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