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Maybe you can figure this out: sport-utility vehicles are proliferating like mosquitoes on pond scum, but the only vehicle manufacturer in North America that specializes exclusively in SUVs is hobbling around with two pulled hamstrings.
About a decade ago, Isuzu famously disassociated itself with passenger cars altogether in order to focus with laser-like intensity on its Trooper and Rodeo duo of sport-utes. Perhaps the company was a bit too focused. As the 21st century dawned, it was still just the Trooper and Rodeo, whereas the rest of the madding crowd of Isuzu rivals had branched off into mini-, maxi-, crossover and hybrid SUVs of every conceivable description.
Last year's underwhelming debut of the Axiom -- essentially a reskinned Rodeo -- failed to reinvigorate Isuzu's prospects. The impact of the 2003 Isuzu Ascender, on the other hand, promises just the opposite. For the first time in years, there's a good reason to visit -- once you locate, that is -- your nearest Isuzu dealer for a look-see at a truly competent, cutting-edge sport-utility vehicle.
Virtual and fraternal
Let's dispense with full disclosure right off the top: The Isuzu Ascender is virtually identical, in every way except minor body styling, to the Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL. Identical. It's got the same standard seven-passenger layout; the same straight six and V-8 engine choices; the same ride and handling characteristics. What the Chevy and GMC don't have, however, is the same level of sheer desperation that's prompting Isuzu to get aggressive with pricing and warranty coverage. These issues alone essentially require any prudent, prospective SUV customer to raise the Ascender a notch or two higher on the ol' shopping list.
Just what is it, then, that makes the Ascender so darn enticing? In a nutshell, it all comes down to power and space. Although a 5.3-liter pushrod V-8 is an available option, the Ascender's standard 4.2-liter twin-cam in-line six represents a true benchmark for mid-size SUV powerplants. Enthusiasts and industry experts alike are showering praise on an engine whose smoothness and durability belie its strapping 275 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of hard-pulling torque. Fast becoming legendary, in fact, is the existence of an interlock system on the Vortec 4200 powertrain that prevents accidental restarts while the engine is running. Why? Because idle is so smooth and quiet, the engine doesn't sound like it's firing.
A pity, then, that fuel mileage remains mired in the sub-20 mpg wasteland. To be exact, Ascender rates 15 mpg city, 20 highway. Isuzu is not alone here, of course. The entire auto industry has yet to come to grips with dismal SUV fuel efficiency. The Ascender is hardly the worst offender; and at least its taste runs to regular fuel instead of pricier premium.
One thing that can mitigate poor fuel economy is an SUV's ability to move more people-per-gallon than a typical sedan. This is the Ascender's other very strong suit. Thanks to its 129.0-in wheelbase, Ascender boasts standard seating for seven, in a three-row, two/three/two layout. What's more, the rear seats are more than a kiddie bench: They're amply sized, specifically, for six-foot-two males weighing 190 lb. When not in use, the second and third rows fold flat to create over 100 cubic feet of cargo space. That's 25 percent more than rivals Ford Explorer and Acura MDX. Even with all seats deployed, there's clever under-floor storage plus a handy moveable-shelf system in the far back for securing different shapes and sizes of cargo.
2003 isuzu AscenderEnlarge Photo
Pricing and packaging
The Ascender I tested was a two-wheel-drive "Limited" model with three option packages. Base price for the Ascender is a remarkable $28,649; after options, the LTD's as-tested price had risen to $34,183. (Comparable base price for a GMC Envoy XL is $30,420.)
Yes, I enjoyed the dual-mode seat heaters with separate back and bottom toasters. The computerized driver info center provides more information than most people want to know. The premium Bose sound system is stunning. But if it were me, I'd chuck 'em all to get the price of this versatile, roomy SUV down below $30,000. First to go, in fact, would be the power-tilt side-view mirror on the passenger side. When you're reversing, it lowers aim to a curb's-eye-view, distinctly obscuring all those other cars' fenders just waiting to take a bite out of yours.
The secret of SUV sanity is keeping 'em filled with folks as you ply through traffic-that's really the only way to justify all that bulk and fuelishness. During my week in the Ascender, folks were eager to climb aboard. Seating is comfy, and driving feel is an interesting combination of precise and relaxed. Throttle response and acceleration are very snappy and instantaneous. I like that. But suspension feel tends towards cushy and soft-I not like as much. Around town, the Ascender's ride felt entirely appropriate but on longer highway drives, I'd have preferred a bit more road feel and steering precision and a bit less body roll.
Still, I appreciated having standard four-wheel ABS disc brakes, front and side airbags and the optional traction control and limited slip differential. OnStar is another one of those "rainy day" options that would be nice to have in an emergency, I suppose. More potentially practical, however, is Ascender's generous warranty coverage of three years/50,000 miles overall, and seven years/75,000 miles for powertrain and for free, 24/7 roadside assistance. (The warranty for GMC's Envoy XL is three years/36,000 miles. Period.)
I'm predisposed towards the underdog in most instances, and the Ascender is no exception. But in this case, here's one underdog with the credentials and the overall appeal to put Isuzu over the top for a change.
Base prices: $28,649; as tested, $34,183
Engine: 4.2-liter in-line six, 275 hp/275 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 207.8 x 74.7 x 75.5 in
Wheelbase: 129.0 in
Curb weight (lb): 4787 (2WD/six), 4968 (4WD/six); 4670 (2WD/V-8); N/A (4WD/V-8)
EPA City/Hwy: 15/20 mpg (2WD/six)
Safety equipment: Front vented disc brakes with four-wheel anti-lock control, dual-stage driver and front passenger airbags, center three-point safety belt
Major standard equipment: Seven-passenger seating; power windows/locks/mirrors; air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/50,000 miles