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1996 Isuzu Rodeo

Sticker shock! Just when I'd come to terms with Isuzu's pricey Trooper, I am confronted with Isuzu's Rodeo bottomlined at a majestic $39,500!

Admittedly, 40-grand sport-utes are becoming common in the showrooms. But, I wonder how many are parked on your street? And, this is a Rodeo for gosh sakes, a vehicle that started life as a price leader, a less expensive alternative to the mainline brands.

The disadvantaged status of the Japanese currency is partly to blame, but I'd also point a finger at Isuzu's apparent decision to abandon the bargain niche and go head to head with the major players, in this case Nissan's Pathfinder and the Toyota 4Runner.

To this end, our Rodeo LS was, in current industry jargon, highly "contented." Which is not to say that it was peacefully satisfied, but rather that it came well equipped with an assortment of features as standard equipment.

The fully equipped, no-options-required tactic is common among the importers and no firm plays it better than Nissan. So, I asked the kind souls at Nissan Canada's head office if they might run the Rodeo through their content and price-per-value analysis. The analysis is used by marketing departments to generate accurate price comparisons. I wanted to find out how the Isuzu actually stacks up against the competition feature for feature. (See accompanying story for details.)

In summary, comparing the Rodeo to the Pathfinder SE yields a price-per-value in favor of the Nissan of $3,462. Taking another tack, optioning up the Pathfinder XE yields a price-per-value advantage of $5,037!

We're left with the obvious question, why anyone would want to buy a Rodeo. And, with the obvious answer is that it is different.

The Rodeo is not a Pathfinder, 4Runner, Grand Cherokee, Jimmy or Explorer and many motorists will pay a premium for a vehicle that sets them off from the crowd.

Pay the premium, then, and what do you get? A pretty nice sport-ute I'm relieved to report.

The 3.2-litre 190 h.p. V6 that struggles lamely in the Trooper is quite comfortable in the lighter, more aerodynamic Rodeo. Smooth and responsive, the V6 deals confidently with traffic challenges or highway cruising that would have left it gasping in the Trooper.

Likely the most remarkable thing about the Rodeo is how unremarkable it is. This is one of those vehicles that instantly feels as comfortable as an old sweatshirt. Get in for the first time, the seats welcome you and the controls fall to hand. Fire it up, drive away and all seems easy and familiar.

The steering is light and direct and, while the handling won't garner wins at any slalom events, it's predictable and free of surprises even when pushed to the max. I had expected that the antique combination of front torsion bars and rear leaf springs might prove to be ungainly but Isuzu has the system well and truly dialed-in. In particular, the shock absorbers were spot-on for the application.

Riding along is another no-surprises event. The Rodeo just rolled down the road with few indications that we were travelling in a 4×4 truckwagon.

No-surprises might also sum up the Rodeo's ride qualities in mild off-road conditions. The shocks keep the beefy P245/70R16 tires in contact and the compliant suspenders soak up the bumps. I doubt whether the more primitive Rodeo could match either the sophisticated Pathfinder or the tough 4Runner in extreme

conditions, but for most backcountry trekking it will fill anyone's bill.

I did discover the Rodeo engine's power delivery curve didn't fit too well with the very tall tires and automatic transmission. Crawling out of ruts or holes was a trial with the transfer case in 4-high. The transmission's torque converter would wait for a lot of revs before hooking up and then the truck would leap forward in a rush. Not good if a tree is in the way.

Except for open-trail cruising I'd recommend keeping the Rodeo in 4-low while off-roading. Then, the free-revving motor can do its work in concert with the transmission — without launching you into the next county.

The new shift-on-the-fly transfer case clicked easily in and out of 4WD, but the fact that it is usable only as a part-time system for slick surfaces only is disappointing. Forty grand says full-time AWD to me.

I had expected good things from the stout brake discs at each wheel in combination with a four-corners anti-lock system. That prediction played out in excellent stops on both paved and gravel surfaces. No amount of hard use could induce significant brake fade.

The interior continues the theme of no-surprise quality. Everything is here, the shapely front buckets, split fold-down rear bench, the complete set of gauges, dual airbags, and so on. Plus, it's all sewn, moulded, stamped and installed with a high degree of care.

What we don't get is any sense of character. The experience is as generic as any I've had in an automobile. This from the firm that has brought us a series of Troopers dripping with personality for better or worse.

Bland may be grand, but what about the aura of uniqueness that's costing us an extra four-figure fee? Ante up that premium and what you're paying for is a boxy and purposeful looking body punctuated by a blacked-out rear window treatment that derives from the AMC Pacer. (It will never die.)

Add the bold 16-inch wheels, massive tires plus the busy swing-out spare with the "I'm a Rodeo!" wheel cover and the Isuzu does end up with a look somewhat its own. If that's worth between $3,000 and $5,000 more, so be it. I just hope the ol' dealer may sell for less.

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