The Isuzu Trooper is used to flinging mud -- on and off the road. It's just not accustomed to mud-slinging in media and government circles. That helps explain why sales of the Trooper, Isuzu's flagship sport utility vehicle, dropped substantially over the past year after Consumer Reports rated it "not acceptable." The magazine claimed the Trooper exhibited a tendency to roll over in one test using abrupt driving maneuvers. Isuzu stands by the Trooper, noting it meets federal safety standards for sport utility vehicles. And the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month announced it will develop an information system so buyers of all sport utilities will get a better understanding of sport utility vehicles' capabilities and rollover potential. Truth be told, circumstances can be found to make all vehicles with high centers of gravity -- such as sport utilities -- roll over. That's why every sport utility sold today carries a warning telling drivers these vehicles handle differently than cars and should be driven with that in mind. But the Trooper is battling more than just a damaging press report. It also faces newer entrants in its $27,000 to $38,400 price range -- among them the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator -- as well as some new sport utes and near-sport utilities that are less pricey, such as the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. All that said, the test Trooper 4WD LS provided impressive comfort with its roomy interior and good on- and off-road ride. The Trooper's back seat is so roomy I can cross my legs with no problem if the front seats are up just a bit on their tracks. The seating position is high enough that riders can look down on Ford Explorers on the road. Headroom is no problem; it equals that of the bigger Expedition. The Trooper's side windows are wonderfully large and -- unlike those on many other vehicles -- go down all the way. The Trooper's sunroof (a $1,100 option) is the biggest I've seen in a sport utility. It's so big I easily sunburned my right shoulder while driving the Trooper round trip from Sacramento to the Sutter Buttes. I also noticed a good amount of wind noise in the Trooper when that big sunroof was open. I didn't feel hemmed in in the front seats. But you can in the back seat -- if you're one of three adults back there. The Trooper has a bit more hip room in the rear seat than the Ford Explorer but it's narrower than some bigger sport utilities like the Expedition. The Trooper's rear seat splits 60-40 and folds up for added cargo space. The Trooper offers about five more cubic feet of total cargo space than a Nissan Pathfinder but 28 cubic feet less than in the much longer Expedition. The back cargo door isn't a liftgate as in most sport utilities. Rather, it's door-like, opening from right to left. Too bad the small part of the Trooper body back there that holds the rear license plate next to the cargo door rattles loudly when the cargo d oor is slammed closed, just as it did in earlier models. The only Trooper engine today is a 190-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6. You hear it often during driving, though not obtrusively so. Its performance is competitive with some of the midsize sport utes, such as the Pathfinder. As expected in this tall vehicle, there's a considerable amount of body sway, and the steering wheel is large by my standards. But riders are quite well-cushioned from most road shocks. Frankly, my biggest problem was getting into the Trooper. At 5-feet-4, I found the Trooper's interior floor is way above my knees. SPECS
What we drove: 1997 Isuzu Trooper 4WD LS, a five-passenger sport utility vehicle with 3.2-liter, single overhead cam, 24-valve, 75-degree V-6 and four-speed automatic transmission. Base price: $32,270 Price as tested (includes options and delivery charge): $37,285 Curb weight: 4,315 pounds Length: 183.5 inches >Turning circle (curb to curb): 38.1 feet Standard features: Two front air bags; anti-lock brakes; carpeted floor mats; 16-inch mud- and snow-rated steel-belted radials; air conditioning; cruise control; power windows and door locks; six-speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette player; front map lights; two-tone paint; rear window defogger; power outside mirrors with defoggers; underbody skid plates; cornering lights. Options on test vehicle: Limited slip differential; leather seats; sun roof; display with barometer, altitude, temperature gauge and compass; in-dashboard compact disk player. EPA figures: 14 mpg (city), 18 mpg (highway)
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