Overview

There's a certain utilitarian charm to the 1994 Isuzu Trooper LS. We pulled into a suburban park to begin our evaluation and the Trooper drew an appreciative crowd. It has many well-thought-out features that we'll cover. All very nice, but the 4WD system is one generation behind - no shift-on-the-fly.

Then it comes down to price. With all the options, including sunroof, leather seating and a premium sound system, the Trooper LS passes the magic sticker figure of $30,000, ranking right up there with Jeep's Grand Cherokee Limited and Ford Explorer Limited.

Walkaround

As we said, this is a handsome sport utility. It looks exactly like what it is-a very capable on- and off-road vehicle. The profile is erect, even boxy. But it looks good. You notice details such as wipers for the headlights (an option); skid plates underneath to protect the radiator, transfer case and fuel tank; and a sturdy mount for the spare-tire outside on the biggest of the 70/30 split rear doors.

That's right, doors. No big liftgate here. No rear window that disappears into a drop-down tailgate. The Isuzu Trooper has rear doors. They open wide and stay open to provide access to rear storage. But if you want a liftgate protecting you from the rain, or if you're looking for a drop-down gate for picnicking, you won't find it here. We got used to the doors, except for the rear window in the small door staying dirty because the wiper/washer is on the big door. Our test drive version was finished in the popular-for sport-utilities dark green, called Golden Green Mica. Fit and finish are excellent all around.

Interior Features

From inside, Isuzu Trooper's upright stance gives it the feel of a minivan. Armrests flank the driver and front seat passenger, giving the front buckets the feel of those ubiquitous minivan captain's chairs. Front and rear seats with their optional leather trim are comfortable and supportive. And access to them through the side doors is good. The rear seat has a 60/40 split so it may be folded for long cargo, such as skis or golf clubs, while still providing seating room. And the rear seatback reclines to a 40-degree angle to allow rear passengers to really relax. Fold the rear seatback down and you have 90 cubic feet of cargo space-perhaps the most in its class.

Isuzu Trooper LS offers passengers several strategically placed handholds for entering, exiting or simply holding on in the boondocks. We liked these and wish more sport utilities had them. Most seem to provide one for the front seat passenger and let it go at that. The LS has a console between the front bucket seats that carries the shift levers for the automatic transmission and 4WD/2WD transfer case.

Gauges, switches and controls generally are well-placed. Our Trooper LS had the premium sound system with a CD and cassette player. This is a lot to mount in a dash unit, and Isuzu mounted the AM/FM and cassette player high in the middle of the instrument panel so passengers could see the system's clock. The CD player is mounted lower on the console. It's hard to load or unload CDs with the automatic transmission in park because the shift lever nearly blocks the CD player door.

One nice feature here we'd like to see on all sport utilities is the optional heated power outside mirrors. There also is a control on the instrument panel that enables the driver to fold the mirrors flat against the body for protection in restricted spaces. This is great, especially on an off-road vehicle going through brush or tight places. It is equally great for going through car washes or tight parking. You don't have to get in and out of the vehicle to fold the mirrors flat or adjust them.

Our Trooper had the optional electric sunroof. It is big-it might be the biggest in its class. Big enough for rear seat passengers to enjoy the outdoors too. Operation was quick and positive.

Driving Impressions

The Trooper was a solid performer in our test. Acceleration was strong from a stop and in freeway merging and passing situations. The V6 didn't seem to be as noisy as the competitors' power plants when under a load. The Trooper, like all sport utilities with their higher stance and upright profile, did show some body lean when maneuvering at speed, but this wasn't exaggerated. Overall, the suspension, with independent double-wishbone and torsion bars in front and rear coil springs with multi-link positioning, worked well and is a happy compromise for good on- and off-road performance.

There are several features we enjoyed. One is the two settings on the four-speed automatic transmission that adjust performance to weather, road and load conditions. One setting is for "winter start," on, slippery surfaces. It starts Trooper in third gear, reducing wheel spin. We didn't have the luxury of trying it on ice or snow, but we did try it on wet, slippery leaves and it worked well. The other special setting is "power," for towing, passing or in off-road situations demanding maximum power. This setting increased the rpms during acceleration. It also worked very well.

Another feature we liked was the four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS). Isuzu recognizes that Troopers might go off-road, and relocated the control unit from the chassis to the engine compartment for greater protection.

Again, we didn't have any ice or snow, but tested the system on wet and mud surfaces. It worked very well, with just a slight shudder of feedback through the brake pedal when the system was applying and releasing brake system pressure. We found this feedback assuring rather than annoying.

One thing we did find annoying was the 4WD system. It didn't have shift-on-the-fly capability. You can shift into 4WD high while moving, but you must come to a stop to shift into 4WD low. And you must shift from 4WD low to 4WD high from a stop. Then you can shift from 4WD high into 2VTD while on the move. This is further complicated by the automatic locking hubs, which dictate that you operate briefly in reverse to unlock them. This is not state-of-the-art.

Summary

This is a sport utility with the performance and many thoughtful features that would make a long-term relationship enjoyable. We especially like the automatic transmission and its special settings, strong V6, ABS and suspension. We have two reservations. One is the outdated 4WD system. We can live with it, but we'll mutter each time we go through the elaborate shifting process.

The other reservation is the price. It's as high as the leaders in the segment-Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited and Ford Explorer Limited. Both have more contemporary styling and both make their own claims for most features, comfort and convenience. If you re going to spend more than $30,000 on a sport utility vehicle with all the options, Isuzu Trooper LS faces some heady competition.

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