Settling Back Into The Deep, Familiar Ruts Of Despair

December 1998: what was being reviewed in those sunny, happy times?

1998 Suzuki Jimny 1.3: source

As luck would arrange it, dear old Car magazine took it upon itself to review the Suzuki Jimny 1.3 JLX as well as the Skoda Octavia estate and the Alfa Romeo 166 2.0 (is really 20 years since the last big Alfa appeared on the scene?). The Jimny is the most germane review subject as the new one has only been launched. Having read the reviews, I think the UK press has been more circumspect about their comments this time around, saying that the Jimny is for off-roading and not biased to the road so, yes, it does a very fine job of that former task. By the end it had become a legend.

In 1998 the critiques did not take account of the Jimny’s (shout it) off-roading focus. Roger Bell, normally a voice of sanity, got this one wrong on behalf of Car. He began the review as follows: “Suzuki’s almost legendary ability to find obscure four-wheel drive niches reveals itself again, this time via a spatially challenged off-roader”. 

Correct: source

The image shows a vehicle designed with a cautious hand (and eye) and it has aged very well. The main surfaces are quite plain; the wheel arches are clearly articulated and the section between them has relief, suggesting a robust character and feet well planted on the ground. One stylistic flourish, the flare over the front wheel arch, adds some emotion but nothing alarming.

And there is a widening of the base of the B-pillar, perhaps the most wanton touch. Apart from that, it’s deadly serious with the deadly seriousness counterbalanced by the scale. This car is so clearly not out to get you; its big lamps and diminutive proportions redeem the kind of styling that on a 4.7 metre car would be aggressive or blunt.

Roger Bell disliked the interior: he called it well-finished but dull. The article is curiously loaded with preconceptions. Bell (who hated the car’s name: I don’t care) was offended in some way by the European launch festivities in Gleneagles, “a major bash for a minor car”.

The review takes its start point the assumption the Jimny would appeal to the “youth” market and that it was a lifestyle car. Lifestyle? A marketing “lifestyle” is when one consciously purchases things that fits in with or projects a way of living that is under constant self-scrutiny. It has to do with buying things or doing things that reinforce the perception by others that you have a desirable life.

Big, in a way: source

Twenty years later it is pretty clear the Jimny was not about “lifestyle” and was really for people who sincerely needed an affordable off-roader because they lived in tough terrain. Roger Bell seemed surprised that the Jimny could off-road: “Ignoring the clichés, the Jimny’s a spatially challenged urban funster that doesn’t flinch at serious off-roading”

(I am beginning to think that Suzuki Europe mis-pitched their car in 1998. Bell reports that the word “lifestyle” appeared a lot in the press material. Getting past that, Bell wrote “However if your needs… are for a cheap and cheery, go-anywhere runabout with distinctive street-cred looks and a user-friendly name, the Jimny hits the spot better than and anything else I have driven at the price”.

The Jimny’s spec unambiguously says it is an off-roader. The 1.3 litre engine produced torque not top speed; all-wheel drive was available on demand; it had a short wheel base (and still does), lofty ground clearance, separate chassis, controls meant to be usable with gloves on; acute axle articulation, a tight lock and no overhangs to speak of.

The car Roger Bell had in mind was (anachronism alert) perhaps the Ford Fusion which really was a lifestyle car: no 4×4 at all but designed with laser-focused determination to look tough (and also still looks good today).

Topping the mechanical spec, the Jimny drove like an off-roader: steering designed to reduce kick-back and a rough on-road ride. Not that it seems Bell tried off-roading in the car because the entire review is about the road ride quality. Some accompanying images show the Jimny up to its axles in water (credited to Anton Watts). Puzzling this: the test car had been off-roaded and the photographer had the evidence.

Yet Roger Bell decided to air his dislike of the “lifestyle” concept and judge the car according to Suzuki’s marketing material. Yet if Bell had been aware that the Jimny had been sold as off-roader for two decades, he might have seen through Suzuki’s ill-judged marketing approach.

Price: £9,999.  Engine: 1298 cc 16 valve L4, 79 bhp 76 lb ft. 87 mph, 15.0 seconds 0-60, 34.5 mpg.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

22 thoughts on “Settling Back Into The Deep, Familiar Ruts Of Despair”

  1. These three-spoke-alloy wheels are very nice, perfect for a car with such small wheels.
    To be honest I was not aware that this car is from 1998. Compared with other cars from that time, a Mercedes M-class or a Pajero Pinin for example, it still looks fresh.
    Speaking about the interior, this special light grey of so many japanese cars of that time was always the main reason not to think about buying a car from Toyota etc.

  2. Good morning, Richard. Given all the plaudits rightly awarded to the new Jimny, your piece is a timely reminder of what a nice piece of design the 1998 model was and just how well it has endured, a testament to its clarity of purpose, even if Suzuki’s marketing was rather off target and the Jimny was misunderstood by Car’s reviewer. It goes to prove that a vehicle with a clearly defined purpose, well executed, will find a market. This is especially the case with the Jimny, which has had no direct competitors since the Daihatsu Fourtrak ceased production in 2002.

    The contrast with the Fusion is telling: the latter was vacuously marketed as an “urban activity vehicle” when it was little more than a slightly larger Fiesta with a higher H-point. The trendy urban types saw through the hype and stayed away in droves, but the Fusion found modest favour with more mature customers who appreciated its ease of entry and egress. It’s still a very nice design from Ford’s “rational” period that existed briefly, unacknowledged and unnamed, between “New Edge” and “Kinetic”:

    The Fusion Mk2 and Fiesta Mk5 (the 2002 one) were similarly good designs that were hard to improve upon, as their misconceived later facelifts proved.

    I wonder if the Fusion was simply ahead of its time? Dressed up with some faux off-road addenda such as black wheel arch extensions, skid plates front and rear etc., it would have made quite a convincing crossover in today’s terms.

  3. I must admit to having a similar thought to that of Daniel about a recently spotted Fusion parked in the wild. It’s precisely how a CUV crossover would look shorn of all its butch, tough-guy addenda. Still like the look of yourself in that, madam?

    Are we not a little over the new Jimny yet, or am I alone in thinking it’s all getting rather tediously over-hyped? It’s not the messiah. It’s not even a very naughty boy. A decent update perhaps, but to my eyes at least, the previous model (as above) remains a far more pleasing-looking, just as capable (if that is what you want), not to mention, good deal cheaper device.

    1. Aha, could this be the 2018 Jimny’s “king’s new clothes” moment?

      Many, including me, were swept up in the excitement at launch, beguiled by its Tonka Toy looks, which appeals to our inner child, especially in that vivid green launch colour. Would I drive one though? Probably not, for the same reason I wouldn’t drive a Jeep Wrangler: it’s trying just a bit too hard to advertise its intended (imagined?) role, whereas its predecessor is nicely understated. More significantly, having read a number of road tests of the new model, it appears to remain as compromised as ever for on-road driving, which is rather disappointing after 18 years and would make it an illogical choice for the vast majority of drivers.

    2. I´m glad it´s still not optimised for on-road use. It is supposed to do off-roading well. And I must say I like the style.
      Yes, it is more “styled” than the last one but it´s well done.

  4. Hi Richard, I actually agree with you on both points, but thought that, after 18 years, the on-road performance might have been improved without compromising its off-road ability.

  5. Er…are you referring to my last comment or the picture?

    I posted the picture because, as you say, it’s a good looking car. Regarding my comment about on-road versus off-road abilities, I simply thought that advances in technology would allow improvements in the former without compromising the latter. Plenty of larger 4×4 have managed this successfully, notably Land and Range Rover. Perhaps it’s much more difficult in a smaller vehicle which still retains a ladder chassis.

    1. I was wondering about the image. I suppose it´s sort of relevant…

      Cost might have something to do with the Jimny´s on-road/off-road compomise. We only have road-testers´ word that it is problematic, note. They are probably all driving much fancier cars most of the time.

  6. Well, relevant only insofar it was the car we were discussing (and I love the colour!)

    My brother-in-law had one of the just superseded Jimnys and it was a bit scary on-road, very bouncy and easily unsettled, and very susceptible to crosswinds. You needed your wits about you to keep it in lane, constantly correcting the steering, on open dual carriageway.

    I’m sure you’re right about cost being a factor. It’s not expensive at all for a 4×4.

    1. I agree – having lots of on-road patience always helps to enjoy a proper off-roader.

      Previous gen-s Jimnys were notorious for being rather ‘tricky’ in certain on-road conditions (other words have been liberally used to describe
      their on-road manners, too…).

      The new one, seemingly, has much better on-road manners, but patience and
      sobriety are still advised if it’s used daily – as opposed to a dedicated, professional/”advanced-weekend” off-road use, for which
      the Jimny is expressly intended as a product.

    2. Speaking of compromised on-road manners: I have recently been driving a few latest gen Minis around the streets of Berlin (borrowed from BMW’s very own carsharing provider) and found myself wondering whether I was getting old or whether the ride had always been this bad… Made me want to apologizing to the other passengers for the bad manners of the car. It shook, it bounced, even I found it very hard to ignore.

      This lack of manners does not appear to haven been in the way of the Mini’s success though. There just appear to be enough owners who are willing to make a lot of compromise regarding the objective qualities of the car, if it appeals to them on an emotional level (Myself included no doubt…) leaving a lot of room for optimism regarding the new Jimny’s ability to win the hearts of a loyal follower-ship, despite its supposed lack of on-road capabilities.

  7. It goes almost without saying that the 2018 Jimny is a very succesful visual blend of several iconic off-road machines.
    Its styling is not shy to convey that it bears significant, and intended resemblance (whilst not exactly shouting that aloud – such is the success of the delicate balance within that ‘blending’…) to the Defender, Niva, Benz G, Toyota LC, Fiat Campagnola, Honda Element and the previous, equally iconic generations of Jimny too.

    Pulling such plentiful aesthetic ancestral lines cannot (even in it’s most succesful form the ’18 Jimny undoubtedly is) avoid a certain irrational fascination, whose novelty can be rather short lived once the rationality enters its showroom- /strassenbild- stage.

    The more one delves, on a rational level, inside the new Jimny’s shatteringly dense styling code (which stirred the entire public on all levels/target groups, and, together with the A110, probably defined the automotive innovation of 2018), the more obvious it appears that the above exercise of concoction is executed in a flawless, cunning manner, as its appeal does not really stave off, even after being thoroughly disrobed using some very sharp methodological tools.

    Having seen it in the flesh recently (in a substandardly proportioned, semi-grey import showroom, which is massively limiting), I’d dare to say that there are two principal keys that are crucial to the success of the end result:

    1) It’s proportions are severely ‘undersquare’ in the front and front 3/4 view, lending it an air of mechanical rigidity, that’s actually so dominant over all other styling aspects, that it hides the ‘concoction scenario’ thoroughly into the observer’s irrational mental landscape, embedded firmly into the unexplicable notion
    of ‘likeable’.

    2) The mixing of all those iconic details, shapes and proportions (G, LC, Defender, Niva, Element, Campagnola, et al. …), is definitely not done in a mish-mash, scattered manner, but in a deeply, complexly overlaying matrix that must’ve taken a serious, worrying dose of genius to execute.

    3) The cunningly proportioned windshield (actually a ~2,75 : 1 rectangle with smart radii on the corners), is significantly optically elevated from the side glasshouse, by an actual 3-3,5″, which is psychologically perceived as ~6-7″ (as its footprint and general sizing is kei-car sourced). This trick generates an effect of perceived super-robustness of the glasshouse-body joint, which gives an illusion that, in a case of roll-over, the car is perceived as literally sturdy as a rock. Added bonus: subconsciously, the car is perceived as having a dominant, early-Range Rover-like visibility too, which is crucial for true, keen off-road users/drivers/buyers (again it’s the optical illusion that the “elevated” windshield caters to).

    4) All other textures, surface transitions, radii and various other bits are expressly helping in further amplifying that notion of sturdiness – now, what with the supremely uncompromised and genuinely tough nature of the Jimnys (past
    and present), these two ‘essential notions’ happily meet, and cancel out any
    possible pretence (as this ‘honesty’ of purpose is fully justified, and hence
    not-kitsch-at-all…).

    In some, darker colours, all of the above features/tricks shall be even less noticable, and therefore the design will be able to convince even the most sceptical of observers.

    The real problem IMHO lies, however, in the very raw, very off-road-focused nature of the car (hat off for R. Herriotts’s above analysis of the old ‘Car Magazine’ review, brilliantly demasked!), which will not give a true, long-lasting automotive satisfaction for those plentiful prospective buyers (who are already on the long waiting lists…) who made/shall make their purchase decision purely on the ‘street-cred’ / fashionable / irresistible / “lifestyle” aspect of the product, which is immense – to put it mildly.

    I forecast that the slightly-used examples of this car will soon be on offer, for the reason stated in the previous paragraph. Still, a quick depreciation is very unlikely to come by soon, as demand will predictably outstrip supply high for rather a while, the above ‘initial rejection by hipsters’ notwithstanding.

    Showing up in a Jimny in the local coffee shop will of course be hip. It’s just that this car, as many other credible off-roaders, do not look good washed & polished, but muddy and bruised, instead. The Jimny is such a car, and it will probably aurally ‘survive’ the Hip-brigade acceptance (some call it ‘aging well’).

    Time will tell.

    One thing is sure, the new Ignis and the 2018 Jimny secured Suzuki’s role as a credible mainstream-ignoring manufacturer, with high product desirability and very cunning positioning. The starkly contrasted, almost very-mainstream latest-gen Swift (for which I have a serious problem with the way it look, and I did, for one, like the earlier gen-s so much…), just goes to show that they have probably covered both possible automotive-market developments, and are playing it rather safe, just as well.

    Smart.

    1. If that answer was to be graded using the Danish 7-character scale, we´d be looking at a 10 or 12. Good semantic analysis – the bit about transitions and the undersquareness especially stood out on first reading.

    2. There are stacks of previous generation Jimnys down here in rural Devon and I’m sure the new model will be in steady demand to replace them in due course, along with the 4wd Ignis.

      Full size 4x4s are just, well, so full sized and much of the road network down here is kei sized itself. So being small is actually of benefit on a day-to-day practical basis. Dual carriageway prowess isn’t of any relevance either if you live an hour away from the nearest opportunity to top 60mph.

    3. Adrian – the same goes for Alpine areas where you are often driving 30 minutes at an average speed of 40 km per hour. I was doing some summertime Alpine driving (I can tell you it was all 9/10ths, balls-to-the-wall, opposite lock, full-drift, sideways and lift-off oversteer the whole time) and I still only managed about 40 kmph most of the time. In the dry. No ice. No snow. No meltwater. So, for many Jimnasts** the 87 mph top speed is a distant as a trip to Melbourne.
      Ireland has lots of rotten, narrow roads as well. I don´t think Denmark needs this car. It´s not hilly and not cold enough.

      **my coinage!! I invented it first.

  8. I just can’t follow the logic of expecting a vehicle like the Jimny, optimised for off road use, to have the same capability on road. Neither the Defender nor the Wrangler are particularly pleasant to drive on motorways but that is not their intended use. It’s only when Range Rover/Discovery levels of price and sophistication are reached that the circle can almost be squared. The most capable off road vehicle I have been in was an Argocat, seemed able to go anywhere but left half the passengers feeling very ill. Gad to see that in the image the Jimny appears to have tyres with some off road capability.

  9. I agree that 2018 Jimny is perhaps trying too hard, even though I like it also. The slightly fussier look might help with owners who do make use of its capabilities, though, as it looks like the exterior consists of more parts, thus only damaged area would need replacement – such as the separate front lights, the grille that’s no longer part of the bonnet, and the unpainted wheelarches. They make a kei-car version without the wheelarches and a 660cc turbo 3-cylinder, too.

    Mike Rutherford commented in this week’s Auto Express that the new Jimny seemed of particular interest to the World Car of the Year jurors, and suggested that JLR could do worse than to introduce something that sits between the likes of this (and the Panda 4×4), and the Discovery Sport. (Perhaps such a vehicle, if viable, could resurrect the Freelander name?)

    1. Hello Tom S: I need to admit I did not notice the Jimny for 17 years. Then I grudgingly considered it useful. And then when the new one came along I suddenly understood what was so gloriously right about the outgoing car. Is this merely a peculiar aesthetic effect that something can only understood when it is taken away? And will I not be saying the same thing in 2038 when the next Jimny comes along. For this reason, I have tried to avoid final-sounding comments on the style. Suzuki are playing a long game. Don´t you admire their nerve? I really admire this company´s will-power and determination to make the cars they want to make and not follow others´ preconceptions of what a car range should look like.

    2. It is a very good idea, Tom S, I’d agree. With a view to the phase in which JLR seem to be going through, however, it would be relatively hard to expect such a development.

      However, having seen the (inexplicable, if one disregards the rather obvious sizing aspect…) sales success of Jimnys, Ferozas and Pandas 4×4 in many authentically rural regions, this segment would be a real chance for many other makers out there too, not only for JLR.

      It’s probably a very risky move – considering development costs vs.the typical such buyer’s “play it proven” philosophy, but I’d guess, given the current state of affairs in the business, someone will probably pull the trigger on testing the waters of the ultra-parkable, ultra-offroad-capable (and easy to live with/insure) micro-4×4 segment.

      (On second thought, perhaps a certain well-known, rear-engined city-car brand could also offer something like this, as the potential, brand-related risks of failure could be perhaps less tragic if the entire exercise goes commercially wrong).

      Citroen is another potential candidate – possibly creating a true spiritual successor of the 2CV in the most simplistic, decidedly rural form of utility.

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