A stylish hauler that's also budget conscious. by Ray Thursby
According to the folks who make them, inexpensive two-wheel drive pickups are the most sought-after members of the light-hauler clan. There are good reasons for that: many owners are first-time buyers, while others buy in large quantity for delivery fleets, construction companies or other service businesses. Civilizing fancy stuff such as high-powered stereos, four-wheel drive and luxurious upholstery don't fit their needs and/or budgets.
What these thrift-minded customers do demand (after the lowest possible price) is reliability. After that, if possible, a modicum of comfort. Not to mention a bit of style.
If those are the basic attributes you're seeking from a compact pickup truck, the Isuzu Hombre is well worth a once-over.
Isuzu has long been a player in the entry-level compact pickup game. Its initial U.S. offering was built for -- and sold by -- Chevrolet; the Chevy Luv truck competed against the Mazda-sourced Ford Courier and Dodge/Mitsubishi Ram 50. As Isuzu established its own dealer body, the P'up and successors continued the no-frills policy, a strategy that guarantees survival in an intensely competitive market.
Now the wheel has turned full circle, as General Motors and Isuzu team to produce another inexpensive pickup. This time, however, it's GM doing the manufacturing (in the U.S.) and Isuzu doing the selling.
No shame in that. For Isuzu, it's an opportunity to keep its pickup customers happy without having to foot the bill for product development costs. For GM, the Isuzu deal is a way to keep the assembly lines running at full speed. Both companies win, and so does the customer, particularly the customer operating on a tight budget.
It doesn't take a trained eye to see the Hombre's uncanny resemblance to the Chevrolet S-Series and GMC Sonoma compact trucks. It should look somewhat like them; it rolls out of the same factory and is built up from many of the same components, with the same basic chassis dimensions.
But the three trucks are far from identical, at least in appearance. Much of Hombre's Isuzu-designed exterior sheet metal comes from GM's Brazilian subsidiary. And even though the new body panels -- hood, front and rear fenders, grille, grille surround, and the headlamp units -- attach to the same structure found under the Chevy and GMC trucks, they give the Hombre a distinctive look.
In this case, the Hombre comes out a winner, at least to those who like their trucks to have sloping, aerodynamic noses. The effect -- if any -- on aerodynamics may be minimal, since pickups are not generally known for their wind-cheating prowess, thanks to that open cargo bed out back. But the styling effort does make the Hombre downright pretty.
Underneath, the Hombre is all GM, riding on an independent front suspension with a live rear axle suspension attached to a sturdy ladder frame -- standard pickup construction procedure. These are pieces that have stood the test of time, which means the Hombre should be every bit as tough as its Wild West name and as durable as its U.S.-badged kin.
When it comes to the selection process, Hombre is a paragon of simplicity: one cab size, one cargo box size, two-wheel drive, and two trim levels. The base S is as stripped-down as a truck can be without being uninhabitable; the XS is a little nicer, but still obviously conceived with cost-consciousness in mind. It can be distinguished from its lower-cost stablemate by its standard rear bumper, something the S versions lack.
The Inside Story
The Hombre's cabin is that of a low-dollar S-Series or Sonoma. A large and rather blocky dashboard holds basic gauges, the steering wheel has an airbag, radio and heating/cooling systems have simple controls, and there are seats, pedals and a shift lever. A lockable glovebox takes up the space that may in the future hold a passenger-side airbag. That's about it, although it does share the roomy interior dimensions of its cousins from GM, a definite plus when it comes to comfort.
The S has sturdy vinyl floor coverings and durable seat fabric. Basic American needs for refreshment-in-motion are met: a pair of cupholders are molded into the center console.
Simple the Hombre cabin may be, but shoddy it definitely is not. Materials used throughout are good, and everything appears to be attached with care. Upholstered surfaces are doused with Scotchgard at the factory for added soil and stain resistance.
The better equipped XS adds a few desireable touches. A tachometer joins speedometer, fuel level, coolant temperature and oil pressure dials in the gauge cluster, the seats are covered with a higher grade of upholstery fabric, and the floor is carpeted.
An AM/FM radio is standard equipment in the XS, and a sliding rear window is optional. The radio can be added to the S, but only if you order a rear bumper as well, a peculiar combination that must have something to do with simplifying the assembly process.
When it comes to choosing extras, the XS buyer is clearly better off. He or she can select a four-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system, or air conditioning, or the sliding rear window. Better yet, all three can be combined in a package that saves the buyer some $300 when compared to buying these extra comforts piecemeal. The S customer is restricted to adding air conditioning and the rear bumper-AM/FM radio option.
Unless you go wild with dealer-installed accessories (there are floor mats and no doubt other add-ons available at that level) your Hombre will cost no more than our fully-equipped XS tester. At less than $13,500 it's a real bargain.
Ride & Drive
All Hombres are two-wheel drive. What is lost in off-road ability -- something most buyers in this category don't care at all about -- is gained in highway ride comfort. And the Hombre is extraordinarily smooth by pickup standards. Even though this is a truck, with rear springs designed to accommodate a range of loads, its deportment with an empty cargo box is surprisingly free of wheel hop on rough surfaces.
It is also quite maneuverable, a trait that's enhanced by good visibility from the driver's seat, making it easier to see what you're maneuvering into or away from. A high seating position, lots of glass area and good power steering see to that.
Stopping ability is very good as well; all Hombres have standard ABS, a feature not available on base S-Series or Sonoma versions. That, too, is a plus in a pickup with an empty cargo bed, since the rear wheels are more likely to lock up under hard braking when there's relatively little weight at the back of the truck.
Simplicity is the word for the Hombre's powertrain. There are no choices; if you want anything but a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, shop elsewhere.
But both engine and gearbox are up to the job. The engine's 118-hp rating may not sound impressive, but is sufficient to keep pace with traffic and manage Hombre's 1200-pound maximum payload. It scores equally well when rated for smoothness and economy, and has a good durability record.
Towing is another story, of course. If you're planning to attach a trailer that weighs more than about 2000 pounds, you'll be better off with the 4.3-liter V-6 offered in the S-Series and Sonoma trucks.
Under way, Hombre is relatively quiet for a no-nonsense basic pickup. GM engineers have paid much attention to sound insulation, and have developed door seals that help to cut down on wind noise. Based on our experiences, we think most buyers will be able to drive the Hombre for long distances without discomfort or fatigue.
This is a simple, inexpensive truck. As such, it doesn't offer either the amenities, refinement or power available in more expensive vehicles. While the basics are in place -- or available as options -- nobody will suggest that the Hombre has any luxury-cruiser pretensions.
But it is good-looking, well-assembled and nicely finished. The hardware underneath has a proven record of durability, and Isuzu's warranty covers the Hombre for a greater mileage than does the Chevy/GMC guarantee.
Beyond that it offers contemporary style and pickup panache, qualities that first-time buyers simply aren't going to extract from any car available in this price range.
As a work truck or around-town runabout, the Hombre packs a great deal of value into a pleasantly low price. Those virtues alone make it well worth checking out.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.