Curbside Classic: 1986 Isuzu Trooper II – An Unfulfilled Desire

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(first posted 3/18/2015)    The Trooper II has earned some serious respect and admiration, the hard way. It was among the very first, perhaps the very first of the “compact” SUVs that took the US market by storm in the eighties. It was eminently practical, durable, rugged, and good looking. And it’s on the list of cars that I wish I had bought. Did it have any faults? Probably, but as far as I’m concerned, someone should still be making this Trooper.

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Let’s do the history first. I don’t have the proof to back me up, but I seem to remember the Trooper being available in California before the 1983 Chevy S-10 Blazer. I gave the baby Blazer GM Deadly Sin status (not without some controversy), so maybe my memory is skewed by the fact that I instantly elevated the Trooper well above the Blazer in my ranking. I readily admit that they were very different animals, and the Blazer’s claim to fame was that it offered the amenities (V6, automatic, etc.) that made SUVs acceptable to the mainstream and sparked the whole boom. That may be precisely why I dislike it too. The Trooper was the real thing; the Blazer a popular pretender.

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The Trooper was a totally different animal than the Blazer. Like the little Chevy, it was based on compact pick-up underpinnings. But that’s where the differences start: the Isuzu P’up (Chevy LUV) (above) was a notoriously tough little goat, reflecting fully Isuzu’s light-truck expertise and the best of (mostly) typical Japanese quality standards of the time.

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The Trooper first saw the light of day somewhere in 1981, and wiki says that it was first sold in the US as a 1983 model. I was smitten right off for another reason: the fact that it looked so much like an early Range Rover.

Range Rover 1971

Let’s be honest and call it a blatant rip-off, right down to the single round headlights in the slotted black plastic grille as on these two early models. The huge greenhouse, the high seating position, the fantastic visibility, the dash; they even copied the fact that the RR started out as a two door and added the four door later.

Ironically, the Range Rover’s iconic design was an accident; it was an engineering mule, but when some Rover execs saw it, they loved it, and the rest is history.

Range Rover 4 dr

Tellingly, RR added its four door in 1981, the year the two door Trooper came out. Oops; too late; but a couple of years later, there it was!

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Obviously, the RR and the Trooper shared little under their similar skin. The RR was a brilliant and sophisticated vehicle, way ahead of anything then conceived of at its birth in 1970. A long travel all-coil suspension, full time AWD and four-wheel disc brakes made similar SUVs like the Jeep Wagoneer look like dinosaurs, even in their relative youth. The fact that the RR had a detuned and relatively torquey 3.5 liter aluminum V8 (ex Buick) added to its exotic appeal at the time. I’m getting off track here; I’ll save it for a RR CC.

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The point is that the Trooper may have been devoid of the Rover’s sophistication, but its tried and proven hardware was bulletproof. Its appeal was limited to those with a certain austerity of expectations in terms of power and other comforts. The Trooper came with a 1.9 liter four that may have had something like 88 hp. Frankly, it was probably a good thing that an automatic wasn’t available until the latter years when its four grew to 2.6 liters and the Chevy 2.8 V6 was optional.

But the little four was a trooper, as long as one didn’t mind rowing the gears with the gusto of an oarsman. I had a bad case of SUV-itis in the very early eighties, and seriously contemplated a Scout Traveler with the turbo-diesel. Once the Trooper arrived, the Scout instantly fell off the radar. Well, the lack of an automatic was the rub; Stephanie refused to take up crew. We ended up buying a Cherokee when that came out; don’t ask about its reliability.

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A former neighbor of mine drove one of these early two doors for almost twenty years, finally replacing it with a Toyota 4Runner (what else?). He was a hard-core kayaker, and it took him to the remotest corners of the west, without ever letting him down. He loved the roomy body, with enough space to sleep in the back in a pinch. Frankly, I don’t think there’s been another SUV that’s ever approached the Trooper’s interior space, except a Suburban and the like. It’s a giant box in there, that made the rest of the competition like the Cherokee feel like a sub-compact.

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And the visibility from that front throne is like nothing else, except the Range Rover, of course. It’s not a coincidence that I drive a gen1 xB; it’s the non-offroad compact version of the Trooper. And I like rowing gears. I suspect if I had bought a Trooper, it would still be sitting in the back lot, ready to roll for those times when the urge to really get away from it all strikes. All these years later, and the Trooper is still an unfulfilled desire. I guess it’s hardly the only one on that list.

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