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The Isuzu Rodeo is schizophrenic. Its sporty looks, sure feel, and nimble highway manners make it good city/highway vehicle. A second personality surfaces when you leave the highway behind in quest of serious off-road fun. This is one personality disorder that's very easy to live with.
Rodeos have long been solid machines that offer good value. Improvements and new features to the 2000 models make them even better. Changes include a restyled front end, improved seating, and new colors. Even more significant are a new computer-controlled suspension system and the introduction of what Isuzu claims is the longest powertrain warranty offered by any automaker in the US.
We drove our Rodeo from Los Angeles to the Owens Valley in northeastern California. The Rodeo is nimble and responsive. It had enough power to easily move through traffic in LA's crowded freeways and surface streets. The steering was precise and sure. Its compact size makes it a joy do drive.
Rodeo handled the open road well, too. The 3.2-liter V6 pushed us up Cajon Pass without slowing. The available 2.2-liter four-cylinder, while well built and reliable, seems too small for a vehicle that tops 3600 pounds. The 3.2-liter V6 is a much stronger engine and seems better suited to the Rodeo. As we neared the town of Bishop, the Rodeo defied a windstorm with gusts topping 40 mph, hugging the road better than other lighter or taller vehicles.
In the White Mountains east of the Owens Valley, the Rodeo tackled primitive roads and rough trails. We slowed to a crawl, but four-wheel drive kept us chugging along while the big 16-inch tires gripped exposed bedrock like claws. For 2000, 16-inch wheels and tires replace last year's standard 15-inch rubber; 225/70R16 tires are standard on S and LS models, 245/70R16 tires are standard on LSE models.
Basically unchanged this year is Rodeo's dependable four-wheel drive system. It's a part-time, shift-on-the fly setup. At speeds below 60 mph you simply push a button to shift into 4WD-high. To drop into 4WD-low you need to stop and shift a floor-mounted lever. All 4WD Rodeos come standard with limited-slip differential and rear disc brakes (2WD Rodeos have rear drums).
On less extreme terrain, where we had a little more speed over a series of moguls, the Rodeo tended to wallow. While the computer-controlled suspension provided a smooth and pleasant ride on the highway and on most dirt roads we traveled, it seemed slow to respond as we traversed the moguls. On the other hand, the Rodeo rode well at moderate speeds (about 30 mph) on one washboard road we took.
Back on paved mountain roads we found the Rodeo to be agile and sure. In radical transient maneuvers the rear-end loses traction before the front-end-just the way it should. The four-wheel anti-lock braking system works as expected and keeps the vehicle straight and true in emergency stops. In fact, the ABS even works well on rough dirt roads where other systems seem lacking.
Overall, the Rodeo offers a stable ride and responsive handling, a benefit of its ladder frame with eight cross members and box section main rails. Steel tubes in the doors, in addition to providing better passenger protection, also make the body more rigid, adding to it's inherent stability and solid handling.
The available 4-speed automatic features a winter mode. When it's engaged, the transmission starts out in third gear to prevent wheelspin on icy or snowy surfaces. The transmission also has a power mode that gives better acceleration by raising up-shift points. Both modes are controlled by well-placed pushbuttons in the center console.
Isuzu Rodeo delivers agile handling, off-road capability and roomy cargo space all at an attractive price. This is an underrated SUV that deserves to be on more shopping lists.
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