Isuzu will add a new seven-passenger SUV to its lineup this year with the launch of the all-new 2003 Ascender. The Ascender represents a change in Isuzu's strategy because it is based on the GM TrailBlazer/Envoy truck platform and built in America. In the not too distant past, it was an accepted practice for American manufacturers to import Japanese cars and re-badge them as their own vehicles. For the manufacturers, it was an economical way to add a new, high-quality small car to the line without having to sink billions into research and development. Given the Japanese reputation for meticulous build quality, highly-efficient engines and a high owner satisfaction rating, the strategy seemed fool proof. Now, years later, we think the fact that a Japanese manufacturer is confident enough in GM's design to employ the same strategy speaks volumes about the strides the American manufacturers have made in improving their designs.
The Ascender fits nicely between the rugged five passenger Rodeo and the aging but still capable Trooper. It has been given a fresh new front-end treatment that mirrors the tough, off-road look of the other Isuzu products, and features a luxurious interior that sets a new benchmark for the automaker. Because the Ascender rides on a 129-inch wheelbase, you'll discover plenty of interior room for both your passengers and their cargo. The standard third-row seat is actually easily accessible via the rear doors and offers a respectable amount of legroom for its occupants. When not in use, the rear seat folds flush to create an enormous cargo reservoir behind the second-row bench seat. If you find you need more storage space, the Ascender's long roof rack is the ideal place to add bulky items.
As for the rest of the interior, you'll find it a very inviting place to spend a few hours with friends or family. The stylish dash, door panels and seats are all richly detailed with soft touch plastics and wood appliqus. From the driver's seat, you'll find you have a good view of the road, with very little in the way of blind spots over your shoulder. We liked the high center console armrest and the numerous storage bins and cup holders that litter the cabin and we loved the fact that the passenger seat offers lumbar support. We also think you'll appreciate the way all the buttons and switches are backlit for ease of use during night driving.
Keep in mind that Isuzu owners tend to be the kind of people who actually use an SUV for its originally intended purpose: to go off-road! To this end, Isuzu has equipped the Ascender with a powerful 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine and offers an even more tenacious V8, a first for Isuzu. Unlike many of its competitors, the Ascender's standard engine is anything but average. It pulls like a V8, is smooth as silk when running hard and returns an EPA highway fuel consumption rating of 20 miles per gallon (2WD model.) Unless you do a lot of towing or are just fanatical about needing eight little cylinders slaving away beneath your hood, we think you will find the standard engine will more than meet your performance expectations.
Isuzu has worked a small miracle when it comes to the Ascender's suspension characteristics. In everyday driving, you'll find the Ascender to be most civilized in the way it glides over expansion joints and blocks out road and wind noise. The five-link rear suspension and stiff chassis makes for a controlled ride with minimal body roll and lean. Though you will still be aware you are driving an SUV when rounding turns and sharp curves, you'll never feel as though the vehicle is going to tip up on two wheels should you push it too hard. The really amazing thing about this suspension set up is that off-road, it does not bounce and bottom out, as you might expect a softly-tuned suspension might.
On LS and Limited 2WD models, standard traction control and a limited-slip rear differential provide excellent traction, both on paved roads and on dirt and sand. Though capable, if you intend to do some serious off-road adventuring, you should opt for the 4WD model; Ascenders so equipped provide an auto 4WD mode that is activated only when the wheels slip and then reverts back to rear-wheel drive until needed again. The system also features a high and low range transfer case for use on steep grades or deep snow.
To ensure the Ascender stands out in an already crowded SUV field, Isuzu has equipped the vehicle with a long list of standard equipment. Available in two models, 2WD and 4WD, Isuzu will offer three trim levels: LS and Limited. The LS model comes standard with power windows and door locks, 17-inch alloy wheels, power moonroof, eight-way power driver's and passenger seat with two-way power lumbar support, automatic climate control, auto-dimming rear view mirror and a driver information center. The Limited model adds leather seating, rain-sensing wipers, heated seats and a Bose audio sound system.