1998 Isuzu Hombre

It's been four years since Isuzu has had a pickup truck to sell alongside its Trooper and Rodeo sport utilities, giving the Isuzu nameplate time to become firmly associated with General Motors' Saturn dealer network, now 62 strong in Canada.

Isuzu has recently made a deal with GM to market the Hombre, a mildly re-skinned version of the successful S10/Sonoma compact pickup. The Isuzu version is available in both standard and extended cab, powered by the 118horsepower 2.2litre four-cylinder or an optional 175horsepower 4.3litre Vortec V6. Interiors are unchanged from the GM models.

The wonderful "Spacecab' name returns for the Hombre extended-cab. But why should you care, when you can purchase essentially the same truck at any Chev or GMC store?

I'd buy it for the styling. Not only are the Hombre's curvaceous bed sides and smoothly executed nose job appealing, they're also different.

Interestingly, the flawless sheet-metal bits that make up the Hombre's sporty and contemporary look are stamped at an Isuzu plant in Brazil. It's the world economy in action.

I'd also be lured into a Saturn-Isuzu showroom by the easy deal I can make.

The Saturn folks have made a great success out of their no-haggle pricing philosophy coupled with attempts at a high level of customer service. The Hombre is the first Isuzu product to benefit from the one-price-fits-all system. And, according to a GM spokesman, it has been well received. (The all-new 1998 Rodeo and restyled Trooper coming this fall will also be marketed this way.)

The deal is, indeed, a simple one. Taking the popular Spacecab, like our test truck, as an example, there are five packages available, relating to both accessories and driveline

equipment. There are no further possibilities for choice, no 'freeflow' options as GM terms them. However, Isuzu has taken pains to include the items that most buyers would choose. The base model Spacecab ($16,655) comes with the four and a five-speed, four-wheel ABS, an AM/FM cassette, a full complement of six gauges, a pleasant cloth-and-carpet interior, driver-side air bag, and so on.

Moving up a package adds air conditioning and a sliding rear window ($17,845).

Choosing an automatic to go with either of the above produces two more packages ($18,045 and $19,235).

The fifth choice is a V6-powered machine which comes with the a/c, the window and the automatic, for $22,730. That's the equipment. That's the price. Take it or leave it.

Simple. Easy.

I'm in no position to say that it's the best deal you could make. But it's fair. The big choice is between inline four or V6 power. I have spent three marvellous years piloting the Vortec-motivated Wheels' S10 Project Pickup, and I can vouch for its reliability, energetic performance, and amazing quiet on the highway.

In contrast, prior to this review, my experience with the 2.2 consisted of one morning spent driving around Oshawa in a prototype over four years ago.

So I really put the Hombre's little four-banger to the test, using it for all the tasks a compact truck is made for everything from a drive in the country and a commute to work, to a long highway haul down to Kingston carrying a washer and drier destined for son Rob's new student digs.

I loved it. Just loved it.

I admit to being a sucker for compact trucks. And I admit that this one reminded me of the four-cylinder Toyotas and Datsuns I used to own and love.

But it was also just plain fun to drive. The 118 horses are adequate, nothing more. So the driver and his stick-shift have to help out. Just like God intended.

First-gear axle tramp sends 0100 times over the 13 second mark. And passing demands a shift down to third. But the truck feels willing and all challenges become possible with a careful throttle foot and skillful stirring of the stick to keep the engine on its power curve.

The boy-racer in me wishes that the gap in the ratios between third and second gears was narrower to allow more sporting downshifts. But I also know that I'd be cursing the lack of a low second gear when I was trying to get the truck up to speed with a heavy load on board.

That said, I should point out that the relationship between third, fourth and fifth gears is fun, and useful enough for anyone.

Engine noise is noticeable with the four, especially on the highway. But we should repeat that the V6 is uniquely quiet. I'd say that the GM engine is no more intrusive than any contemporary compact truck four, and less so than some of them.

With the lighter four-cylinder up front, handling is a also a treat.

It's nowhere close to being racer sharp, just confident and responsive with no hidden tricks. Push it too hard or too fast and progressive understeer lets you know you're being foolish. But it's a lot more zippy than the somewhat nose-heavy V6 model.

Anyone considering creating their own compact truck project based on the Wheels series should think seriously about the 2.2 Hombre.

However, most customers interested in the 2.2 will use the truck as either a second family car or as a gofer in a commercial application.

Fuel economy is important in both cases and our wee pickup delivered, sipping only 1l litres/100 km on a spirited commute, and was similarly frugal on that well-laden trip to Kingston. (Transport Canada ratings are, city:10.7L/100 km; hwy:7.2L/100 km.)

For now the Hombre is available only in two-wheel drive. In 1998, however, Isuzu will offer four-wheel drive packages and the entire line will get a new dash that incorporates a passenger-side air bag.

No, you can't get the third door in a Spacecab. Part of the deal with GM entailed that the rear entry to the extended cab remain an exclusive to the S10 and the Sonoma.

But, somewhere in the near future Isuzu will be selling a crewcab version – with four doors – of the Hombre. (The crew cab is best known as the key item in a paving company starter kit.)

Here's your chance to be first on the block with that one.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae prepared his assessment based on a weeklong driving experience in a vehicle supplied by General Motors Canada.

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