You’d imagine the Suzuki Jimny was much smaller than the Jeep Wrangler, but as the two sit side by side on a Welsh hilltop, gloomy clouds looming over a disinterested sheep, there’s really not that much in it. At least, that’s the impression.
The £17,999 Jimny SZ5, a range-topper with sat-nav, heated seats and cruise control, has followed the eye-slappingly yellow Wrangler Rubicon up the hill to the photo location like a puppy chasing its mum up a set of stairs. A short wheelbase and smaller, narrower wheels mean it rocks and pitches more over Wales’ many convenient lumpy bits, but it still got here.
It sits 1725mm tall, 150mm lower than the £47,745 Wrangler Rubicon in its optional Hellayella Clear Coat paint. The bonnets are similarly about half a standard ruler different; both sitting flat and high for a modern vehicle, clearly in view from each driver’s seat. They could be long-lost brothers and they stand together as two-thirds of the remaining class of cars that wear spare wheels on their backs and bash along muddy trails for fun. The third? The, err, £94,000 Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Not the sort of thing you want to risk scratching unless your title is Sheik.
These two, then, are your options if you want a conventional off-roader with retro charm. Not everyone wants a pickup, however handy on the black stuff that one or two of them now are, and not everyone wants to pay silly money. The near-£30,000 between these two is inescapable, so what more do you get for your money?
For a start the Wrangler is surprisingly enjoyable to biff around in. The steering at first seems boat-slow as you turn in to regulation bends but it soon becomes second nature, the power steering devoid of feel but the chunky leather-wrapped wheel reassuring you that it’s just fine and dandy regardless, thank’ee. It laughs at speed bumps and potholes, too, striking them firmly but with an unmistakeable sense of robustness.
The JL is built to absorb punishment and hit back like mid-1980s Rocky Balboa; you can feel it. It simply monsters everything we dare to throw at it on public land and we don’t even need to lock the diffs.
The electric tech side is all good, too. The main media screen bucks the trend for ultra-wide aspects and goes back to the 1990s with a 4:3 ratio that gives way more screen area than the 8.4-inch on-paper measurement suggests. There’s plenty of exposed yellow metal on show around the doors which is a striking look against the pure 2010s black dashboard and red-stitched black leather seats, but it reminds you that this isn’t a school run sissy. It has heritage to live up to and it’s not about to forget it for the sake of soft-touch A-pillars.
Things are similar in the dinky Suzuki. There’s painted metal to touch and admire – especially if you’re brave with your choice of hue – but here there’s less luxury and very little nonsense. The flat, basic seats frame the hard-finished five-speed manual gearbox lever, light years from the leather-cocooned selector atop the Wrangler’s automatic unit.
The leather steering wheel seems oddly mismatched in this top-spec car, although when your eyes slide across the colourful central media display, cruise control and digital climate control, you realise that the old-school gear knob is actually the anomaly. The main surfaces may be hard and workmanlike, but there’s a rightness about that in this car.
Being so much shorter, though, does bring some drawbacks to the plucky Japanese. Sir would like to stow his pet ant’s weekend luggage in the boot? Alas, that simply isn’t possible. With the two back seats in place there’s less baggage space than in the average credit card wallet. The Jimny was designed to rock around with those chairs folded down to make room for stuff. Shopping? Sure. Gym gear? Absolutely. A muddy sheep you rescued from a ditch on your farm? Go for it. Whatever, really; the textured finish to the hard plastic seat backs can simply be wiped clean with a damp sponge. The Wrangler’s partly carpeted boot is plenty big enough, but it needs a liner.
The Jimny’s short wheelbase makes steep climbs that much scarier, too. Climbing the same rutted tracks in both cars, with peak angles in the high 30s degrees, the Jimny borders on the scary while the Wrangler just feels planted. An off-road amateur like me just feels like the Jimny is going to fall over backwards. It doesn’t, fortunately. That would have made the joint photoshoot awkward. Still, when you’re stretching the two cars’ legs on steep, loose climbs, you can see why the Wrangler costs so much more.
Neither is what you’d call refined on the road. The Jimny’s comically short gearing means it sits at around 3500rpm at 70mph but sounds like it’s doing more like 6000rpm. It’s really light, too, so it gets blown around by crosswinds; a problem its bigger, extremely distant cousin suffers less. The Wrangler’s chunky off-road tyres, meanwhile, hum and whirr like a swarm of bees beneath your seat, at least until the kerfuffle gets lost in the wind noise. The Pentastar V6 does give it an unexpected turn of speed, at least.
What remains stark at all times is just how similar these cars really are. They work well in the same environments, the Jimny’s lightness and simplicity giving the Wrangler’s brute strength a stern challenge in the dirt. They fall flat versus traditional cars when it comes to crushing distances; neither is quiet or comfortable enough for that.
The industrious Jimny will muster about 40mpg while the Wrangler struggles to stay in the low 20s, but the Wrangler gives you a bullish midrange and quick gear shifts that leave 200bhp-ish hot hatchbacks trailing. Pick your poison, but neither fails to make you smile.
Both are fundamentally flawed, and both are immensely likeable for it. This is not a twin-test in the sense of there being a winner; we love them both and there’s just too much financial distance between them to actually compare them. This drive was about finding common blood between cars born over 6700 miles apart (over 8300 if you fly it), and there’s an ocean of it. These two are united in providing something a bit different, rich with unorthodox talent, and each must present a deeply involving ownership experience.
We all have a list of attainable cars we need to own one day. Whichever one you prefer, one of these should be on yours.