Take a quick look at the Suzuki Jimny and you could easily mistake it for a Matchbox toy, or something you would buy a toddler to push around in the garden. It is, in fact, South Africa’s smallest off-roader and you should consider buying one – if you like getting your shoes dirty! As usual, I’m not going to beat around the bush (excuse the pun) with this little tyke – it’s terrible in any environment that doesn’t contain long grass, rutted tracks and the odd mud pool. I don’t care what you have read elsewhere – the Jimny is one of those cars that have one purpose and that’s it.

But let me not detract from its character and fun factor. First off, it’s cute, in a tickle-its-chin kind of way. Short and tall, and with fake Willys Jeep looks, it puts a smile on your face before you’ve driven it. The short overhangs, cheeky wheels and chunky tyres make it appear butch, but in a giggly manner. Unlocking the driver’s door via remote central locking presents you with a bland but very purposeful interior, with a no-frills-no-fuss layout, and materials which you could probably just hose down when dirty.

The cabin is spartan, but that’s how it should be! You don’t buy this car because you want built-in sat nav, climate control or oodles of leather. Instead, you get a simple instrument cluster, well-proportioned steering wheel, and a centre console with only the minimum of must-have mod cons. These include air con as standard, as well as a front-loading CD player.

It must be said, however, that the standard speakers are such trash that I didn’t even bother with any sort of music during the test. The Jimny does make up for this with a soundtrack that will make any true petrol head smile – you can hear all the mechanics as they work together to move you along, including a fantastic gearbox whine. On the safety front, the Jimny comes with two front airbags, ABS and an immobiliser.

As the exterior dimensions suggest, the Jimny is small inside too. But it’s cosy, especially when you have four adults on board. Rear seat passengers had better be good friends, because they’re going to be rather cramped, especially when sitting behind a tall driver. The boot is excellent for minor shopping trips – it’s so small your bags won’t be able to roll around! Should you need more space however, the rear bench folds down to offer a considerable increase over what is best described as a crevice.

Refinement is also not a strong point in this car. Wind noise and NVH levels are pathetic, but in a pukka off-roader way. It reminded me of my uncle’s old Mitsubishi Colt, the way the gear lever fizzes with the gear box, and the pedals vibrate under your feet as the engine whirrs along. Speaking of which, the Jimny is (under)powered by a 63 kW, 110 N.m DOHC VVT 16-valve 1,3-litre motor, which is longitudinally mounted due to the four-wheel-drive system. And I say under powered, because even though it’s not a very heavy car, the power and torque profiles are not suited to a relaxed or economic driving style.

Bouncy suspension and a seemingly hard ride means undulating roads and especially speed bumps are a bit of a pain, and on-road handling can be disconcerting because the power-assisted steering is too sensitive. The Jimny also battles with crosswinds, and let’s not talk about driving in heavy rain (I engaged 4WD for added control during one serious downpour).

One might think that a small car like this would be light on fuel, but because the power peaks at 6 000 rpm, you have to rev the pants off it to move with the traffic. And with a fuel tank capacity of only 40 litres, you’re not going to go far between fill-ups. Trying to maintain 120 km/h on the highway means constant bursts of foot-flat acceleration, and the car’s non-aerodynamic shape doesn’t help either. Suzuki claims 7,2 litres/100 km, but they must have been dreaming. They also claim a more realistic zero to 100 km/h time of 14,1 seconds, and a top speed of 140 km/h. I managed a good 30 km/h more than that, but only for a very brief period, and yes, it was scary.

But enough about the bad points, because there’s one environment in which the Jimny outshines many other mud-flinging cars. It’s simply fabulous off road! It constantly searches for the end of the tarmac, and when it eventually finds it, puts on a new face and tugs at its leash to be set free.

With three drive modes (2WD, 4WD and 4WD Low Range) you are guaranteed ultimate control, and the fact that you can switch between two- and four-wheel drive on the move means that you are unlikely to get stuck. On a moderate off road track with the Jimny’s drive train switched to 4WD-L, it absolutely loved a combination of steep climbs and descents, deep ruts (wheel articulation is excellent), wet-your-pants gradients and even some mandatory Sandton pavement hopping!

It was unlike any other car I’ve ever driven, this tiny Japanese toy. Despite all its weaknesses, irritation factors and quirks, I had a smile on my face whenever I drove it, and a burning desire to just drive over things, almost as if I was bigger and better than everyone else. For a smidge under R180 000 yes, it’s an expensive smile when one considers the Jimny’s on-road limitations, but if you have the spare money and you enjoy the occasional frolic in the bush, forget about a Jeep or Land Rover with their fancy paintwork and ridiculous sticker prices. Just buy a Jimny, and smile.

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