1998 Isuzu Trooper

  • Driver

Alas, time has passed the Trooper by. The big Isuzu truckwagon, derived from a Japanese army personnel carrier, peaked early and hasn't recovered. My guess is that it has missed its chance.

When the Trooper was introduced way back in 1986, it was a plain but hearty soul, not far removed from its military background. It sat high, rode stiffly but confidently and carried a tonne o'stuff.

Power came from a small but eager and virtually unbreakable 110 hp four cylinder. Transit was slow but reliable. The four-wheel drive system was rudimentary, but military-tough. Moreover, the Trooper was cheap; nothing on the market gave a customer so much vehicle for so little cash.

As such, the Isuzu soon became the darling of the cottage set, its tall, square profile punctuating northbound weekend traffic. And for a while, with its lower jaw festooned with an under-bite of fishing rod holders, it was the sand-runner of choice for many beach house owners and surf fisher-folk on the Eastern seaboard.

For my wife Diana and I, the Spartan Trooper exemplified the capable simplicity of the truck-wagon concept before the image of "sport" got seriously in the way of "utility." Diana never climbed into a Trooper without remarking, "I feel like we're off on an adventure."

So what went wrong? Well, we should have seen the handwriting on the wall when parent company General Motors saw fit to dump its 2.8 L V6 truck engine onto the Isuzu production line. At the time, customers were beginning to expect V6 power in their sport-utes. But the 2.8 was not the solution for the Trooper.

It is a horrible engine, hopelessly rough and gutless one of the worst GM has ever produced. That Isuzu saw fit to accept this nasty little castoff for the Trooper was a potent indicator that the Japanese firm was losing its focus. The biggest blow came in 1992 with the "all-new" replacement for the beloved original.

The appearance of the second-generation was okay, quite pleasing actually. I remember describing it as looking like the same big box, but with all the corners nicely sanded off.

However, the suspension tuning was well wide of the mark. Passengers experienced considerable discomfort as the shocks, springs and torsion bars fought each other at every bump, and meagre roll control allowed extravagant body lean in every corner.

Isuzu's choice of power can only be described as a wild stab in the dark. If memory serves, there were two V6s, one employing a single overhead cam per head, the other with double cams. They were sweet-running, high revving sophisticates with power output curves more suited to a sports sedan, providing none of the low-end torque necessary for duty in a sport utility.

Plus, the vehicle's signature austere simplicity had been replaced with overlay upon overlay of luxury appointments and accessories.

The rugged military structure and mechanicals remained beneath, including Isuzu's perverse retention of the stop-and-shift 4WD system, but the image and experience of "Trooping" had gone upscale. So had the price. No longer a bargain, the Trooper was now a prestige automobile.

Fast-forward to 1998 and my first ride in a Trooper for a long time.

Right away I noticed an improvement in ride quality. While still not sprung quite enough for my utilitarian tastes, the suspenders now operate in impressive harmony. Body roll is still a factor but it is held within the limits necessary for comfort.

You may have read something of those expose accounts of the Trooper's "dangerous" handling characteristics. From behind this desk the problem is a matter of perspective. Time was when virtually all 4x4s posted a notice on the driver's visor warning of the potential dangers inherent in making sudden moves with the wheel of a 4WD. Vehicle may roll over and crash (ahem).

As the automakers have improved the dynamics of their SUVs, most have removed the stickers. Isuzu hasn't. Changing the Trooper's direction does take some care. The high centre of gravity combined with not-yet-adequate spring and roll rates results in some fairly dramatic weight transfers. I found that the truck would handle a single turn with reasonable grace but linking a fast series of sharp turns required considerable concentration. After the first left-then-right, yaw becomes self-induced and the driver is challenged in gathering the machine back in.

While researching this phenomenon, I managed to scare myself silly. That said, I don't consider the Trooper unsafe. The visor warning is appropriate and sufficient. I do object to the fact that the problem exists at all. Such behavior might have been acceptable in the old, cheap, original model, but not in a brand-new $46,290 version. (Yeah, that's the bottom line for a '98 Limited). Large size and four-wheel drive are no excuse. The Tahoe/Yukon, Range Rover, even the Lincoln Navigator would run rings around a Trooper and not raise their drivers' adrenalin levels in the process.

The '98, finally, does have a shift-on-the-fly transfer case. Shared with the Rodeo (A breath of fresh air, Wheels, Oct. 18, 1997), the electrically-controlled 4×4 gadgetry allows 4WD to be selected at highway speeds. Exclusive to the Limited is a

Torque-On-Demand AWD distribution system that directs power away from spinning wheels.

And the 1998 Trooper, finally, does have an engine. Some deep, deep, fiddling with the DOHC 3.5 L aluminum V6's induction and electronics have transformed the rev-happy sport motor into a grunt-producing utility rated 215 hp at 5400 rpm and 230 lbft at 3000. A testament to the magic of modern internal combustion, the revised engine loses none of its sweetness.

Admittedly, while the Limited is over the top, some sense of the old Trooper does remain in the form of lesser models. The S with a manual transmission lists for $34,975, the LS for $38,895. Not cheap, but all you're giving up beside the Torque-On-Demand is heated leather power seats and a few trinkets like the electrically-operated foldaway mirrors.

Some of the old Trooper's magic remains in a sense of potential adventure when clambering aboard.

And while cruising down the highway seated in those high chairs, surrounded by all that glass and metal, you have the inescapable feeling that you're going somewhere important, to do something worthwhile. But the illusion is tarnished by the faux-luxe surroundings and by the nagging memory of the payments required to finance the mission.

Nevertheless, if Isuzu had given us the truck in this form back in 1992, I may have given it a rave. Times, however, and the demands of the marketplace, change. We have come to expect a harmonious blend of car-like qualities from our sport utility truck-wagons. The '98 version of the '92 Trooper provides too much and too little, now too late.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on weeklong driving experiences in a Trooper supplied by General Motors Canada.

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