LOOKING BACK: We take a spin in the Suzuki Jimny and its four ancestors
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JOHANNESBURG - Mention Suzuki Jimny and the first thing that comes to mind is probably cute and cheerful.
I suppose that's one way to describe it but it's a lot more than that and belies an offroad heritage that goes back to 1970 with believe it or not, a motorcycle two-stroke 360cc engine under the bonnet. As now, it had a ladder-frame chassis, solid axles and leaf-spring set-up.
That original little three seater was called the Suzuki LJ10 (Light Jeep 10). Six years later it became a toddler (LJ 50) with a 539cc two-stroke engine and 11 years after that a 797cc four-cylinder, four-stroke engine made its way into the LJ pushing out 33kW and 74Nm.
South Africans first noticed the little Jeep in the early 1980s with its unmistakable square shape and mostly red paintwork when the Japanese company introduced the SJ410 with a 970cc engine.
In 1983 that was upgraded to the SJ413 with a 1.3 litre mill with 45kW and 96Nm of torque. That's the one most South Africans were familiar with and also happens to be one that I drove for a good few years just after the turn of the last century.
At that stage a group of us were buying and selling cars and 4x4s like it was going out of fashion both from dealers and each other. I eventually ended up with the red SJ that gave many hours of (noisy) pleasure, towing small boats, empty horse boxes, building rubble as well as regular 4x4 outings.
I eventually sold it to a friend in the Natal Midlands and he then moved it along to a farmer in the area and last reports still had it going strongly on mostly dirt roads.
But it was the third generation that Suzuki introduced in South Africa in 2008 as the Jimny (derived from mini Jeep) that had South Africans sit up and take notice.
It had a new coil-spring set-up to make it more comfortable on the road, auto locking front hubs, a dial to switch between 2WD, 4WDH and 4WDL and it was fitted with a 1.3 litre engine producing 63kW. Suzuki retained the traditional solid front axle which made it one of only a handful of 4x4s fitted with it.
It soon became a favourite of many whether you owned one or not and quickly had a cult status as it easily tackled some of the toughest obstacles along with the bigger more powerful traditional offroad vehicles.
It was only in 2018 that a new Jimny was launched to much fanfare and it maintained its place among the sales charts and continued to woo new owners so much so that there is a waiting list.
The latest generation is powered by a 1.5-litre petrol engine with 75kW and 139Nm of torque and is fitted with either a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed auto box and again it has thankfully kept the solid front axle.
It’s fitted with all the modern electronic safety and stability controls as well as a brake-enabled Limited Slip Differential and traction control which makes it even more capable offroad than its predecessor.
We recently had the opportunity to drive almost the entire range courtesy of Suzuki and owners and it certainly hasn’t lost any of its appeal.
My driving partner and I started with the latest generation, which managed to trot over the obstacles with no fuss. It's comfortable offroad and not having tested one previously, I was impressed by its finishes and ease of access to dials and switches although, like my Defender, you tend to sit very close to the door because of the vehicle's size and not because it’s a design that didn’t change for seven decades.
Next up was the little SJ 410 which was still stock standard and surprisingly after all the years the gearbox felt incredibly smooth and the engine still very willing. The interior as you can imagine is sparse with almost no creature comforts but I doubt the designers had long road trips and heavy loads in mind when they designed it and because of its power to weight ratio and offroad gearing it proved very willing over obstacles.
The fun session of the day though was the two-stroke LJ 50. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a two-stroke, especially as a youngster with little 50cc motorcycles pouring out smoke from modified exhausts as we tried to squeeze every bit of power screaming into the redline.
It’s very basic to be sure but it has a low range transfer case, no roof, no interior panels, the speedometer is a general indication as is the steering which more or less goes in the direction you point it and changing gears a bit like a wooden spoon in a pot of porridge.
But it went everywhere its siblings went, even through some deep water without any trouble or mechanical issues.
Next up was the SJ413 which welcomed me like an old friend although the owner had put in some niceties such as an aircon and a decent music system. The floors were still uncovered, which would allow for an easy hose down after a day on dusty tracks and mud. The big steering wheel was as woosey as ever but in low range there wasn’t much that would stop it. They’re still popular if you can lay your hands on one and it’s not unusual to see them being towed behind big camper vans to be used as a runabout.
Finally the Jimny that people have grown to love and respect. It was the auto version and an auto 4x4 would always be my choice. It’s easier to take on obstacles, less jarring on the mechanics and you don’t have to worry about stalling the engine.
It’s not very spacious inside but it’s to be expected and you’d have to pack very conservatively if there were more than two of you or tow a trailer for long hauls.
A few years ago while on a trip through Botswana and Namibia with a group of friends we stood aghast at a couple that seemed to have a never-ending supply of camping gear they were taking out the back. I went over and had a closer look and they had taken out the back seat in preparation for their honeymoon travelling through Southern Africa.
That’s the kind of reputation that the Jimny has built and there’s no doubt that on current sales, ability and kick-arse reputation the next 50 years will continue to see them scampering over obstacles and getting to far off places with ease.