(first posted 7/13/2015) 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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“…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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Curbside Classic: 1999 Isuzu Hombre
Curbside Classic: 1992 Isuzu Trooper
Curbside Classic: 1983 Isuzu Trooper
Curbside Classic: 1996 Isuzu Oasis
Complete, and total, piles of poop. GM based. Go figure.
I’ve never heard a single bad thing about the Trailblazer, which I would imagine would pass onto its siblings. Only praise for them from people who own/owned them.
The Izuzu has a hideous cheap looking grille though.
I would love a TB SS or 9-7x aero, nearly 400hp, great looks, probably great handling for a true SUV…if only they were cheap.
A neighbor family owned the short wheelbase version for years and years. I’m not sure where they bought it or why. I’ve hardly seen any other examples out there, and I don’t even know of any (former) Isuzu dealerships off hand. It was quite thoroughly beat when they replaced it with a brand new, identical colored Chevy Traverse this spring. All of their cars have been Chevy/Buick/Pontiac/GMC for 20+ years, so it was such a random blip in their ownership history. Maybe they sold Isuzu models out of some multi-brand GM dealerships?
I seem to recall a rebadged version of the original Colorado existed as well – those were even more rare. I think I’ve only seen one or two in person ever.
Yeah, the Isuzu I-280 and I-350 I believe. I can’t say I’ve seen one in years.
I remember the Joe Isuzu commercials of the 80s through the 90s. I remember being none to amused by his “lying”. I’ve never liked car commercials anyway. But Joe Isuzu was one of the dumbest line of commercials I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching.
I miss Joe Isuzu.
Interesting that these outsold the Saab version of this platform. I notice more 9-7s than I do Ascenders.
I do too. Maybe it’s the fact that the 9-7X was more “infamous” (and continues to be) makes us notice them more. Also, they actually tried to make the 9-7X look more different, whereas these just look like an Envoy with aftermarket taillights and grille.
He was funny the first time around, back in the “where’s the beef?” days. “The Ascender is completely unique and has no relation to any other car maker. Trust me.”
What a dumb name for a vehicle…I was in the body shop business for several years, and we used the word “ass-ender” interchangeably with “rear-ender” to indicate a car that got hit in the rear. Every time I see one of these, which isn’t often, I chuckle.
Yeah- I can imagine a bubba or two calling it an “Eye-sue-zoo Ass-ender’ followed by a guffaw or two….
Ah the GMT-midsize SUV platform, spread out across as many brands as GM thought they could handle – somehow Pontiac and Saturn got left out of the party.
I have never seen one of these on a used car lot (or in a used car add with lots of pictures) that didn’t have the paint worn off the stereo buttons/knobs. It was like it had been done with water based markers.
When they brought Joe Isuzu back (pre-gmt 360) they ruined the character. It’s probably a good thing they euthanized him before these came out.
I like the SWB trucks, the LWB trucks were just awful lookinh though. Like a bad strech Limo.
I didn’t know that these stuck around this long and I own an Isuzu (my third). 90’s Isuzus are very underrated and underpriced!
People will think they’re cool after they’re all gone, Studebaker style….
The only vehicles that Isuzu currently sells in the US are their small cab-over trucks. Those trucks can be powered by a turbocharged Isuzu diesel or the Chevrolet Vortec 6 liter V8. The Chevrolet LUV compact pickup from the 1970s was built by Isuzu and it became the Isuzu P’up in the 80s when Isuzu set up it’s dealer network in the US. And Buick dealers sold the Isuzu Gemini as the Buick/Opel by Isuzu in the late 70s. That car became the Izusu I-Mark in the 1980s. Isuzu’s best known products in the 1980s and 1990s were the Trooper and Rodeo SUV’s. At one point in the 90s, Honda dealers sold a rebadged Rodeo as the Passport.
The Honda Passport came about because the SUV craze cropped up and Honda was caught with their pants down. Honda and Isuzu buddied up short term and exchanged vehicles, Isuzu making the Passport and Acura SLX, and Honda making the Isuzu Oasis minivan. Soon enough Honda brought out the MDX and the relationship ended. Just to mess with people I had the shop put the SLX grill put on my Trooper when they rebuilt after my deer strike. Limited scope of a pun though since Acura sold so few SLXs.
When the Ascender came out I was exceedingly disappointed that the real Trooper wasn’t redesigned and updated. They are completely different creatures – the Trooper built for exploring and the Ascender built for the shopping mall. The online Trooper community (yes there was one) was horrified. I ended up with a newish GMC Envoy as a rental one year and was aghast at how poorly it drove on the highway – wandering, crashing suspension, make-a-wish steering. The Explorer was a much better driver. And the GMC interior was beyond cheap and lowest common denominator. Of that platform, I would want the Olds Bravada or Saab 9-7 a they were the best lookers, especially the Olds…but I’m sure the Saab would actually handle the best with the extensive revisions Saab did.
Isuzu had given up on USA by this time and only procured these from GM to give the dealers something to satisfy the franchise agreements. I wonder if offering the bare bones original Trooper would have been a better goodbye. A genuine useful offroader would have at least left the Isuzu name with some credibility. Thanks William
If these help up as super as the Rodeo we had in fleet use at the TV station, they should have handed over apologies with the title.
Best story…the second time the transmission went out, one of our reporters was on a steep hill, with a German restaurant and a Shell station on top. He called me and said he was going to limp it to the Shell and then have a beer at the German restaurant. When I picked him up, he was drinking out of one of those boot glasses with the Shell station’s good ole boy mechanic. When the mechanic realized it was the transmission he gave up and started drinking too.
If not for the Town Car or Crown Vic, I thought they found a market in some Asian countries.
I actually saw one parking on the street a week or so ago and had to do a double take, never seen one before and the GMT-360’s are all over the roads.
Before Isuzu stopped building cars, they had a re-badged version of the Honda Accord, unfortunately I don’t remember the name off hand.
The Axiom actually looks pretty decent and the specifications sound pretty good, too. But Isuzu must have sold fewer Axioms than Ascenders as they are never seen on used car lots or on Craigslist.
That new MU-X might be decent, but that name…..
Isuzu Aska (it was never sold in the US).
Aska badge was used on a Jcar Honda and Subaru by Isuzu all of which washed up in NZ either new or used the Jcar was rebadged Holden for the Kiwi market and marked the end of the Camira badge here replaced by an Opel Australia didnt get.
Are those Envoy amber-signal taillights on the “long” model in the second picture with the yellow background? I’ve never seen an Ascender like that.
Well, you can’t say GM didn’t get the most out of the 360 platform. No less than nine variants (ten if you count the TrailBlazer SS as mechanically different, which I do). Now, if only they made a Pontiac version…
Never saw too many Ascenders, but the ones I did never impressed me. At least some of the other GMT-360/370s were reasonably attractive and had somewhat passable interiors, even if they weren’t perfect. The Ascender looked the absolute cheapest of the bunch, even more so than the Trailblazer. And those front bumper gaps, I could fit all my fingers between the bumper and upper front fascia!
Just about the only interesting thing about Isuzu were the “Joe Isuzu ” commercials. Ascender-is that a play on words for “ass ender”?
Any of these with the 5.3 would be a great donor for me. 300HP would give my 3200-lb ’57 Handyman some real scoot!
Start scouring the junkyards for one totaled out by a smack to the rear. With low resale values it should’t be hard for a mild accident to kill one.
I did not know that this nameplate was ever sold in the US. I first saw the Ascender nameplate on the back of an SUV when we were in Costa Rica a few years ago and thought it was some export equivalent of something else. Such is my lack of interest in SUV’s that I didn’t even ID it as being related to the Blazer.
The GMT370/LWB Envoy should count as an obscure Deadly Sin – what made GM think both that and the Suburban were necessary?
This Joe Isuzu commercial is my favorite. His smile at the end is priceless!
Back when they were selling these, Isuzu had a promo where if you test drove one you would get a $50 Visa gift card. I went to the local Isuzu dealer, which turned out to be a converted gas station that was half Isuzu dealer, half the discount used car lot (ALL CARS $6995 OR LESS!!!!) for the multi-brand dealer chain that owned them.
I think they had two Ascenders in stock (the form made them grab a vin number). They asked me if I really wanted to drive one, or just wanted the card. I said I just wanted the card, they signed it, and I left.
“They asked me if I really wanted to drive one, or just wanted the card. I said I just wanted the card, they signed it, and I left.”
I’ve never been quite sure of the amount of GMT-360 / 370 hate, or at least dislike. I found it to be a pretty decent ride in its segment.
Despite the length issues, I found them quite a bit lighter on their feet than a Tahoe, and especially the Suburban. Generally easier to park and garage as well.
Outlier versions like the 9-X7 and the Ascender never made a lot of sense. I think I’ve seen an Ascender once, and had to think a bit about what it was.
I always thought that the Olds and Buick versions should have been the long wheelbase 370 – the modern day Custom Cruiser and Estate Wagon. Being an Olds guy at one time, the long wheelbase version might have made me look at Olds again – for the first time since 1982! But, the fact that GMC had become a strong consumer brand with its own versions was another erosion in the potential for Olds and Buick, so this thought is likely a moot point. Probably not enough people like me around.
I don’t get the hate for these. Mrs. Tom has a 4.2 TrailBlazer which she can no longer drive due to disability, so I drive it now occasionally. She would (and could) shoot me if I tried to sell it. She couldn’t kill it, so it must be tough. Someone upthread wondered why GM offered this and the ‘burban. If one doesn’t have 5 kids, the 360’s are a good size. I’d rather deal with the ‘blazer in a parking garage than my Silverado, which is about the length of the ‘burban. The 360’s have killer A/C, important where we live.
The 360’s are thick on the ground here, mostly the Chevy and GMC varieties. I have seen a couple of the Saabs over the years, and a few of the Ass-enders. The Rainiers are not common, nor the Bravadas.
What relationship do these have to the Colorado pickup? Given that was shared with or based on the Isuzu pickup that was sold worldwide with different powertrains (I4 or V6 instead of I6 & V8).
When Isuzu & GM divorced it lead to the Holden Rodeo changing name to Colorado as Rodeo was apparently owned by Isuzu. It also switched to GM engines instead of Isuzu, eg the 3.6 HFV6.
Our family.owns one of these. It was purchased from a starting point where we had $7000 in cash, and did not want a car payment. We found lots of garbage in the price range, then eventually found a 5 year old gmt 360 with 68k miles on the odometer, and ended up paying 6700 at a used dealer lot. 6 years later and 150k miles.on the odometer, its still running strong, apart for.an initial front brake pad and rotor job when we got it, and 2 sets of tires, the repairs have been minimal, mostlt broken interior plastics and minor electric stuffs.
Far from being very sophisticated vehicle, its been very good to us, saved us tons of money, all while been a perfect roadtrip vehicle. I agree its a cruiser, far better.comfort than the Crysler 300 C we also have, and is best at home on the interstate. When you rev it up and that variable valvetiming kicks in, it really flies. Interstate passing is fun in this vehicle for sure.
Saw one dead on the side of I-25 in Northern Pueblo county a week ago. It had the Orange tag that Highway Patrol puts on a dead car when it’s marked for death. An anonymous vehicle that will die and anonymous dustbin death.
Apart from the air suspension (not even once) and the XUV, it seems like the GMT360s are your basic Old-GM “Good Used Cars”. They felt old and dated even when they were almost new, especially in that metallic greige that GM was painting everything back then that looked dirty even when it was clean. Add in the now-obscure Isuzu branding and the Ascender is somehow even more so than the Chevy/GMC ones.
You’ve very accurately described that colour! Why was it so common on 2000s GM products?
Here in Australia, beige never seems to have reached the heights of ubiquity it experienced in the US. I’ll see a beige Camry, Accord or Lexus ES once in a while, often with gold badges and always driven by someone in their senior years.
I sold cars for a dealer group in the Bay Area in the mid 80s which included an Isuzu franchise. Isuzu never seemed to have a coherent plan for selling cars in the US and they did everything at glacial speed. It was weird. I was there as they were transitioning their product line but we could get almost no information such as brochures. They began running the Joe Isuzu ads at that time and people were reacting favorably and talking about them. We had a lot of people coming in to check out the product line only to find that we had almost no product. We were getting about 4-5 2 door Troopers and 2-3 P’ups a month. In 1985 we still had some 1984 pickups in stock. People were interested in the promised 4 door Trooper that were being advertised but we had nothing, not even vague promises. The Isuzu rep was a nice young man who was obviously underpaid. They weren’t telling him anything.
The Impulse sports car had been out for a year and a Turbo version was promised for 1986 IIRC. Interesting car to look at but not developed enough to be a performer. They were slow. Isuzu had discontinued their solid but obsolete RWD I-Mark cars and were due to bring out the completely new FWD I-Marks. We had no I-Marks of any kind for over a year.
Isuzu had been in business for a long time. I thought their vehicles were very well made, not overly complex and economical to run. They had a good ad campaign. They just didn’t seem to be able to deliver the merchandise. It was something of a joke. A lot of folks had sustained interest and made multiple trips over many months only to have to settle for a story from equally frustrated salesmen. It was a hell of a way to run a business. I began to doubt Isuzu’s commitment to the US market. Despite Joe Isuzu’s brash approach the companies efforts seemed pretty tepid. They sure did pretty well in many other places around the world with their well regarded heavy trucks and buses. They should have done very well in the Bay Area at least. They just couldn’t seem to pull their heads out of their asses.
I didn’t pay much attention to Isuzu after I moved to another line of work. A good friend bought a Rodeo when they came out and liked it very much. That was the last Isuzu bought by anyone I knew. I know nothing about the Ascender and just learned that they are badge engineered GM 360s. Indeed that is some jiu-jitsu, GM and Isuzu swapping roles from badger to badgee. What do you need rebadged GMs to sell as Isuzus in the United States? Isn’t that ass-backward? Oh right, this is GM here. Sadly it doesn’t seem Isuzu changed how it did business when you pointed out that you could find a few Ascenders at Isuzu dealers IF you could find an Isuzu dealer. That is sad but not surprising.
The original Joe Isuzu was smarmy and obsequious and perfectly suited for the Reagan era. Those ads were genuinely funny. My father thought so and so did most of my friends. We all took a turn at imitating Joe. The revisited Joe just proves that time and place have much to do with how humor is perceived. Having a viable product line and dealer network is what they really needed.
Isuzu was just weird. I liked their stuff but the slow way they did everything was weird.
This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing this.
What year did you stop selling Isuzus?
Part of their supply problem was the Voluntary Restraint Agreement quotas, which was compounded by having committed the lion’s share of their car quota to Chevrolet. I can only wonder how many would-be fwd I-Mark customers went down the street and bought a Chevy Spectrum which was the same car built in the same factory.
The VRA agreement didn’t apply to trucks which at the time included anything 4wd (this was when Subaru really started pushing that) so for a time Isuzu expanded into the northeast with pickup- and Trooper-only dealerships that didn’t start getting cars until the quotas were raised in the late ’80s.
Mitsubishi had the exact same problem, and throughout the ’80s and well into the ’90s Mitsubishi dealerships were rare outside the west coast and Mopar-branded versions were a far more common sight than ones with three diamonds on the grille.
I had a 2003 GMC Envoy 7-passenger and then a 2006 of the same. Tough trucks. One D.O.T. inspector told me as he looked under my vehicle, “This is a monument to Alcoa.” With a full tank of fuel the vehicle weighed 5100 pounds. Loved driving them.