Just after Thanksgiving, automotive Twitter erupted in a micro flame war over a micro-SUV, the Suzuki Jimny. When images of the fourth-generation, Jeep-like 4×4 began circulating, and a pair of banana-yellow samples showed up in Los Angeles during a media drive just before the auto show, debate about its merits ran rampant. Half the tweets bemoaned the fact that the model isn’t for sale in the United States; the other half laughed at those in the former group for being such gullible chumps. The core question emerged: Is it even worth getting into a tizzy about?
The two that were spotted cruising up and down Angeles Crest Highway, north of Pasadena, were shipped stateside by Suzuki so that jurors in the World Car of the Year Awards – a group of 48 journalists from around the world – could sample the cars during the large test-drive event held just before the L.A. auto show. It happens that I’m one of those jurors, and I took one out for a spin to see what all the fuss was about.
Because it’s meant to be an economical off-roader, 4×4 aficionados scoffed at its presumably cheap and flimsy construction and likely negligible ability to manage any serious terrain challenges. The car, which presumably would sell here in the U.S. for around $20,000, if not less, is small and light, and much of the pro-Jimny enthusiasm centered on its ‘cuteness’ – a kiss-of-death of you’re trying to win a Twitter battle. After all, cute don’t feed the bulldog when you’re trying to wriggle through a rocky slot canyon before sunset.
While I didn’t get to test the vehicle in an off-road setting, I can say two things about it from my drive up into the mountains on the pavement: 1) It’s not a piece of junk, and 2) it is awfully cute. Remember, the Jimny was introduced in 1970 as a compact and affordable 4×4 that smacked of a micro-Land Rover Defender. That means it’s fully a 50-year-old model, one that the company has nurtured more or less with respect through the years. Though there was definitely an awkward phase in its third generation, with a design crippled by too-rounded corners and too many soft details, the new one is appropriately butch and properly proportioned. It’s back to being Defenderesque, in a good way. After all, there’s twee cute and there’s earnest cute, and the Jimny is very much the latter. It’s a good-looking, functional 4×4 that just happens to be super small.
Its 4×4 trail-creds are perfectly acceptable: body-on-frame construction for maximum stiffness, solid live axles and smart ABS for traction distribution across a wide swath of challenges. No, it won’t be able to get out of the same jams that a Jeep Wrangler can, and its 1.5-liter, 100-hp, 101 lb-ft of torque three-cylinder engine won’t triumph in any OHV-course stare-downs. But its power is right-sized for its mass, which is just 2,500 pounds, by the way.
On the road, I didn’t feel the least bit perturbed by any excessive vibration or tire roar. There was the expected wind noise at highway speeds, given its cubic construction, but it otherwise felt solid and nicely tuned for on-road comfort. It was also tons of fun to drive the five-speed manual transmission up and down the steep (paved) inclines. It’s roomy enough for tall adults in the front seats, and never lacked for power on the highway, despite its minuscule motor and modest 90 mph top end. With the window down and your arm on the sill, it’s a blast, both on the highway and while inching around at low speeds. Early reports from those who have taken the upgraded new model off-road indicate it’s just as startling there, Twitter trolls be damned.
Would this car thrive in the U.S.? Sure. It’s cool and fun and will take you where you want to go for thousands less than its closest competitor. And yeah, it’s cute, too.