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You’ve likely seen a Samurai out and about on city streets, a college campus, or someplace in the wild. They pop up almost anywhere because Suzuki’s capable little 4×4 goes where other vehicles cannot. While the Suzuki Samurai was popular for a time in the United States, its story didn’t begin or end in the U.S.

A black and white photo of a Suzuki Samurai.
Suzuki Samurai | The Denver Post via Getty Images

A brief history of the Suzuki Samurai

The Suzuki Samurai graced U.S. shores for the 1986 model year and disappeared from the U.S. market in 1995, but its story began in 1968 as the ON360, a Kei-class car built by the Hope Motor Company in Japan.

Kei-class cars had specific size requirements to qualify for tax incentives in Japan, and Suzuki bought Hope to enter that market quickly. By 1970, Suzuki had made the Hope ON360 its own and dubbed it the LJ10 (LJ for Light Jeep), although now it’s known as the Jimny in other parts of the world. 

The second-generation Jimny debuted in 1981, and in 1985 Suzuki brought the 1986 Samurai version to the U.S. equipped with a carburated 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine with 63 horsepower and 74 lb-ft of torque. MotorTrend reported the Samurai took 16.9 seconds to accelerate from zero-to-60 mph and 20.47 seconds to complete the quarter mile clocking in at 64.5 mph at the finish line.

While those times didn’t impress the sports car crowd, the Samurai possessed unbeatable capability when going off-road with its standard four-wheel drive and manual-locking front hubs. 

Suzuki Samurai problems

According to Hagerty, one of the most significant problems concerning the Suzuki Samurai is its abhorrent reputation for safety. For example, in the late ’80s, the Samurai didn’t have airbags or ABS, and Suzuki issued a recall for seatbelts that wouldn’t latch. In addition, its lightweight and short wheelbase led to an unfortunate and undeserved rollover incident during a videotaped Consumer Reports test; more on that in a minute. 

Other Samurai issues include rusted floors, clicky starters, and leaky distributor O-rings. In addition, the stock Samurai carburetor is fussy and complicated, leading many owners to exchange them for less complex versions. Finally, the plastic shifter often breaks from age and wear, but it’s easy to replace with a brass unit. 

The SUVs ultimate downfall

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In 1988, Consumer Reports filmed a Suzuki Samurai tipping onto two wheels during a high-speed crash avoidance test. The magazine took the video public, sharing it with anyone who would watch it. News networks aired the footage on prime-time television along with the claim that little Samaruai rolls over easily. 

The extended video footage shows Consumer Reports engineers modifying the test parameters to force the Samurai into failing the test after it passed the original course, keeping all four tires firmly on the ground at speeds up to 55 mph. The modified test and inflammatory claims by Consumer Reports led to a lawsuit where Suzuki sued the publication. After a lengthy court battle, the two parties settled outside of court.

However, by the time the legal battle concluded, Samurai sales dipped to only a few thousand per year from over 80,000 the year before the fateful test. While the Suzuki Samurai soldiered on for a few more years, its U.S. availability likely ended due to the Consumer Reports scandal.