Adios Amigo. Hola Rodeo Sport!
by Jonathan Ingram
Base Price (MSRP) $15,440
As Tested (MSRP) $24,020
You may have known about this spunky little two-door, open-air sport-utility as the Isuzu Amigo. But for 2001 it has been re-named the Rodeo Sport. The name change makes sense for a couple of reasons: First, Rodeo and Amigo already shared engines and other mechanical components. Second, Isuzu plans to launch an additional SUV model called the Axiom for 2002, and apparently felt the need to cut back on the number of nameplates in showroom. Axiom is expected to be a small, car-like wagon, more in the RAV4 or CR-V mold; the Rodeo name will continue to stand for more off-road-capable, truck-based SUV's.
Of the two Rodeo models, the ex-Amigo, now Rodeo Sport, should enjoy a slight performance advantage, on and off the road, thanks to its shorter wheelbase and lighter weight. It is, after all, simply the Amigo by another name, with the same short, stout body and semi-convertible soft top; the same rugged four-wheel drive and optional V6 power. And yes, a glass-window hard top is still available for travelers who want more weather protection than the soft-top affords.
Amigo offered a wide variety of engine, driveline, and top combinations, and this tradition will continued under the Rodeo Sport label. If anything, the number of variations has expanded, now that an automatic transmission is offered with the four-cylinder engine. Two-wheel-drive V6s are automatic only, but all 2WD variants can be ordered with a hard or soft top. To get four-wheel-drive drive, however, you must opt for the V6. 4WD soft tops can be ordered with manual or automatic transmission, while 4WD hardtops are automatic only.
Technically, Rodeo Sport comes in only one trim level. Base prices start at $15,440 for the four-cylinder, five-speed hardtop, and top out at $20,750 for the 4WD V6 automatic convertible.
The list of standard equipment is generous, but air conditioning costs $950 as a stand-alone option, or $2195 as part of a Preferred Equipment Package for V6 models. That package also includes power windows and locks, heated power mirrors, remote keyless entry with alarm, AM/FM/Cassette with six-CD changer, and other miscellaneous appointments.
Additionally, V6 models can be ordered with Isuzu's Ironman package ($1,215) which adds Intelligent Suspension Control plus appearance items with an iron-gray theme. The package requires black or white paint.
The first decision when buying a Rodeo Sport 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.
Although they cost less, hardtop models look more upscale and are ultimately more practical than the soft top. Made of polypropylene, the hard top covers the rear half of the body formerly occupied by the fold-down soft top. The hard top comes only in black and is non-removable. (Isuzu officials said their research indicated most Jeep Wrangler owners never removed their removable hard tops.) The hard top provides better soundproofing, of course, but also improved visibility with its glass windows, improved weather protection, and heightened security for valuables. It comes with a heated rear window, and neatly hides the huge rear roll hoop and support bars.
Surprisingly, the non-removable hard top also lends the Rodeo Sport a more handsome and sophisticated appearance. It complements the already athletic look of the lower body, where wheel wells are packed with 16-inch mud-and-snow radials. The Ironman package adds particularly attractive gray fascia and fender flares. The flares can also be ordered as a stand-alone option.
If you opt for the soft top, you'll find it easy to remove. By releasing two interior 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.
Amigo's styling was updated for 2000, and most of those changes carry over onto the 2001 Rodeo Sport. Adding to the Rodeo Sport's visual appeal are small optional fog lamps and art deco taillights. The large rear tailgate door, with its relatively short window, eliminates the square appearance of most sport-utilities. Blister fenders with the optional gray overfenders and form-filling tires add an appealing muscular demeanor. 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.
The Rodeo Sport interior is straightforward and 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 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, a common complaint on many vehicles, but more noticeable on this one. Operating the radio underway is a challenge with buttons that are hard to read. There's new seat and door trim fabric for 2001.
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.
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 units on the soft-top. The glass dramatically improves visibility out the sides. A rear defroster and wiper are standard.
Our test Rodeo Sport was a 4WD Hardtop, so it came with the 3.2-liter V6 and automatic transmission. The V6 revs quickly, providing quick getaways from intersections. Strong low-end torque peaks at 214 pounds-feet at 3,000 rpm. The Rodeo sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, a strong performance for a small SUV.
Wide 245/70R16 tires are standard this year on all Rodeo Sport models. They don't provide a lot of grip in paved corners, but the Rodeo Sport's handling is very predictable and that makes it entertaining to drive. The 16-inch tires do offer excellent compliance with the all-coil suspension, which smoothes out the ride considerably, although the rear tires do have a tendency to bounce around over really big bumps. With its ladder-type frame and live rear axle, the Rodeo Sport retains some of its truck heritage. It shudders over bumps. In comparison, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, which are based on passenger-car chassis, ride smoother but cannot match the off-road capability of the Rodeo.
On smooth interstates, the V6 gallivants happily. It's a pleasure to drive on curvy mountain highways where torque is 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 Rodeo Sport handles much better and is more fun to drive than the similarly priced Kia Sportage.
The Ironman package, which we have not sampled, includes Intelligent Suspension Control. The ISC computer monitors seven separate sensors and continuously adjusts the shock absorbers to optimize ride and handling. A switch in the cockpit allows the driver to select Comfort or Sport modes.
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 Rodeo Sports. With all that off-road suspension travel, there is some nose dive under hard braking.
When equipped with the automatic transmission, the Rodeo Sport 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 gears for maximum torque by engaging a floor-mounted lever. The Rodeo's part-time four-wheel-drive system is designed for loose surfaces and should not be used on dry pavement.
The Rodeo Sport 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 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.
Rodeo Sport offers distinctive, funky 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 Rodeo Sport is its price, which is competitive with the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and other small SUVs. Yet Rodeo Sport offers more space and more driving entertainment.
The Rodeo Sport is, in a word, endearing. It may no longer be an Amigo, but it's still a friend.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.