Photographers are fond of showing the Isuzu Trooper at the edge of a waterfall, or atop a mountain. The idea is to display the vehicle as both a conqueror and friend of nature--the truck as noble savage.But real Trooper life is less poetic. The closest most Troopers get to the edge of anything is the end of a shopping mall parking lot. And the only mountains ever climbed by many is a steep, gravel driveway to a cottage in the woods. None of that under-use is the Trooper's fault, of course. As demonstrated by the tested 1999 Isuzu Trooper S/Performance Package, the vehicle can do everything its manufacturer says it can do. It can ford shallow streams, roll unencumbered through moderate-to-heavy snowfalls, crawl through mud and climb mountain paths designated for off-road motoring. But who does those things in a $30,000 vehicle that often serves as the main family transport? Answer: Not many people who are paying the monthly note. That raises a question about whether the Trooper and similar sport-utility models are over-engineered for actual use. Look, for example, at the new Trooper's Torque-On-Demand (TOD) four-wheel-drive system, developed by Borg-Warner Automotive in association with Isuzu. Using an electronically controlled, lubed multi-plate clutch, TOD controls the distribution of driving force between the front and rear wheels. That helps to eliminate the wheel-scrub sensation exhibited by some four-wheel-drive sport-utility models in tight cornering. It also provides improved traction and stability on dry, or wet paved roads. Fully engaging the multi-plate clutch turns the Trooper into a direct-drive, four-wheel-drive vehicle for traveling off-road or traversing mush. It's all pretty neat stuff, and all rather seamless, with the exception of a dashboard-mounted, signal-light-indicating power flow between the front and rear wheels. Yet, I believe that a rear-wheel-drive truck or front-wheel-drive minivan would do just as well, given the realities of the urban/suburban driving environments and trip patterns of many four-wheel-drive sport-utes. Automotive marketers say that I'm wrong in this; and, certainly, judging from the still-soaring sport-utility sales, they seem to have a point. What I don't understand, according to the marketers, is the notion of "peak use"--that is, having more than you need just in case you wind up needing it. Say, for example, there is a sudden, late-winter snowfall; or a washed-out road in a spring rainstorm; or the possibility that you are overcome by the urge to park your Trooper at the edge of a waterfall, or atop a mountain. It's a peace-of-mind thing; and as long as people want it and are willing to pay for it in a free market, the Trooper and other four-wheel-drive trucks will rule. 1999 Isuzu Trooper S/Performance Package Complaint: Ergonomics. Despite many improvements in exterior design and interior presentation, the Trooper's instrument panel remain s cluttered. For example, Isuzu could lose that dash-mounted, graphic, four-wheel-drive indicator light. And the company could get rid of the floor-mounted, four-wheel-drive transfer gearbox and integrate the whole thing into an automatic switching mechanism the way Ford Motor Co. does it. Praise: Overall, one of the best-built, four-wheel-drive sport-utility models on the market. Drivetrain: 3.5-liter, double-overhead cam, V-6 engine designed to produce 215 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 230 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. TOD is standard on models with automatic transmission. Safety: You can topple a Trooper in a crash or an ill-advised turn. You can flip any vehicle having a high center of gravity, such as this one. But you can flip a low-center-of-gravity Chevrolet Corvette, too. It's a matter of common sense, driving safely, and luck, avoiding paying the price for someone else 's mist ake. To improve your chances, wear seat belts. Ride, acceleration and handling: Rides, feels and handles like a truck, which it is. Good braking. Brakes include power, ventilated discs front and rear with four-wheel anti-locks as standard equipment. Head-turning quotient: Attractive in a conservative way. Capacities: Seats five people. Holds 22.5 gallons of regular unleaded. Holds 46.3 cubic feet of cargo with rear seats up, 90.2 cubic feet with rear seats down. Can be equipped to pull up to 5,510 pounds of trailer weight. Mileage: About 16 miles per gallon. Estimated 345-mile range on usable volume of fuel. Price: Base price on the tested Trooper S is $28,650. Dealer invoice on base model is $24,496. Price as tested is $31,645, including $2,500 in options ('Performance Package'--leather steering wheel, six-disc in-dash CD player, etc.--and a $1,100 moon roof), and a $495 destination charge. Purse-strings note: Good truck surrounded by good competitors, including the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer, GMC Jimmy/GMC Envoy/Chevrolet Blazer/Oldsmobile Bravada, Nissan Pathfinder, Mitsubishi Montero, Dodge Durango, Toyota 4Runner.
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