Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Battle of the shorties

What happens when a Jeep Wrangler Sahara two-door and Suzuki Jimny duke it out at an offroad playground? The results are not exactly as you would expect… Our father-and-son team of Anton Willemse Snr and Jnr headed out to Bass Lake for some fun with these “toys”.

Short wheelbase vehicles are known for being pretty nifty in tight off-road conditions, and they have good break-over angles to ace those big humps. So what happens when you pitch a contest between two SWB 4x4s currently in production that are made in the old-school mould? We‘re talking here about a ladder-frame chassis rigid axles front and rear, coil springs, and low-range transfer cases that allow a shift from rear-drive to four-wheel drive.

Our contenders are both very simple, rugged and capable off-roaders with one clear shortcoming in standard trim: they make do with traction control to tame wheelspin when cross-axled, and neither features a standard rear differential lock. In the one corner we have the Jeep Wrangler Sahara two-door, with its price sticker of over R800 000. It features a 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine mated to an eightspeed automatic transmission. In the other corner, we have the diminutive Suzuki Jimny GLX with its little 1.5-litre fourpot petrol engine, mated to a four-speed auto box. The price? Less than half that of the Jeep.

Fair contest? Let’s see. Of course, we’re a little nervous to say anything bad about either vehicle, as both have an almost cult-like following. So, on a sunny Saturday morning after loads of rain during the week we headed off to Bass Lake just outside Johannesburg. Allen Pepper from Bass Lake was happy to take us around the 4×4 track and we even managed to fit in a bit of gravel road testing, notably a tight slalom course.

Jimny first…

The Jimny is a very capable little vehicle, but there are some points where it comes up short. The size of the vehicle does impact on who can buy it, and if you are over six feet tall it gets pretty tight inside. I kept on pressing the overdrive button on the gear-lever with my left leg, sending the wrong signals to the auto box. The Jimny did very well at the slalom gravel course, as the extremely short wheelbase allows for very quick, sharp turns. The downside on tarmac and at speed is a lack of stability in heavy winds. Clambering about off-road is where it truly shines. It climbs through and over obstacles with ease, and even with its limited ground clearance it always manages to keep going. Some of that must be put down to its Allgrip Pro 4×4 system, which is essentially a classic part-time 4×4 system with a transfer case so you can lock in drive to the front wheels when required, with a step-down low-range gear that in effect doubles available torque.

There is unfortunately no locking rear differential, but it does feature a smart traction control system coupled to a Braked Limited Slip Differential (BLSD). When two wheels diagonally apart on either axle lose traction and spin, the system brakes those wheels so torque is redirected to the wheels with grip. The problem is this is a reactive system, so the Jimny felt slow to respond to grip loss and terrain changes.

The Jimny’s interior is plain and functional. The top-spec model we drove now has Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, climate control and a decent sound system, but it is refreshingly simple and free of electronic gadgetry. Space is limited to no more than two adults, and the boot area is rather small, but packed carefully it can take more than you imagine. Fuel consumption is decent too, and being so compact, it is a brilliant little run around in town.

Sahara squares up.

Driving the Jeep Wrangler Sahara, you can’t help but feel like a surfer on your way to the beach. It is a fun vehicle to drive and with a punchy 3.6-litre V6 Pentastar engine putting out 209kW, coupled to an eight-speed transmission, you certainly have plenty of power underfoot.

The Sahara is a little different to its more trail-oriented cousin, the Wrangler Rubicon, which has all-terrain tyres, beefier axles, a sway-bar disconnect to extend front suspension travel when off-road, the Rock-Trac part-time 4×4 system with a 4:1 low-ratio step-down (as opposed to the Sahara’s 2.72:1 ratio), plus it has locking differentials front and rear.

The Sahara uses the Selec-Trac full-time 4×4 system, with a locking centre differential that helps to do all the thinking, sending power to the front by locking up a clutch pack when required, so you can simply enjoy the drive. The system sends torque to the wheels with the most grip, providing optimum traction for all types of conditions. We found the system pretty slick and fast to react to what was actually happening between the tyres and the changing surface. It was more responsive than that of the Jimny, so no surprise that the Sahara aced the 4×4 course at Bass Lake.

The sound system is amazing and the interior is fairly modern, yet sticks to the nostalgic look of previous Jeeps. One could add all sorts of accessories to the Sahara, including a rear differential lock if extra ability was required, but out the box it is a good performer. While stable on tar, it still feels more twitchy than a longer wheelbase 4×4, and with all that power, there is a downside – pretty steep fuel consumption.

A step too far

During our test run, there was one obstacle neither vehicle could conquer, each for a different reason. This was a steep uphill obstacle with some deep cross-axle ruts to contend with, and a fairly large step at the top. Both vehicles navigated the ruts easily with the assistance of a spotter, but the step was too much for them. The Jimny’s downfall was its extremely short wheelbase and those small tyres. It just wasn’t able to get the wheels far enough over the step to gain enough grip, and even if it was able to get the front wheels up, I doubt it would have had enough power to haul itself over the edge.

The Sahara fared similarly through the cross-axle dips and bumps, but because of its wider body we had to choose a different line to prevent damage, and although it managed to gets its front wheels over the edge, the lack of a proper rear diff lock meant it did not have the grip to crest the ledge. The slight hesitation before the traction control kicked in – just a fraction of a second – was enough for the Jeep to lose grip. Perhaps with grippier all-terrain tyres it could have been different, but that is a test for another day.

Both the vehicles actually surprised us with their off-road ability. Despite not having the back-up of a locking rear diff, the traction control worked as it should 90% of the time. However, the limits were clear when it came to steep inclines and the bigger cross-axle situations. It confirmed our belief that for the rough stuff, a locking differential is an essential. So, who would be the winner of the match-up? The answer is neither. Or rather both. The two iconic shorties both have their winning pros, but each has a con or two as well. That said, I like them both for different reasons, and wasn’t able to pick a convincing favourite.

*For the full video review:

By the Numbers

Jeep Wrangler Sahara 2-door

Price: R839 900

Engine: 3.6-litre V6 Pentastar petrol

Output: 209kW and 347Nm

Transmission: 8-speed auto

4×4 system: Select-Trac® 4×4

Fuel consumption: 12.5 litres/100km

Dimensions:

• Length: 4 223mm

• Height: 1 800mm

• Width: 1 873mm

• Wheelbase: 2 424mm

Ground clearance: 239mm

Tare: 1 762kg

GVM: 2 313kg

Approach angle: 37.4˚

Departure angle: 30.5˚

Breakover angle: 24.5˚

Wading depth: 760mm

Tyre size: 255/70/R18

Suzuki Jimny 1.5 GLX 4AT

Price: R365 900

Engine: 1.5-litre petrol

Output:75kW and 130Nm

Transmission: 4-speed auto

4×4 system: Allgrip Pro (+ Braked LSD)

Fuel consumption: 9.5 litres/100km

Dimensions:

• Length: 3 625mm

• Height: 1 720mm

• Width: 1 645mm

• Wheelbase: 2 250mm

Ground clearance: 210mm

Kerb weight: 1 110kg

GVM: 1 435kg

Approach angle: 37.0˚

Departure angle: 49.0˚

Breakover angle: 28.0˚

Wading depth: 300mm

Tyre size: 195/80/R15

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