Suzuki’s forty-four years of the 4×4

Suzuki has been producing cars since 1955, when the Suzulight was introduced, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the first four-wheel drive model, the Jimny LJ10, was revealed.

Forty four years of 4×4 later, the range still includes the diminutive Jimny, the small-hatchback Swift 4×4, the new and confusingly named SX4 S-Cross and the soon-to-be-retired Grand Vitara.

With such as diverse range of off-road models to choose from, I travelled up to Yorkshire to put each of them to the test.

First up is the Jimny, a true off-road vehicle despite its diminutive dimensions. Fitted with ‘Drive Select’ four-wheel drive, which features a transfer box with high and low ratio gearing, the 84bhp 1.3-litre petrol engine is all that’s needed to power this micro-Jeep up steep climbs and through deep water.

Approach and departure angles of 34 and 46 degrees are impressive, but its small size means it can’t compare to Land Rover’s finest. However, it’ll get you out of most situations just so long as any ruts you find yourself in aren’t too deep.

It made short work of Yorkshire Outdoor’s off-road course, darting between climb, descent, ford and banking without issue, even once the rain started and things got significantly muddier.

Once you make it back on to the road, the petrol engine will return 39.8mpg while the CD player and air-conditioning will allow you to relax a little. At £11,995, it also undercuts the Fiat Panda Cross and Panda 4×4 by some margin.

I’m a big fan of the Swift Sport, but the Swift 4×4 always seemed like a niche too far. Jumping from the almost agricultural Jimny to the Swift only served to highlight how different the two cars are.

With a ride height increase of just 25mm, there was no chance of getting this family hatchback round the full off-road circuit. Instead it was off to some rough farmland to see how it copes with boggy areas, loose gravel and slippery surfaces.

That’s where the genius of adding four-wheel drive was demonstrated. While any hatchback would have made it round plenty of the course, there were a number of trickier areas where you could feel the viscous coupling moving power to the rear wheels and pushing the car through to safety.

It highlights how useful the system would be in adverse weather, rather than if you find yourself accidentally climbing Kilimanjaro. You’d still be able to pick up some kale from Waitrose with a covering of snow on the roads, where a normal hatchback would see you having to walk to the Tesco Express.

In sunnier conditions it retains the finely balanced handling of the Sport model, but with a little more weight, some extra body roll and a slightly more comfortable ride. The 1.2-litre petrol engine will get you 51.3mpg (at least officially) and you’ll be whizzing along in air-conditioned comfort, all for just £14,159 – about £1,000 less than you’ll pay for the Panda 4×4.

You’ll pay a bit more for the new SX4 S-Cross, but with prices starting at £14,999 for the two-wheel drive version of this Nissan Qashqai-sized soft-roader, it’s not too extreme.

Admittedly my test model was the high-spec SZ5 version with a 1.6-litre diesel engine, with a price tag of £23,549, but that brings in the four-wheel drive All-Grip system along with extra leather, a panoramic sunroof, and plenty of other toys.

Facing gravel and mud roads at speeds that would best be described as anti-social, the automatic shifting of torque around the four wheels left the S-Cross feeling solid and secure. Switching it manually to Sport mode forces the car to utilise the four-wheel drive system to get better traction under hard acceleration and cornering, leaving it feeling really quite agile.

As with the Swift, the fact that it’s not got more ground clearance than many other cars means it’s never going to tackle anything too severe, but in the darkest days of winter it’ll allow you to get out and about with your family.

The final model, the Grand Vitara, was notable by its absence, but with a new SUV coming in 2015 it’s perhaps understandable. Based on the iv-4 concept shown at Frankfurt last year, it looks like being another surprisingly capable car from Suzuki. If their current trend is anything to go by, it’ll also be good to drive and strong value for money.

Here’s looking forward to the New Year.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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