Future Curbside Classic: 2003-08 Isuzu Ascender – Where Were You, Joe Isuzu?

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David Leisure famously portrayed the sleazy, smug commercial spokesman Joe Isuzu for many years during the 1980s and 1990s. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching any of his hilarious commercials, Joe Isuzu would make outlandish claims about Isuzu’s vehicles – being faster than a speeding bullet, for example, or being Queen Elizabeth’s car of choice – and his braggadocio was often accompanied by captions which contradicted him entirely. Isuzu brought him back for commercials over 1999-2001, and he dusted off his old shtick to hawk Axioms and Rodeos. But shortly thereafter, Isuzu America lost its stomach for pushing its own cars and switched to simply rebadging General Motors vehicles, when for years it had actually been the inverse. The new “Isuzus” could have used a little help from Joe Isuzu, because they sold poorly. Let’s see what Joe might have said about their only SUV, the Ascender.

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“Hiiiiiii. This is the new Isuzu Ascender, the latest and greatest SUV from Japan, engineered by the wisest of senseis”

Actually, the Ascender never set foot in Japan as it was strictly a United States affair (Isuzu withdrew from Canada in 2003). The 2003 Ascender was effectively a rebadged GMC Envoy XL, which shared its GMT-370 platform with the Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT. The GMT-370 was the long-wheelbase version of the GMT-360 platform, used by shorter TrailBlazers and Envoys, as well as the Oldsmobile Bravada, Buick Rainier and Saab 9-7X.

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Ascenders were differentiated from Envoy XLs only in minor trim details, like the toothy chrome grille and different taillights and badges. Instead of being built in the land of cherry blossoms and temples, the Ascender was manufactured in Oklahoma City alongside the other GMT-370s. For 2004, a short-wheelbase version was introduced, again almost identical to its Moraine, Ohio-built counterpart from GMC.

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The GMT-360/370 trucks were a huge improvement over their predecessors, and were upsized to dimensions slightly larger than the Ford Explorer. They were much more modern, with four-wheel disc brakes, hydroformed side rails, a stiffer frame and a more compliant ride. The front suspension was a double wishbone unit, but the rear suspension featured a five-link live axle setup even though the Explorer, far and away the best seller of the segment, now featured an independent rear suspension. GM engineers claimed the lack of an IRS was to aid the trucks’ towing abilities, but the Explorer actually had a higher tow rating. Of course, the GM trucks were still body-on-frame so could tow more than the increasingly popular car-based crossovers taking the market by storm.

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“It handles like it’s on rails!”

No, Joe, this was no Impulse Turbo. The GMT-360 trucks could never be considered athletic, unless you were looking at the hunkered-down, stiff-riding TrailBlazer SS and 9-7X Aero. This is where crossovers were asserting their dominance, as they were generally less cumbersome and more responsive in their handling abilities. The Ascender and its compatriots were tuned for comfort above all else, with handling often referred to as “sloppy” and “truck-like”. The live rear axle would jiggle around, as live rear axles are wont to do, and the steering was devoid of feel. These were cruisers, plain and simple.

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Where the Ascender bested the Explorer was in the powertrain department. The base engine was the Vortec 4200 inline-six, one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines from 2002 until 2005. Smooth and powerful, the Vortec was good for 270 hp and 275 pound-feet of torque: more horsepower than the Explorer’s V6 and V8, and only slightly less torque than in the latter. Power increased in 2006 to 291 hp and 277 lb-ft. Those seeking more power (and towing ability) could option the 5.3 V8, with 300 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. Displacement-on-Demand cylinder deactivation technology was added to the V8 for 2005 to improve fuel economy. However, fuel economy still wasn’t great, owing to the four-speed automatic (the only available transmission) and the Ascender’s hefty curb weight, which was over 5000lbs in long-wheelbase guise. The DoD technology improved the V8’s fuel efficiency by 1-2mpg on the highway; Ascenders were generally good for 14mpg city, and 18-20mpg on the highway depending on the drivetrain. Basically, you gave up little in fuel economy by selecting the V8, at least after it received DoD. Still, the inline six was no penalty option.

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“More beautiful than a gallery of Monets…”

The Ascender simultaneously replaced the aging Trooper and Rodeo and the fairly new Axiom, although the latter two were briefly sold alongside. The Axiom was mechanically related to the Rodeo, but featured sharp styling that looked like nothing else until Chinese manufacturer Great Wall copied it a few years later. The Axiom’s styling was polarizing, but it was unique. The Ascender wasn’t unattractive, as it used the chunky Envoy body instead of the plainer TrailBlazer. The long-wheelbase variants, however, did have quite ungainly proportions.

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“…and enough room to store them!”

The short-wheelbase Ascender was roomy enough, but the long-wheelbase version really delivered in cabin space. There was 22.3 cubic feet of cargo room aft of the third row of seating; folding down both the second and third rows netted you 100 cubic feet of capacity. The LWB Ascender was gargantuan for what was ostensibly a mid-size SUV: 16 inches longer than a regular Ascender, 9 inches longer than a Tahoe with a wheelbase 13 inches longer, and with a 129 inch wheelbase that was just an inch shy of the Suburban. The third row could accommodate full-size adults, as GM worked around the packaging limitations of the rear axle by simply raising the roof height by 5.2 inches.

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But those expecting class-leading interior quality were in for a rude awakening. Although the Ascender didn’t receive the TrailBlazer’s lumpy, monochromatic dashboard, the donor Envoy’s interior was still subpar. Naff fake wood, cheap plastics and mouse-fur fabrics were all present and accounted for, and the seating was derided for its lack of comfort and support. It was nicer than the old Blazer, sure, but that was damning it with faint praise. By the end of the Ascender’s run, the interior was unchanged and horribly dated.

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“It can tackle Mt. Everest better than any Sherpa!”

Owing to its truck platform, the Ascender was reasonably capable off road. Unlike the Explorer’s all-wheel-drive system, the Ascender had switchable 4WD capability. Keen off-roaders would be wise to avoid the extended Ascender, as the longer wheelbase hindered its abilities to tackle the tough stuff. And if, like many SUV shoppers, you had no interest in going off-road, the Ascender was available in a RWD variant.

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“These babies are flying off the lots, so you had better be quick!”

If you could even find an Isuzu dealer you would probably have found quite a few sitting on the lot, even during the boom time for SUVs! To give you an idea of how poor the Ascender sold, consider this: in 2007, it was outsold by vehicles like the Buick Rainier and Terraza, Mitsubishi Raider, Toyota Landcruiser and Chrysler Crossfire. In its best year, Isuzu shifted just under 8000 Ascenders. The 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada, launched just as the Oldsmobile brand’s closure was announced, sold almost twice as many units in its debut year. Lest you think the Ascender was the slowest-selling GMT-360, though, Saab generally sold fewer 9-7Xs per annum. So, umm, there’s that.

With the closure of the Oklahoma City plant, the long-wheelbase Ascender would die for 2007. With it went the V8, as the short-wheelbase Ascender was only ever available with the I6.
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“The best value mid-size SUV in America!”

Well, this one was kind of true. One reason you would have bought an Ascender over the identical GMC Envoy was for the longer warranties Isuzu was renowned for, which included free roadside assistance; the Ascender also undercut the Envoy on price. But base model Ascenders didn’t receive expected features like cruise control or keyless entry. You had to add an option package to obtain those, and if you really wanted to you could go all the way up to an Ascender Limited with power-adjustable pedals, driver seat memory and heated leather seating. No Ascender was available with air suspension, despite its availability on the Envoy.

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But a lot of shoppers didn’t need the off-road and towing ability the Ascender provided, and simply wanted the space. The Ascender was priced smack bang in Highlander/Pilot territory, and those crossovers were spacious, refined and more pleasant to drive. GM’s 2007 Lambda crossovers offered even more space, as well as attractive interiors and superior fuel economy. The market was shifting from the truck-based SUVs, and rising fuel prices would soon deliver a near-fatal blow to the segment.

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“You won’t find a better SUV out there. You have my word on it!”

You certainly could find a better SUV, but the Ascender wasn’t a bad deal for the time except in terms of retained value. But it’s that lousy resale value that makes the Ascender a smart choice for keen used car shoppers looking for something with plenty of cargo room and moderate off-road and towing ability.

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With the discontinuation of the GMT-360 platform, Isuzu was left without an SUV in the US. The Ascender’s last year was 2008, and this was the last year Isuzu would sell an SUV or pickup in the country. Isuzu had bought out GM’s shares in 2006, but the two companies retained close links and developed a new pickup together. Overseas, Isuzu’s light-duty operations were thriving. Shortly after Isuzu exited that market in the US, they entered the light-duty market in Australia with the D-Max pickup, identical to the Holden Rodeo. Today, their current D-Max – co-developed with GM, and sharing a platform with the Chevrolet Colorado – is rapidly accumulating market share, as is their MU-X SUV. It goes to show that offering an almost identical vehicle as a more established brand that possesses a larger dealer network isn’t always doomed to fail.

Joe Isuzu was a heckuva salesman, but it seems Isuzu just didn’t care enough about its US operations to retain his services or to really do any marketing and advertising at all.

 

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