Isuzu's Amigo two-door sport-utility is designed to be fun. Its short, stout body and semi-convertible soft top give it a funky appearance, while the availability of four-wheel drive and a V6 engine provide serious off-road capability. A hard top model is available for mountain travelers. And it boasts room for five.
Our Amigo Hard Top came with the 3.2-liter V6 and automatic. The V6 revs quickly, providing quick getaways from intersections. Strong low-end torque peaks at 214 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm. The Amigo sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds -- a strong performance for a small SUV.
Once up to speed, the Amigo is fun to drive. The big tires don't provide a lot of grip in paved corners, but the handling is very predictable and that makes the Amigo entertaining to drive. The 16-inch tires offer excellent compliance with the Amigo suspension, which smoothes out the ride considerably. (P235s are standard, while wider P245s come with the optional alloy wheels.) Mounted on a ladder-type frame with a five-point coil-spring rear suspension and live rear axle, the Amigo retains some of its truck heritage. The rear tires have a tendency to bounce around when hitting big bumps. By comparison, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, which are based on passenger car chassis, ride smoother but cannot match the off-road capability of the Amigo.
On smooth interstates, the Amigo V6 gallivants happily. It's a pleasure to drive on curvy mountain highways where torque and horsepower are at a premium. The transmission shifts smoothly and the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering responds well. At lower speeds, the steering is precise, which is equally helpful when negotiating crowded city streets or tight dirt trails. The Amigo handles much better and is more fun to drive than the Kia Sportage.
When equipped with the automatic, the Amigo can be shifted from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive on the fly. Simply press the button on the dashboard. Most off-road hazards don't occur "on the fly," but it's nice not having to stop when the pavement turns to gravel. For extreme off-road conditions, stop and shift into the low-range set of gears for maximum torque by engaging a floor-mounted lever. The Amigo's part-time four-wheel-drive system is designed for loose surfaces and should not be used on dry pavement.
Four-wheel-drive models come with disc brakes front and rear, which provide ample stopping power. Drum brakes in the rear are standard for two-wheel-drive models. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on all Amigos. With all that off-road suspension travel, there is some nose dive under hard braking.
The Amigo really shines on steep, difficult grades. We learned this in the San Bernardino Mountains where the Rim of the World Pro Rally is held. The torque of the V6 works well with the tough, but compliant Bridgestone tires. Shifting into four-wheel drive, we drove over huge rocks and climbed through deep ruts. We explored craggy logging roads loaded with large rocks near Lake Arrowhead, thankful for galvanized steel shields that protect the radiator and fuel tank.
Isuzu's Amigo offers distinctive, sporty styling that helps it stand out from a herd of boxy SUVs. The hard top appeals to buyers who want practicality and a more sophisticated appearance, while the soft top model delivers top-down fun-in-the-sun motoring.
One of the most attractive features of the Amigo is its price. It competes favorably with the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and other small SUVs, yet offers more space and more driving entertainment.
This Amigo is endearing. As its name implies, it has become a good friend.