Suzuki Samurai (SJ Series) – 1986

The Suzuki Samurai had more aliases than Mr Nice. The early star of the SJ series began in 1982 as the Suzuki Jimny (SJ-30), a ‘kei car’ of restricted dimensions and power that exempted a domestic vehicle from various swingeing Japanese road taxes.

For export, the Jimny became longer, wider and more powerful, but less easily identifiable as versions of the same car under a plethora of names including Sierra, Potohar, Caribbean, Santana, Sidekick, Holden Drover (Australia) and Maruti Gypsy (India).

There were two principal models: the 1 litre SJ41O (short and long wheelbase), and the 1.3 litre SJ413, introduced in 1984 as a five-speed manual with a wider axle, power brakes, a revamped body and new interior with redesigned dashboard and seats. With unofficial imports rising to the USA, Suzuki incorporated every feature they could think of, and in 1985 unveiled the Suzuki Samurai as their 1986 offering to the US.

The Samurai felt like the ultimate off-road 4WD, and in the 1980s, it was. Whatever combination of engine, body style or equipment you wanted was readily available, cheap and easy to modify. In 1988 it was even re-tuned for better on-road performance, as urban fans sought to improve its all-round practicality for school and mall runs.

It could look macho (take the doors off for the ‘riding shotgun in attack helicopter’ pose) or feminine or surfer cool; jounce across the dunes; pick its way up a ravine; or just flit quickly through the back streets to work. Among pro-active off-roaders it was a byword for maneuverability, traction (especially towing), acceleration, handling, fuel economy and above all reliability.

In 2007, a heavily modified Suzuki Samurai (SJ413) with a supercharged engine set a new World Record for the highest altitude attained by a four-wheeled vehicle, of 6,688 metres (21,942 ft).That’s off-roading.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:

Japan

FIRST MANUFACTURED:

1986 (until 1995 in the USA)

ENGINE:

1,324 cc Straight Four

PERFORMANCE:

Top speed of 81 mph (130 km/h)

YOU SHOULD KNOW:

A damaging report by the Consumers’ Union in 1988 appeared to imply that the Suzuki Samurai was liable to ‘unacceptable’ amounts of rollover (a charge also levelled at the AMC Jeep CV-5 and the CJ-7. Suzuki sued for ‘fraudulent testing’, but by the time the CU had agreed that their choice of wording was unfortunate and actually meant something different (the case was eventually settled out of court in 2004) US sales of the Samurai had plummeted.

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