The Suzuki Samurai is a sub-$10K 4×4 with a quirky personality
Small and capable 4x4s have exploded in the collector market recently. It started a few years ago with the Toyota FJ40, which went from a cheap farm tool—you could pick up one on Craigslist for less than $5000—to custom restorations by boutique shops, whose prices cleared $200,000. Collectors looking for cool, low-value 4x4s then moved on to Broncos. When they were priced out of Broncos, they turned to Cherokees and FJ60s. Now, even Cherokees and late-model Land Cruisers are out of budget for drivers who want a cheap, charismatic 4×4 to cruise around town and occasionally take off-road.
The options are dwindling for a sub-$10,000 4×4 with character. If you’re in the market, might I suggest a Suzuki Samurai?
The Suzuki Samurai is currently on its fourth generation and looks amazing, but U.S. buyers don’t get first dibs and will have to wait until 2043 to start importing them. Americans are most familiar with the second generation, available stateside from 1986–95 and the only Samurai ever imported and sold in the U.S.
America’s Suzuki Samurai was based on the Suzuki Jimny, a Japanese Kei car with a government-restricted, 543-cc three-cylinder that, while turbocharged and fuel-injected, only made 41 hp. Thankfully, Samurais exported to the United States received a carbureted 1.3-liter four-cylinder with 50 percent more power. In 1990, U.S. buyers could specify fuel injection on their order sheets, which increased the four-pot’s output to 66 hp and 76 lb-ft of torque, though it maintained 30 mpg.
With a top speed around 65 mph and an almost unmeasurable 0–60 time, the Samurai wasn’t fit for American highways; but it was never designed for them. The same features that made the Samurai uncomfortable on the road—short wheelbase, solid axles, and four-corner leaf springs—allowed it to excel on trails. And its wheelbase was truly petite; at only 80 inches, the Samurai’s wheelbase was 4 inches shorter than a classic Mini and 21 inches shorter than an XJ Cherokee.
Because the Samurai desperately lacks power, engine swaps are common. The 95 hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder from the Suzuki Sidekick and Geo Tracker is the easiest alternative. It offers a 45 percent increase in hp over either the carbureted or fuel-injected 1.3 liter and pushes the top speed past any highway limit in America. Gas mileage suffers slightly, but you can still manage 25 mpg. Though a bit more complicated, Volkswagen 1.6-liter turbodiesel swaps provide much more torque and are great for off-roading. If money isn’t an issue and you have good fabricating skills, a Chevy 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 just barely fits and provides the most power.
Drivers who are concerned with safety might want to avoid the Samurai. In the late 1980s, it acquired a reputation for rolling over. With its lightweight construction, lack of both airbags and ABS, and that one recall concerning seatbelts that wouldn’t fasten, some might consider the Samurai a deathtrap. However, it’s probably not much worse than driving a classic Mini.
The rollover reputation came from a 1988 Consumer Reports article that claimed that the Samurai “easily rolls over in turns,” accompanied by the above photograph. The whole story started when a Consumer Reports staffer rolled a Samurai in real-world driving, which encouraged the magazine to rerun an accident-avoidance, high-speed swerve test. Tipover did not occur when experienced drivers ran the standard course, so Consumer Reports modified the test to make the maneuver more extreme. Finally, Consumer Reports was able to tip the Samurai onto two wheels, prompting cheers from the testing team. (Skip to a little after the 8 minute mark of Suzuki’s court tape.)
Samurai sales plummeted from 83,300 in 1987 to 5000 in 1989, the year after the article was released. After only sales totaled 622 in 1995, Suzuki stopped selling the Samurai in America. In 1996, Suzuki filed a libel lawsuit for $60 million against Consumer Reports that dragged on for eight years before eventually being settled out of court. Though Suzuki’s own expert witnesses testified that they were aware of 213 deaths and 8200 injuries resulting from Samurai rollovers, Consumer Reports eventually admitted its claim of the Samurai rolling over “easily” had been too dramatic.
If I haven’t scared you away and you’re still interested in buying a Samurai, there are some things you should look for. Extra back seats are rare and expensive (like the hardtop on an NA Miata). If you want a back seat, buy a Samurai that already has one. Hardtops (or “tin tops”) were only built through 1989, so convertibles are much more common.
When inspecting a Samurai, as with any classic car, look out for rust. Soft-tops didn’t come standard on some of the lower-trim models (such as the rear-wheel-drive JS trim), so you’ll want to check under the carpet for any rust from standing water in the cabin. JA trim models were still rear-wheel-drive but came standard with a top and rear seat. Starting in 1994, only 4×4 Samurais were offered. On 4×4 models, manual-locking front hubs came standard, but dealers often installed automatic lockers.
The Samurai is very popular in the off-roading/rock-crawling community, with most owners modifying their trucks beyond recognition. Despite that, modified Samurais with thousands of dollars of work don’t really command a premium over stock ones. Make sure you know what you are looking at if you plan on buying a modded one. (Personally, I would prefer to get a stock example and slowly modify it as needed.)
Other common issues to look out for include clicky starters and leaky distributor O-rings. The original carburetors are overly complicated, so many owners have swapped them out for simpler units. The stock plastic shifter sheet can break, leaving you stranded in neutral, but you can replace it with a solid brass unit. Other than that, like most Japanese cars of the era, Samurais are very reliable vehicles.
You can find good 4×4 Samurais between $5000–$10,000. Tin tops command a slight premium over the convertible models. If you want a more civilized version, look to its replacement, the box-fendered Suzuki Sidekick (or Geo Tracker) which can be found in a similar price range. Another underrated micro-SUV from the era is the two-door Toyota RAV4, but I’ll spare the reader. The Jeep Wrangler YJ hails from the exact same time period as the Samurai (both production runs spanned 1986–95) and is another great option.
There’s a small rivalry between the Jeep and Samurai communities, however. In 2007, a modified 1986 Suzuki Samurai set the high-altitude world record when a team drove it to 21,942 feet on the Ojos del Salado volcano on the Argentina-Chile border. On the route, the Samurai passed a sign at 21,804 feet that read “Jeep Parking Only: All others don’t make it up here anyway,” which was left by the previous record holders who drove a Jeep Wrangler. Only a year ago, though, a pair of Mercedes-Benz Unimogs beat both the Samurai and the Wrangler, achieving an altitude of 21,962 feet on the same volcano.
Checking Craigslist yet? If you’re convinced a Samurai is the 4×4 for you, be sure to let us know when you find the one.
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