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.
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
U.S. sales 206,419
Original price $8095 (1988)
Value today $3000-$8000
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.