Big, smooth, elegant and safe. by Tony Swan
Roomy, elegant and comfortable, the Isuzu Trooper suffers from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: it don't get no respect, or at least not enough. And the same can be said for its Acura variant, the SLX.
In fact, the Trooper and SLX have been the targets of some distinctly hostile press, thanks to last year's scare story by a national consumer's magazine which suggested these two vehicles are exceptionally prone to rollover accidents.
We'll address that issue in a little more detail later, but let's make something clear right now: we think this is nonsense. In addition to our own evaluations, various members of our team, who could roll over most any SUV if they really tried to, have been involved in a number of formal track tests involving both the Trooper and the SLX, and neither of them showed any unusual inclination to go into the shiny-side-down mode.
In addition to being capable, well equipped and exceptionally roomy, the Trooper and SLX are well priced to compete in the borderline luxury area, one of the hottest segments of the sport-utility market.
Our tester was the mid-grade Trooper LS, with four-wheel drive. Mechanical, feature and dynamic observations concerning the Trooper apply equally to the Acura SLX.
Redesigned in 1992, the Trooper has rounded corners that soften the impression of SUV boxiness, lending an air of country club sophistication -- but not to the point of compromising the rugged appearance that sport-utility buyers love so much. With a 108.7-inch wheelbase and 183.5-inch overall length, it still falls into the mid-size range, but at the heavy end -- well into the middle of the 4000-pound realm with 4WD.
The prime source of the Trooper's mass is a sturdy truck-style frame, to which the body is attached with rubber-isolated mounts. Although we expect to see more and more unibody sport-utes in the years ahead, this is still the standard construction practice today, and the Trooper's traditional setup is well conceived to take punishment and keep on going.
The suspension -- independent in front, with upper and lower control arms, and live axle at the rear -- is also conventional. The Trooper's on-demand 4WD system, though effective, is a bit behind the times. It still employs a separate transfer case lever while others in this class are moving to electronic push-button systems, although the system can be engaged at speeds up to 60 mph and a limited slip rear differential is available as an option.
There's only one engine offering, a 3.2-liter overhead cam 24-valve V-6, and one transmission, a four-speed electronically controlled automatic. While this engine is smooth and quiet at most operating speeds, it's a little short on torque harnessed to a vehicle in this weight class. On the other hand, the Trooper's 0-to-60 mph performance is better than the new Infiniti QX4, and acceleration isn't a strong suit in the sport-utility realm in any case.
The brake system employs good-sized discs at both ends, which helps to reduce fade -- a significant plus in vehicles this size. ABS is optional ($1200) on the S and LS models, standard on the uplevel ES and Limited editions.
The Inside Story
As you'd expect in this price range, the Trooper is luxed up to a fare-thee-well within, and handsomely so. The dashboard has a smooth, contemporary appearance, even though it's been with us for five years now, and control locations are generally good, with good graphics. We also liked our tester's huge power moonroof, an $1100 option, which allows rear-seat passengers to participate in the open air experience, when weather permits.
There are a few weak points. The audio controls are at the bottom of the center stack, and the adjustment buttons are a little undersized, making them awkward to use when the vehicle is moving. We were also surprised at the absence of automatic climate control feature, which is now almost universal among luxury sport-utes.
However, the Trooper more than makes up for any small interior demerits with one big plus: space. Front and rear, this is one of the roomiest sport-utility vehicles on the market, with real move-around space for three adults in the back seat and plenty of space up front as well.
The Trooper also scores better-than-average marks for its cargo capacity. All in all, an excellent job of space engineering by the Isuzu designers.
Roominess will cover for a lot of seating deficiencies, but even if the Trooper wasn't so spacious, its seats would still score good marks for long-haul comfort. And of course the optional high-quality leather upholstery doesn't hurt on this score, either.
Like most sport-utility vehicles, the Trooper has a fairly high step-in, and we give it average marks on this issue.
Safety features -- dual airbags and side-impact protection -- are also included.
Ride & Drive
Let's talk about vehicle dynamics. Because it's tall and also has much more ground clearance than a sedan, a sport-utility vehicle inevitably has a high center of gravity.
A high center of gravity is not your ally when it comes to quick avoidance maneuvers, something many sport-utility drivers seem to forget. The word sport in this application has to do with something other than handling; by their very nature, sport-utility vehicles -- all sport-utility vehicles -- are going to feel tippier than passenger cars.
And because they tend to be much heavier than passenger cars, they offer more resistance to changes in direction. We're talking about physical laws here: if you try to herd a sport-utility vehicle through a set of slalom cones at the same speed as, say, a BMW sedan, you're much more likely to encounter unhappy consequences.
The Trooper and SLX aren't as handy in double lane change maneuvers as some sport-utes, but they are thoroughly predictable and also stable at higher speeds. If you see videos of someone getting a Trooper -- or any other sport-utility vehicle -- up onto two wheels it's because that person has challenged the laws of physics and exceeded the laws of common sense.
While the Trooper and SLX aren't slalom champs, they do have exceptionally precise steering, and very good brake feel. And their ride quality scores as better than average, thanks to suspension components tuned more for all-around driving comfort than heavy-duty off-road use.
Engine performance, as noted, is so-so, but good gearing gives the Trooper decent stoplight getaway and at freeway speeds the 3.2-liter V-6 is smooth and quiet.
In low-speed off-road crawling, there's enough power to get the job done, and the 4WD system does a good job of clawing through gooey going. The relatively soft suspension tuning isn't the ideal setup for tough off-road conditions, but there's sufficient ground clearance -- 8.5 inches -- to handle the dirty driving most owners are likely to take on.
Our only criticism of the Trooper's drivetrain in this regard is the absence of a full-time 4WD system, which is fairly common among its competitors.
Though it's a little dated in a couple of minor areas, the Trooper and Acura SLX are refined, well made vehicles that provide top comfort, plenty of amenities and outstanding interior space. They're capable in all kinds of driving. All you have to do, as you would with any other sport-ute, is apply common sense.
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