I don’t often find interesting SUVs. Nor do I usually find SUVs interesting, so there might be a correlation there. But slap a little bling on an older orphan brand model that has no earthly business being here, and something may well get piqued.
This Isuzu, as I wrote above, should not be here. Not because it’s an SUV – those were becoming rather successful in Japan, by the early ‘90s. It should not be here because it’s the US-assembled, V6-powered, LHD, North American market version of a vehicle that Isuzu were also making and marketing in Japan. It was most likely imported here when it was new too, as demonstrated by the pre-2000 license plate.
When the Rodeo was launched in 1990, from the get-go, it was going to be one of those global platforms that was going to be sold under a bunch of marques and nameplates. And so it became the Isuzu Cameo/Vega in Thailand (locally assembled), the Vauxhall Frontera in the UK (known as the Opel Frontera in Continental Europe, but assembled in Luton all the same), it wore a Holden badge in Australia and so on.
Isuzu even inked a deal with Honda in 1993 so that the Rodeo was rebadged as a Honda Passport for US consumption. In exchange, Geminis ended up being rebadged Civics for a while. But what of Isuzu’s home market? Well, things were less than straightforward on that score, which may or may not explain the presence of this Rodeo in Tokyo.
Isuzu had signed the aforementioned deal with Honda precisely because they decided, in 1992, to basically abandon their in-house family car lines and focus on their strengths, i.e. SUVs and pickup trucks. For the JDM, Isuzu had two SUVs in the early ‘90s: the large 4-door Bighorn (a.k.a. Trooper, in many markets) and the 2-door MU (Amigo in the US). What Japan needed was a 4-door MU, which is what the Rodeo essentially was.
So why not simply import the Rodeo, as produced by Isuzu in their Indiana plant (co-owned with Subaru) and use all the spare tonnage on those ships crossing the Pacific filled with cars for North America’s insatiable markets and returning barely half-full? Honda certainly got brownie points all around for doing just that with their Accord wagon, made in Ohio and exported back to Japan (and Europe) with little “Honda of America” eagle badges on their C-pillars.
Isuzu almost did that with the Rodeo, but in the end decided against it. One reason was engine availability: Isuzu figured the lion’s share of JDM clients would prefer a Diesel, whereas the US-made Rodeos had a 2.6 litre 4-cyl. or a 3.2 litre V6 – both petrol. The other issue was the Rodeo’s leaf springs, which Isuzu’s Japanese product planners reckoned would be too crude for domestic consumption.
But they needed to field a mid-sized 4-door SUV, so they went ahead and engineered a multilink coil suspension for the Rodeo, chucked a 120hp 3.1 litre Diesel 4-cyl. under the hood and launched the result as the Isuzu Wizard in December 1995 — five years after the Rodeo came to be.
The Wizard was a RHD, Diesel-only, JDM exclusive vehicle that was built in Japan. It apparently had a fair amount of success until the second gen model arrived in 1998. So why would an American-made, LHD, petrol V6-powered Rodeo end up here? Therein lies the mystery.
Perhaps some well-heeled Isuzu enthusiast just couldn’t fathom passing up the smooth 190hp OHC 6-cyl. engine (also used in the Bighorn/Trooper)? Maybe the originality of driving an Isuzu with a steering wheel on the wrong side proved irresistible? Or was it the famed American fit and finish?
Another question to ponder is whether one could just request the local Isuzu dealer to special-order one. As far as I know, these were not imported regularly, but it’s a tricky one to research, as there was another vehicle called Isuzu Rodeo sold in Japan in the ‘90s. But it was not the same as the US-made Rodeo, as JDM Rodeos were strictly pickups and/or RVs, known around the world variously as the Isuzu TF, Isuzu Fuego, Bedford / Vauxhall Brava, Chevrolet LUV, GMC Dragon, Opel Campo, Foton SUP… Wikipedia lists over 25 names for it, which might be some kind of record. So when searching for “Isuzu Rodeo” on Japanese web sources, the pickup always crops up, not the US-made SUV.
Perhaps someone simply bought this Isuzu while living in the US and shipped it over soon after, which is another possibility. The funniest part of the whole deal is that although the Rodeo/Wizard was born in the US and was viewed as sort of American when built and sold over here, it never qualified as a US-made vehicle in North America because about 75% of its components were imported from Japan. So this SUV crossed the Pacific at least twice – first as a bunch of parts, and back as a fully-assembled vehicle. At least it picked up a cool pair of Cibiés along the way.
Curbside Classic: 1991 Isuzu Rodeo – Passport To Success, by David Skinner