- Lots of healthy cars to choose from
- Great owners' clubs and following
- Excellent off-roading ability
- But sluggish on-road performance
- Lovable demeanor and plucky styling
- Superb value for money
If you were thinking of setting up in business as a car manufacturer, in what field do you think you'd stand the best chance? Nothing mass market, obviously. The startup costs would be mind boggling. But what about small, affordable off-road vehicles? Thanks to old heaps like the Defender, driving expectations in this niche are super-low, so there'd be no need to waste pots of money on dynamic development at the Bullring, let alone the Nürburgring. Plus, Land Rover has given up the basic offroader high ground by ditching the classic Defender and following a posher path, so people are looking round for a low-cost alternative.
Think about it. There's actually hardly anything else in this market, so it would be like an uncontested scrum in rugby. You'd be pushing against an open door with your excitingly affordable off-roader. Ok, so the exit of Land Rover and the reluctance of others to fill the non-posh vacuum could mean that there is actually no market for this sort of machine. Except that there is. As proven by the fourth-generation Suzuki Jimny, which had a considerable waiting list when it launched. Admittedly, Suzuki only allocated 600 new Jimnys to the UK, but even in Japan the wait's been as long as 12 months. In Australia, it's been 18 months.
The good news is that you can get a third-gen Jimny (1998-2018) after a one-minute phone call. It isn't quite as cute as the Mk4. It's also rudimentary, average to drive to say the least, and will crumble away to dust if you give it half a chance. In other words, it ticks just about all of the boxes that gave the Defender its curiously irresistible appeal.
The one Defender box a Jimny doesn't tick is 'ridiculous price'. Traders love gen-three Jimnys because clean, unmuddied examples can be picked up cheaply from older owners and then flipped for a handy profit when the phones start to ring off the hook. If you beat the dealers to it, privately owned MOT'd examples are easily within the reach of the stingy Shedman, who will happily accept the on-road shortcomings of these light weight (around a tonne), ladder-chassis'd, dual-ratio 4WD-transmissioned Suzukis in exchange for their surprising off-road capability and unpretentious utilitarianism.
If you're slightly potty you can pay £15k for the occasional late, super low-mileage gen-threes that crop up time to time, which bearing in mind the fact that pre-owned examples of the gen-four are only a couple of grand more than that is a measure of the love that's still felt for the old chappie. However, you can score an earlier gen-threes with under 100,000 miles on the clock for little more than £6k. At that sort of money, providing you buy wisely, you're unlikely to lose money when it's time to get rid. If you can ever bring yourself to get rid that is.
But how do you buy a Jimny wisely? Let's have a look. We're concentrating on the regular hardtop here, but be aware that Spanish-built 'convertible' versions were also on sale between 1999 and 2009 if you like that sort of thing. They're fun, but bear in mind that early ones will very likely be leaking now and will have many a snapped clip to boot.
SPECIFICATION – SUZUKI JIMNY MK3
Engine: 1,328cc, inline four
Transmission: 5-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 88@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 87@4,000rpm
0-62mph: 14 secs
Top speed: 87mph
MPG: 39 (combined)
Wheels: 5.5 x 15in (f), 5.5 x 15 (r)
Tyres: 205/70 (f), 205/70 (r)
On sale: 1998 - 2018
Price new: £13,295
Price now: from £5,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it's wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
Although you could get 1.5 diesel Jimnys in other markets, these are quite temperamental so it's just as well we didn't get them in the UK. Our Jimnys were all petrol powered. Post-2005 cars moved on to a more modern and slightly more powerful VVT 1.3, but many of the pre-'05 UK Jimnys out there are powered by an 80-ish horsepower 1.3-litre single-cam four-pot petrol engine. It's no award winner, delivering a yawningly torpid 16-second 0-60 time an an mpg figure somewhere in the mid-30s, but the good thing is that it will generally plod on in the bloody-minded fashion of a grumpy Bacterian camel.
A 125hp 1.8 Jimny was available for just one year between 2004 and 2005, so they are hens' teeth-rare. Owners who have replaced their tired or blown-head-gasketted 1.3s with the 1.6 M16A motor from the Liana reckon it's a great move. One chap offers adaptor kits for Isuzu 1.7 diesel conversions.
Sensors and electrics can play up, but the 1.3 engine does have its positive features. Timing is regulated by a belt using a non-interference design, so a total skinflint can take a chance on running the belt till it snaps. The official change schedule is 70,000 miles, so if you're more caring than the bloke in that last sentence and the car you're looking at has passed that 70k milestone, you might want to make sure it's got a new belt, or at least allow for the cost of you doing it.
The 1.3 is meant to be serviced on an old-schoolish 9000-mile schedule, but the only owners who do that are probably also the older ones who meekly accept pitiful trade-in prices from scallywags. Rough idling could be a faulty coolant temperature sensor or EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve but neither of those are Jimny-unique problems. Nor are the coolant leaks from hoses or the radiator.
Jimnys do have a reputation in the trade for eating clutches and gearboxes. The clutch is a bit too toy-like for intensive and/or continuous off-roading, and the release bearing can get noisy even with relatively low mileage. The gearbox is a five-speeder and that translates into a fair amount of busy-ness on the motorway. Jimny buffs look sceptically at the post-2005 R72 box which splits vertically rather than horizontally like the earlier ones. Bearing failure is quite common on these, possibly as a result of oil starvation caused by faulty propshafts that allegedly allowed oil to leak through their centre caps. A quick-fit-style replacement box will cost you around £1000, but the availability of rusty Jimnys in the scrappers might will unearth a suitable option for a third of that.
The trans has 2WD, 4WD or 4WD low options. On-the-fly shifting between 2WD and 4WD is made possible by the Jimny's vacuum-locking hubs. As with most vehicles featuring part-time 4WD transmission, the lockable free-wheeling front wheel hub heads sit on the ends of the axle (that's them poking through the wheel centres) allowing the road wheel hub assembly to be connected or disconnected from the transmission. Unlocked, in 2WD mode, the wheels rotate freely, reducing mechanical wear and fuel consumption when you're on tarmac. In 4WD mode, the hub heads lock the wheels to the drive shafts in order to let the engine turn the wheels.
In the Jimny, this locking/unlocking function is done pneumatically. The system's vacuum pipes do perish and blow, so if your Jimny seems to have lost some of its mountain-goatery, it could be that the front wheels are not receiving any drive. The kingpin swivel bearings wear out too, another point it has in common with the Defender. This is a fiddly job that not everyone wants to do. Main dealers will, but they'll charge you hard for it.
While we're in this area, it's worth mentioning that replacing the standard open differentials with Quaife ATB units is a credible aftermarket fit.
If after your first drive in a Jimny you think you have landed yourself with a right pup that needs a lot of work doing, relax: that's how they feel when they're OK. Perished bushes in the rear suspension trailing arms won't help, obviously. And if there's noticeable wheel wobble at higher speeds - which in the Jimny's case is anything above 50mph - that could just as easily be worn suspension, worn CV joints or worn wheel bearings as it might be badly balanced wheels. It can get really bad. Have a look at this.
Here, even more scarily, is an under-car view of it. Erk. Some say this 'death wobble' is to do with the Jimny's suspension design. Others that it's to do with warped brake discs. Others say it can even be caused by a bit of dirt or rust between the wheel and the hub. Some say it's Donald Trump's fault.
Any work you do in the suspension and steering departments should not be begun without an economy-sized vat of Copaslip or similar ointment to fend off the bonding effects of corrosion and ease the operation next time round.
The basic wheels often seen on gen-three Jimnys are steelies so don't worry too much if the ones on the car you're examining look a bit scabby. The three-spoke alloys have neen known to buckle under the strain of heavy off-road pounding. Discs warp and can also corrode onto the carriers.
In common with many cheap and poorly protected Japanese cars, Jimnys rust. Key areas are the chassis's body and suspension mounting points, around the factory chassis welding points, the boot floor, the sills (hidden behind the plastic mouldings), the inner arches, the floor below the rear seats, the boot well for the jack, and the area behind the front headlamps. Problems usually crop up as a result of moisture getting trapped between mud and metal.
Double-skimmed sections under the rear seatbelt mountings and at the vertical wall under the front of the back seat act as rust propagators and will bring back bad memories to owners of similarly designed BMC cars from the early 1960s. There's a double layer at the point above the silencer that could almost have been designed to generate rust, with two unprotected 10mm holes and some nice heat from the exhaust to speed the process up nicely.
If someone has given the underside of a Jimny a good old besmirching with a mix of bitumen, creosote and melted bonfire toffee, corrosion can be difficult to spot. Smearing something under there is definitely a good idea, though. Sensible owners favour a 50/50 potion of Waxoyl and cheap engine oil.
Sorting out rotten sills will typically be around £500. Thanks to the separate chassis design, you can cut out old rusted floors and replace them with same-size pressed-out steel sheets that are available for this very purpose.
The location of the spare wheel on the rear door makes it vulnerable to theft and puts strain on the hinges and pins, but replacements are readily available at £30-£40 a pair. That door design makes loading awkward if you've stupidly reversed up to a wall, but the Jimny's small, wheel-at-each-corner footprint means you can bowl forwards into that last Ikea space at high speed and then reverse out later with your purchases loaded up without fear of hitting anything thanks to the excellent visibility and that titchy footprint.
Jimny interiors reflect its no-nonsense proposition. Matters did improve a little in post-2005 facelift cars, but in the earlier ones you'll find more attractive plastics in a milk crate, with seat backs, boot and floors covered in that cheap light grey carpeting that resembles the coat of a border terrier and that is a magnet for every stain-producing substance known to man. The seat fabrics are similarly impractical in their light colouration, although Suzuki did try to help owners by building what look like marks and scuffs into the fabric design. Nice.
If you go into a Jimny cabin with low expectations you won't be disappointed. There's no adjustment for the steering wheel or the height of the driver's seat so make sure you fit before buying. With the back seats in place there's not a lot of boot room, in fact there's hardly any, but the seats do fold individually so you have some flexibility there, and the resultant space is a usefully boxy shape at least. The passenger seat folds flat too so you can get long items in.
Water can get into the fuse box via what appears to be the underside of the dash. It's very possible that this will be down to a wonky window seal or drain channel, but general interior dampness could also be a displaced rear wiper hose or some problem with one of the rubber floor bungs, most of which are probably best left at the side of the road.
Many like to mock the gen-three Jimny, even those traders who don't seem to mind making a nice profit on them. It's one of those cars where a road tester's opinions simply don't matter. It is true that if your needs are for a quiet long-distance cruiser with planted handling, bankvault build and safety, a luxurious interior and a slick gearbox, this little Suzuki will probably be somewhere near the bottom on your list, if not actually at the bottom. You probably wouldn't want to have a crash in one either. We couldn't find an official Euro-NCAP rating for the Mk3.
But if you don't mind bumbling along at a gentle pace, you enjoy SUV visibility and stance without the usual SUV downsides of oversizement, and care not a jot about what the world thinks about you, the Jimny should be somewhat higher on your list. Early (pre-2012) cars were only subject to a couple of recalls in total, one for a loose gear selector bolt on '98-'99 cars and one for a power steering pulley, a remarkably low count which might even be some sort of record.
Most importantly of all though, the people who do own Jimnys tend to love them, warts and all. It may be one of the smallest 4x4s on or off the road, but never underestimate the power of Little Man Syndrome.
[This is an update of a Buying Guide that was first published in 2019]
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