It’s the miniature SUV that’s making autowriters sound uncomfortably like : Top Jimny struts! Top Jimny swings! He’s got the look! Top Jimny, he’s the king! Suzuki’s Jimny should not be confused with the GMC Jimmy; that was a Blazer-by-another-name that was succeeded by the more serious-sounding Envoy. This Jimny is the brand-new fourth generation of a vehicle that has been in production since 1970 and which we knew in second-gen form as the Samurai. Primarily intended as a Japanese-market kei car with a 660cc turbocharged three-cylinder, the Jimny is sold elsewhere with slightly different body dimensions and stouter engines.
It’s no surprise to me that my colleagues are infatuated with the Jimny, which looks disturbingly like a cross between a Defender 90 and the electric-mouse Pokemon known as Pikachu. I think it’s pretty neat myself. Back when brand-new Samurais could be had for $7995 with a hardtop, they were extremely popular with my fellow BMX racers and mountain bikers. As a way to get one person and a bicycle up a dirt path to a remote trailhead, or as a way to squeeze into 12 feet of empty curb next to a popular downtown skatepark, the old Samurai was tough to beat, and I assume that the new model would replicate those virtues.
The American dealer network for Suzuki’s four-wheeled offerings has been dead for more than six years now, so you won’t be seeing the Jimny in a showroom near you. Is this a tragedy? Could the micro-machine Jimny have conquered the land that invented super-sizing for 39 cents?
My answer to the above: no, and also no. Americans wouldn’t bother to buy the Jimny, or anything like it, in quantity—but that’s not because we’re too stupid or crass to understand the product. Rather, it’s because our market already offers several superior options, and virtually all of us are smart enough to recognize that. We are also aware that the American automotive landscape has changed significantly since the last time a Jimny was sold on these shores, and in ways that would make its successor even less fit for purpose here.
Most of the Jimny’s biggest fans were barely toddlers when the Samurai was flying off lots in 1988. So they won’t remember the frustration felt by drivers in much faster and more powerful cars—such as, for example, a slope-nosed 1981 Cavalier "Type 10" hatchback, or an automatic-transmission Aries "K"—when they spotted the Samurai’s distinctive bumper-mounted tail lamps swelling in their windshield. Nor will they recall the abject terror of being the operator of said Samurai driving up even a mild grade with the throttle pinned to the stop and the speedometer needle wobbling as it fell below 65, even as each and every perpendicular breeze threatened to put the whole shebang upside-down in a ditch.
A quick spin in a Samurai would bring them right up to speed on these shortcomings, but how could such an event happen nowadays? In much the same way that an architect’s worst college-campus excesses are mercifully ameliorated by ivy, the Samurai’s many and varied dynamic shortcomings were quickly blotted-out by the rust that ate them from cowl to frame, often before the four-year bank notes were paid in full. A nontrivial percentage of Samurais were sold without four-wheel-drive; those quickly disappeared into ditches and hedges during winter. As I write this, there are just ten of the little Suzukis left for sale , compared with eight Veyrons and 27 Testarossas.
The new Jimny has 35 percent more power, modern rust prevention, and a full suite of stability-control features, so I would expect to see mild improvement in all of the above-noted problem areas. Unfortunately for Suzuki, however, the rest of the automotive world has spent the past 30 years in an arms race to make cars bigger, faster, and more effortlessly nimble at speed. The contemporaneous driver of an ‘88 Samurai might have seen a 98-horse Nissan Stanza approaching from behind, sitting on 185-width tires and prone to terrifying its operator with equal measures of greasy understeer and lift-throttle oversteer. Today’s Jimny pilot would find the mirror filled with 300-horse sedans and 420-horsepower pickups that teach their drivers to act with arrogant, careless impunity. The phrase "rolling chicane" comes to mind. Let’s not even discuss the carnage that would occur at stoplight grands prix from 110th Street to the Sunset Strip. Woe betide the Suzuki owner waiting for the green with a two-into-one merge ahead; everything faster than a ‘79 240D is going to get there first.
Yet some of us would surely brave all of the above terrors, and more, to get a vehicle with the Jimny’s remarkable simplicity and off-road prowess. Which brings us to the next problem: capability vs. cost. While it’s impossible to precisely determine the retail price a new Jimny would command on the US market, we can take a rough guess by looking at the price of similar vehicles in the markets where the Suzuki will be sold. The easiest matchup is another enthusiast favorite: the ND Miata. Assuming a similar ratio between world and US pricing, and adjusting for equipment, I feel confident that the Jimny would sell for something like $25,000-27,000 here, assuming that there was little to no extra cost involved in meeting US safety regulations.
I know, I know—that seems high. But it’s no longer possible to sell fully-featured off-road vehicles for under 20 grand in the States. , basically a 1955 Jeep built on paid-off tooling by extremely low-cost labor that meets zero safety standards, is a $15,000 off-road-only proposition here. Truthfully, selling the Jimny for $25,000 would be a genuine fiscal challenge for the folks at Suzuki, even if they had their dealer situation sorted, which they don’t.
Is there any competition for the Jimny at that price? Only the new Jeep Wrangler, which can be had with an automatic transmission with twice as many gears as the Suzuki's, nearly triple the horsepower, for about 29 grand. It’s difficult to conceive of any task that a Wrangler couldn’t do better than a Jimny, with the exception of parking in San Francisco.
What if I don’t need to worry about length or weight? It’s no trick to get a 4x4 Chevrolet Colorado for under 30 grand. It doesn’t look like a Pokemon, but the first time you need to carry anything besides a BMX bike you’ll be glad for the extra space.
But wait, there’s more. The majority of new cars in this country aren’t purchased; they are leased. Having written literally thousands of leases during my time in automotive sales and finance, I can assure you that that the Jimny would be more expensive to lease than, say, a brand-new Ford F-150 4x4. The capability difference between a Jimny and an F-150 is something like the firepower difference between a .22-caliber "Saturday Night Special" and Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Magnum.
The Suzuki fans will complain that the Wrangler, Colorado, and F-150 are all lacking the Jimny’s quirky cuteness and utili-chic appeal, and their complaints in that regard are valid. In the real world, however, new cars tend to be purchased by those who make their decisions based on bang for the buck. Even if they don’t need 100 percent of that bang. Better to have it and not need it, right? Especially when the added capability is virtually free.
Which leads to a valid question: If Americans are so smart when it comes to buying F-150s instead of tiny SUVs, why doesn’t the rest of the world follow our lead?
The answer is simple: customers in the United States don’t have the same regulatory, taxation, and social burdens faced by their counterparts elsewhere. When I bought my 6.2-liter Silverado Max Tow last year, I didn’t pay a penny extra in tax for the big V8. I don’t pay any more to register it, to park it, or to insure it. My hometown of Powell, Ohio has yet to institute the width restrictors that keep big trucks out of certain London neighborhoods. I don’t pay a congestion charge levied against a certain type of engine. At no point in my ownership history, past or present, did I or will I face additional penalties, financial or physical, for owning a large truck instead of a cute-ute.
If you like, you are free to decry all of the above freedoms as wasteful, ecologically dangerous, environmentally unsound, aesthetically repugnant, or politically incorrect. That doesn’t make them any less real, nor does it change the impact that they have on vehicle choice. You’re even free to work for regulatory change in that regard, if you like. Given world enough and time, you might eventually get enough laws and taxes passed to change my behavior and the behavior of others like me. Gas taxes, displacement taxes, gross vehicle weight taxes. Any governmental incentive you could imagine has probably been implemented somewhere in the world at some point in time. Heck, the United Kingdom used to tax vehicles on piston diameter, which led to the development of fast-spinning long-stroke engines. Do that, and you’ll see the pushrod V8 disappear almost immediately.
In the meantime, however, the American customer is going to keep making the smartest choices possible. Not the hippest choices, and certainly not the coolest choices—but the smartest choices for their perceived needs and desires. In the famous words of The Wire’s Marlo Stansfield: "You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way." Just being cool isn’t enough. The original Top Jimmy, a real-life Los Angeles rock star who inspired the Van Halen song of the same name, would tell you that, if he could, but he can’t. He died of liver failure just a few years after the Suzuki Samurai left American showrooms. Take note, would-be rock stars both musical and automotive: It’s not enough to be cool. You gotta be smart about it, too.