Skills, Phenomenology, and Motorcycles: Why following rules, then forgetting them and taking risks makes you a better rider.


In July, Suzuki introduced their new fourth generation Jimny mini/compact car. This little 4WD has quite a lineage, going all the way back to 1970 when the original Jimny made its first appearance. Almost too small to be considered a real car, the little yellow Jimny featured a three-door Jeep style body on a ladder frame with a hi/low transfer case and rigid axle suspension making it a highly capable off-road machine, and powered by a rather fun and small air-cooled 2-stroke engine. Designed for work-sites and recreational off-road duties, over the years Suzuki have updated this little car, improving its on and off-road capabilities but one thing has remained constant, and that’s its diminutive size. In a world of super-size everything, with big SUVs all over our streets and large 4WDs dominating the off-road market, it's great to have a small, compact 4WD still on the market, although sadly it's not currently available in the US.

For this feature article, we’ll take a look at the new Suzuki Jimny from the perspective of an overland traveller and a philosophy of minimalism. That’s right, the benefits of long distance travel in a little 4WD vehicle. This will be a brief, on-paper-not-so-serious assessment of its capabilities for car camping trips over a long weekend, and maybe all the way up to larger, long distance adventures for the real hardcore small vehicle lovers.

First, in the spirit of truth and advertising, the Jimny is certainly not the best vehicle for long distance travel if ride comfort and carrying a load of gear and people are must have features. Travellers interested in this form of travel can probably name a handful of better suited vehicles. And like most around-the-world motorcycle travellers on great continent spanning adventures, everyone has a personal preference and supporting argument for their particular vehicle choice. The same is true for 4WDs. That said, there’s some merit in considering this little car for more than around town shopping duties and winter trips to the nearest ski field. 


In 1973, E. F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, promoted, among other things, the idea there is value in small. Of course this is a truism, but it's worth considering his claim against a background of late twentieth century consumer trends, the OPEC oil crisis, early negative reactions to globalisation, and an emerging philosophical critique of technology and economic theory. Reading his book, and keeping its romantic idealistic prose in mind, Schumacher stressed the importance of human scale, highlighting the loss, for example, of craft skill in work (see also Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft for a fantastic modern critique), and the illusion of having solved what economists call the problem of capital production thanks, in large part, to removing human beings from direct contact with nature, and developing large scale industrial methods of production for goods and services. Pre-industrial scale work, in the form of local community based business or small-scale farms produced significant benefits that were subsequently lost through the industrial revolution. There are massive advantages (increased health, greater wealth, greater freedoms, etc) from the technology advances of modern societies but with these benefits have come some clear costs.

Schumacher proposed a solution to the problems he identified:

“We need methods and equipment which are cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone: suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man's need for creativity.” (p.21)

Two of his key insights are: (1) a need to embrace the idea of small and (2) to provide a space for human creativity, especially when working. In this context, small refers to appropriate. It also refers to obtainable. And at a scale that’s appropriate and obtainable for humans. From an instrumental perspective, Schumacher wants more creative opportunities, i.e., “leave ample room” for creativity. To be consistent with his minimalist philosophy, this requires small, human scale activity as opposed to the type of work Schumacher described as “soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work [that] is an insult to human nature.” (p.24)    

A focus on small and providing room for creativity are two aspects of Schumacher’s minimalist philosophy one could ascribe to the Suzuki Jimny. The new Jimmy is at the affordable end of the new car spectrum but clearly not accessible to everyone. It’s certainly of small scale, and that’s probably compatible with Schumacher’s philosophy. Like most vehicles, the Jimny performs a utilitarian function of providing mobility, specifically moving people and goods around. However, there is relativity little creativity in this function. Arguably a greater degree of creativity can be found in a role the Jimmy is primarily designed for, and that’s off-road travel.


The little Suzuki is not your typical off-road, overlanding, or car camping vehicle, but like the tiny house movement, for some people small is attractive. One advantage of small is lower entry level costs, and potentially, lower ongoing costs. A less expensive upfront purchase cost is a clear positive, especially compared to full-featured large 4WDs. And a small modern engine results in better fuel economy, although not the best in class or when compared to electric vehicles. The Jimny is more agile around town with lower running costs (road tax, insurance etc) than larger 4WD vehicles. However in reality, the costs associated with 4WD camping/travelling maybe less of an advantage for the Jimmy because one can purchase a good second hand vehicle at a competitive price and easily have a setup that’s minimalistic.

The human scale argument is also important but difficult to discuss. By definition, all vehicles have a human scale. Humans need to drive and ride in them. Maybe an argument for the Jimny, regarding human scale, is to simply follow the “suitable for small-scale application” axiom. That is, is it big enough to do the job and no more? Whatever your criteria is for overland travel, you could ask yourself does the Jimny meet your minimum travel needs? If the answer is yes, and considering all the other advantages a small vehicle has, the Jimny could be an ideal small-scale application for overland travel, especially if your travel plans involve off-road tracks.

Now off-road capability has always been a Jimny strength. Nimble is a good description of the Jimny’s off-road abilities, with agility that comes from a light weight, relatively small size body and a proven 4WD setup. Design-wise, driver visibility for manoeuvring through rough terrain or even around town is important. You can tell you’re sitting in a proper 4WD vehicle when you can easily lean out the side window to view your surroundings, clearly see forward over the front of the vehicle, and the A-pillars are designed for both structural strength and all-round good visibility. Other key aspects include adequate ground clearance, which is vital, matched with good all-terrain tyres and a drive-train and suspension setup designed for off-roading. The Jimny has coil-sprung rigid axle suspension and a design that provides good vertical approach and departure angles, along with a high break-over angle, thanks in large part to its short wheel base. An updated ladder frame chassis provides improved rigidity and handling performance and a new engine drives through a hi/low gear range, giving the vehicle a part-time 4WD with rear-wheel-drive layout. A brake LSD (limited slip-differential) traction control system manages the vehicle’s 4WD grip rather than a mechanical differential locking system.


The Jimny is a highly nimble, lightweight 4WD. A take-you-almost-anywhere type of vehicle. With it's off-road capabilities the Jimny will allow you to explore the natural environment, to take the road less travelled. It's a travel light option to reduce your impact on the environment. Noting most off-road, 4WD activity is on tracks and responsible drivers keep to tracks and reduce their impact. Small vehicles can provide for creative, fun travel experiences. One can travel to places many people will never reach and make travel memories that last forever. 


So why not be creative in your choice of vehicle, opting for the small solution. Sure, there’s well known trade-offs, like travel range and carry capacity is limited for people and gear. Your comfort over long distances is more of an issue, and road safety is also a greater issue, especially related to vehicle size and the basic laws of physics if you’re in a crash with a large SUV. And for some, aesthetic qualities or personal taste including peer judgement could be important factors, too.

For overland travel, it's clear the Jimny comes with some challenges along with lots of potential. But this is the type of vehicle you can really enjoy by accepting its unique character, incorporating those characteristics into how you travel, and embracing the benefits that come from small vehicles. In a way, you can make the Jimny experience your own and embrace it in an active way to create your own style of travel. Custom modification work is a good place to start, even if only through modest cosmetic changes.


It’s also an entry level option into the world of overland travel. For the creative, maybe even artistic types that know the value of, and want to live, a minimalistic ethic, the Jimny is a large, open canvas in a rather small package. And very few are doing it small.


Be different. Be creative. Embrace small.