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Isuzu Ascender now comes in a smaller model

June 04, 2004|by DAN LYONS

This year, Isuzu's largest SUV expands further, by getting smaller, which is to say that the Ascender, which was formerly offered only in a seven-passenger version, is now joined by a five-passenger model for 2004.

As the name suggests, the newest Isuzu seats five. Built on a shorter, 113-inch wheelbase, the 5-Passenger Ascender is available with rear-wheel drive or on-demand four-wheel drive. The engine is a 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder, linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. This is the same motor found as standard equipment on its big brother, the seven-passenger. However, it fares better in the smaller Ascender, which is 355 pounds lighter. The engine is rated at 275 horsepower, 275 lbs.-ft. of torque, and EPA rates the gas mileage at 15 city, 21 highway. You need to dig your spurs into its sides to tap the power for passing and pullouts, but it motors the big SUV down the road capably.

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Ascender has a true, dual transfer case, 4x4 system. The driver can select high or low ranges for four-wheel drive, as well as two-wheel drive high and a 4x4 automatic setting. The switching is accomplished by twisting a dashboard dial. Isuzu figures that its got off-road capability covered with the Rodeo and Axiom models and doesn't expect that many drivers will look to take the Ascender past the pavement.

Accordingly, it is not offered with undercarriage skid plates. A rock scrabbler? No, but certainly capable of light off-road duties. There is 8 inches of ground clearance, and angles of approach, ramp break over and departure are 29, 19 and 23 degrees, respectively. On-road, Ascender's handling is on par with other big SUVs. The five-passenger is based on GM's midsize SUV platform (Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy).

It has a truck-based, full-ladder frame, with coil spring front and five-link rear suspension. Despite the truck genes, it has a comfortably smooth road ride. Drivers will find the shorter, five-passenger model has an easier time negotiating tight canyons, be they urban or rural, than its longer line mate. Those who tow should know that the five-passenger can be optioned to pull as much as 5,700 pounds with trailer brakes (5,500 lbs. on 4x4 models). That puts Ascender near the top of its class for comparably equipped models.

Though the smaller of the two Ascenders, the five-passenger is certainly not small. It may be 16 inches shorter than its line mate, but the Ascender five-passenger nonetheless has a roomy interior. With a full complement of five adults on board, there is still a generous 43.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind, expandable to 80.1 cubic feet if you fold the two rear seats forward. The lift-over height in back is reasonably low, and the lift gate swings high out of the way. The only drawback to the way back is that you can't reach the rear seats to fold them down, unless you go around to the back doors. That's inconvenient when your arms are full.

Up in the front row, it's a straightforward layout of switchgear. Controls for HVAC are particularly intuitive and easy, though the sound system is a little too button-busy to deal with while driving. One trim level is offered, and options are bundled in one of four available packages.

Dual-zone climate control is standard, as are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and 17-inch alloy wheels, shod with all-terrain tires. The core option group is the Preferred Equipment Package. Add $2,410 to the MSRP and you pick up a combination of creature comforts and safety items, including an eight-way adjustable power driver's seat, an anti-theft system, front and side air bags, heated outside rearview mirrors, remote keyless entry, an overhead console, cruise control and body side molding. Option packages are progressive; you can't buy the LS, Leather or Luxury Packages without first selecting the Preferred group.

With a sticker price of $25,699 ($27,699 for a 4x4), the newest Isuzu makes a nice addition to the SUV lineup. The flagship Ascender line slots in above the Rodeo and Axiom models, and it's aggressively priced, compared to its competition. The seven-passenger version offers maximum space and, equipped with the optional V-8, maximum towing capability. The five-passenger model is slightly smaller for better maneuverability, yet

big enough for almost all SUV tasks. Large or small, Isuzu backs them all. The automaker has a 7-year/75,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Copyright Motor Matters, 2004

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