Flashback Review: 1987 Suzuki Samurai: A clock is an optional extra

I cohabited with one of these for quite some time, and learned how to drive stick on it too during my other life in Hawai‘i. The decomposing car pictured lived in the rain forest, which receives 10 feet per year of acid rain. Could the body rust have been repaired? Absolutely. Would it involve a monthly supply of primer, paint, metal, bondo, and sandpaper? Yes, but this is not that kind of car.

History

Also going under the moniker of “Jimny” outside of the US, the Samurai attracted customers with a price of about $13,200, in today’s money, which is a pretty good deal for a 4 wheel drive car. This was the 1980s, quality standards were lower, expectations were lower, and levels of standard equipment were very low for some automobiles. In 1988, Consumer Reports recommended that all 150,000 copies of this car sold be recalled and permanently removed from US roads due to the rollover hazard.

The following are optional extras:

  • A clock
  • Cloth seats
  • Door cards
  • 3 position interior light
  • Egress handles
  • Tachometer
  • Rear seats
  • Wheel center caps
  • Dipping rearview mirror
  • Upper door trim
  • Air conditioning

The following were not available:

  • Automatic transmission
  • Power windows
  • Power steering
  • A tape deck
  • Fuel injection
  • Airbags
  • Cassette player
  • Central locking

Exterior

It bears a striking resemblance to the two door Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen. The doors do not have the sound, nor do they have the weight of a commercial fridge or a safe though. This car is small. Unless you’ve seen one in person, it’s probably smaller than you might think. Almost everything on the outside of this car is utilitarian. Wood paneling may have been an option, but styling was never really available.

Interior

When grab handles are an option, it’s obvious this is going to be a pretty basic place to sit. The glovebox is lockable, but the lock is purely an academic exercise. The lack of a tachometer is irritating, the steering wheel is fixed in a near-schoolbus position. Legroom is nonexistent even with the seats pushed all of the way back. Six-footers may have their knees against the dash while driving this thing. There are no armrests. Please look elsewhere if a sound level below 80 decibels is preferred at any time. I was either in high or middle school at the time when my dad decided to install sound deadening material throughout the car, which actually made a measurable difference.

Our tester was equipped with the dealer-installed option of a rear folding bench seat. Only five-year-olds will be able to have their thighs at anything other than an upward angle. Carpeting was fitted as standard to these cars, though it’s definitely a surprise that they bothered.

Practicality

Without the rear seats, this actually holds more than a Volvo C30. 30 cubic feet are available, thanks to the car’s boxy proportions. Stick a couple of racks on the top, and two 16-foot sit-on-top kayaks will work just fine. 30 cubic feet does allow weekend stuff for two folks and bicycles, so it’s not wantonly impractical, and given that the interior doesn’t come finished with any of that pesky plastic, cloth, rubber or leather, there’s no concern about scratching any of it.

Driving on pavement

With a 64 of horsepower available at 5,500 rpm, and 74 ft-lbs of torque available at 3,500 rpm,one will be rowing the gearstick about most of the time. The five-speed manual may have long throws, but it’s a joy to use and offers a slick, yet agricultural dimension to the experience. The clutch is average in weight and offers very clear feedback when engaging. It’s a great car to learn on.

The power may be scant, but it’s never a dull experience. Suzuki called the suspension “Soft-ride suspension”, but this is a 2,100-lb car with shocks and leaf springs all the way around. The front end has a cute little sway bar, but this also is a largely academic venture. How is any of this exciting? For the purposes of this section, this is a rear wheel drive car with a wheelbase that is only 6 inches longer than that of a Smart ForTwo. It may only have the tiniest amount of horsepower, but kicking the tail out while cornering on a rainy day is a very exciting activity. O-60 can happen, but when it does, expect it to take about 20 seconds. 70 miles per hour is possible, but is pretty unsafe and only works if you’ve got gravity on your side.

Driving off-road

With 8.1 inches of ground clearance, the car is on par with most of Subaru’s lineup and other small four wheel drive cars. The similarities end there: the Samurai has a 43-degree approach angle, a 38-degree departure angle, a low range gear box with a ratio of 1:2.268 and a first gear with a ratio of 1:19.18, and a lockable rear axle, its a bit more interesting than the soft, lifted wagons we have today. Suspension travel is not great, as one would imagine, though it’s pretty easy to feel everything through the manual steering rack and the car’s limits are pretty clear: don’t tip it over. Given the low range, this car puts quite a few high-tech hill descent control systems to shame, it’s unlike any other off road car that I’ve driven. In fact, it’s more like a tractor.

Overall

This thing is a lot fun, it’s easy to pick up a usable driver for $1,000, it’s easy and inexpensive to work on, and quite a few sold, so the online community is there for you whether you are keeping it stock or dropping in a larger motor and upgrading the suspension. I wouldn’t want one as daily driver, mostly for the poor crash safety, but it’s a very inexpensive hobby that will cost less than buying a decent DSLR kit. If you have the extra parking space, by all means, pick one up. But be careful, it might just flip over.

-By: Sawyer Sutton


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Sawyer Sutton

Sawyer Sutton is a long-time Vermonter and lover of cars, big machinery, and photography. These are his words on cars as Senior Editor of egmCarTech.

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