Suzuki Samurai Essential History
The Roots of the Samurai
The Samurai was the first four-wheeled vehicle Suzuki sold in the U.S., but its history begins nearly 20 years before the plucky little 4×4 made its way across the Pacific. In 1968, Japan’s Hope Motor Company introduced a small kei-class 4×4 with a 359cc Mitsubishi engine called the ON360. Suzuki bought Hope and developed the ON360 into the 1970 LJ10 (“Light Jeep”), also known as the Jimny.
Suzuki introduced the second-generation Jimny in 1981, and in 1985 it began exporting the Jimny to the U.S. as a 1986 model. Badged as the Samurai, the U.S. version had a carbureted 1.3-liter overhead-cam four-cylinder delivering 63 horsepower and 74-lb-ft of torque. It was noisy and slow—MotorTrend clocked it to 60 mph in 16.9 seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 20.47 seconds at 64.5 mph—but good fun around town, and off-road it was nearly unstoppable, with its primary limitation being its street-spec tires. Manual-locking front hubs were standard, with auto-lockers available as a dealer-installed option.
Suzuki Samurai Success
With a base price of $6,550, the Suzuki Samurai was two-thirds of the price of the new-for-1987 Jeep Wrangler. Aided by cute “Beep, beep, hi!” commercials, it was an instant hit. Suzuki originally planned to import 1,200 Samurais per month in its first year, but wound up selling 47,000 for the year, giving the Samurai the best first-year sales of any Japanese vehicle to that date. It took just more than a year and half for sales to hit the 100,000 mark, and by mid-1988 Americans were buying 8,000 Samurais per month.
Suzuki introduced an updated Samurai in 1988 as a “1988½” model. Softer springs, revised shock absorbers, and a thicker front anti-roll bar helped to ease the Samurai’s rough ride, while a slightly shorter fifth-gear ratio improved highway performance. Mindful of the Volkswagen Beetle‘s success through revision rather than redesign, styling changes were limited to a new grille and wheels on the outside and new gauges, steering wheel, and seats for the interior. That same year, Suzuki introduced the slightly larger 1989 Sidekick 4×4, also sold by General Motors as the Geo Tracker, to sell alongside the Samurai.
The Consumer Reports Samurai Rollover Debacle
But 1988 was to be the Samurai’s annus horribilis. A strong yen required Suzuki to raise the price to $8,495, which cooled sales, but the effect of price was nothing compared to the Consumer Reports debacle. After an employee of CR owner Consumers Union rolled a test car in normal driving, the popular magazine gave the Samurai an “unacceptable” rating, saying it “easily rolls over in turns.” The company showed reporters a video of the Samurai tipping onto outriggers fitted by CU in a 40-mph crash-avoidance test and urged NHTSA to issue a recall. NHTSA refused.
Regardless, as a result of the CR report and its extensive media coverage, Samurai sales plummeted, and Suzuki for the first time had to offer cash rebates to keep the Samurai selling. The little 4×4 became the butt of jokes: “Have you seen the 1989 Samurai? It has a sunroof on the floor.” Suzuki sued Consumers Union in 1996, alleging the problem occurred when the test was modified to induce a rollover, though Suzuki’s own internal correspondence revealed concern about the Samurai’s propensity to tip. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2004.
Samurai Dies Here, Lives Elsewhere
Despite those mortal wounds, the Suzuki Samurai soldiered on with few changes. The 1990 Samurai got throttle-body fuel injection, with a corresponding bump to 68 hp, and Suzuki offered a two-wheel-drive version between 1991 and 1993. The company removed the rear seat after 1994, an expedient way to conform to a requirement for rear-seat shoulder belts, which the Samurai lacked. The last model year for the Samurai in the U.S. was 1995.
Despite its death in the American market, the Suzuki Jimny carried on elsewhere. Suzuki introduced a third-generation model in 1998, and after a 20-year run, the fourth-gen Jimny debuted in 2018; it remains on sale throughout the world to this day.
Suzuki Samurai Highlights
Suzuki was one of the first importers to recognize the importance of customization to American buyers. Before the Samurai went on sale in 1985, Suzuki introduced a catalog full of accessories, which were to be displayed at the dealerships in a “personalization center”.
The Samurai’s success took Suzuki by surprise. The company had planned a slow rollout, setting up dealerships in California in November 1985, Florida and Georgia in December, and then staging a slow roll-out to other states during the next three years. But initial sales were so strong that Suzuki rushed to expand its sales network throughout the country.
The Samurai is one of the few vehicles offered for sale in the American market without an automatic transmission.
Though the Samurai came to the U.S. in 1985 as a 1986 model, exports to Canada and Puerto Rico began earlier. Canadians also could buy a long-wheelbase version not available in the U.S.
In 2007, Chileans Gonzalo Bravo and Eduardo Canales set the record for the highest altitude achieved by a four-wheel vehicle when they drove their modified 1986 Suzuki Samurai up the Ojos del Salado volcano to an altitude of 21,942 feet. The previous record of 21,804 feet was set by a Jeep Wrangler; the Jeep team left a sign that said “Jeep parking only—all others don’t make it up here, anyway.” Bravo and Canales brought the sign back down with them. A Unimog broke the record again in 2020 when it climbed 21,962 feet up the same volcano.
Suzuki Samurai Buying Tips
Thanks largely to its insanely-good off-road abilities, the Suzuki Samurai is now a prized collectible, though many examples have been modified, so finding one in as-delivered condition can be difficult. If possible, opt for a non-modified Samurai, as they are less likely to have been subjected to off-road abuse.
Buying a previously modified Samurai, on the other hand, can be a huge cost-saver compared to making the modifications yourself, but you are then subject to the quality of modifications done by others. Check carefully for signs of shoddy work.
Inspect the underbody carefully. Besides rust, you should look for dents, scrapes, or mud in hard-to-reach places, all evidence that the truck did hard off-road time.
Some Samurai owners swapped out the 1.3-liter engine for the more powerful 1.6-liter fuel-injected engine from the Sidekick. Though the swap does not require alterations to frame or body, it is not a simple bolt-in substitution and requires several modifications; a poor-quality swap can cause problems down (or off) the road. Also, a Samurai with a non-stock engine may not be emissions-legal in some states, so check regulations carefully.
If you encounter a Samurai with an automatic transmission, it’s a swap. All US-market Samurais came with manual transmissions.
Among the known trouble spots: Oil leaks at the distributor, leaky brake master cylinders, bad transfer-case bushings that lock the case in neutral, brittle plastic interior parts, fiddly carburetors, and faulty engine-control modules (ECMs) on fuel-injected engines.
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Suzuki Samurai Recent Auctions
Suzuki Samurai Quick Facts
- First year of U.S. sales: 1985 (1986 model year)
- Last year of U.S. sales: 1995
- Total sold in U.S.: 206,419
- Original price (base): $6,550
- Engine: 1.3L SOHC I-4/63-68 hp
- Typical auction price range (2020): $7,500-$10,000
- Characteristic feature: Tiny size, durable and capable 4×4
Suzuki Samurai FAQ
Does Suzuki still make the Samurai?
Yes, sort of. Suzuki still sells the Jimny (the Samurai’s name outside of North America) in several markets, and the 4×4 is now in its fourth generation. The Samurai name has been retired.
Is the Suzuki Samurai a good car?
The Samurai is an exceptionally capable off-roader that is both durable and reliable, hence its continued popularity and high resale values. However, as a daily driver it’s slow, noisy, and not particularly comfortable, with 1986-88 models having a firmer ride. Though Samurai fans will argue about the merits of the Consumer Reports case, the Samurai is more prone to tipping over in sudden swerves than most 4x4s.
What years did Suzuki make the Samurai?
Suzuki sold the Samurai in North America between late 1985 and 1995, with sales beginning earlier in Canada and Puerto Rico. The Jimny on which the Samurai was based was originally introduced in Japan in 1970, and continues in production to this day.
Why did Suzuki stop making the Samurai?
The Samurai was exceptionally popular when it first came to the U.S., but a 1988 story by Consumer Reports citing an alleged propensity to roll over killed its sales, which slowed to a trickle and led to a 1995 withdrawal from the U.S. market. Suzuki sued in 1996, accusing CR of manipulating the test to induce a rollover; the suit was eventually settled out of court. By that time, Suzuki had brought the larger and wider Sidekick to market, and it effectively replaced the Samurai.