Good morning! it’s time for another epic battle between cheap cars, and today, both of those cars come from the same manufacturer. They’re the same price, too. But before we can look at them, we need to find out the results from yesterday’s odd matchup:
The Audi takes the win, by a very narrow margin. Honestly, watching the comments, I had no idea which way this one was going to go. I was surprised to hear a number of you who have experience with this era of VW/Audi rise to the TT’s defense; it kind of sounds like Stockholm syndrome, except since we’re talking about an Audi, I guess it’s actually Ingolstadt syndrome? At any rate, I side with those who picked the Chevy. Better the devil you know, and I know ’80s-90s GM products pretty well.
Remember Suzuki? Yeah, they’re still around, in other parts of the world, selling cool stuff we can’t have. Suzuki sold cars in the US from the mid-1980s until 2012, when it ended not with a bang but a whimper, selling a handful of rebadged Daewoos before pulling the plug. But for a while, especially with GM selling Suzuki-built Geo Metros and Trackers, Suzukis were everywhere. Today we’re looking at two of their greatest hits sold under their own name: the tiny controversy-ravaged 4×4 Samurai, and the Metro-with-an-extra-cylinder Swift. Let’s dig in.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.3 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, part-time 4WD
Location: Vader, WA
Odometer reading: 178,000 miles
I’ll just say it: Consumer Reports did the Suzuki Samurai dirty. In 1987, Suzuki sold twice as many Samurais as new Jeep owner Chrysler sold Wranglers. Then, in 1988, a review in Consumer Reports, that I clearly remember reading, proclaimed the Samurai “unacceptable” because it rolled over too easily in turns. But the test was, if not rigged, certainly stacked against the Samurai. Sales tanked, and Suzuki sued, but it was too late. The writing was on the wall for the Samurai anyway, with new safety regulations rendering it unsellable in the US. It was replaced by the larger, more road-friendly Sidekick, but the Samurai remains the stuff of legends in the off-road crowd.
Ironically, it’s the same attributes that make it a handful to drive on pavement that make it such a great off-roader: live axles at both ends, a short wheelbase and overhangs for the all-important angles, and a narrow track to fit through tight squeezes. It doesn’t have a lot of power, just 63 horsepower from its carbureted 1.3 liter four, but you don’t need power to scramble over rocks; you need gearing and geometry.
This “tin-top” Samurai runs and drives just fine, and its four-wheel-drive system works well. It’s not pretty, but for off-roading you don’t want pretty, despite what you may see on Instagram. It has been laid on its side before; there’s quite a dent above the left rear window. It all adds to the character. Inside, it looks exactly like you’d imagine. The Vise-Grip for a window crank is a nice touch.
Because of their popularity among the off-road crowd, it’s getting hard to find stock Samurais in any condition, for any price. Personally, I’m regretting not picking one up when they were $1500 all over the place. This one will sell for the asking price, I’m sure.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.3 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD
Location: Enumclaw, WA
Odometer reading: 169,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does!
Suzuki’s on-road game was on-point in the 1980s and 90s as well. The Suzuki Cultus, sold in the US as the Chevy Sprint and later the Geo Metro, was a tough, tiny mileage-maker that was more fun to drive than it had any right to be. A 993 cc three-cylinder made about fifty horsepower, but also returned about fifty miles to the gallon. Suzuki sold this car in its own dealerships as the Swift, but added a cylinder and about twenty horses. This is the same basic engine as the Samurai, actually, but with throttle-body fuel injection.
Seventy horsepower isn’t a lot, but in a car that weighs less than a ton, it’s enough for some shenanigans. “Swift” might not be entirely accurate, but compared to a three-cylinder Metro, the Suzuki version is a hot rod. But GM’s Geo dealer network was a lot wider-reaching than Suzuki’s own distribution channel, so Metros were always a lot more common. There was an even hotter twin-cam version of the Swift available, but it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.
This Swift is in good condition, with a very clean interior and flawless bright red paint. I worry a little bit about the paint under the bra on the front, not because I think there’s damage under it, but because I’m worried it might be a different shade of red. The seller says its mechanical condition matches its appearance, and it runs great, with the tires, brakes, battery, and clutch replaced recently. The only issue mentioned is difficulty downshifting into first gear; I imagine the synchro is worn. No matter; double-clutch it, and I’m sure it’s fine.
The Geo Metro is still popular among hypermilers, and they often sell for the same money as this. Personally, I’d rather have the extra power and better handling, and get “only” 40 miles to the gallon. In fact, I’ve missed out on buying a Swift twice now. I did have a Metro, briefly, but it wasn’t the same.
You never know what you have until it’s gone, and I don’t think we in the US really appreciated what we had with Suzuki. These were fun, efficient, well-made, reliable cars with just enough flair and style to make them stand out from the sea of Hondas and Toyotas. We’ve got two different flavors to choose from – same price, same engine size, close to the same mileage. Which one suits you better?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)