IT WOULD BE HARSH TO CALL THE 2016 SUZUKI JIMNY SIERRA ‘ANCIENT’, EVEN THOUGH IT LAUNCHED IN 1998 AND HAS BARELY CHANGED SINCE.
That word has too many negative connotations that the wonderfully characterful and capable Jimny Sierra doesn’t deserve. What other small SUV has bush-friendly tyres, switchable four-wheel-drive and low-range gearing for around $20,000?
Of course, on the other hand, there is also no small SUV that has fewer features, more basic safety and absent refinement than Suzuki’s old battler.
So where does that leave this Japanese-built blast from the past, and can we recommend it to you?
Vehicle Style: Compact SUV
Price: $20,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 63kW/110Nm 1.3 4cyl petrol | 5sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.1 l/100km | Tested: 8.5 l/100km
There is only one thing, one feature, which shows the Jimny Sierra has been dragged into the twenty-first century - presumably kicking mud and screaming out of its 1.3-litre lungs - and that’s the addition of electronic stability control (ESC).
For $21k plus-on-roads, there’s no Bluetooth phone or audio streaming or USB input, leaving only room for Hit Machine ’98 to be inserted into the CD player and have Vanessa Amorosi emanate from its four speakers.
On the upside, simplicity rules when you’re out in a desert somewhere (as opposed to buying a Mazda CX-3 and heading for dessert at an inner-city ice creamery).
The Jimny Sierra promises to pretty much go anywhere, and our 10,000km-plus example looked battered on the outside but was perfectly put together inside – and that speaks volumes beyond the limited capability of its infotainment system.
- Standard equipment: Power windows and mirrors, manual air-conditioning, keyless entry
- Infotainment: AM/FM radio, CD player and 4 speakers
- Cargo Volume: 113 litres minimum, 816 litres maximum.
The Jimny Sierra can seat four quite comfortably in terms of space, but its seats are flat and unyielding, with its cloth trim décor as ‘ancient’ as the grain-less hard plastics and cheap smattering of buttons across the dashboard.
Okay, Suzuki offers the promise of off-road thrills all in a compact package for relatively nix – its ‘next capable’ rival the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk costs double – but this model was plainly more competitive inside 18 years ago than it is now.
The low beltline and vast glasshouse is still the Jimny Sierra’s best asset. It offers forward and over-shoulder visibility that today’s hatchbacks and SUVs could only dream of, making parking a breeze and negating the need for rear sensors or a camera – neither of which it has, of course.
At least a modern touchscreen could have been tacked-on as the Japanese brand has done with the 2011-era Swift, and it seems purely contemptuous that it hasn’t.
There is also no cruise control or even a trip computer. Power windows is as luxurious as it gets in here.
For safety, there are only two front airbags. Without side or curtain protection, it is difficult to recommend to a younger driver who may want a first car, have $20,000 to play with and would potentially cross-shop this rugged SUV with the plethora of light hatchbacks out there.
If a young person can get past the infotainment system first, his or her parents should strike this Suzuki off the list for safety.
It narrows down the opportunities for a buyer base broader than a group of ‘in the know’ offroad enthusiasts that have been rock-solid loyal to the little Suzi for more than a decade.
ON AND OFF ROAD
- Engine: 64kW/110Nm 1.3 litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Five-speed manual, 4WD (high and low-range)
- Suspension: 3-link rigid front and rear beams with coil springs
- Brakes: Ventilated front discs, rear drum brakes
- Steering: Hydraulically assisted mechanical steering, 9.8m turning circle
- Towing capacity: 350kg unbraked, 1300kg braked
Back before modern four-cylinder engines manipulated their power and torque curves to belt harder towards the top end, there were engines like the 1.3-litre four-cylinder featured here.
It is a gravelly petrol engine that seems to give its best low in the rev range before feeling flat as revs rise towards a breathless top end. It is unendingly willing and a pleasure to drive flat stick through the rubbery five-speed manual gearbox.
For best results, it’s best ‘man handled’.
Yet despite packing a stack of off-road hardware, with a kerb weight of just 1060kg the 3.675-metre-long Jimny Sierra is no heavier than its front-wheel-drive light hatchback sibling, the 3.85m-long Swift.
A separate chassis with 70-aspect tyres and awfully slow steering response all sound like negatives, and to a degree they are.
But kept within its modest limits, the Jimny Sierra can be a hoot to drive even on the road – it’s always moving around its driver like a brick settling into freshly poured concrete.
Off road the little unit is the definition of ‘I think I can’ ambition meeting actual ability.
Switch from 2WD to 4WD and in some cases 4WD low-range – all at the press of a button – and the Jimny Sierra will slowly churn up and down the steepest hills and scrabble over the messiest terrain.
Then you get back around town and realise that its chubby tyres are as ‘kerb friendly’ as they are ‘bush friendly’ – and likewise the great visibility, petite dimensions and decent economy (8.5L/100km on test) help it double as an ideal city runabout.
If only it was better equipped and safer, that is.
ANCAP rating: The Suzuki Jimny has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: The standard safety list is rather slim for the Jimny - dual front airbags, ABS and ESC, and three-point seat belts round out the list of major safety features.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
No four-wheel-drive - forget the SUV term - can match this Suzuki off-road unless you spend $38,500 on a Jeep Wrangler Sport. If you’re a bit less adventurous, a more on-road friendly and funky Renegade Trailhawk could match the Jimny Sierra in parts
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
With a new generation model coming, the Jimny Sierra has the chance to capture a broader audience than just die-hard off-road enthusiasts on a budget.
Since this model’s 1998 introduction the world has gone SUV crazy, and Suzuki would be crazy not to develop another generation.
It has the market all to itself and it really doesn’t need to do much to the Jimny to make it competitive on several fronts without becoming too lavish.
Add side and curtain airbags, a touchscreen, and a slightly bigger engine to compensate for a probable weight increase, and it could add to its score significantly without detracting from its virtues.
For now, it will have to settle for being characterful but flawed – and we can only recommend it to a very specific type of buyer. It’s not one for a first-time driver.
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