Agile handling, good value with fresh styling.
by Dean Stevens
Base Price (MSRP) $18,080
As Tested (MSRP) $31,760
The Isuzu Rodeo is schizophrenic. Its sporty looks, sure feel, and nimble highway manners make it good city/highway vehicle. A second personality surfaces when you leave the highway behind in quest of serious off-road fun. This is one personality disorder that's very easy to live with.
Rodeos have long been solid machines that offer good value. Improvements and new features to the 2000 models make them even better. Changes include a restyled front end, improved seating, and new colors. Even more significant are a new computer-controlled suspension system and the introduction of what Isuzu claims is the longest powertrain warranty offered by any automaker in the US.
The Rodeo is available in three different trim levels: S, LS and LSE.
Two engines are available. All models except the base model come equipped with a 3.2-liter V6. A four-speed automatic transmission is a $1,000 option on S and LS models, but comes standard on LSE.
Isuzu's 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine is only available on the base S model with two-wheel drive and a five-speed manual gearbox.
Standard equipment on all Rodeos includes power steering, four-wheel antilock brakes, dual air bags, tinted glass, cargo area side boxes, and skid plates under the radiator and fuel tank. The base S model is equipped with a four-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo. V6 models add cruise control and a tilt steering wheel. Four-wheel-drive models add a transfer case skid plate. The spare tire is mounted under the floor on two-wheel-drive models and on the tailgate on four-wheel-drive models.
LS 2WD ($23,435) models include power mirrors, variable speed intermittent windshield wipers, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, 6-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo, retractable cargo cover, cargo convenience net, front and rear floor mats, remote keyless entry, theft alarm, color-keyed carpeted floormats, and a useful power outlet in the cargo area by the back door. Rodeo LS 4WD ($26,120) models also get a limited-slip rear differential.
The luxurious LSE ($28,790 for 2WD, $31,265 for 4WD) comes with Isuzu's new Intelligent Suspension Control system, leather trimmed seats and door panels, wood grain trim, a six-speaker AM/FM/cassette/6-disk CD changer stereo, power moonroof, alloy wheels, fog lamps, privacy glass, color-keyed trim and roof rack crossbars.
An optional Ironman Package ($1,052) is available on Rodeo LS models that commemorates Isuzu's sponsorship of the Ironman Triathlon race. Ironman LS models feature the Intelligent Suspension Control system; special beige velour upholstery; moonroof; Ironman Triathlon badging; Titan Gray trim, overfenders, and molding; 6-spoke alloy wheels; and Yokohama 245/70R-16 tires.
This year's Rodeo has a bold new eight-port grille, new flush-mounted headlight assemblies and redesigned front and rear bumper fascia. Other than some new colors (Canal Blue Mica, Garden green Mica, Roman Bronze Mica, and Alpine White), the rest of the Rodeo looks pretty much as it has since the major reworking it received in 1998.
The most significant mechanical change to the 2000 Rodeo is the new Intelligent Suspension Control system. A dedicated onboard computer monitors vehicle speed, engine rpm, brakes, and input from a g-force sensors mounted on the chassis and integrated into the shock absorbers. The computer then directs step-motors that control shock valve blow-off points to adjust compression and rebound rates. The intent is to provide a smoother ride and reduced brake-dive and body roll. Sometimes it achieves that goal, sometimes it doesn't. The Intelligent Suspension Control system is optional on LS Rodeos and standard on LSE models.
Another notable change for the 2000 Rodeo isn't mechanical or cosmetic. It comes in the form of a generous 10-year/120,000 mile powertrain warranty (the basic warranty is still 3 years/50,000 miles). The powertrain warranty covers defects in materials or workmanship in the engine, transmission, suspension, steering assembly, and axles. It does not cover routine maintenance or adjustments.
We found the seats in the 1999 Rodeo uncomfortable, but Isuzu has redesigned the front and rear seats for 2000 and the change is a good one. Without having old and new seats side by side it isn't possible to pinpoint exactly how the new ones are enhanced, but the seat bottoms seem bigger and deeper and are definitely for the better. Most of the controls are well placed and easy to operate, though the windshield wiper control took awhile to figure out.
On the downside, interior passenger space, particularly headroom, is still limited for taller people. The Rodeo seats five, but rear-seat passengers best be children or short adults. The optional moonroof further lowers front headroom by an inch, which is a lot. People shorter than 6 feet should find headroom adequate, however.
The Rodeo offers abundant cargo space, however; more than 81 cubic feet of cargo space is revealed with the rear seat is folded down. That tops other like-sized SUVs, particularly the Nissan Xterra (65.6 cubic feet). The Rodeo boasts slightly more space than the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4-Runner, which offer less than 80 cubic feet of cargo space.
We dropped the back seat and loaded the cargo area with a mountain bike, a very large float tube (a giant truck inner tube encased in nylon with a backrest that sticks up about 2 feet on one side of the tube), a couple of fly rods, and some other miscellaneous fishing gear. The Rodeo swallowed all that gear with room to spare.
We drove our Rodeo from Los Angeles to the Owens Valley in northeastern California. The Rodeo is nimble and responsive. It had enough power to easily move through traffic in LA's crowded freeways and surface streets. The steering was precise and sure. Its compact size makes it a joy do drive.
Rodeo handled the open road well, too. The 3.2-liter V6 pushed us up Cajon Pass without slowing. The available 2.2-liter four-cylinder, while well built and reliable, seems too small for a vehicle that tops 3600 pounds. The 3.2-liter V6 is a much stronger engine and seems better suited to the Rodeo. As we neared the town of Bishop, the Rodeo defied a windstorm with gusts topping 40 mph, hugging the road better than other lighter or taller vehicles.
In the White Mountains east of the Owens Valley, the Rodeo tackled primitive roads and rough trails. We slowed to a crawl, but four-wheel drive kept us chugging along while the big 16-inch tires gripped exposed bedrock like claws. For 2000, 16-inch wheels and tires replace last year's standard 15-inch rubber; 225/70R16 tires are standard on S and LS models, 245/70R16 tires are standard on LSE models.
Basically unchanged this year is Rodeo's dependable four-wheel drive system. It's a part-time, shift-on-the fly setup. At speeds below 60 mph you simply push a button to shift into 4WD-high. To drop into 4WD-low you need to stop and shift a floor-mounted lever. All 4WD Rodeos come standard with limited-slip differential and rear disc brakes (2WD Rodeos have rear drums).
On less extreme terrain, where we had a little more speed over a series of moguls, the Rodeo tended to wallow. While the computer-controlled suspension provided a smooth and pleasant ride on the highway and on most dirt roads we traveled, it seemed slow to respond as we traversed the moguls. On the other hand, the Rodeo rode well at moderate speeds (about 30 mph) on one washboard road we took.
Back on paved mountain roads we found the Rodeo to be agile and sure. In radical transient maneuvers the rear-end loses traction before the front-end-just the way it should. The four-wheel anti-lock braking system works as expected and keeps the vehicle straight and true in emergency stops. In fact, the ABS even works well on rough dirt roads where other systems seem lacking.
Overall, the Rodeo offers a stable ride and responsive handling, a benefit of its ladder frame with eight cross members and box section main rails. Steel tubes in the doors, in addition to providing better passenger protection, also make the body more rigid, adding to it's inherent stability and solid handling.
The available 4-speed automatic features a winter mode. When it's engaged, the transmission starts out in third gear to prevent wheelspin on icy or snowy surfaces. The transmission also has a power mode that gives better acceleration by raising up-shift points. Both modes are controlled by well-placed pushbuttons in the center console.
Isuzu Rodeo delivers agile handling, off-road capability and roomy cargo space all at an attractive price. This is an underrated SUV that deserves to be on more shopping lists.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.