Say you're a Washington bigwig and Kenneth Starr slaps you with a subpoena. What would you need to get past the press pool? How about Isuzu's new Rodeo? For 1998, this sweet little sport utility vehicle gets a makeover and thankfully, the Rodeo has the same feel that's made it such a success in the past. Plus, it's the perfect vehicle for running over those media types. Of course, I'm not advocating this by any stretch of the imagination. After all, this is a civilized sport utility, capable of climbing the great heights or clambering up your driveway. Fluffy will be safe from harm, given this vehicle has 7.1 inches of ground clearance. Your license, on the other hand, might not be. But, after mowing through a crowd of paparazzi, you'll need all 214 horsepower available from the 3.2-liter V6 engine to outrun them. (This is an option. A 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine is standard issue on the base model only. With only 130 horses to haul around 3,471 pounds, your face would be on the front page of every paper in the country, if you chose this model.) Although a bit gruff when revved, things settle down quietly at freeway speeds. Both engines are double overhead-cam designs, increasingly common in trucks. This means power is a bit peaky, but off-the-line performance is fine for normal hauling. Power is fed through a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual for the four; automatic-only for the six. The Rodeo is available in two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive in S or LS trim levels. The 4WD system is part-time only, and engages with the touch of a dashboard button at speeds below 60 mph. This means if you're driving down the turnpike near Quakertown and it starts to rain, you'll have to slow down below 60 mph to engage the 4WD. A two-speed transfer case is only available on the up-level LS. As long as the press isn't nipping at your tail, you're fine. Handling is just as good as it's always been in the Rodeo, which is quite good. Thankfully, this hasn't changed. It's still a truck, but refined enough not to make your teeth rattle. Cornering response is good, with moderate body lean. Braking was quite good and undramatic. But be careful -- 2WD models get front disc, rear drum brakes while LS models get four-wheel disc brakes. The speed-sensitive steering is sensitive indeed, and just what you'd expect. Not too fast, not too slow. But even a Washington power broker needs some comforts. It's here that the new Rodeo makes its most dramatic departure from the previous model. The flat seats will have you searching for a height or tilt adjustment. But there is none. This will have you squirming with pain about a half hour after leaving Starr's office. Despite the flat shape, they do hold you in place. Long-legged drivers might wish for more seat travel. The interior of the old Rodeo seemed closer to the Trooper in quality than the new one. The new dash has a modern shape, bu t it's mostly hard plastic. Credit should go to Isuzu for giving it a grained texture to disguise its humble origins. The climate controls, three stiff rotary switches, were easy to operate. But they rest above the radio. When fleeing D.C., finding the traffic report is more important than heat. The radio was easy to operate and had decent sound. Refinement was average, but this truck is no quiet respite. Wind, road, tire and engine noise all contribute to make the driver aware of what's goin' on. Interior storage is good and the cupholders hold gigantic containers of your favorite beverage quite nicely. If the whole interior feels more spacious, it's because the truck itself is 2.4 inches wider, lending a roomier feel to the interior that was lacking in last year's model. There's good room for four -- five if they're co-conspirators. Trunk space is good, with a cargo cover to hide your packages from prying eyes. Last, but not least, are the great lo ks this truck has. Too many times, Asian trucks seem overwhelmed with too much surface detail. There's plenty of it on the Isuzu Rodeo, yet it works without offending the eye. The flared fenders and short overall length give it a tough stance, yet the smooth sloping backlight gives it a refined look. You get your choice of where the tire gets mounted. It can be ordered on the tailgate or underneath. You might want to consider underneath, since the tailgate is already a chore to open. It's a two-part design, with the window flipping up before the bottom part, the door, swings open. And make sure the rear wiper is fully down before switching it off, since this can get in the way. It's a lot of bother if you have to grab your luggage before making a clean getaway. Another choice is trim level. A four-cylinder, 2WD model starts at $17,995; the lowest-price 4WD model starts at $24,240. It tops out with a 4WD LS V6 with automatic transmission that starts at $28,910. S model options include choice of transmission or engine, 2WD or 4WD,power windows or locks, power mirror, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, intermittent wipers, cassette or CD player, limited-slip differential, moon roof, fog lights, keyless entry, and steel or aluminum wheels. LS model options are limited to transmission, 2WD or 4WD, limited-slip differential, CD player or leather. 1998 Isuzu Rodeo LS 4WD V6 Standard: 3.2-liter 24-valve double overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, four-speed automatic transmission, winter and power driving modes, part-time four-wheel-drive, variable assist power rack and pinion steering, 4,500-pound towing capacity, stainless steel exhaust, dual front air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, underbody skid plates, rear and side defogger, rear intermittent wiper-washer, fold-down rear seat, visor vanity mirrors, cupholders, front and rear power plugs, remote releases, floor mats, P235/ 75R15 all-season tires, steel wheel covers, full-size spare. Options: air-conditioning, six-speaker AM/FM-cassette stereo, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, remote entry with alarm, tilt wheel, cruise control, center arm rest, cargo cover, front intermittent wiper/washer. Base price: $24,240 As tested: $27,035 EPA rating: 16 mpg, 20 mpg city Test mileage: 15 mpg
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