Curbside Classic: 1991 Isuzu Rodeo – Passport To Success

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(first posted 4/5/2013)    OK, I cheated. Given the way the car is sitting, I obviously didn’t find this CC parked street-side, and I did pose it for pictures. This truck used to belong to me, and I recently borrowed it as temporary transportation. I’ve always found the Rodeo’s history interesting, so I captured some images and fired up the word processor.

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Don’t be fooled by the Honda badges. While Honda marketed a Rodeo variant, from 1994 to 2004, this example is a first-year (1991) Rodeo. Most of you will recognize from the front sheet metal that the Rodeo shared a platform with the Isuzu pickup, but with an added three inches of wheelbase to the regular cab chassis and, of course, a four-door SUV body.

Under hood, the base Rodeo came with a rather weak 2.6-liter Isuzu four-cylinder with 120 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. Wisely, Isuzu did not offer this engine package in upper trim levels or on 4WD models, so most Rodeos came with a 3.1-liter V6. To further discourage four-cylinder purchases, an automatic transmission was available only with the V6, while four-cylinder models offered only a Borg-Warner T-5 manual.

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The 60-degree pushrod V6 motor came from General Motors, but it wasn’t the 2.8-liter V6 used in the S-10 pickup. Instead, Isuzu used the 3.1-liter throttle body-injected version from the GM “Dustbuster” minivans. Despite its greater displacement and higher 165 lb-ft of torque, the V6 offered the same 120 hp as the four. In addition to the T-5 manual transmission offered in two-wheel drive versions, the V6 4 x 4 offered an Isuzu-designed five-speed manual; all automatic models used  the GM-designed 4L30E.

Underneath, there was an independent torsion-bar front suspension plus recirculating ball steering to provide direction, while in the rear was a basic solid axle with leaf springs.

 CC 163 057 800a genuine Honda Passport

All pretty standard stuff–so, then, what’s unique about the Rodeo? Well, at the time it was the only import SUV assembled in the USA; the only non-Honda product in the U.S. to wear a Honda badge; and the only vehicle in the Isuzu showroom (excluding medium duty trucks) that ever outsold a Toyota in their product segment.

What’s that, you say? Isuzu beat Toyota? Yes, indeed: For several years, the Rodeo outsold the 4-Runner in the small SUV segment. In fact, the Rodeo was the best-selling import nameplate SUV in 1992 and 1993, period. The combination of low price (thanks to a U.S. assembly plant), comparable features and a tough-truck reputation put Isuzu at the forefront of SUV sales.

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Lots of interesting things were happening in Isuzu’s world in the early 1990s. GM’s experiment with Isuzus wearing the “Geo” nameplate was ending just as Isuzu light truck sales were picking up. Also, Isuzu’s automotive line was under-performing with no new product in the pipeline. Based on rising Rodeo sales and the booming SUV market (Explorer sales jumped from 250,059 units in 1991 to 402,663 in 1996), Isuzu announced it would cast its future focus on light trucks, and dropped all automotive product in 1993.

 CC 163 059 800Honda Passport

Along the way, Isuzu found a new partner to provide a sales channel in the U.S. When the SUV boom launched, Honda was without any light truck platforms and needed to fill the gap. The Rodeo appeared to be the perfect fit, and in 1993 Honda rolled out their own version, the Passport. Rumor has it that Honda engineering helped Isuzu freshen the dashboard and mount airbags, but beyond badges and trim, the Passport and Rodeo matched up model for model.

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Over time, the Rodeo received several mechanical upgrades. A new, Isuzu-designed V6 with increased displacement and overhead cams appeared in 1993. The engine used an unusual 75-degree vee, supposedly to make room for longer intake runners that increased engine torque versus a 60-degree V-6. A suspension upgrade replaced the rear leaf springs with a new coil spring suspension that improved ride quality to competitors’ levels.

CC 163 056 900gen2 Honda Passport

In 1989, the gen-two Rodeo and Passport arrived with new sheet metal and several changes. Among the most useful was increased rear overhang that allowed the spare-tire to be mounted under the body, thus creating more interior room and increasing grocery bag capacity.

But these fixes did not cover up the fact that the Rodeo rolled on an aging chassis and Isuzu lacked the resources to tool up a new truck. Sales peaked in 1999 and, with more and more CUV based competitors coming onto the scene, cratered by 2005. Once again changing direction, Isuzu brought out the Axiom (a Rodeo designed to look like a CUV), and then began selling rebadged Trailblazers and Colorado pickups before leaving the U.S. light-duty market entirely in 2009.

Those of you familiar with the Rodeo might notice that this truck has the early-model vent windows, but later model-year body trim parts. As I mentioned above, I owned this Rodeo for a number of years, and over time it became a bit of a franken-truck. In addition to adding the Honda badges, I replaced the 1991 front bumper with a 1993 bumper (I left on the 1991 grille). The wheels are alloys taken from a Chevy pickup, and I put on a rear-window visor from a newer model to get the CHMSL (Center High Mounted Stop Lamp).

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