by Dan Carney
In 1993, Isuzu abandoned the car market, in favor of the truck/ SUV market, where the company had met with better success. Isuzu had tried, and failed, to compete with Toyota, Nissan and Honda as a full-line car company. But the 1980s, a time when all it seemed a car needed was a Japanese nameplate, were over. And the companies like Isuzu and Subaru trying to compete head-on with Toyota were hurting.
The Isuzu Trooper had been the Japanese Jeep Cherokee through the ‘80s, and the company diversified with a string of popular SUVs, such as the Rodeo and the Amigo that helped put an SUV in every American driveway. But the golden age of the SUV — when four doors on a four-wheel drive truck platform was a license to print money — is over. Competition has made the vehicles more competent, refined, and carlike. So Isuzu finds itself touting an SUV for its carlike features.
The Axiom’s angular, industrial styling is a departure from the macho brush-basher styling employed on most SUVs. The more carlike look is reminiscent of Cadillac’s current design theme, and the Axiom looks a bit like a smaller Escalade, at least from the front. The 17-inch alloy wheels are attractive, and wear tires with a carlike tread pattern. This bit of common sense improves on-road ride, handling, gas mileage and noise, at the expense of off-road capability.
Isuzu’s newest SUV retains the trucklike body-on-frame construction of its predecessors, even while competitors move toward unibody construction for its advantages in rigidity and space efficiency. The only obvious clue to the Axiom’s separate frame is its high floor. Combined with the low, flat seats, the Axiom’s leg room can feel cramped. However, the door frames open to the floor, unlike unibody designs that need a high door sill to maintain rigidity. With no lip to step over, the Axiom isn’t as hard to get into as its high floor would suggest.
2002 Isuzu Axiom
The 230-horsepower, 3.5-liter 75-degree V-6 is impressively smooth, quiet and powerful. Isuzu chose a 75-degree vee angle instead of the more typical 60-degree vee to open up more space in the engine’s valley. The company installed an intake manifold with long runners for maximum low-rpm torque that wouldn’t fit in the vee of a 60-degree design. The result is that 200 lb-ft of the maximum 230 lb-ft is available at 1200 rpm, contributing to the Axiom’s quickness around town. The flexible powerband also contributes to a useful 4,500-pound towing capacity.
Some V-6s have a 90-degree layout, but these are usually based on existing V-8 designs and they vibrate more than the narrower-angle engines. The Axiom’s engine is noticeably smoother than the 90-degree V-6 in the Jeep Liberty, for example.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts well, though the sport/winter switch that varies the shift program flirts with being unnecessary electronic geegaw. Pleasant weather defeated hopes to test the Axiom’s Torque On Demand four-wheel-drive system, but the Borg-Warner-supplied drivetrain is well proven in challenging off-road conditions.
Easy like Sunday morning
On the road, the Axiom is easy and comfortable to drive. A thoroughly conventional instrument panel displays all the expected information in clean-looking black and white analog instruments. The leather interior on the tested XS model looked and felt luxurious, while some other vehicles we’ve tested recently were hard to tell from vinyl. The steering wheel’s leather cover and thick rim look and feel especially sporty. Isuzu equips the rear cargo area with a thick rubber mat, like the kind that is available in the aftermarket, as standard equipment, which is a nice touch.
The Axiom carries off its car act pretty convincingly. But Isuzu’s reliance on electronic gimmickry spoils what could be a great experience. The Axiom’s ride and handling are managed by an electronically controlled suspension system that doesn’t work as well as a properly sorted non-adjustable system would.
2002 Isuzu Axiom
The Axiom carries a switch for the system on its dash labeled “sport/comfort.” Switched to sport mode, the Axiom drives nicely, but it pounds occupants with sharp impacts over potholes and bumps. Switched to comfort mode the steering seems almost disconnected, because steering inputs induce body roll before starting to turn the truck. And the ride goes to the billowy, motion-sickness-inducing variety that will make pilfered airline sickness bags mandatory for kids in the back seat.
Isuzu might well contend that the switch gives drivers the choice of mode they prefer, but the two extremes provided by the computer-controlled shocks let them pick between “bad” and “worse.” With properly tuned shocks, sway bars and bushings, the Axiom could handle like it does in sport mode, or close to it, while giving occupants a taut, but not punishing ride.
Another unfortunate gimmick occupies a big chunk of dashboard real estate, which is a shame because the German sedan-inspired interior is otherwise attractive. Isuzu has equipped the Axiom with an LED panel designed to look like the GPS navigation screen available in upmarket competitors such as the Acura MDX and Mercedes ML320. But the Axiom’s display is a fake, showing information of questionable use, such as a compass and outside temperature in big, garish characters. Even worse, the display is used for the stereo and HVAC systems, making them just plain confusing to use. Like the electronically controlled suspension, the unusual electronic display for the two systems doesn’t work as well as a conventional design. Such details are noteworthy, and disappointing, because Isuzu nailed the Axiom’s fundamentals pretty solidly.
The high level of standard equipment, and the luxury options on the XS version, help edge the Axiom toward the luxury end of the market. The $31,330 price tag is not cheap by any means, but the Axiom can be realistically compared with costlier luxury-brand competitors. It might come up short in those comparisons, but its lower price and racier styling could make it a better choice for some buyers.
Base Price: $30,785; as tested: $31,330
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 230 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 182.6 in
Width: 70.7 in
Height: 67.2 in
Weight: 4180 lbs
Fuel economy: 16 city/ 20 hwy
Standard safety equipment: dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Limited slip differential, 17-inch alloy wheels, six-disc CD player and eight-speaker stereo, leather steering wheel cover, four-way power driver’s seat, automatic climate control
Warranty: Three years/50,000 miles