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For most consumers, buying a sport- utility vehicle for its off-road capabilities is like saying you live in New York City because it's the kind of town where you can go out for Chinese food at four o'clock in the morning: No one ever does it, but it's nice to know you could if you wanted to.
Because the fact is, only 5% of sport-ute drivers actually take their vehicles off-road--but, you know, they can if they want to.
Therein lies the paradox facing sport-utility designers. The dimensions of these vehicles--which are taller, wider, boxier and rougher-riding than sedans and coupes--clearly have off-roading in mind.
But since most folks only drive them on paved roads, designers must consider other factors like ride smoothness, performance, styling, luxury amenities and overall comfort.
Consequently, these big babies are rife with compromises. But it's obvious that buyers don't really care: Sport-utes continue to be the fastest-growing segment of the automotive market.
Which brings us to the new-for-1996 Acura SLX--a luxury-equipped, new-and-improved version of the Isuzu Trooper, the best-selling import sport-ute ever.
The Trooper is the second Isuzu vehicle scooped up by Honda Motor, which wanted a piece of the burgeoning sport-ute action faster than it could design and bring its own entry to market.
First Honda inked a deal with Isuzu that rebadged the Isuzu Rodeo as a Honda Passport. Now, it's arranged for Isuzu to build the Trooper with an Acura nameplate--but not before sprucing it with some upmarket amenities. Which is saying something, since the Trooper is posh to begin with.
Since the SLX is designed to compete with vehicles like the Range Rover and the new Lexus LX 450, most of these goodies--including 4-wheel drive--come standard, and our SLX Premium test model, with its $38,000 pricetag, features an exceptionally long list of standard equipment, which is listed in the data panel.
At a towering 72.2 in.--that's one inch taller than Isaiah Thomas--the Acura SLX is one of the tallest sport-utes on the market. That height is clearly a boon in terms of the interior space and the driver visibility it affords. But in concert with its relatively narrow width--72.4 in.--the SLX is not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the shorter, more muscular-looking entries like the Ford Explorer and new Nissan Pathfinder. On the other hand, the exterior styling of the SLX and the Trooper is sophisticated, smooth and clean.
The front view is more impressive. The imposing grille, beefy front bumper and flared fenders give the SLX and Trooper the kind of go-anywhere presence that's a hallmark of this breed.
In the back, the rear hatch doors swing outward instead of up or down. Though this is a matter of individual preference, the sideways-opening design doesn't afford the weather-protection advantage of the upswinging gate on some other sport-utes. Also: The rear-gate window doesn't open, so the entire gate must be unlocked and opened to load even the smallest of items.
A plus, however, is that the rear gate employs a 70/30 split design that's handy in cramped quarters like garages or shopping-mall parking lots.
When turning, side cornering lights illuminate tight parking spaces and dark corners. And the powerful foglights came in handy on several nights when we were crossing multiple railroad tracks in a dense Detroit riverfront fog.
What the SLX's height taketh away in aesthetics, it giveth back in the interior-space department. Headroom was so plentiful that one of our taller test drivers was tempted to don a University of Michigan drum-major's hat--just because he could.
In the event that you're one of the 5 percent who will take the SLX off-road, the cabin offers no fewer than seven passenger grab handles--including one on the center console that allows the front-seat passenger to assist gravity and really plant him or herself during rough rides.
The panoramic visibility offered by the SLX's height is, as the kids say, truly awesome. During our test drive, we could see easily over the top of sedans and even some minivans in front of us.
Interior cargo space is more than generous. The seat-up rear cargo area in the SLX measures 46.3 cu. ft.--best in its class. When the rear seats are folded down, that figure nearly doubles to 90.2 cu. ft. In the SLX Premium model, however, the cargo space is smaller--43.7 cu. ft. with the seats up, 85.3 cu. ft. when folded down. To maximize cargo-loading options, the rear seats are split 60/40.
From the perspective of rear-seat passenger comfort, when the rear seats are in the upright position, they seem too upright and rigid. The only way to recline them is with the same knob that's used when folding the seats down.
Like the exterior, the SLX instrument panel is handsome, and it's also well laid out. No mysteries here, and no hunting for controls. The front seats are attractive, as well as comfortably supportive, and dual airbags are standard.
Although the Isuzu Trooper generally won high marks for its cargo capacity and off-road sturdiness, it was uniformly criticized for its mystifying lack of shift-on-the-fly 4wd capability--not to mention the absence of a full-time 4wd system. Since the unsynchronized front hubs locked automatically, the front axle could not be engaged with the vehicle in motion.
Acura insisted that Isuzu add on-the-fly 4wd to the Trooper as part of the vehicle's metamorphosis into the Acura SLX--especially since it's being positioned as an upmarket vehicle pushing the $40,000 envelope.
Generally speaking, the SLX performed admirably. The all-aluminum 3.2-liter, 24-valve V6 generates 190 hp, with 188 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. Although the SLX is big, that's sufficient muscle for most situations, whether it's a freeway merge or pulling yourself through a muddy, rutted road.
The minimum ground clearance--i.e., the amount of space between the ground and the differential--is a rut-clearing 8.5 inches.
However, a few quibbles:
As we indicated earlier, sport-utes need to be versatile--which means some compromises have to be made in order for a sport-ute to function on every surface from smooth, well-traveled highways to rugged, uncharted terrain. And although the majority of buyers will only be rolling down the highway in the SLX, no one really expects the cushiony ride comfort of a Cadillac or the cornering agility of a 300ZX.
Like most sport-utilities today, especially those in the luxury category, the SLX and Trooper favor ride over handling. Although an abrupt 90-degree turn at 25 mph was fairly routine, the body roll was significant. And when negotiating a tight hairpin--especially on the slightly wet surface we encountered--the combination of height and comparitively narrow track led to a feeling of not being firmly planted. However, that's an element of sport-utility driving that takes some getting used to. Underneath all the finery, they are, after all, trucks.
More appealing is the SLX's sturdy 4-speed automatic transmission, which comes equipped with "power mode" and "winter mode" functions, both of which can be engaged with the push of a button. The power mode makes upshifts higher in the rev band, allowing for more rapid acceleration. The winter mode starts the vehicle in third gear to maximize traction and control on snowy or icy surfaces. The standard limited-slip differential helps in this respect, too.
Braking performance, augmented by standard ABS and discs at all four corners, was good, particularly in view of this vehicle's mass.
If you're one of the few and proud outbackers who intend to go cavorting through rugged terrain or navigate narrow, bumpy mountain roads, the SLX and Trooper will give you a strong sense of command and competence, something that applies to its on-road behavior as well. And if maximum cargo space is a priority, the richly appointed interior is also vast.
Honda is very fussy about engineering and quality. As a consequence, the fact that Honda is willing to affix its logos to Isuzu products says something very positive about those products.
And even though there's very little distinction between SLX and Trooper--aside from the Trooper's option of a 2-door model--going for the SLX does give you the small extra of Acura's outstanding sales and service organization.