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1998 Isuzu Rodeo

Do you remember when sport utilities were sporty? Do you remember when compact truckwagons were actually compact? In very recent times, the old '50s litany of bigger is better has transformed these vehicles into bloated, conservative caricatures of the original concept.

I, for one, had almost forgotten until the 1998 Isuzu Rodeo blew into my life like a breath of fresh air. The Rodeo, restyled, reengineered and refined for '98, is not small. But

it's not big either.

In typical Isuzu fashion the new Rodeo's controls and interior appointments are complete, well thought-out, power-assisted, comfortable and convenient. But not embarrassingly plush. (The "S" model like our tester comes with a package of goodies that should satisfy anyone. But if your jaded urban sensibilities demand leather and fake wood, there is an upscale "LS.")

The Rodeo certainly looks sporty.

Done up in full monochrome, with a bold Ferrari-style eggcrate grille, short front and rear overhangs, and body-side sculpting that's the real McGee, not add-on plastic cladding,

this truck maintains some integrity. It has that ready-for-adventure look, for work or play, that has been long lost from the rest of the pack.

No cladding. What a concept. Those horizontal feature lines are stamped into the door panels. Those tasty flares eye-browing each wheel well are made of steel.

I am so pleased to report that the Rodeo's drive-train supports the sporty look. Isuzu has stumbled around with its sport utility engine program for years without much success and, up 'til now, the firm has demonstrated a baffling reluctance to adopt shift-on-the-fly for its four wheel drive (4WD) system.

The new engine is a pleasure and accessing the 4Hi mode on the new Rodeo requires the simple push of a dash button at any speed up to 100 km/h. In the past, Isuzu's complicated double-overhead-cam 3.2litre V6 has produced a very peaky power delivery curve more suited to a hot sports sedan than a torque-dependent truck.

This latest version cranks out 205 horsepower and 214 pounds-feet of torque, but with the thrust now starting down around 2,200 rpm and maintaining its energy to over 5,000.

Moreover, the commendably flat torque curve is achieved without losing any of the gleeful free-revving qualities of earlier models.

Our tester came equipped with a five-speed manual, not my usual choice in a sport ute. But it shifts with ease, and the gear-set is perfectly spaced to complement the engine. The

combination inspires the driver to use the power-train to best advantage, flicking up and down through the gears for the sheer pleasure of feeling and hearing the engine do its thing.

However, the engine's flexibility also allows the Rodeo to be driven with a minimum of downshifting.

On a recent tour along two-lane blacktop to Stratford, I passed numerous dawdlers simply by feeding in more throttle in fifth gear. (We'll test an LS with the automatic after the snow starts to fly.)

Unfortunately, the spirited behaviour of the engine and transmission is not quite matched by the chassis. For the revision, the Rodeo's frame was considerably strengthened and,

although the straight axle remains, the rear buggy springs have been replaced by compliant coils controlled by a five-link system.

The track has been widened 60 mm, the wheelbase shortened 60 mm and the weight reduced by a remarkable 23 kg all modifications that should result in manifest sportiness.

It almost works; it's that close.

The rack and pinion steering is flawless, as are the four wheel ABS disc brakes. But a shade-too-little roll control and a lot too little shock control contribute to my disappointment.

The body lean allows front suspension camber changes that, in turn, allow too much understeer (front end push). Although the vehicle is stable and predictable, the effect of too-skinny anti-roll bars is felt in any rapid change of direction. For a machine of this size and weight, each of the front and rear bars could be fattened up by about 25 per cent.

The pushing effect in a corner would also be reduced by more competent shock absorbers slowing down the process of weight transfer. Those shocks would also help control the suspension's action when confronted with broken pavement or off-road bumps.

At certain moments the Rodeo comes very close to wallowing. A sporty truck doesn't deserve that. Given the state of our art, I'm sure these modifications can be accomplished without compromising the Rodeo's otherwise exemplary ride and amazingly quiet interior.

On the utility side, the Rodeo has been well served. The floor has been lowered to reduce step-in height and to allow a taller seat base for more comfort. (The Rodeo's front

seating position does maintain a legs-out posture which is good for some folks but hard on some backs. Check it out.)

Below the attractive dash, the driver's left foot now (at long last) has a comfy, supportive dead pedal to rest or brace on.

All of the interior dimensions have been increased and the cargo area is as free of protrusions as they come. Access to the cargo area is through a novel full-width swing-out door combined with lift-up glass. The door is hinged as it should be, on the left side, away from the curb.

My preference is for a full height hatch and lift glass, but the door does provide a spot for Isuzu to hang the full size spare out of the cargo space. For those of you who care little about maximum off-road ground clearance, the Rodeo can also be ordered with the spare mounted under the rear chassis. Space was made available by the redesigned frame and the coil springs.

Part of any 1998 Isuzu story has to deal with price. As we reported in Wheels' review of the Isuzu Hombre minipickup (Hombre's style stands out, August 30, 1997), the firm is

adopting the package deal/one price/no haggling policy of the Saturns with which it shares showroom space.

The idea is simple. For '98, Isuzu offers its vehicles in pre-optioned packages that offer little or no choice of other features or accessories. The package usually includes the items most customers would select. The price is set, not at an inflated 'suggested list,' nor at giveaway levels. It's supposed to be a fair price and anyone who walks in the door gets the same treatment, writes the same cheque.

Our Rodeo S test vehicle with standard package "1SC" came with the 3.2litre V6 and five-speed manual, P235/75R15 tires on alloy wheels, a/c, the outside spare, cruise control, power windows and door locks with remote entry, a roof rack and a tilt

wheel for $33,010.

The a/c tax and "destination charge" brought the total to $33,760. Not free, not cheap, but not a bloated caricature of a price either.

Like I said, a breath of fresh air.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on a weeklong driving experience in a Rodeo supplied by GM Canada.



1998 Isuzu Rodeo S 4X4*

Bodystyle: Fourdoor compact sport utility

Drivetrain: 4×2/4×4 Engine 205hp 3.2L DOHC V6

Transmissions: 5speed manual/4speed automatic,12 ,12 ,1

Exterior mm (in.):

Length 4653 (183.2) Wheelbase 2702 (106.4) Width 1787 (70.4) Front seat mm (in.) Legroom 1070 (42.1) Headroom 989 (38.9) Std. GVWR 2200 kg (4840 lb.)

*These specifications are supplied by the manufacturer and can change at any time.

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