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Photo: Ken Saito
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Name a mainstream car with more hype around it than the Suzuki Jimny. I’ll wait. The response to this humble off-roader has been incredible. When the Jimny was released it was pretty much a phenomenon with waiting lists of up to two years.

It’s hard to pinpoint the success of this new generation. Perhaps because of its four-plus decade history it’s build up a strong and loyal fanbase around the world, or perhaps it’s because this new one looks so freaking cute and cool. Like a baby Mercedes G-Class in brighter and more youthful colors.

While the rest of the world gets the larger 1500cc Jimny Sierra, I wanted to see what the local Japanese 660cc kei version was like to live with over a few days. Let’s not forget the Jimny originally started out life as a kei-car so I was interested to see how the purest version of the modern Jimny would fare in the modern world.

What Is It?

This is the fourth generation in a long line of Jimnys. Starting off as a kei-sized off-roader, the Jimny eventually evolved and grew, splitting into the regular kei version and the bigger export-friendly Sierra version. Since its debut in 1970, Suzuki says the Jimmy has sold over 285 million units in 194 countries and regions. After 20 years, the fourth generation aims to carry on its predecessors success.

Suzuki aimed the Jimny at a “wide range of customers” to be used as tools by professionals like forest workers and farmers and outdoor enthusiasts, as Kazuto Kasahara, Communications Manager at Suzuki Japan told me. It might not appeal to everybody, but it’s a no-nonsense, honest, off-roader. Unlike many modern compact SUVs, it’s built on a robust ladder-frame chassis and has a low-range gearbox for optimal off-roading capabilities. This isn’t a poser 4x4, it’s the real deal.

Specs That Matter

The Jimny is available with two engine choices: a 660cc engine in the kei version and 1500cc in Sierra model for export markets. The 660cc car produces a humble 64 horsepower and 70 lb-ft while the larger engine has 102 HP and 95 lb-ft. There’s a choice of a five-speed manual or a four-speed auto. Yes, a four-speed auto. At least it doesn’t have an eternally-groaning CVT.

As it has to abide with kei car regulations, this Jimny measures in at 133.6 inches long, 58 inches wide, and 67.9 inches tall. It’s also got eight inches of ground clearance and only weights 2,270 pounds. That 64 HP at least doesn’t have to move much around. That said, it’s still not very fast.

It also has all the key features that made its predecessors so successful and great at off-roading such as part-time 4WD with a low range transfer gear, 3-link rigid axle suspension, brake LSD, traction control, and ESP.

How Does It Drive?

The kei Jimny is as fun to drive as its looks would suggest, but not for the obvious reasons. The Jimny is most confident at low speeds. Enter a corner with too much gusto and it’ll respond with the pitch and roll of a water bed. But obviously nobody thought a Jimny would give a Porsche Macan a run for its money around corners at speed.

The Jimny is really at home on slow rural roads and in town, if it can’t be climbing over rocks off-road. The tall driving position, boxy dimensions, and narrow body means visibility is great and gives you the confidence to squeeze into the tiniest gaps. You can blast down alleyways and rural lanes you wouldn’t dare to in larger cars. The ground clearance and go-anywhere hardware means few things can stop you in your tracks. It’s all you think about whenever you’re behind the wheel.

I can’t think of anything easier to drive than the Jimny. The steering is light and the manual box is foolproof. It even has hill hold to help out with steep starts. The best thing is that it doesn’t have the most annoying modern feature: stop/start.

I’ve talked about how great it is at low speeds, but anything faster than 80 kph is starts to be obvious this isn’t a long distance cruiser and it really is out of its depth on a motorway. Having 64 HP is fine in towns, but put your foot down and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Keep applying throttle and eventually you’ll pass whatever it was you were trying to pass in the first place, but not without accumulating a lot of angry flashing high beams behind you.

Then there’s the motorway refinement, or rather lack thereof. Don’t even think about driving this car on a highway at over 60 mph, especially if there’s so much as a slight breeze of headwind. It gets thrown around more than a puppy’s chew toy. There’s also a lot of wind noise, and because it only has five gears, cruising at the speed limit is around 3,000 RPM. The sound from inside the cabin is pure cacophony.

Where the Jimny excels is off-road. I didn’t go much deeper than damp grassy hill for some photos in front of Mount Fuji. But it was so effortless, climbing on the little muddy grassy patch like a cute mountain goat. David Tracy has you covered if you need a more intense off-road evaluation.

What’s Great

How can you not like something that looks this cool and this cute? It truly is a charming thing to drive on rural roads and in urban driving. There’s something very special bombing around country roads in a highlighter yellow box. I guarantee you it’ll put a smile on your face every time you get in it. If doesn’t, you’re not human and we can’t be friends. If you need to go long distances just avoid the motorway if you can, at least on windy days.

It’s also surprisingly economical considering its aerodynamics. Suzuki have a claimed fuel consumption of 38.1 mpg and I was getting around 29.1 mpg, and that’s not by driving around like a nun, either. Like all kei cars you really have to keep your right foot on the throttle at all times to get it to move anywhere. You have to be on those 64 horses at all times. Even then, it’s still pretty frugal. Car makers take note: Lightweight is good.

For a supposedly basic car, the Jimny is chockfull of useful features. This top-spec “XC” trim test car had fancy touches such as a road sign reader which was helpful in letting me know how fast I was allowed to go and where I wasn’t allowed to go, lane departure warning to keep it in its lane should a light breeze hit it, auto high beams and LED headlights for illuminating country roads, and of course brake assist and collision warning for when you’re driving in a busy town.

There’s also a bunch of other neat touches little touches like the water resistant fabric for the seats and the rubber mats that are easy to wash down after all your outdoors expeditions. The buttons and dials have been designed to be operated with gloves as well. That’s good forward thinking and shows Suzuki know its core market.

What’s Weak

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t a motorway cruiser. A gust of wind is enough to sway it around and throw it from one lane to another, which is rather frightening after the first time. The ride can be a little unsettled at times. It’s not the smoothest riding car but then again it’s not meant to be. But it’s not totally uncomfortable and the ride quality is on par with other kei cars.

You also have to sacrifice luggage space for rear passengers. Maximum cargo capacity is 12.4 cubic feet. Put a more practical way, you could either have four passengers and enough space for a couple packets of biscuits in the boot and make them hold their own bags, or have two people and space for a couple of suitcases. What I ended up doing was carry two passengers and fold the fourth seat down for extra luggage space. A people mover this is not.

Then there’s the three star EuroNCAP safety rating, which is a tad worrying. It does have front, side, curtain airbags and only scored low because it lacked more advanced active safety features.

Value

Prices for the the most basic manual kei-class Jimny start from ¥1,458,000 (about $13,110) while the XC trim as tested here starts from ¥1,744,200 ($15,690) with the five-speed manual while the Sierra starts from ¥1,760,4000 ($15,840). Of course, with the kei version you save on tax, insurance, tolls, and parking. It’s also 6.7 inches narrower than the Sierra, which makes a difference if you’re trying to squeeze into that extra tight road in your local village.

Verdict

It’s far from perfect, but who cares? The Jimny has something that’s getting increasingly rare in modern cars: character. It’ll put a smile on your face day in and day out. It’ll get you anywhere you need to go and it’ll never skip a beat. For what it was designed to do, it’s perfect and then some. It’s a genuinely likeable car that’s great in most situations and not so great in a few.

If you need something to drive around a farm, dirt tracks, and countryside towns regularly while carrying a border collie in the back I can’t think of a better companion than the Jimny. Even if you need something to drive around the city, the Jimny’s tiny dimensions means it can squeeze in practically anywhere. It’ll also look damn cool and cute doing so.

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