As SUVs go, Isuzu's Ascender doesn't

Muscular, roomy - but noisy, pricey

So this is what a life raft looks like.

It's a little boxy. A little sporty. And remarkably similar in appearance to a GMC Envoy.

The only thing the 2004 Isuzu Ascender is missing is a giant SOS emblazoned on the hood, as in "Save Our Sales."

In essence, that's what Isuzu is asking for as it places the newest version of its five-passenger, four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle into rotation.

It's not breaking news, but as automakers go, Isuzu is in a rather deep rut. Americans are buying SUVs faster than you can say "$3 a gallon." Isuzu's minor dilemma: No one seems very interested in Isuzu SUVs.

And that's a giant problem for a company that sells only SUVs in this country.

What to do? Where to turn?

GM is lending a helping hand.

In its simplest form, the Ascender is nothing more than an Envoy in sheep's clothing. With final assembly in Moraine, Ohio, it's about as foreign as Ross Perot.

With mostly North American parts, it's about as Japanese as James Dean.

It's another GM venture - read: life preserver - that could have opportunity for both parties at the end of the retail rainbow.

One problem: The Ascender doesn't look like the answer.

Capable and roomy, it might be Isuzu's best SUV. It's just not the best SUV for the money.

In a buyer's market, where incentives rule and endless rows of variety is king, this is the point where Darwin enters the showroom.

There are too many SUVs that don't cost $33,372 (including destination and handling, as well as something called the Preferred Equipment Package that throws in floormats) and also don't have an ultra-spongy suspension, numb steering, a low-grade interior and more body lean than a La-Z-Boy.

Sorry, Isuzu. There's still work to be done. What there isn't much of is time.

Some industry-watchers see Isuzu ultimately pulling back and making commercial vehicles and engines, businesses where it has had great success.

Those kind of rumors don't help branding either, especially when you have a new-model SUV joining this year's lineup.

The idea was actually a good start on paper.

Thanks to the partnership with GM, the Ascender entered the SUV game last year with an overall shape identical to the popular GMC Envoy.

That was about where the similarities ended.

Where the Envoy has the air suspension option, the Ascender dips and swells over bruises in the road. Where the Envoy feels solid in overall steering, handling and braking, the Ascender has loads of body lean in sharp turns, vague steering and front-end nosedive on hard braking, despite anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes.

Inside there are a ton of standard features - power windows and locks, dual-zone climate control with rear-seat con trols and loads of options on three trim levels. But materials feel cheap, and wind noise is really obvious on highway cruising.

Everything seemed to be a "yes, but" proposition.

Yes, the 4.2-liter six-cylinder engine is a real treat. Rated at 275 horsepower, it outmuscles most of its competition and even some V-8s in this class.

But engine noise seemed particularly amplified at on-ramp speeds.

Yes, cargo and passenger room are plentiful. Space is generous and the split seat folds easily, helped by automatic-folding headrests.

But instead of a flat load floor with all seats folded, the Ascender has a tiered floor that frustrates easy loading and packing. The liftgate's separate opening glass is relatively high, making it difficult to load some items.

Yes, there is good head and leg room, even for taller folks.

But the seats were a little too soft, especially on a longer trip.

Bottom line: For some buyers w o are less concerned with performance and packaging, it could be a start. It can help you out of sticky situations in four-wheel drive, and it can get a full load to any destination.

But here's the thing: If you want an Envoy, buy one. It's a good bet GM will be around in a few years.

For Isuzu, the next two years will be critical, especially in the United States, where the Ascender will be Isuzu's only offering until 2007.

And then there's the issue of price. At $33,372 loaded up, the Ascender doesn't come cheap. It ranks it up there with the Honda Pilots and Ford Explorers of the world.

Not to mention that's a lot to pay for someone's life raft.

2004 Isuzu Ascender

Vehicle type: Two- or four-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger midsize SUV

Key competition: Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer

Base engine: 275 horsepower, 4.2-liter DOHC six-cylinder

Optional engine: 285 horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8

Transmission: Four-speed automatic with overdrive

Standard safety equipment: Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; front air bags; daytime running lamps

MPG rating: 15 city/21 highway

Manufactured: Moraine, Ohio

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/50,000 miles

Base price: $27,699

Price as tested (including destination and delivery): $33,372