It is perhaps small pickup trucks that did the most to establish Japanese automakers in the United States. Frugal compact pickups from Toyota, Nissan and Mazda were tough, high-quality workhorses that began carving out a niche in the market in the early 1970s. But now Japanese-made pickups are having trouble competing in the marketplace mostly because of unfavorable exchange rates, the U.S. government's 25 percent tariff on imported two-door trucks and the improved quality of Detroit's automobiles. Consider this: Ford builds a version of its Ranger that Mazda sells as the B-series pickups. Automotive News reports that Mitsubishi is dropping its Mighty Max pickup at the end of the 1996 model year. Toyota is planning to build trucks in North America to avoid the tariff. And for 1996 General Motors will begin building compact pickups for Isuzu. Isuzu's upcoming pickup will be loosely based on Chevy's S-10/GMC Sonoma. The Isuzu version will have different body panels, but the underpinnings and drivetrain will be all GM. The new Isuzu truck is scheduled for a spring debut. This week's 1995 Isuzu truck, a vehicle whose design dates back to the 1980s, likely will be Isuzu's last Japanese-built compact truck sent here. Compared with the latest Big Three offerings, the Isuzu's rough riding truck has a spartan interior and offers little safety equipment. PERFORMANCE Isuzu's truck comes in two configurations. The two-wheel-drive model - the one we tested - is furnished with a 2.3-liter, 100-horsepower engine. The four-wheel-drive version comes with a 2.6-liter, 120-horsepower engine. Both models are sold with a five-speed manual transmission. No automatic is available; neither is an extended cab version. However, long-bed models are available. The big trend in trucks is to make them more carlike in performance, handling and user-friendliness. Because the Isuzu truck has changed so little over the years, it feels old compared with such competitors as the Chevy S-10 and the Ford Ranger/Mazda B3000. Isuzu's 2.3-liter engine is a rough-running single overhead cam unit. It didn't always idle at a consistent speed, though I could not determine how much the engine speed wavered at idle because our test truck did not come with a tachometer. However, the engine was plenty powerful. Torque, the twisting force that rotates the rear wheels, is plentiful, enabling the truck to accelerate strongly at low speeds. With about an inch of play, the clutch pedal felt sloppy. But the shifter moved through the gears easily enough. At 65 mph on the highway, our test truck's engine made quite a bit of noise and seemed to be revving quite high. This is not a truck you would want to take on an extended highway trip - unless you want to drive with ear plugs. Fuel mileage came in at a respectable 23 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. HANDLI NG When I rolled over a large bump or dip in the road in the Isuzu truck, I got a kidney-bruising pounding. After repeatedly driving over a rough railroad crossing in Longwood, I felt like I had been pummeled in the midsection by a professional boxer. The Isuzu has a very firm suspension with a lot of travel. That means the body can move up and down a long way when the going gets rough. The problem is that once the bouncing starts, you have to hold on for dear life. For its suspension system, Isuzu uses double wishbones, torsion bars and a stabilizer bar up front, an arrangement that does a decent job of absorbing small bumps. The rear suspension is a standard leaf-spring setup. The power steering and power-assisted front disc, rear drum brakes are adequate. The Isuzu was able to easily make sharp turns. The rear brakes are equipped with an anti-lock system. In an emergency stop, the front wheels will lock up and the vehicle could become hard to ste r. However, the rearend does not swerve. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes - not an option on the current model - would be the ideal arrangement. Because the engine develops much of its power at low speeds, I found that I was constantly unintentionally making the rear wheels spin when starting from a stop or during low-speed cornering. Most of the weight is on the front wheels. On wet roads you especially have to go easy on the accelerator or else the wheels will lose traction. FIT AND FINISH Plain. Dull. Boring. Uninspired. Those four words sum up Isuzu's interior. Although the folding bench seat is covered with a high-quality and thick woven cloth, and the carpet has a nice, heavy-duty stitching, the inside of the Isuzu truck is about as utilitarian as they come. Switches for the lights and controls for the windshield wipers are placed on the outer edges of the boxy instrument panel housing. Although these controls are easy to reach and use, this is not an attractive setup. The one-piece curving dashboard in the Ford Ranger, for example, gives the interior of that truck a classy, sporty ambiance. The Isuzu's radio, tucked below the air conditioner and behind the shifter, is close to the floor and hard to reach. On the plus side, I do like the view you get from the driver's seat. The hood slopes gently downward, affording the driver an unobstructed look at the road. Also, the rear window slides open. Most annoying is the lack of places to put small items. There is an indentation on the dash, but it is of little use. Let's say you want to place your sunglasses there. They'll slide back and forth every time you round a curve. There are no map pockets in the doors for small items, and there's no center console. Our test truck came with a black plastic bedliner, a $300 extra that is well worth the price. A bedliner will protect the paint from scratches, which in turn prevents rust. The optional air conditioner cooled the interior quickly. Many other trucks for about the same money run smoother, handle better and offer interiors that are stylish and user-friendly. And most other small trucks offer a driver's air bag. The Isuzu truck doesn't. Next year's GM-built Isuzu truck ought to put the Japanese company right back in the race. Truett's tip: Although bolted together tightly and constructed with quality materials, Isuzu's pickup has a harsh ride, and it looks and feels outdated compared with other compact trucks.
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