by Jonathan Ingram
Base Price $15,730
As Tested $23,975
Isuzu's Amigo two-door sport-utility is designed to be fun. Its short, stout body and semi-convertible soft top give it a funky appearance, while the availability of four-wheel drive and a V6 engine provide serious off-road capability. A hard top model is available for mountain travelers. And it boasts room for five.
One of the appeals of the Amigo is the variety of configurations available. All are available with either soft or hard tops. Amigo is available with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Two engines are available, a 130-horsepower cast-iron 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder and a 205-horsepower 3.2-liter aluminum-alloy V6. Most (if not all) four-cylinder models come with five-speed manual transmissions. Most four-cylinder models come with two-wheel drive. Most V6 models come with an automatic, but a five-speed manual is available.
Amigo models range in price from the $15,730 Amigo 2WD with four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual to the $20,495 Amigo 4WD V6 automatic. Hardtop and soft-top versions cost the same. Four-wheel drive adds nearly $2,300 to the cost of an Amigo. Air conditioning is a $950 option. All Amigos are S models.
All Amigos are two-door models. The Amigo is essentially the two-door version of the four-door Isuzu Rodeo. They share powertrains and other components. So if you want four doors, look at the Isuzu Rodeo. For 2000, the Amigo sports updated front and rear styling.
The first decision when buying an Amigo is whether to get the soft-top or the hard top. Which you choose says a lot about your lifestyle and where you live. The Soft Top looks best turning onto Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on the way to Hungry Valley's off-road park. The Hard Top looks ready to head into Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a week of trout fishing.
Amigo Hard Top looks more upscale and is more practical than the Soft Top. The Hard Top provides better soundproofing, improved visibility with glass windows, improved weather protection, and heightened security for valuables. The most noticeable result of the non-removable hard top is its handsome, more sophisticated appearance. This aesthetically pleasing new look vaults the Amigo ahead of the box-on-wheels look of many other sport-utilities. The hard top lends a more rakish appearance to the Isuzu Amigo. It complements the already athletic appearance of the Amigo's lower body, where wheel wells are packed with 16-inch Bridgestone Dueler tires. And it looks especially good with the optional gray painted fascia and fender flares. Made of polypropylene, the hard top covers the rear half of the Amigo formerly occupied by the fold-down soft top. The hard top comes only in black and is non-removable. Making the top removable would have added greatly to the cost of the hardtop Amigo; Isuzu officials said their research indicated most Jeep Wrangler owners never removed their removable hard tops. The hard top comes with a heated rear window. The hard top neatly hides the huge rear roll hoop and support bars necessary for a vehicle without a full body.
Amigo Soft Top features an easy-to-use removable top. By releasing two interior roof clamps, unzipping the rear and side windows and unsnapping the top from the roof frame, the top can be removed and stored. Rear and side windows are replaceable should they become scratched or lost.
The 2000 Amigo sports updated front and rear styling and a hard-face spare tire cover with gate-mounted spare. The hood slopes to a cascading egg-crate grille and air dam combination restyled for 2000. Adding to the Amigo's visual appeal are small fog lamps and art deco taillights. The large rear tailgate door with its relatively short window eliminates the square appearance of most sport-utilities. Its blister fenders with gray overfenders and form-filling tires add an appealing muscular demeanor to the Amigo. The spare tire-mounting bracket supports a high-mounted rear stop lamp that is fastened to the lower portion of the tailgate door. When the tailgate is opened, the spare swings with it, allowing safe and easy access to the curb whether the soft-top is up or down.
Inside, is a straightforward interior that is utilitarian in appearance. The dash and center console are in a standard arrangement. The floor shifter in four-wheel-drive models can be easily reached from the driver's seat. The woven cloth seats could use a greater range of adjustments and a bit more lumbar and side support. Also, the steering wheel isn't perfectly aligned with the driver's seat - common on many vehicles, but more noticeable on this one.
In the back seat, there's enough room for three adults. Folding the rear seat down reveals 62 cubic feet of cargo room. Climbing up and into the back seats isn't easy, however, because the passage is narrow and sliding the front seat forward on our test vehicle was difficult.
The hard top comes with two moonroofs. The front moonroof has a tilt option or can be removed. The rear moonroof can also be removed. The most obvious benefits of the hard top are the glass side and rear windows in place of the somewhat fussy zip-in plastic versions on the soft-top. The glass dramatically improves visibility out the sides. A rear defroster and wiper are standard.
Our Amigo Hard Top came with the 3.2-liter V6 and automatic. The V6 revs quickly, providing quick getaways from intersections. Strong low-end torque peaks at 214 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm. The Amigo sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds - a strong performance for a small SUV.
Once up to speed, the Amigo is fun to drive. The big tires don't provide a lot of grip in paved corners, but the handling is very predictable and that makes the Amigo entertaining to drive. The 16-inch tires offer excellent compliance with the Amigo suspension, which smoothes out the ride considerably. (P235s are standard, while wider P245s come with the optional alloy wheels.) Mounted on a ladder-type frame with a five-point coil-spring rear suspension and live rear axle, the Amigo retains some of its truck heritage. The rear tires have a tendency to bounce around when hitting big bumps. By comparison, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, which are based on passenger car chassis, ride smoother but cannot match the off-road capability of the Amigo.
On smooth interstates, the Amigo V6 gallivants happily. It's a pleasure to drive on curvy mountain highways where torque and horsepower are at a premium. The transmission shifts smoothly and the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering responds well. At lower speeds, the steering is precise, which is equally helpful when negotiating crowded city streets or tight dirt trails. The Amigo handles much better and is more fun to drive than the Kia Sportage.
When equipped with the automatic, the Amigo can be shifted from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive on the fly. Simply press the button on the dashboard. Most off-road hazards don't occur “on the fly,” but it's nice not having to stop when the pavement turns to gravel. For extreme off-road conditions, stop and shift into the low-range set of gears for maximum torque by engaging a floor-mounted lever. The Amigo's part-time four-wheel-drive system is designed for loose surfaces and should not be used on dry pavement.
Four-wheel-drive models come with disc brakes front and rear, which provide ample stopping power. Drum brakes in the rear are standard for two-wheel-drive models. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on all Amigos. With all that off-road suspension travel, there is some nose dive under hard braking.
The Amigo really shines on steep, difficult grades. We learned this in the San Bernardino Mountains where the Rim of the World Pro Rally is held. The torque of the V6 works well with the tough, but compliant Bridgestone tires. Shifting into four-wheel drive, we drove over huge rocks and climbed through deep ruts. We explored craggy logging roads loaded with large rocks near Lake Arrowhead, thankful for galvanized steel shields that protect the radiator and fuel tank.
Isuzu's Amigo offers distinctive, sporty styling that helps it stand out from a herd of boxy SUVs. The hard top appeals to buyers who want practicality and a more sophisticated appearance, while the soft top model delivers top-down fun-in-the-sun motoring.
One of the most attractive features of the Amigo is its price. It competes favorably with the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and other small SUVs, yet offers more space and more driving entertainment.
This Amigo is endearing. As its name implies, it has become a good friend.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.