► Evergreen 4x4 into its third decade
► Great off-road, not so brilliant on it
► Top SZ4 model driven costs £13,295
The current-gen Suzuki Jimny has been in uninterrupted production since 1998. To put it another way, when the first MkIII Jimny rolled off the line the Spice Girls were dominating the charts, Teletubbies children’s TV and New Labour the polls. And TFI Friday was still on TV the first time round. A lot’s changed in the wider world since then. But the Jimny hasn’t.
Sporadic (very) minor updates aside, the Jimny is still the same animal: a pint-sized separate-chassis off-roader with a switchable four-wheel drive system, cutesy Barbie Goes On Safari styling with non-existent front and rear overhangs, a small petrol engine and a full-size spare wheel on the back.
That lifespan is quite an achievement when you think about it, and it’s far from over. Suzuki’s not scheduling a Jimny replacement for another few years at least.
Which Suzuki Jimny’s being tested here?
This is the top-trim SZ4 Jimny, complete with patches of fake leather on the seats, air-con (it works – we drove the car during the hottest week of Britain's summer and didn’t cook), 15-inch alloys and privacy glass on the back. Handy for easily embarrassed passengers.
With the standard manual gearbox (a four-speed auto is an option) that’s £13,295; the boggo SZ3 Jimny is £11,995.
All Jimnys use an all-alloy 1.3-litre petrol engine with variable valve timing, 83bhp and 81lb ft of torque delivered from usefully low revs for off-road work.
Surely the Jimny must have changed at least a little bit since 1998?
Every now and then the Jimny gets a light dusting of spec upgrades. Most recent was at the tail-end of 2014, putting a new digital (!) read-out in the middle of the instrument panel to ensure it meets tyre pressure monitor and gearshift indicator regs. Bluetooth phone connectivity? Don’t be silly...
The rest of the interior still looks like it came out of a Christmas cracker, with laughable plastics and fittings, but its main purpose in life is to get muddy. Although the steering wheel doesn’t adjust, the bolt-upright driving position is surprisingly agreeable, giving you a stepladder view of the road ahead. The indicator stalk’s been repositioned since the last time I drove a Jimny (a 2012 one), when I spent a decent proportion of my first journey operating the windscreen wipers at junctions by mistake. It’s on the left now, in the European norm.
Electronic stability control’s now standard too. Probably a good thing, as the Jimny doesn’t have the most confidence-inspiring handling on the road.
What’s it like to drive, then?
Hilarious, although not entirely for the right reasons. With that super-short wheelbase, chunky tyres and tall, crosswind-phobic body, it’s not what you’d call precise. You’ll find yourself constantly working at the wheel even on an arrow-straight road. Top speed is a claimed 87mph but V-maxing a Jimny would probably be about as scary as doing the same in a Veyron.
Getting there would take a while, as with the best will in the world it’s not the quickest of cars. Nor the quietest; you wouldn’t relish a long motorway journey. Then again, that’s hardly the purpose the Jimny was designed for.
What about off-road?
This is where the Jimny comes into its own. Like some kind of terrier/mountain goat crossbreed, it takes everything thrown at it in its stride and keeps coming back for more.
Push-buttons on the dashboard can switch between rear- and four-wheel drive while the Jimny’s travelling at up to 62mph, providing the front wheels are straight, and there’s a low-range mode too, accessible while stationary.
Just remember to put it back into 2wd mode (a process occasionally accompanied by a resounding ‘thunk’) before trying to park, to avoid grinding to a transmission wind-up-induced halt.
Looked at objectively, it’s hard to recommend a Suzuki Jimny. The interior looks even more dated than you’d imagine, it’s as bad on the road as it is good off it, and those tiny dimensions mean it’s best thought of as a two-seater with luggage space than a proper four-seater.
But as an affordable second, or even third, car for rural dwellers who need genuine off-road ability, it begins to make sense. And it’s overflowing with character and charm in a world of cars entirely devoid of it. Such is the cult following the Jimny has developed that Suzuki sells around 1000 of them in the UK each year like clockwork, virtually without any marketing input, and many of them to existing owners chopping in an older, hard-used Jimny.
For the vast majority of the car-buying public, the Jimny’s an irrelevance. Everyone else, let’s party like it’s 1998.