Curbside Capsule: 1998-2018 Suzuki Jimny & 2007-10 Jeep Compass – One’s Jeep-Like, The Other’s A Jeep

Jeep is planning to release their smallest model yet, a subcompact crossover dwarfed by the Compass and even the Renegade. Although Jeep’s stylists may try to make it look butch and their engineers may give it some semblance of off-road ability, it probably won’t be as capable as the venerable Suzuki Jimny. It’s ironic because, spiritually, the Jimny may as well be a Jeep.

When Jeep introduced the first-generation Compass, many Jeep enthusiasts bristled. While it may have worn the iconic seven-slot grille and round headlights, here was a Jeep that was built for the city and not for off-roading. No Trail-Rated badge would grace a Compass until its facelift in 2011.

Like its Patriot sibling and the Dodge Caliber, it used the MK platform that was co-developed with Mitsubishi, and therefore the Compass was mechanically related to cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer. The Patriot differed from the Compass in offering from the get-go the Freedom Drive II four-wheel-drive system and the resulting Trail-Rated badge.

While traditionalists may have sneered at the Compass, the car wasn’t aimed at them. The Compass was aimed at women in their 20s and 30s, while the Patriot was aimed at men in their 20s and 30s. Many of these young buyers were potentially new to the brand, making the Compass an entry-level, gateway vehicle for Jeep. That Jeep style and image that carried such widespread appeal was now available on an affordable vehicle that was comfortable on the road.

Had Jeep been targeting Wrangler lovers on a budget, they would have introduced something like the Suzuki Jimny. Measuring just 144.7 inches long – or 2.4 feet shorter than a Compass – the Jimny is a pint-sized yet immensely capable off-roader. Looking at the specifications, you can tell this is no crossover: live axles front and rear, ladder-frame construction, and dual-range, part-time four-wheel-drive. With approach and departure angles of 34 and 46 degrees, respectively, as well as a diminutive 89-inch wheelbase, the Jimny can tackle the rough stuff with ease.

The Compass was criticized for its anemic 2.0 and 2.4 four-cylinder engines – producing 158 and 172 hp, respectively – but the Jimny is even less powerful. The standard engine in most markets is a 1.3 four-cylinder producing just 83 hp and 81 ft-lbs; in Japan, an even smaller 660 cc three-cylinder is available. Transmissions are a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. While no rocket ship, the 1.3 Jimny is peppy enough – the trucklet weighs only 2370 pounds, after all. 0-60 is accomplished in around 14 seconds but given its tall, narrow proportions and short wheelbase, you won’t want to do much driving at that speed.

The Jimny has scarcely changed since it was introduced in 1998 as a replacement for the Samurai/Sierra, which also wore the Jimny name in some markets. The Jimny has never really needed to change as, in most markets, it has zero competition. Suzuki added variable valve timing to the 1.3 in 2005, affording a modest, 5 hp bump in power. Traction control was finally added ten years later. While the interior looks much the same as it did almost twenty years ago, it isn’t exactly the stone age – standard equipment includes air-conditioning, dual front airbags, remote central locking, and power windows, although there’s no Bluetooth or USB ports. There’s ostensibly seating for five but let’s get real: this is a two-seater.

Given its reliability and the lack of running changes, Jimny buyers are unlikely to be regular repeat customers. The 4×4’s uncompromising nature also means it has niche appeal outside of rural areas. Despite this, it’s been a steady seller since launch, at least in Europe. (A new generation of Jimny – a rare event – debuted this year; this will be covered in another article.)

The Compass? It arrived at a terrible time for its parent company, being introduced the same year as Chrysler was sold to Cerberus and then savaged by the Global Financial Crisis. US sales plummeted from 39,491 in its debut year to just 11,739 in 2009. Despite the availability of a Volkswagen-sourced 2.0 turbo diesel four, European sales saw a similarly precipitous decline.

Such weak sales – especially compared to the more robust figures of the related Patriot – can’t be blamed entirely on parent company woes, however. The Compass was underdone: its performance was torpid, especially with the optional CVT auto, while its refinement was lacking, its styling polarizing, and its interior as unpleasant as other Chrysler products of the era. Perhaps it was the styling that hindered the Compass most of all as the Patriot outsold it by around 2-to-1 during the Compass’ early years.

Things changed once the Compass received a heavy, Grand Cherokee-inspired makeover in 2011 complete with a revamped, higher-quality interior. Sales took off and the first-generation Compass went on to enjoy a long and successful run – not Jimny-long, mind you – and eventually reached a high of almost 67,000 annual sales in the US in 2015. It was still slow and hardly the most polished crossover in its class but it had keen pricing and Jeep cachet. A new Compass eventually arrived in 2016.

Was the first-generation Compass a “true” Jeep? That’s hardly worth re-litigating. Jeep has long appealed to buyers with little interest in going off-road. While a Compass or Patriot could be optioned with a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that endowed it with genuine off-road prowess, neither is ever going to be the rock-hopper a live axle-sporting Jimny is. If Jeep ever wanted to widen their range and offer a mini-Wrangler of sorts, however, they’d do worse than to copy this endearing and capable little Suzuki.

Compass photographed in Taringa, Brisbane, QLD. Jimnys photographed in Toowong and Toombul, Brisbane, QLD.

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