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Isuzu Rodeo offers a lightweight V6 engine, push-button four-wheel drive, sturdy construction and lots of cargo space. It combines handsome looks, a confident feel, and nimble highway manners on the road, with reasonably good capability off road.
Its dual-mode semi-active suspension system continuously adjusts to provide better handling and stability, while its drive-by-wire throttle is designed to deliver improved response and efficiency. Its optional all-aluminum 3.2-liter V6 delivers 205 horsepower.
Except for last year's new eight-port grille, flush-mounted headlights and revised front and rear bumpers, the Rodeo's exterior appearance hasn't changed significantly since the major reworking it received in 1998.
The Rodeo's seat bottoms are big and deep and provide good support. Most of the controls are well placed and easy to operate, though the windshield-wiper post took awhile to figure out.
On the downside, interior passenger space, particularly headroom, is still limited for taller people. The Rodeo seats five, but rear-seat passengers should be children or short adults. The optional moonroof further reduces front headroom by an inch, which is a lot, although people shorter than 6 feet should still find headroom adequate.
However, the Rodeo offers abundant cargo space, more than 81 cubic feet of it with the rear seat folded down. That tops most other like-sized SUVs, particularly the Nissan Xterra at only 65.6 cubic feet. The Rodeo boasts slightly more space than the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4-Runner.
We dropped the back seat and loaded the cargo area with a mountain bike, a very large float tube (a giant truck inner tube encased in nylon with a backrest that sticks up about 2 feet on one side), a couple of fly rods, and some other miscellaneous fishing gear. The Rodeo swallowed it all with room to spare.
The Isuzu Rodeo is nimble and responsive. Its compact size makes it a joy to drive. It has enough power to move through crowded freeways and zip around on busy city streets. The steering is precise and sure.
The 3.2-liter V6 offers good power for the open road. The available 2.2-liter four-cylinder, while well built and reliable, seems too small for a vehicle that tops 3600 pounds.
The computer-controlled suspension provides a smooth and pleasant ride on the highway. We found the Rodeo to be agile and sure on paved mountain roads. The Intelligent Suspension Control monitors vehicle speed, engine rpm, brakes, and input from g-force sensors mounted on the chassis. A computer then directs step-motors that control shock valve blow-off points to adjust compression and rebound rates. The intent is to provide a smoother ride and reduced brake-dive and body roll.
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 inherent stability and solid handling.
Rodeo's dependable four-wheel drive system is 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 a limited-slip rear differential and rear disc brakes (2WD Rodeos have rear drums). The Rodeo rides well at moderate speeds (about 30 mph) on washboard roads.
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.
The four-speed automatic transmission 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 at an attractive price. This is an underrated SUV that deserves to be on more shopping lists.
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