A perennial favorite. by Helen V. Hutchings
As you've undoubtedly noticed, sport-utility vehicles are everywhere these days. Nearly every manufacturer has one, and those that don't have one in their lineups want one. That's why American Honda made its 1994 deal with Isuzu to sell a Honda version of the mid-size Isuzu Rodeo SUV.
Beyond telling you something about the universal demand for sport-utilities, this also tells you something positive about the Isuzu Rodeo. As one of the world's top automotive engineering companies, Honda is very selective about the products that filter out into the world through Honda showrooms.
The Honda Passport may represent a marriage of convenience, brought about by the absence of a sport-utility in Honda's product lineup, but you can bet that the Rodeo had to measure up to some very tough quality standards to win approval.
Thus the Isuzu Rodeo and the Honda Passport are fraternal twins. assembled in America--in Layfayette, Indiana at a plant which is a joint venture between Honda and Isuzu.
The appearance of the Rodeo and Passport is, in a word, capable. The stance is square and wide suggesting on- or off-road competency. The lines are masculine and rugged. And just like Life-Savers, the Rodeo and Passport come in many flavors.
The basic rear-drive Rodeo S, from $17,785, including destination, comes with a 2.6-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, one of the few four-cylinder offerings in the mid-size class. It offers the option of four-wheel drive, as well as a 3.2-liter V6 engine upgrade.
The LS model starts at $25,435, and includes the V6 as part of its standard equipment. With 4WD and a five-speed manual transmission, the price soars to $27,705, and a 4WD LS with automatic transmission starts at $28,855.
You won't find four-cylinder Passports. All are equipped with the V6, which is worth the extra money, in our opinion. All Honda Passport models ride on 16-inch wheels, while Isuzu offers a choice of either 15- or 16-inch.
The Inside Story
The feeling of a spacious interior is more than just a feeling. There is lots of room and it is well thought out for utility purposes, too. Thanks to last year's interior redesign, the controls are logical and well-placed, and function as they should without having to resort to the owner's manual for directions.
We also appreciated the thoughtfulness of the discrete arrow on the gas gauge on the dash which serves to remind the driver which side of the vehicle should be facing the pump when it's time to refill the tank.
Cover the seats however you wish--cloth or an optional leather interior--they are really comfortable. And as importantly, this is truly a five-passenger vehicle with ample room in the rear for the heads, shoulders, hips and legs of real people without crowding either the driver or the front seat passenger. Even with a full passenger complement, there is ample room for bags, boxes, sacks and satchels.
The cargo area has all sorts of handy tie-down anchors to secure whatever you're carrying, as well as a security screen to cover stuff up. An option on the Rodeo (standard on the Passport) which we found particularly useful was the 60/40 split in the rear seat. This greatly facilitates the ability to accommodate a variety of loads and/or passengers.
The Rodeo offers a choice between an optional rear spare tire mount, or a standard inside mount, while all Passports carry their spares on the tailgate. Neither arrangement is ideal. The inside spare eats cargo space, the outside mount restricts vision to the rear, and we prefer underbody spare tire stowage, which is on its way to becoming universal in this class.
The sound system--be it the standard AM/FM radio or an optional upgrade with cassette or CD capabilities--is quite good. Air conditioning is optional on the basic Rodeo, standard on the Passport. Both Rodeo and Passport also offer the option of a large opening in the roof, called a sunroof by Isuzu and a moonroof by Honda. So what's in a name? There's no night and day difference here; they're identical in function.
Ride & Drive
The Rodeo and Passport perform equally well on paved roads, unpaved roads or no roads at all, although eight inches of ground clearance limit usefulness in seriously rocky terrain. The suspension provides an easy ride for the occupants, regardless of terrain.
As noted, we strongly recommend the 3.2-liter engine for Isuzu shoppers. The additional displacement and power simply make for a more satisfactory throttle response under all conditions. We did notice that even though Rodeo/Passport worked well in the off-road muck and mire to which we subjected it, it seemed particularly happy and effortless cruising the expressways, due in part to the shift points of the automatic transmission with which our test vehicle was equipped. Besides its normal setting, the automatic is set up for two extra modes of operation--Winter, which starts the vehicle in a higher gear to reduce wheelspin on slick surfaces, and Power, which raises shift points to maximize acceleration.
The Isuzu 4WD is a straightforward on-demand system, designed for part-time use when extra traction is needed. It includes a 4WD low-range in its transfer case, for creepy-crawly going, and it's been upgraded for 1997 with shift-on-the-fly capability, which means you can engage the 4WD high-range at speeds up to 60 mph. Engagement is accomplished by a traditional separate shift lever for the transfer case.
Incidentally, another reason for stepping up to the LS model is that its front hubs lock automatically when you shift into 4WD. The S version still has antique manual locking hubs, which means you must climb out and set them by hand, an irritating process if you happen to be hub deep in mud or slush when you decide it's time for extra traction. Auto-locking hubs are all-but universal in today's sport-utilities, and we're surprised the Isuzu retains the outdated manual system.
Still another argument in favor of the V6 engine is its much bigger appetite for hard work. With the four-cylinder, the Rodeo can tow no more than 2000 pounds. With the V6, the rating goes up to 4500 pounds.
The Rodeo and Passport are headed for big changes in 1998, when an all-new vehicle will make its debut.
In the meantime, the current editions continue to be attractive entries, largely because of their superior roominess, solid engineering and better-than average quality.
The choice between Rodeo and Passport comes down to price versus service organization. Even if you eliminate the basic four-cylinder Rodeo S from the equation--and we recommend that you do--the Isuzu lineup is less expensive than the comparably equipped Honda offerings. Isuzu also offers more variety.
On the other hand, Honda has a much larger dealer network, and an excellent reputation for service.
There are more sophisticated sport-utilities in this size class, offering a variety of electroncially-activated full-time 4WD systems. But the Rodeo and Passport still look good, their value index is still high, they're tough and durable, they offer manual transmissions with their six-cylinder engines, and they're tough to beat for that prime SUV factor--roominess.
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