Curbside Classic: 1992 Isuzu Trooper – Really Really Big Horn

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Here is one of the more obscure competitors from the beginning of the Great SUV Boom of the ’90s. The result of a lot of hard work by its maker, it is possibly the most ambitious product offered by utilitarian Isuzu, designed with its eye on high-tech bubble-economy Japanese glam, unlike its very no-frills predecessor. Paul does not like the ’92-’02 Trooper if I recall correctly, but I feel rather differently, as you might imagine. Perhaps he might reconsider, given this very basic, five-speed equipped example (which would look so much better in red or dark blue).

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Or perhaps he might not, since they lack the hyper-utilitarian appeal of the trucks they replaced.  To that end, I won’t disagree; it’s hard to top the charm of such a unique original.  But the second-gen Trooper nonetheless remained highly capable and tough, even if it added a healthy dose of convenience and isolation (and weight) to make a more obvious case for its purchase.

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The first Trooper II was incredibly crude, after all, as lovable as it was.  And with the Rodeo taking over as mass-market Suburban transport in the US, moving the Trooper upmarket made sense.  Unfortunately for those of us who loved scrappy ‘utes, it seems the market decided that austerity (or maybe restraint and good judgment) was out.

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One thing both the Trooper and Rodeo required was a powertrain superior those of the outgoing Trooper II.  For starters, the 1.9, 2.3 and 2.6 liter four-cylinders which motivated it were increasingly unacceptable in the face of resurgent consumer expectations, let alone when asked to carry a more complex rig.  The 2.8 liter Chevy V6, which served as the top-drawer engine, certainly isn’t a bad motor; it’s perfectly satisfying in transverse, MPFI fuel-injected form.  But in TBI form, against Nissan’s VG three liter and Toyota’s 3VZ, it wasn’t enough.

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In the new 4,250-4,500 pound Trooper, it definitely wouldn’t cut it.  The unusual 75-degree, all-aluminum V6 Isuzu designed to replace it would offer a thoroughly up-to-date option, without which neither the Trooper nor Rodeo would be make it until their discontinuations in 2002 and 2004, respectively.  It would also live on as one of the first direct-injected gasoline-powered engines (in the US) in both models’ disappointing successor, the Axiom.

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In basic, single cam form as seen here, the 3.2 made 175 horsepower; upmarket quad-cam versions made 190, and final versions made 215 after getting punched out to 3.5 liters in 1998 (with 230 lb-ft of torque).  That might not sound like enough displacement to move such a bluff, heavy vehicle, but it was enough to compare favorably with the likes of the 4.0 Explorer, Range Rover and Grand Cherokee, in addition to 4Runners (pre ’96), Land Cruisers and Pathfinders.

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Tricks like a variable intake and low gearing made power better-than-average for the day, even if fuel economy was atrocious (remember how cheap gas was in the ’90s?).  It wasn’t as fast as the 5.2 litre Grand Cherokee or 4.3 Vortec Blazer, mind you, but not much was.  In a recent Car And Driver test, the 7.1-second-to-sixty Legacy 3.6 was deemed slow, so it’s funny to think that as recently as 2000, the Trooper’s engine was considered peppy enough (oh wait, that was almost fifteen years ago–dear Lord).

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Suspension was via a predictable coil-sprung four-link rear axle and double wishbone/torsion bar set-up in front; unlike Jeeps and some others, a unibody wasn’t part of the deal.  As you can see, underneath all that luxury was a pretty traditional truck frame; I’d like to see one of these trucks put through today’s IIHS small-overlap crash test.  Incidentally, the Trooper garnered a reputation for poor safety even before such stringent demands were placed on the average car’s safety systems.

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Even though it had dual airbags (after 1994) and ABS–a big deal at the time–a Consumer Reports avoidance maneuver in which its Acura SLX clone lifted two wheels off the pavement helped damage the Trooper’s already flagging fortunes.

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Though not comparable to the damage the 60 Minutes “scandal” did to the Audi 5000’s reputation (before word of those cars’ atrocious initial quality got around), it was of no help to the company, who’d already abandoned selling their cars and small pickups in North America.

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In truth, it might not have mattered too, too much.  The Trooper remained a thoroughly Japanese proposition, much in the same vein as the Mitsubishi Montero, with a tall, narrow body, and if the customer so desired, lots of bronze-tinted glass, a gigantic sunroof, switches galore, and plenty of velour upholstery (or your typical industrial-looking mass market leather–yuck).  Later versions would benefit from the BorgWarner Torque-On-Demand system, which combined manual, dual range 4WD with active all wheel drive in place of the 4WD Hi setting on the transfer case, offering much faster response than systems using a viscous coupling while still offering a real low-range.  Selling the Trooper loaded was easier than expected during the peak SUV boom years and many came so-equipped.

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But even Toyota, who could only justify the Land Cruiser in the US market as an expensive, high-end option, never sold its smaller variant (the Land Cruiser 70-series, which has just been re-released in Japan for one year only!!) in the US.  Next to more orthodox competition, proportioned more along the lines of the 4Runner, Grand Cherokee and Explorer, the Isuzu was poorly adapted to American needs, V6, creature comforts or otherwise.

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In terms of character, however, the ’92 Trooper stood out and retains a loyal following today.  Hardcore offroaders confirm that in terms of its suspension articulation–especially important without a solid front axle, its approach/departure angles, its minimum ground clearance and the stoutness of its differentials and axles, it’s as good as it gets.  It also won the support of the press outside the United States, where its mission as a more off-road capable, tough truck, in conjunction with big turbodiesels, made the limits imposed by its hefty weight and bulky proportions less of an issue.

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Differing expectations played a role, as well; plenty of buyers in Europe and Japan at the were happy enough in station wagons if they wanted a carlike experience (though crossovers and mini MPVs are tremendously popular in both places today).  As Isuzu was firmly ensconced in the GM empire at the time, the Trooper was rebadged as an Opel, a Vauxhall, a Holden, a Chevy, as well as a Honda and Subaru, enabling it to be made in significant numbers and represented in most major markets.

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But this, unfortunately, came to become one of the bigger obstacles Isuzu faced; its products’ existence as frequent GM rebadges rendered them anonymous, robbing them of brand equity.  Despite peddling often thoughtfully engineered, uniquely purpose-built vehicles, few understood the joy of being an Isuzu partisan.  It’s the opposite problem Saab faced, where an excellent reputation was destroyed by years of inadequate development funding.  In such a situation, charging big bucks for a semi-premium “no name” SUV didn’t make sense to most consumers, especially in such an image-conscious segment.  For the properly initiated who go off-road regularly, however, the rarity and obscurity of these solid trucks only adds to their cult appeal.  And these days, they can be had for a song.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1988 Isuzu Pickup – No Soup For You!

Curbside Classic: 1991 Isuzu Rodeo – Passport To Success

CC Capsule: 1986 Isuzu Trooper II Veggie-Oiler – Envious?