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Isuzu has a new flagship for its fleet of sport utility vehicles for 2003. The Isuzu Ascender replaces the venerable Trooper. Ascender is new for Isuzu, but it isn't a completely new vehicle. Instead, it's a slightly modified version of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL introduced in the spring of 2002.
Ascender appears to be a good deal for both Isuzu dealers and their customers. Isuzu dealers get a proven new product to sell. Isuzu customers get an SUV that's roomier and more powerful than last year's Trooper. Ascender's base price is only $544 more than the Trooper's.
Best of all, the Ascender comes with Isuzu's three-year/50,000-mile basic warranty, a new seven-year/75,000-mile roadside assistance program, and seven-year/75,000-mile powertrain coverage. The Chevrolet and GMC versions of the vehicle are covered by a three-year/36,000-mile warranty program.
With the introduction of the Ascender, all 2003 models Isuzu sells in the U.S. are built in the U.S.
Isuzu Ascender shares much of its sheetmetal with the long-wheelbase versions of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. Ascender is large, some 20 inches longer than the Isuzu Trooper, but with a solid, handsome appearance. We wouldn't describe it as sleek, but it's far from bulky.
Styling details distinguish Ascender from the TrailBlazer and Envoy. Ascender gets a distinctive chromed grille that features the Isuzu badge on a bold horizontal beam intersected by a pair of vertical bars. Ascender also has a unique front bumper with fog lights, halogen headlamps, and special overfenders, protective door trim, and rear bumper. Its five-spoke wheels look like 10-spoke wheels because of the blacked-out center section of each of the spokes, which are arranged in a star-like formation.
We tested a 2003 Isuzu Ascender S 2WD model wearing Onyx black paint and a Pewter interior. But what Isuzu calls Pewter is what we call gray, and in the case of the Ascender that includes seats covered in a two-tone pattern that looks as if it was inspired by dropping small, dark, leafless twigs onto a light gray background. Aside from that small bit of artistic criticism, the interior was standard issue GM extended-wheelbase, mid-size SUV, which means it provides a pleasant environment for driver and passengers.
The driver and front passenger will find their shoulder belts mounted right into the seat for a proper fit. All seven seats have three-point harnesses, and front-seat passengers have both front and side airbags in the event of an accident.
Our Ascender came with the LS option package. We appreciated being able to control audio and climate with buttons mounted on the steering wheel. The steering wheel was easy to tilt into a comfortable driving position. One unusual feature was a button on the steering wheel that controls the interior lights.
Switchgear is easy to find and to use. The heating and ventilation systems provide good air flow and we didn't have to constantly fiddle with the settings as we do on some so-called automatic climate control systems. The stereo sounded surprisingly good for vehicle in this class. There are plenty of cupholders and storage compartments for those sitting in front or in the third row, but there are only two cupholders and audio jacks for the middle seat, which seats three people.
The second row seatbacks can be reclined, a nice feature that adds to the comfort of rear passengers. Access to the third row is provided either by flipping forward the second-row seatback or by tumbling either side of the seat forward.
The third row folds flat for hauling cargo: The seat bottom cushions tumble forward and the backs flip down. The third-row seatbacks include a panel that extends the cargo floor forward, filling the gap to the folded second row. It isn't a seamless, perfectly flat cargo area, but it works well. Access to the cargo area is made easier by a rear window that can be opened without having to open the entire tailgate. Ascender's cargo area features a package shelf that can be placed in a high or low position, providing an extra surface for holding cargo and cover for the packages beneath it.
Our 2003 Isuzu Ascender had rear-wheel drive. It rode on BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, which are mud-and-snow rated yet we found them to be extremely quiet, even at highway speeds.
With its standard, 275-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine, the Ascender has no trouble ascending to highway speeds. In-line six-cylinder engines are naturally balanced, and usually run quietly and have exceptional longevity. This engine provides 275 pound-feet of torque and 275 horsepower and that makes it even more powerful than many V8 engines. It's a wonderful engine. It's thirsty, however, rated at 20 miles per gallon on the highway and only 15 mpg in town. However, we think its aging GM four-speed transmission prevents the engine from achieving its full potential. This Hydra-Matic automatic, used in the TrailBlazer, Envoy, and other GM products has proven itself over the years and miles, however.
Opting for the V8 engine boosts Ascender's towing capacity to 7,200 pounds.
Ascender comes standard with a premium suspension setup with Bilstein monotube shock absorbers. Our two-wheel-drive Ascender was smooth and comfortable, in town or on the highway. Its rack-and-pinion steering was sure and its four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, with 12.8-inch vented discs at every corner, never wavered.
The 4WD version, which comes standard with traction control, can be set in automatic mode and distributes power to the four wheels as needed. The driver can also select 2-Hi for rear-wheel drive. For driving off road, the 4-Hi mode provides for a 50/50 front/rear split in the engine's power. Shift into 4-Lo and the Ascender can ascend steep grades, plow through deep snow, or slog through slimy mud. We have enough experience with the four-wheel-drive versions of the GM-badged models to be confident of the Ascender's off-road and towing capabilities.
Isuzu Ascender is among the best of the mid-size sport-utilities. Its standard inline six-cylinder engine is much more powerful than the Trooper's V6 (275 horsepower versus the Trooper's 215 hp). Ascender is a significantly larger vehicle that provides three rows of seats and room for two more people or nearly 20 more cubic feet of cargo. Yet the base price of the 2003 Ascender is less than $600 more than the 2002 Trooper's.
So it would seem the choice between the Trooper and the Ascender should be an easy one. However, there is a more difficult choice that awaits potential buyers, though in this case we're talking about the potential buyers of the Chevy TrailBlazer or GMC Envoy. Do they go ahead and buy a TrailBlazer EXT or Envoy XL, or do they opt for the virtually identical Isuzu Ascender with its longer warranty?
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