The friendly Isuzu Amigo looked dark and foreboding in its jet black Ironman garb. This is the tough-guy version of Amigo (also available on Rodeo and VehiCross), looking ready to do battle on some stark landscape, maybe part of a Mad Max movie. My 15-year-old son was immediately enamored.

Actually, I thought it was pretty cool, too. Not just for the look, including a mild face lift for 2000, but because the chunky Amigo is such a kick to drive, on or off the highway. I resisted the urge to hum the Black Sabbath anthem, Ironman.

After starting out as a stylistic poseur, Amigo was reborn two years ago, changed into a vehicle with some actual capability. Built on a full ladder frame like a real truck, a beefy four-wheel-drive system and available power from a strong and flexible V-6 engine, Amigo has become a worthy challenger to Jeep Wrangler.

Amigo also offers considerably more strength and versatility than the run of car-based sport-utility vehicles, such as Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage or Suzuki Vitara, in the same price range.

The Ironman package is available in black or white, though I favor the sinister hue of the test truck. Ironman Triathlon insignias are prominently displayed.

Mechanically, the Ironman package requires the preferred equipment package of power options, upgraded stereo, air-conditioning, and so forth, that costs $2,110. Ironman, costing $962, adds the sporty graphics and body add-ons, but, more importantly, an "Intelligent Suspension" system that adjusts automatically to road conditions and provides the choice of "sport" or "comfort" settings.

Amigo's on-pavement driving manners are not all that great, with dicey handling and a tendency to bob and weave over road irregularities. The freeway ride is jiggly and noisy.

On balance, the Amigo does deliver a fair share of sporty fun, even in regular city driving. I favored the sport suspension setting for all conditions, the extra control and responsiveness outweighing the jouncy ride.

Off-pavement, Amigo is as tough as it looks, rumbling over boulders and through washes without complaint. The clutch on this five-speed stick-shift model wasn't as firm and responsive as it might have been, making my left foot work a bit too hard.

But I have no complaints about that V-6 engine. Smooth and free-revving on the highway, it exhibits a good reserve of grunt at low speeds, ready to pull the Amigo out of whatever predicament I put it in. Credit an electronic intake system that varies between two manifold lengths. A 2.2-liter four is also available.

The canvas top is nice to have, but it's a pain to fold and a worse pain to erect. Zipping in the rear side windows is a thumb-numbing experience. For 2000, there is a resin hardtop available as well.

Ironman on not, the Amigo is an enjoyable and satisfying sport-ute, a cut above the mini-utes in function and ability but right in there on the price tag.