Transport / Japan
The diminutive but hardy Suzuki Jimny, a nippy SUV, has maintained cult status for years. We find out what’s driving the owners’ obsession.
For 50 years fans of the Suzuki Jimny have been drawn to its peerless combination of utility and personality. First released by the Japanese automaker in 1970, it has sold 2.9 million units over three generations of models in more than 190 countries. It’s a compact four-wheel-drive and the precisely engineered mechanics of its chassis mean that it’s equally trusted by professionals rallying in Australian safari races as it is by mailmen delivering on winding roads in Japan’s snow-hit regions.
And then there are the aesthetics: cute to some, cool to others, there’s something appealing about a miniature version of an all-terrain car that’s usually tough and muscular. And nowhere is more fanatic about this micro-machine than Japan. Set up independently from the Suzuki brand, the country boasts dedicated magazines, books, events and workshops for fans to enjoy.
Twenty years on from the last new model, the fourth-generation Jimny, launched in 2018, was an overwhelming hit. Within one month, orders had exceeded Suzuki’s domestic annual sales target of 15,000 and the vehicle sold out globally. Over the page we speak to some enthusiastic owners and the Jimny’s chief engineer to find out why.
To consider oneself a true Jimny enthusiast, attending the Jimny Carnival is a rite of passage. Since its inauguration in 1982 it has grown to be the biggest Jimny jamboree for private owners. This year, on an autumnal weekend, a colourful army of nearly 400 Jimnys rolled into Akiha Auto Campsite on Tenryu River in Hamamatsu. It’s organised by Jimny Club of Japan (JCJ), a private owners’ club with a nationwide membership of about 600 people. The two-day event saw an opening speech by the chairman Yutaka Nikaido, followed by photo sessions, a bustling auto-goods flea market and a time-trial race on the rocky riverbank.
Men and women of all ages come to admire each other’s uniquely customised Jimnys, some done up professionally, others a little more DIY. One man had given his Jimny a perfect military makeover. Dressed in head-to-toe military garb, he maintains that he cannot reveal his identity because nobody (including his boss) should know his whereabouts. MONOCLE also meets a mechanic from another Japanese automaker, as well as a proud 18-year-old girl who had just bought herself a navy JA22 Jimny after passing her driving test. While a father-and-son duo relax by their self-customised SJ10 double-bed mobile capsule-hotel edition Jimny, a former rally racer revs up his motor on the riverbank.
A quick chat with the JCJ chairman – also the publisher of Jimny Super Suzy magazine – reveals how a Jimny obsession can cloud a fan’s perspective. “I have bought more than 80 Jimnys in my life,” says Nikaido. “Mind you, now I only own 11 of them.”
As MONOCLE tries to think of a suitably quippy response, an overconfident Jimny driver racing in the time-trial behind us suddenly flips and crashes into the riverbank. But Nikaido doesn’t seem to notice and continues: “Some people own more than 50 – they are the really crazy ones.”
Hiroyuki Yonezawa is a key figure behind Suzuki’s globally successful fourth-generation Jimny that was released last year. Since joining the Japanese car manufacturer in 1987 he has worked on various models, including Every and Carry, before becoming the chief engineer of four-wheel-drive models of the Escudo and Jimny in 2013. Tasked to develop a new Jimny, he travelled through Japan, Europe and Africa to get feedback from users to understand the demands the next-generation vehicle would need to meet. monocle sat down with the guardian of Jimny’s design legacy at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Today most car models in the market are upgraded regularly. Why did the last Jimny model not get a refresh for 20 years?
Jimny is a car of function more than design; trends don’t affect us. No other car in the world is this compact and has this unique four-wheel-drive system. We often call it “the one and only”.
What, then, influenced the upgrade last year?
Everyone shares our unwavering vision: to maintain real four-wheel-drive capacity and functional beauty. We succeeded in keeping the four-wheel-drive performance and small size, while improving the safety standards for use on paved roads and off-road trails. Many people think it’s similar to the second-generation Jimny but that’s wrong. We scraped off every unnecessary element and arrived at this design. The squarish shape came from our relentless pursuit of simplicity and functionality.
What audience did you have in mind for this vehicle?
We saw three tiers. At the top of the pyramid are professional users: those who need this car to do their work in the field of forestry, for example. In the middle sit the daily users: again, those who need it in the mountainous and snowy regions. Last but not least we have regular customers. These are the people who admire simple, functional equipment used by professionals, such as a dive watch or down jacket. They may not dive or climb Everest but they enjoy these tools. By targeting the professionals, we thought ordinary customers might appreciate the Jimny’s value.
What are the new design features?
We developed new colours with function in mind. The kinetic yellow is designed to stand out in the field for rescue teams, while jungle green is made to blend in with nature. Jungle green is the most popular colour. We also inherited design features from past models, such as a five-slot front grille and a round headlamp, and tweaked them for modern use.
What’s the secret to maintaining Jimny’s cult following?
The car is simple and functional – you can’t get bored with it. And the more you use it, the better it ages. If you look at the model from two decades ago, it is still cool – even with some rust and scratches on the body.
Jimny in numbers
1970 – 1981: first generation
The first model debuted with a tiny 360cc engine. It was a global hit and built the foundation of core chassis for later Jimnys.
1981 – 1998: second generation
This sporty all-terrain vehicle was designed to target a more urban market and succeeded.
1998 – 2018: third generation
This Jimny proved was equally adept on mountainous terrain and narrow city streets, while the exterior design received a fresh, curvy makeover.
2018: fourth generation
Cute but tough, the new Suzuki Jimny raced off the starting grid to worldwide sales success after debuting last year.