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Car History: Suzuki’s 4X4 heritage

How and why did Suzuki come to be a respected, but niche, manufacturer of 4x4s? With a new Vitara now on sale, we thought we’d take a look at Suzuki’s 4×4 heritage.

MOST 4X4 MANUFACTURERS boast they are unlike any other. Suzuki doesn’t need to make such a claim because it’s quite clear they are unique…

The statistics tell the story. The Suzuki Jimny Sierra is only 3.6 metres long and 1.6 wide. The LC200, for example, stretches nearly 5m long and almost 2m across. The LC200 weighs around 2600kg, and in an age where we consider a two-tonne 4WD light, the current-model Jimny is featherweight 1060kg.

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A 2015 Jimny with an LC80 and LC100.

But like all cars, the Jimny has put on weight over the years, and in fact is a gargantuan porker compared to its ancestors. The story begins in 1909, when Michio Suzuki started the Suzuki Loom works in 1909 to make the complex looms demanded by Japan’s silk industry.  The early fifties saw a downturn in the cotton market, so the company decided to spread its risk and diversify into motor vehicles – this was at a time when cars were sufficiently simple to permit that sort of decision.  The first design was a 36cc Suzuki assister engine for pushbikes. The success of that venture saw a name change to Suzuki Motor Works, followed by production the tiny Suzulight car in 1955.

Well ahead of its time, the Suzulight was Japan’s first car with front wheel drive and boasted rack and pinion steering with independent suspension. A feature that you don’t find today was a two-stroke engine, fuelled with the usual petrol but with a pump to suck lubricating oil into the crankcase from a special sump. This was Suzuki’s CCI system, and a world first for two-strokes, avoiding the need to run on premix.

The Suzulight was a success, and Suzuki have thereafter specialised in small vehicles which made the products a natural fit for Japan’s ‘keicar’ concept; an official specification of vehicle that limited dimensions to tiny proportions, engine size and power with the aim of making post-war cars affordable to all Japanese. Suzuki produced several, and their offroad story began in 1968, when the company bought the rights to the Hope Motor Co ON360 which had run into difficulty.

In 1970 Suzuki developed the ON360 into their first 4WD, the Light Jeep 10, or LJ10. Power came from a Mitsubishi 360cc two-stroke, aircooled engine which developed 19kw; not a lot, but multiply it out and if it was a 3-litre that’d be 158kw. Even that little power was enough to move the tiny 590kg keicar with its four-speed manual transmission, transfer case and 1:38 crawl ratio. Regulations stated keicars had to be less than 1.3m wide – that’s 0.3m narrower than today’s Jimny which is considered tiny today – and less than 3m long – or 0.6m shorter than a Jimny. Suzuki only achieved the specifications by dispensing with doors and mounting the spare wheel behind the driver to make it a three-seater. The LJ10 was capable of 72kpmh, but really wasn’t designed for speed. The owner’s manual says that 20-30mm of play in the steering wheel is to be expected, and most LJ10s were moved from place to place on the back of utes.

The LJ10 was the first mass-produced 4WD keicar, and an unqualified success both in Japan and abroad. The tiny vehicle’s offroad ability, low cost and sheer fun factor guaranteed sales and it was not long before the LJ20 appeared in 1972 with a 24kw water-cooled engine. This was followed in 1974 by the LJ50, which was a response to changed keicar regulations.  The LJ50 was imported to Australia by Ateco Automotive, sold for $2880 in 1977 and began to build the reputation Suzuki has today amongst the serious 4WD community.

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The LJ50 was powered by a 539cc three-cylinder two-stroke with 25kw, could hit 100kmph on a good day, had a 30L fuel tank and weighed 730kg. Still just under 1.3m wide, it had lengthened to just over 3m with the spare on the back – by comparison, the wheelbase of a modern Ford Ranger is about 3.2m. 

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An interesting feature was the way the heater fan could be used to pressurise the clutch and distributor when crossing deep rivers to keep water out.   But that feature wasn’t needed when I visited Alan Johnson of Piranha Offroad to discover his collection of historic Suzukis, and I was fortunate to slip behind the wheel.

The LJ50 is an experience like no other vehicle. It’s like riding a chainsaw with wheels and the engine buzzes like a wasp on steroids. There’s no off-idle crawling, just revs. You almost get down into the car, not climb up and in, and  from either seat you can almost touch any corner of the car. It’s like you’re a little Action Man strapped to a remote control toy.  And it’s as much fun as it sounds, like no other vehicle you feel part of the car.

The driving technique is different too. LJs are narrow and easy to roll, so you don’t do sideangles; but nor do you need to. With approach and departure angles of pretty much vertical you just point the car and off it goes, nothing stops it, it won’t sink into anything unless it’s made of talc, and you can fit through gaps that just don’t exist for any other vehicle. There’s no engine braking, but you don’t really need it so light is the car. It’s a different world, and you have to rewire your offroading brain when you drive one. IMG_2152

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Another world was Alan’s modified LJ50; same engine, but widened with later-model axles and modern suspension. The stability and ride improvements were staggering, and the speed with which the little car could cover ground was breathtaking, really highlighting how far suspension design has come in thirty years and how lightness conquers all, if a car doesn’t weight much you don’t need hyper-sophiscated suspension, it just floats over rough ground.

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Then in 1977 the LJ80 was released, last of the LJ line, with a four-cylinder two-stroke engine, and it had metal doors. In 1980 Suzuki Australia was established, taking over from distributor Ateco, and that was also the year that an Aussie 4WD magazine took an LJ80 and LJ81 traytop across the Simpson to recreate Madigan’s crossing some forty years earlier. Yes, Suzukis do the long treks too, and at the time the editor reckoned less than thirty people had done the trip. If you read the story you won’t wonder why. The LJ81 had a modified and stronger rear end for load, initially starting out as the Stockman ute, but the replacing the other LJ80 models.

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Then in 1982 the LJ name consigned to history and the little offroader and became known as the SJ410, or Suzuki Jeep, 4WD, 1.0, with a name of Sierra. Some of these were license-built by Maruti in India, and found their way to Australia. The engines were by now four-strokes, Suzuki having finally given up on two-strokes. The new engines made the SJs far more car-like, and then there were more instruments, seatbelts and other features you’d expect in cars. Ian Glover wrote in Overlander, August 1983 that “there’s no drama driving the [long wheelbase] on the open road”, something that couldn’t be said of the previous models. Disc brakes up front helped too.

I drove two of Alan’s SJ collection and the difference with the two-strokes was marked; much more tractable, broader power range, almost modern and you don’t disappear in a cloud of blue smoke. But somehow you feel you’re trading something interesting and special for a bit of civility.

Even so, the SJs were still tiny compared to the rest of the 4WDs, but vehicle development waits for nobody. Suzuki brought out the popular SJ413 (1.3L) in 1984, and in 1985 Holden produced an SJ413 variant called the Drover, ending production in 1987. A modified SJ413 broke the vehicle altitude record in 2007, ascending to 6,688m in Chile, perhaps a high point in Suzuki’s history.

A definite low point was the 1988 Consumer Reports article published in the USA that said the SJ was likely to roll. This pretty much killed sales of the car in the North America, and started a long-running legal battle that was only concluded in 2004.  For the record, the car itself was safe enough but it seems the magazine felt some drama would be in order.  Nevertheless, the issue did force Suzuki to widen the SJ by 100mm for public perceptions if nothing else, and slightly lower it at the same time. This dramatically improved stability and handling, and what little was lost with weight was more than repaid by an increased ability to tolerate sideslopes.

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1988 also saw the release of a new Suzuki 4WD, the Vitara. This was bigger, no keicar, and sported independent front suspension, disc brakes, an automatic transmission option, coil springs and a 1.6l engine. It was far more car than any Suzuki 4WD beforehand, and was an immediate success. In 1992 a long wheelbase version was released and the engine moved to 16v.

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Suzuki had not neglected its small 4WD though, even though it had outgrown the keicar standards, and in 1993 the car was known as the Sierra. Suzuki seem to interchange the names Jimny, Sierra, and Samurai at different times on different markets. In any case the Sierra was given a 1.3L aluminium engine, and in 1995 a huge change with coil springs. The “Coily” was not as popular with the offroad fraternity as while the ride was good, the short control arms meant articulation was poor. This trait was continued with the current model Jimny, released in 1998 and still available in revised form today. This model has an automatic transmission option, power windows and dual front airbags with a 63kw engine.  And the current model?  We’ve got an in-depth test you can read here – couple of pictures below:

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Meanwhile the Vitara range was proving successful, with the notable exception of the X-90, a coupe produced from 1996 to 1998 which was mainly famous for being the Red Bull car of the time. More popular was the Vitara, which morphed into the larger Grand Vitara in 1999, and from there into the XL-7 in 2000. 

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XL-7 on test. Scroll down for a brief review dating from 2005.

This was Suzuki’s first, and only venture into a 7-seater, discontinued when the second-generation Grand Vitara hit the markets in 2006. These models had stability and traction control, fully independent suspension, automatic and manual transmission and were Suzuki’s first diesels.

The new Grand Vitaras cars give nothing away in the handling department; they are sharp, nimble machines that handle better than the average small SUV, not least because they are rear-drive biased. Yet they also better all the softroaders in the bush as – praise be to Suzuki — they still boast low range, and all this at a bargain price.  Here’s a Grand Vitara I had on test a few years ago, and it would still be a great buy today. We once put one a Grand up against a Freelander 2 and my panel of 4WD instructors handed the Suzuki a win hands-on, as basic engineering beat electronic prowess – at least, that time.

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Then in 2006 Suzuki, with Fiat involvement, produced the SX4 softroader which is their first 4WD without low range.  The story so far ends with the Vitara of 2015 you see below, slotting in below the Grand Vitara:

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We have a first drive impression here.

Suzuki 4WDs have attracted a large and loyal following, with many clubs around the world and several in Australia. It’s not hard to see why. Small, nimble, cheap 4WDs properly designed for the rough stuff are a definite recipe for fun. Every 4WD enthusiast should, at some point in their life, drive a Suzy in its natural environment. Here’s hoping there’s at least another forty years of serious offroad Zooks to bring a smile to our faces.

Special thanks to Alan Johnson of Piranha Offroad for invaluable assistance with this feature, and kind hospitality.

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In the foreground is a 2008 Grand Vitara. The yellow ute is an SJ413 built as a quick-reaction firetanker. The blue one is a mid-eightes Holden Drover. The red ute is a SJ413 based competition car; superb in low-speed rough stuff, but not so great at power events. The camo special at the back is an LJ50 with LJ80 axles and modern suspension. The white ute is another SJ, and in the centre is the ancestor; a stock standard LJ50 complete with two-stroke engine and no doors.

Suzuki Timeline

  • Suzuki Loom Works founded.
  • Successfully markets a 36cc assister engine for pushbikes, changes name to Suzuki Motor Co
  • First car, the Suzulight
  • LJ10, the first Suzuki 4WD, based on the Hope Motor Co ON360
  • 1972 LJ20, 24kw, 625kg. Water-cooled, 80kmph
  • 1974 LJ50, 635kg, 97kmph, 4-seater
  • 1977 LJ80, last of the LJ line.
  • 1979 Metal doors!
  • 1980 Suzuki Australia established
  • 1981 Jimny; length 3195 exl spare. 539cc.
  • 1982 SJ410 (4WD, l.0 litre). 970cc, 33kw
  • 1984 SJ413 (4WD, 1.3), 48kw. Front disk brakes.
  • 1985 Holden Drover, rebadged SJ410, sold till 1987
  • 1988 American Consumer Reports magazine damns the SJ as prone to rolling.
  • 1988 Vitara launched with 1.6l 60kw engine, IFS, coils and auto option. SJ becomes the Sierra.
  • 1992 Vitara LWB, 70kw, 16v
  • 1993 Sierra launched with 1298cc aluminium engine
  • 1995 “Coily” with coil springs front and rear, engine goes to 16v
  • 1996 X-90 coupe based on Vitara SWB. ABS, auto. Ended in 1998. Flopped.
  • 1998 Grand Vitara replaces Vitara; wider, heavier, more refined. Sierra becomes Jimny, revised to have power windows, automatic transmission
  • 2000 XL-7, Suzuki’s only 7-seater and largest 4WD
  • 2006 Grand Vitara Gen II released, and SX-4, the first softroader.
  • 2014 Jimny updated with electronic stability control
  • 2015 New Vitara released

Here’s a graphical version from Suzuki themselves:

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The LJ50 interior. Aircon standard..
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With a few modifications, Suzukis becomes some of the most capable offroaders you will ever drive.

Jimny Tourer

Who says you can’t tour in a Jimny?  Check out this build for one:

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Suzuki XL-7 Review

This from 2005:

Suzuki’s XL-7 is Grand Vitara based, and hasn’t been replaced in the recent model launch.  It’s the smallest and cheapest vehicle here, available only in petrol.

7-Seater

The third-row people can put their feet under the second row, and the second row is a 60/40 split which can move on rails, so there’s some flexibility which means everyone can get comfy.  That’s an impressive capability for a relatively small vehicle.  On the downside, the third row doesn’t fold down flat properly, and there’s not much in the way of tiedowns.  This is just lazy design and really spoils what could have been a great little 7-seater.  There’s only two child restraints points, but both are built into the seat back.  If you’re into little storage areas dotted around the car you’ll be disappointed, and the middle second-row seat is pushed for legroom.  The second row can fold down, but disappointingly, not flat.

On the road

The Zook is a delight on the roads, definitely on the sporty side with tight, neutral handling and at a svelte 1625kg with an eager engine it’s a take-the-long-road-home car.  It handles dirt roads well, but is disadvantaged by its 2WD transmission.  There’s sufficient power to spin the wheels at 70kmph on a dirt road, and that combined with the too-sensitive throttle response can see power-on oversteer in situations where an all-wheel-drive would be far more controllable and safe.

Off the road

The XL-7 was the only vehicle tested without traction control or a LSD, yet went further than some others purely due to reasonable articulation (provided almost entirely by the rear live axle), low range gearing and a robust body that can take a few knocks.  And it needs to, as the XL-7 doesn’t have much in the way of clearance due to small tyres and a longish wheelbase.  It’s crying out for a little lift and bigger rubber.  Definitely a vehicle with potential.

Summary

Great on-road, works well offroad, spacious seats, disappointments are cargo bay design, and not having all wheel drive to make use of that power and improve the handling still further.  But it’s only $35k, so a lot can be forgiven and there’s plenty of accessories to improve things still further.

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Looks like we got it stuck. Can’t remember why, must have had bad assistants…

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trackdaze
trackdaze
5 years ago

Fond memories of 5 of us kids being ferried to school in an soft shelled lj80 that sometimes involved crossing a flooded creek. Hilly terrain had the suzi in full attack mode on the down hill for the eventual 1st or 2nd gear cresting of the next hill.

Same goes for later on when a mates mid 90s sierra was the reckon vehicle in unknown or tough terrain. If it got stuck it was a “none shall pass” and we could manhandle the thing to get it out.

Suzuki would have been wise to not lean on its 4×4 and vitara heritage and go into the deep pool of small suvs. The marketing anaylst reports don’t lie but they don’t always tell the truth. Its a death spiral.

Look at whos doing well at the moment. Jeep, landrover,toyota. Whilst its true they have suv’s in the mix they have been carefull to keep true offroad credentials intact and distinct.

Bring back the sierra v2.0. There is serious latent demand for it. jimny is too roofy Make it new millenial +1size keep it colin chapman

macca
macca
5 years ago

Maybe I am too old school for the modern world, perhaps I know nothing of marketing and sales. I went to speak with a local the dealer, was invited to the local launch, entered their competition and was waiting with interest. BUGGER IT, another crap, drive the kids to a city school high riding hatchback:( Yes it is lighter than the current model, 1500kg vs 1185kg, probably more economical. But I hate it…..156Nm of torque (225Nm for the old one) front wheel drive bias (AWD for the old one) Who knows what approach angle? Probably about as good in the country as a Holden Cruze. No Suzuki, your chance to stand out from the crowd, offer something enthusiasts want….GONE!

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
1 year ago

While working as a motoring writer in 1990 I borrowed a Maruti-built Sierra Farm Truck through Ateco and was blown away by how well it handled fire trails in the NSW Watagan Mountains. The one litre engine and four speed manual were adequate and the massive ground clearance meant we never clobbered the underside. The build quality could have been better but the cab easily accommodated two bulky blokes and the seating was very comfortable. The most fun I’ve ever had in a small 4WD!

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper