In the swelling bustle and shuffle of the sport utility scene--from RAV4s that are more trinkets than trucks through royalty's own Range Rovers and Chevy Suburbans roomy enough for a high school reunion with buffet and orchestra--one rugged charmer lurks largely unlauded.

It is the Isuzu Rodeo, which is nowhere near as ornery or rough-riding as the name suggests, but a highly manageable, stylish light cruiser priced with the competition.

Rodeos are tough without being intimidating, well-appointed without appearing palatial, and perform as ably as the rest of those mid-sizers whose turf ranges from freeways to ski slopes and KOA campsites.

Introduced seven years ago, and one of the relatively early comers on the light truck scene, the five-passenger Rodeo has been selling healthily alongside Toyota's 4Runner and Nissan's Pathfinder. It was the 4x4 upon which Honda risked its image by purchasing several thousand Rodeos and rebadging them as Honda Passports.

And as chummy as those first Rodeos were, the redesigned 1998 Isuzu Rodeo is just a little softer, rounder, lighter, wider, faster, roomier and a much better behaved member of the family. Handling is lessof a floaty wrestle; engine and road noises have been muffled until they no longer drown casual conversations (Isuzu claims sedan silence from the quietest SUV in class); and the new Rodeo doesn't have quite the same intense, squared-off, bit-between-the-teeth appearance of earlier vehicles.

And in this era of more amicable sport utilities with handling and ride biased closer to automobiles than trucks, a milder side to handling is considered critical to staying around for the applause.

Purpose built, the Rodeo rides on a frame that was not borrowed from some produce truck that happened to be in the line. As with last year, there's a basic Kmart model, the S, on which even air-conditioning is an option. Then there's the uptown edition, the heavily endowed LS with most of the little luxuries except leather upholstery, automatic transmission and CD player.

Rodeos are available with a 2.2-liter, 129-horsepower four-banger or a 3.2-liter, 205-horsepower V-6. Both engines are more powerful than Rodeos of yesteryear and the current Asian competition.

The lever-activated transition to four-wheel-drive has been replaced by a dashboard button for engaging transfer gears and axles. It can be operated while rolling, but punch the button above 60 mph and the system will whine and moan. A stub lever alongside the regular shifter must still be used when connecting lower gears for optimum tugging.

But the fine news, in round figures, is that you can be rolling around the 'burbs in a 2WD Rodeo S with a V-6 for about $19,000--or in a leather-lined, 4WD Rodeo LS with genuine, simulated, artificial wood trim for $31,000 plus change.

Forgive Isuzu the faux lumber, because although the rest of the LS' stan dard stuff may not be quite up to Range Rover's level of sophistication, it is certainly an impressive list.

Among the given goodies: anti-lock disc brakes, reclining front and rear seats, power steering with tilt wheel, automatic transmission, auxiliary power points up front and in the cargo bay, power windows and doors, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, theft system, cruise control, tinted glass, air-conditioning and six-speaker sound system.

Plus tie-down hooks, underbody skid pads, restraining nets and a cargo light for when the Rodeo must work hard to earn its keep. Also--and we do not make these things up--mud flaps and a free tank of gas.


Although Isuzu officials are insisting that nothing has been done to reduce the truck toughness or feel, our sense is that the Rodeo's ride and handling is several comfort levels softer than a kidney-rattling Jeep Wrangler. Or maybe it is because Isuzu has done so much to remove the waddles and primal edgeso earlier Rodeos that this new one seems closer to Camry. There is no misreading the completeness of this sport utility, however--that natural feeling when stepping up and climbing down, the shifting and steering and braking motions that seem easy and instinctive, not forced and unnatural.

It's a bunch of insignificant things that reflect huge amounts of careful thought by designers, stylists and ergonomists. Ground clearance is about an inch lower than most sport utilities, so the step down isn't preceded by an attack of vertigo. Stretching the wheelbase has allowed more legroom for rear-seat riders than Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, even the Infiniti QX4. That translates to tons of room back there for 6-footers, even with the front seats racked back to accommodate other 6-footers.

There's no wrenching or teeth clenching to get the rear seats to fold down, no extra vitamins needed to open the tailgate or uncork the gas cap or change gears or operate the hand brake. Visibility is that of an observation deck. Everything falls to hand and fingertip. It's all so easy, so well calculated to reduce the physical effort and mental awareness that can make driving a displeasure.

Yet all is not perfect in this Rodeo's arena.

Tall rear headrests and a spare wheel mounted on the tailgate make rear vision a bit of a squint. The automatic transmission is inclined to roar and complain in its passing mode. Then there's the swing-out tailgate that is held open by a latching bracket that locks straight, just like the hinge on a secretary desk. To close the gate, the hinge bracket must first be lifted to unlatch. It just cannot be done gracefully with two arms filled with grocery bags, and driveway omelets are a distinct possibility.

On the brighter side, performance has leaped a couple of evolutions.

Standing acceleration times to 60 mph are down by about two seconds. Top speed, although never an issue with sport utility vehicles, has improved by about 10 mph. Even fuel economy, despite performance increases, is better by a couple of miles per gallon.

The Rodeo is not Lexus on the freeway. But the ride isn't super-pliant, and tires only start complaining when the rough handling is clearly visible to outsiders. Off-road, of course, the Rodeo holds its own well, and its 4,500-pound towing capacity is quite up to snuff.

All of which casts the new Rodeo as a sport utility of tough looks, honest purpose, rangy performance and the true cowboy spirit.

1998 Isuzu Rodeo LS

The Good: Sedan handling and on-road ride among the best in class. Road and engine noises muffled to well below acutely audible. Performance increased, fuel consumption improved and a high-value package crammed with good stuff.

The Bad: Rear vision cluttered. Tailgate holding latch needs redesign.

The Ugly: Nothing visible.

Cost Base: $28,910. (Includes auto matic transmission, button touch transfer to four-wheel-drive, air-conditioning, dual air bags, 16-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker sound system, fake walnut trim, power doors and windows, tinted glass and alarm.) As tested, $31,480. (Adds rear spare tire carrier, limited slip differential, leather seats and power moon roof.)

Engine 3.2-liter, 24-valve V-6 developing 205 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, 9.8 seconds with automatic. Top speed, estimated, 110 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 16 and 20 mpg.

Curb Weight 3,700 pounds.