Not many cars have been in production for as long as the Suzuki Jimny has. The nameplate has been around since 1970, while the latest model – which is only the third generation – appeared way back in 1998.
The distinctive boxy shape leaves you in no doubt about the Jimny’s off-road function, and while the straight-edge styling looks a little dated, it’s still handsome, especially in our car’s two-tone black-and-silver scheme.
But when you climb inside, the Jimny’s age is immediately given away by its dated cabin design. The dashboard is basic, while the indicator and windscreen wiper stalks are on opposite sides from where they’re found in nearly every other car on sale today. And while the stereo is integrated into the dashboard, it has hard, clunky buttons – just like the ventilation and 4WD controls.
In some ways, this basic layout adds to the Jimny’s charm, but the driver’s seat doesn’t move far enough back for tall occupants to get comfortable. The rears are cramped, too.
The seatbacks recline and access is split 50:50, but boot space is limited whether the seats are up or down. That’s not due to the full-size spare wheel – which is bolted to the tailgate – but the big side-hinged rear door, which needs space to open fully.
The 1.3-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine is smooth and quiet when you fire it up, but the calm ends as soon as you set off. Short gearing helped the Jimny beat the Panda’s 13.5-second 0-60mph time by two tenths of a second – but the downside is that you end up pulling nearly 4,000rpm at 70mph.
The Jimny’s square shape creates a lot of wind noise at speed, too. Add a bouncy ride, vague steering, top-heavy handling and a gearlever that feels like it’ll pop out of gear if you hit a bump too hard, and the Suzuki is hard work to drive on the road.
Get off the beaten track and switch from rear to all-wheel drive, though, and the car is transformed. Those short ratios and low-range transfer box mean it’s easy to crawl along in first gear to negotiate all sorts of terrain. Short front and rear overhangs let the Jimny take steep slopes in its stride, while gaping ground clearance also helps it in the rough stuff. In fact, nothing short of a Land Rover Defender is as capable off-road.
Unfortunately, the Suzuki delivers mixed results when it comes to the numbers. It’s cheaper than the Fiat, but a dirty petrol engine puts it four road tax brackets higher. Its company car tax band is also 10 per cent higher. With an on-test figure of 34.2mpg, the Jimny didn’t quite match the Panda for fuel economy, but was closer to its maker’s claims. It’s also less expensive to service and boasts stronger residual values.
In some ways, then, the Suzuki remains an appealing choice, but does it do enough to keep the Panda 4x4 honest in this test?