
1999 to 2014 models
The Jimny came with a five-year/100,000 all-vehicle warranty, so a few used examples are still within that time and distance frame.
‘Smart in city’, said the inaugural Jimny brochure, and ‘Tough in nature’. We think we know what they meant. Although still powered by a small, 1.3-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine the Jimny had more go than the Sierra. The difference was eight more valves in the head, giving the under-square (74mm bore x 75.5mm stroke) donk more breathing power at higher revs. Output went up to 59kW at 6000rpm – formerly 47kW – while torque barely changed – 104Nm compared with 100Nm previously.
A 2005 upgrade included a four-speed automatic transmission option, a 62.5kW/110Nm VVT engine needing premium 95 RON unleaded and a button-operated 4Wd system. The Jimny’s bodywork was built from steel panels with plastic bumpers and lower door mouldings. The body sat on a ladder frame, with coil-sprung, telescopically-damped live axles front and rear. Disc brakes were fitted to the front axles and drums at the back.
Inside there were two bucket seats up front and two split-folding rears. Changes to the rear seat also allowed fold-down in a single action, for greater luggage space. Base-model JX variants had vinyl floor mats and unassisted ball and nut steering.
JLX models came with carpets, power steering, windows and mirrors, central locking, door pockets, body-coloured mouldings and bumpers, and roof rails. The standard wheels were steel, shod with 205/70R15 tyres. Air conditioning and aluminium wheels were optional on both versions.
A four-speed automatic was available on the JLX version. That’s pretty much how the Jimny remained; until October 2014, when it was given a makeover.
New 15-inch aluminium wheels and electronic stability control (ESC) were added as standard features. Other enhancements included a new meter cluster, seat upholstery and steering wheel design.
Pricing for the 2015 Jimny started at $20,990.
On and off road
On road the Jimny could be enormous fun, because it weighed bugger all: 1100kg one-up. That gave the little Jimny a power to weight ratio about the same as that of a V6 4WD wagon, with a lot less inertia. Traffic light grands prix could cause others much embarrassment and if you lost, who cared?
It was great around town on dry roads, but the Jimny wasn’t so composed when things got bumpy and slippery. The little rocket bump-steered from whichever end got the input and there was no full-time 4WD to help with traction. The Jimny wasn’t a serious highway cruiser because it needed to be kept above the peak torque of 4500rpm for constant performance and that soon became tiring.
Dirt roads were fun if you knew what you’re doing and if the surface was loose enough to allow 4WD engagement. (There’s no centre diff so you can’t run in 4WD on high-friction surfaces without risking transmission damage.)
Off road the Jimny had limitations. It ripped along on sand, but needed a boot-full of revs in soft stuff and the noise level could be annoying after a while. On rocky trails the combination of too-tall low-range gearing, short wheel travel and open front and rear diffs provoked plenty of wheelspin, while the firm suspension and short wheelbase set up choppy progress. It would be difficult to foul up the ergonomics in a vehicle as small as the Jimny, provided the designer treated the project as a two-seater with occasional rear seat accommodation, and that’s apparently what was done. Most front seat occupants found there was adequate space and comfort.
The Suzuki Jimny was a well-made, well-pedigreed small 4WD that should appeal to more punters than the plain-Jane Sierra did. It’s no RAV three-door around town, but it doesn’t have the RAV’s price tag.
Previous models – Suzuki Sierra
The Sierra SJ was introduced in 1981, following the success of the earlier LJ10 two-stroke model. Although the 540cc two-stroke model had woeful on-road performance, it was brilliant in the bush, combining light weight, compact dimensions and deep gearing.
When Suzuki upgraded the machine by introducing a 970cc, four-stroke engine and stretching the gearing, the on-road performance was improved, but bush ability declined.
In 1984, a 1.3-litre engine option was offered. Badge-engineered Holden Drovers were really Sierras and all had the 1.3-litre engine. The engine was refined in 1989 and had a slight displacement change from 1324cc to 1298cc.
In 1996, the Sierra was given new bodywork and all-coil suspension. The appearance didn’t change much, but the old and new panels aren’t interchangeable. There were two Sierra wagon models: soft-top and hard-top.
Competition for the Sierra came from the Lada Niva and then from the base model Rocsta, but both these brands failed to proceed. A carburettored, eight-valve 1.0-litre or 1.3-litre engine wasn’t going to put anything into orbit, so even with the Sierra’s modest one-tonne weight, you had to stir the stick and use the right foot to get it to buzz.
Handling was something the leaf-sprung Sierra never had, thanks to stiff springs, narrow track and a short wheelbase.
Progress over any surface rougher than an internationally-rated airstrip was a series of jerks, while the pilot swung the wheel this way and that, aiming his charge.
The poor ride of leaf-sprung versions wasn’t helped by thinly padded, vinyl-covered seats. We’ve driven Sierras with after-market suspensions that soften the ride marginally, but there’s a limit to what can be achieved.
The coil-sprung model was a different kettle of fish entirely. The softer springs soaked up most bumps without any unwanted steering effect, so the driver was free to exploit the much lower roll centres that coil suspension brought.
A post-1996 Sierra cornered in the dry like most similar-age front wheel drive sedans and had the advantage of 4WD traction when the ground turned slippery or loose. However, it didn’t handle like a RAV4 on wet and loose surfaces.
Off-road gearing was the main off road limitation. With only 30:1 reduction in low-low (it should have been at least 40:1) the Sierra didn’t like steep stone shelf climbing. Its forte was sand, where the combination of light weight and greatly improved side-slope stability could be exploited to the envy of other 4WD owners.
The dashboard and controls functioned well, with everything easily scanned and reached. The rear seats were for really good mates over short distances, but the seriously inclined whipped ’em out to get the fridge and the fishin’ gear in the back.
Noise, vibration and harshness weren’t at the top of Suzuki’s priority list, so the little Sierra let you know when it was working. The front axle added slightly to driveline vibration when the hubs were locked.
The Suzuki Sierra was a blast from the past and a welcome change from the sleekly-styled small 4WD wagons that now proliferate.
You can replace a busted Sierra headlight for a few bucks at any auto-electrical shop, chuck wet fish in the back without staining carpet and hose it out at the end of the day. It’s this beach-friendliness that causes many Sierras and Jimnys to have cancer, so have a real good look at a prospective purchase.
Mechanically, there’s nothing radically wrong with Sierras and Jimnys, other than old age in cheaper examples.
There’s not much point trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and there’s no way you’ll convert a used Sierra or Jimny into a plush highway cruiser. Both vehicles are best kept for short journeys into the scrub or onto beaches.
We’ve heard of successful engine swaps – the Corolla engine is a popular Sierra repower – but make sure you match the new engine with a larger radiator, plus a taller overdrive or axle gearing, or larger diameter tyres.
If you want to turn your Suzuki into a world-class rock hopper there is a choice of crawler gear sets available, with low range reduction as high as 6:1.
Additional ground clearance can be gained by fitting taller coil springs and longer shocks, or by under-slinging the axles on leaf-sprung models. However, don’t be tempted into a lift above 50mm if you want to keep your road registration.
An engine swap, tyres greater than five percent over standard diameter or a high lift will require an engineer’s certificate for road rego in most States.