Collectible Classic: 1986-1995 Suzuki Samurai

Jamie Dee Fish

The Suzuki Samurai, a vehicle revered for its off-road ability but ridiculed for its twee proportions and rather third-world driving dynamics, occupies an odd place in automotive culture. To this day, the Samurai retains legions of loyal fans, and yet it is featured in Richard Porter's Crap Cars, summarized with the line, "It would have been more fun to be attacked by an actual samurai." What we have here, then, is a controversial machine. And controversial machines can make for compelling collector cars.

Although Suzuki sold more than 200,000 Samurais in the United States, finding a clean one can present a challenge. The Samurai's glory days are at least two decades behind us, and the years since have generally been unkind to a vehicle that was always regarded as a disposable object of off-road abuse. John Harper, of Charlotte, North Carolina, knew he wanted a Samurai but had a hard time finding one that wasn't fitted with 33-inch Super Swamper tires and a 1.6-liter Suzuki Sidekick engine. "Then I moved to a new neighborhood, and right around the corner there was a clean Samurai sitting in the driveway," Harper says. "I went up and knocked on the door and offered to buy it." After working out a deal, Harper had his hands on what he calls his "apocalypse four-by-four," a nimble, fuel-efficient off-roader in which to flee whatever disaster may come. (Early in AMC's hit zombie franchise, The Walking Dead, a Samurai is prominently parked at the human refugee camp.)

Harper was obviously not dissuaded by the Samurai's infamous 1988 run-in with Consumer Reports, which eventually resulted in a legal battle that was not settled until 2004. Samurai owners seem to view Consumer Reports the same way that Corvair owners regard Ralph Nader -- at this point, the magazine's contentious rollover test is part of the legend. And, judging by the number of lifted Samurais scampering about the country's woodlands, owners aren't hugely worried about raising the little truck's center of gravity. But it's telling that Suzuki's own brochure for the 1986 Samurai takes a digression from the marketing braggadocio ("Would you like to go to the beach driving an irresistible bikini magnet?") to warn: "Note that the Samurai has a high ground clearance and narrow track for off-road driving capability. It will not corner at the same speed as a conventional car. So avoid sharp turns and abrupt maneuvers, and always wear your seatbelt."

I bear this advice in mind as I buckle into Harper's 1988 Samurai for a jaunt around Charlotte. The first impression is that this is an impossibly tiny vehicle by modern standards -- a 2014 Jeep Wrangler is about a foot wider and a foot and a half longer. The turning circle is 33.4 feet. It's a wieldy truck, but the view out over that stubby hood precludes any illusions that modern safety rules apply. A Ford F-150 blowing a stop sign would boot this thing like Adam Vinatieri teeing up a 50-yard field goal. As with a motorcycle or a Lotus Elise, the scale of the Samurai instills a healthy feeling of vulnerability in modern traffic. You drive alertly.

And, as with a bike or a small sports car, the Sammy's modest weight and dinky dimensions instill their own brand of fun. Given the specs -- 63 hp and leaf-sprung solid axles -- I wasn't expecting much in the way of on-road entertainment. But the Samurai proves yet again that the tactile rewards of driving are not entirely tied to the g-forces produced.

It's not damning with faint praise to say that the Samurai is far better to drive than I expected. The ride is not bad (at least on smooth pavement), and the unassisted recirculating-ball steering exhibits little of the on-center slack common to larger trucks of the era. The 1.3-liter four-cylinder certainly isn't a powerhouse, but it feels perky enough around town. The sensation of speed is heightened by your exposure to the elements and the five-speed manual gearbox, which is your ally in keeping the little four-banger in its sweet spot. Perhaps you wouldn't want to drive 200 miles on the highway, but remember that a 1980s Wrangler wasn't a paragon of sophistication, either.

The Samurai's real virtues aren't revealed until you take it off-road. We pull down into a muddy track paralleling a train yard, and the Suzuki has no problem picking its way around obstacles that have obviously stymied other vehicles -- the drop-off from the road, for instance, is so steep that the edge of the pavement bears scars from trucks with less favorable break-over angles. The Samurai drops right in.

You can see why this is a prized rock-crawling vehicle -- and why there are so few stock ones left. You can also see why it was a worldwide success, selling in more than 100 countries under various nameplates. After all, how many used cars afford the daily opportunity to pretend that you're a Malaysian farmer?

Back in the 1980s and '90s, the Samurai was the nonconformist's Wrangler. As an offbeat around-town runabout, trail machine, or beach truck, it still is. Harper likes his so much that he bought it twice. "My brother-in-law was so interested in it that I sold it to him with the stipulation that he sell it back to me when he was ready to move on," Harper says. Eventually, his brother-in-law scratched his Samurai itch and Harper bought the Suzuki -- again. This time, he's keeping it.

The Specs
Engines

1.3L (79 cu in) SOHC I-4, 66 hp, 76 lb-ft (1990-95)
1.3L (81 cu in) SOHC I-4, 63-64 hp, 74 lb-ft (1986-89)
Transmission 5-speed manual
Drive Rear- or 4-wheel
Front suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Rear suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes F/R Discs/drums
Weight 2100 pounds

The Info
U.S. model
Years
1986-1995
U.S. sales 206,419
Original price $8095 (1988)
Value today $3000-$8000
Why Buy?
The Samurai represents an off-road genre that no longer exists: an agile SUV significantly smaller than a modern Jeep Wrangler. Straight-line speed is lacking, but the Sammy's humble virtues include a 2100-pound curb weight, a manual transmission, manual steering, and a manual convertible top. There's deep aftermarket support and a variety of clubs for owners. The Samurai also gets decent gas mileage and has a reputation for ruggedness. If you find one that has spent its life as the RV tender for road-tripping retirees, buy it.

Doyle Stephens
I have a 1896 Suzuki Samurai, was wondering what it was worth?
Wayne B
4 years ago, I was looking at a vehicle to be an off-road toy.  It came down to the CJ3 and the Samurai.
I finally picked the Samurai because it had hard doors, roll-up windows, and air-conditioning.
I bought a bone-stock 1988.5 Samurai JX with A/C.
I wound up putting 45,000 miles on it in the the first 3 years of ownership.  It is the trip-car of choice in my circle of friends.
I have put heavier bumpers, softer springs, and a 15 gallon tank on it, but it is otherwise pretty stock, even down to the 26" stock sized tires.
I see it as an MG TD on stilts.  It is an absolute hoot to drive on twisty mountain roads, and I love absolutely thrashing it on a canyon road, while never exceeding the speed limit.  
It has plenty of room for 3 rather largish people and luggage, if one finds a set of the uber-rare split-bench rear seats, and only installs one or for 2 rather largish people plus a dog-crate and luggage if you leave the back seats at home.  I routinely take it on 1000 mile trips.  It encourages one to take your time and to stop and smell the roses.  It also encourages one to turn off the main road and take back-roads and trails.
It has a plethora of top choices, including full OEM style tops, 4 piece tops with zip-out windows, safari tops, bikini tops, mesh safari or bikini tops, 2-seat "fast-back" tops, and a few other choices.  I have 5 different tops for mine, with the 4 piece and mesh safari tops being the favorites. 
Many say that the Consumer Reports review of the Samurai killed it, but I disagree.  What killed it was the arrival of the Sidekick and Chevrolet Tracker, which are infinitely more comfortable and polished than the Samurai.  I simply can't imagine the average car buyer picking a Samurai over a Sidekick.  The Samurai is rough-riding, under-powered, noisy, drafty, and generally a '30s era vehicle in its characteristics. The Sidekick is a '90s era vehicle and it shows.
That said, the Samurai has infinitely more character than a Sidekick, and that is why I own one.    
FreeRangeRadical
I traded a 1985 Honda Civic CRX HF - and yes, I did get 59-60mpg, checked at the pump so many times that I could quote it in my sleep, despite what the EPA's rejiggered numbers might say - for a 1988 Suzuki Samurai.
I loved the CRX and it was pristine when I traded it in. I drove it coast to coast twice, once while transferring from Fort Bragg, NC, to the Presidio of Monterey, CA, for language school while in the US Army. But what I wanted was a fun little SUV to get off-road on some of the small trails in Big Sur and around Monterey.
The same week that I bought my Samurai, a friend in the Air Force bought a brand new Wrangler. Behind the Army barracks at what was then the new Russian Village on the Presidio was a trail up and down the mountainside to what was then a nearly forgotten city Park - Veterans' Memorial Park - atop the mountain. We, the Army, and the Marines, used to run the trail as part of our physical training. I think the Air Force and Navy were aware it was there, but only for picnics, not being required actually do anything physical...  ;)
Anyway, my zoomie buddy challenged me to see whose vehicle would climb the hill. We got some folks together that weekend and set out of the parking lot and up the hill. At about the halfway point, there was a less-steep stretch of 25' or so, followed immediately by a very-steep stretch about the same. Since he had the bigger, and supposedly stronger, vehicle, he lead. But, that's as far as he got. When he hit the very-steep stretch, the Wrangler just wouldn't go. We had to back down the trail all the way to the bottom so that he could get out of my way, because I was determined to try it, at least. 
The Samurai slipped a bit then dug in, and up we went when I hit the very-steep stretch where his Wrangler quit. To drive the point home, I drove back down, got the cooler and blankets we had put in his vehicle, and then drove back up. With his fiancee riding shotgun and my buddy Jeff in the back.
Following our graduation from the Presidio, we were all sent to Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, TX. San Angelo has two large reservoirs for drinking water - Lake Nasworthy and Twin Buttes Reservoir. Some friends - 4 to be exact - and I drove out to Twin Buttes one weekend just to get off the base. From our perch on the high ground, we could see a road that proceeded through the "shallows" from the near bank of the reservoir to the far bank, across a narrow end. Probably 1/4 mile. So we hit it.
We were wading happily through it, the Samurai purring along in 2WD, but with the front hubs locked just in case, when my left elbow, which was hanging out of the driver's door, began taking on water. We had gone from 2' or so to nearly 4' of water depth. Simultaneously, I noted that the hood was pushing water like a barge, we were taking on water from the floor drains (goodbye, Rockford-Fosgate amp mounted under my seat!...I thought), and then I lost traction. I immediately jammed it in reverse, put it in 4-low, but we began to settle in. 
Well, 5 military bodies in a Samurai had it about as grounded as it was likely to get, so weight wasn't a problem. I began moving the steering wheel slowly back and forth and I could hear the tires slowly catch traction and we began inching backwards. The engine never sputtered, stuttered, or coughed.
I ended up backing the entire way - about 1/8 mile - and out onto dry ground. We had a good laugh, and then I began unbolting the driver's seat to get to the submerged amp. I removed it, took the cover off, poured water out of it, then decided to dry it under the truck's exhaust. 
A half hour later, it was dry, reinstalled, the  seat back in, drain plugs reinstalled, and we were off, music playing and all.
I'd buy another one in a second if I could find one in good shape.

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