Off-road cult classic Suzuki Jimney returns refreshed
Creating a cult object from scratch is not an easy task. Way back before the internet ‘democratised’ visual culture, certain totemic items of mass-produced design were secretly cherished and revered by a select group of tastemakers. From Leica cameras to Bauhaus furniture, Braun electronics to mid-century ceramics, the cult object codified a level of taste and connoisseurship; it conveyed authenticity. Way back in the mid-1980s Deyan Sudjic even wrote a book, Cult Objects, to chart this new-found fascination with the status of design.
Arguably, this era of design fetishism has passed, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from every sector from trying to tap into the cult ethos. Take Suzuki’s new Jimny, a cult object for the modern era. A compact 4x4 with relatively limited availability in Europe, the Jimny is a calculated attempt at ticking all the boxes. The original Jimny was launched in Japan in 1970, a Suzuki-branded version of a compact Jeep-like vehicle first built by the Hope Motor Company a few years earlier. The Jimny was a kei car, the Japan-specific designation for ultra-compact, small-engined vehicles that was originally introduced in 1949. Smaller, lighter and far less powerful than other off-roaders of the era, the Jimny was nonetheless supremely capable. This pocket-sized prowess earned it plaudits in the decades that followed, and the distinctly Jeep-like styling eventually gave way to a boxier, more upright vehicle.
Longevity and consistency are other integral elements of cultish design. The last generation Jimny was introduced in 1998 and survived for 20 years, during which time its physical appearance stayed pretty much constant. It was unrefined and almost agricultural to drive, but it was compact and could genuinely go anywhere, earning it a low-key cult status. The new Jimny, on the other hand, was greeted with unbridled desire by practically everyone, from fans of the original to those looking for something small, stylish and authentically utilitarian. It’s not hard to see why. Unashamedly rectilinear in form, the Jimny evokes memories of utility vehicles from decades gone by with its squared off corners, body panels that look as if they’ve been stamped out by hand, chunky bumpers and wheel arches, paired with off-road staples like the rear-mounted spare wheel and plenty of ground clearance. There’s more than a hint of the classics in there – the Mercedes G-Wagen, the original Land-Rover, even the monstrous Hummer H2 – but the Suzuki’s packaging is delectably compact in comparison.
Like its larger brethren, the Jimny is also a bit of a throwback to drive, bouncing around on high suspension with a lot of wind noise and steering and gears that are anything but precise. There are concessions to modernity in the interior, with a touch screen no less, but the simple folding back seats, grab handles and hard-wearing finishes are just as suited to hauling a (small) bale of hay around a muddy field as they are to running urban errands. It is undeniably small, at just 3.6m long, but this is an unqualified advantage (indeed, without the wide wheel arches of the export model, the Jimny still qualifies as a kei car back in Japan).
The Jimny has a similar origin story to Land-Rover’s iconic Defender, although the latter survived for far longer and is on a much larger scale. The newly revealed Land Rover Defender is a good example of how cult objects have had to evolve. The new model has to be all things to all people, satisfying the rigorous demands of modern legislation and the high standards of premium car buyers as well as cater to the memories accumulated over decades by its aficionados and loyal enthusiasts. The Defender was a cultish car that has finally joined the mainstream. The Jimny has never had to bear such a weight of expectations. As a result, it’s stayed true to its roots and looks set to retain cult status. §