What is it, you may ask?

Isuzu calls it the Axiom, a new offering from the Japanese automaker that produces the compact Rodeo and Rodeo Sport (formerly the Amigo) sport-utility vehicles, as well as the full-size Trooper SUV.

All but the Trooper (Japan) are built at a plant in Lafayette, Ind., that also assembles a version of the Rodeo for Honda called Passport. In exchange, Honda used to assemble a version of its Odyssey minivan for Isuzu called the Oasis, but Oasis was dropped from the Isuzu lineup for 2001.

Some might call Axiom the Rodeo station wagon, since it is built off the Rodeo platform and much looks like a wagonized version of the SUV–with a tall rather than the squat roof found on traditional wagons of old.

Whatever you call it and whether you love it or hate it (and there will be followers in both camps), Axiom represents the shape of things to come as automakers introduce vehicles that redefine wagon, sport-ute and sedan, with a little minivan and pickup tossed in for good measure.

These new machines are called crossovers or tall-roofed wagons, designed to focus on the positives of today’s sedans, SUVs, vans and trucks.

They combine, for example, the ride and handling of a sedan with the improved vision, four- or all-wheel-drive and ample room for people and their possessions of a sport-ute.

What makes Axiom most noteworthy is that its tall, big and bold front end looks very much like it was borrowed from the GMC Terracross, a concept crossover vehicle on this year’s auto-show circuit, as well as from the Oldsmobile Recon, a concept from the 1999 auto shows.

Recon was designed to give a peek at what GM was considering for a future generation minivans and sport-utes, but bombed after media and public turned cool to the dramatic design.

Only two years later Terracross provided a glimpse at what crossover means to General Motors in terms of future vehicle offerings that would combine the features of more than one vehicle in one machine. Though it had equally dramatic design, Terracross got good reviews from the media and the public.

Ron Zarrella, president of GM’s North American Operations, says Terracross surprised even GM by its acceptance on the auto-show circuit and is still under active consideration for production with a few tweaks. One of those tweaks, by the way, reportedly is rounding off those square fender extensions, like they are on the Axiom.

It is also noteworthy that the Cadillac LAV, or luxury-activity vehicle, coming out for 2003, the Cadillac Vizon concept on the auto-show circuit, is yet one more variation on the Terracross and Axiom theme.

Axiom’s (and Terracross’) bold front end gives the perception of ruggedness, while the long, tall roofline hints at the wagon look of years past. The front end is what attracts attention; the rear end is what prompts viewers to say: “It’s a big wagon.”

Isuzu o fficials insist that though GM owns a 49 percent interest in the Japanese automaker and that Isuzu is in charge of developing the next-generation Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck for 2004, Isuzu never asked for and GM never offered Recon or Terracross blueprints while coming up with Axiom.

Axiom is offered in base or top-of-the-line XS versions with a choice of rear-wheel- or four-wheel-drive. We tested the 4WD XS. The 4WD is an on-demand system. You dial up 2WD high or 4WD low when the going gets really tough. Or, simply place the dial in the set-and-forget “auto” mode so that you run in RWD until sensors detect slippage, and the system engages all four wheels automatically.

Isuzu insists Axiom’s ride and handling rivals that of a luxury sedan thanks to its Intelligent Suspension Control system, with sensors that monitor vehicle speed, engine r.p.m., brake action and lateral G-forces to adjust shock valving to regulate rebound rates.

That technical verbiag means that by adjusting shocks, Axiom minimizes front-end dive when braking, front-end lift when accelerating and sideways body roll or lean when cornering.

Despite all the technical mumbo-jumbo, Axiom performs its smoothest on level roads, tends to act a tad stiff with a little bounce on irregular roads–more so if you engage the firm sports suspension settings–but acts rather stable without pronounced lean or wobble when exiting the tollway ramp at speed.

If Axiom was wider and wheels positioned out to the corners, you’d experience better ride and handling without buttons to push or sensors to monitor, not to mention increased cabin room upfront, cargo room in back.

Axiom is powered by the same 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 found in the larger Trooper, only revised to deliver 15 extra horsepower at 230 h.p. Teamed with a 4-speed automatic, Axiom delivers only 16 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway. If the public is going to accept crossovers as 4WD alternatives to SUVs that ride and handle like sedans, that mileage rating must improve sharply.

Base price: $30,785. Standard equipment includes dual front air bags; four-wheel anti-lock brakes; automatic climate control; power driver’s seat with lumbar support (the lumbar button is so close to the seat back/bottom adjustment buttons it gets pressed by mistake too often–and should be moved); tilt steering wheel; power windows/door locks/mirrors; AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD player (in armrest); rubberized cargo tray cover to keep the carpets dry and clean; convenience net (make that inconvenience net that diets on whatever fingers/clothes it can snag); 17-inch, all-season radial tires; molded front/rear mud flaps to keep slop off the body panels; keyless entry; and rear window wiper/washer/defogger.

Other neat features include a driver’s information screen in the dash with readings for radio station, time, odometer, outside temperature, mileage (m.p.g. as you drive, average for the trip and miles to empty) and direction; more power plugs than most homes have electrical outlets; more cupholders than potential passengers with cups; and flip-and-fold second-row seats for added cargo room.

Axiom in 2WD version starts at $25,985; XS 2WD at $28,305, 4WD at $28,465 and XS 4WD at $30,785. The more than $2,000 difference between the base 4WD and XS 4WD is leather heated seats, power passenger seat, power moonroof with sunshade, fog lamps and chrome bodyside moldings.

And with 4WD you get a Torque-on-Demand system, somewhat like traction control, that senses wheel slippage and directs engine torque to the offending wheel to maintain control.

Axiom will compete against the likes of the Lexus RX300 and Buick Rendezvous. Isuzu is counting on about 22,000 annual sales. While Isuzu has up to a $5,000 price advantage over its rivals, Lexus and Buick are considerably better known names.

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