American Isuzu Motors, now that it has dropped both its pickup and its minivan, lives up to its “sport-utility specialist” slogan. That’s all this company sells now.

That’s a good thing because American buyers remain enthralled with SUVs. But it’s also a bad thing as Isuzu’s mainstay products — the midsize Rodeo and the fancier Trooper — are becoming out of step as buyers gravitate toward car-based sport-utilities and to sedans and wagons with SUV qualities like all-wheel-drive systems.

Not to worry, executives with American Isuzu Motors said recently at an introduction in California’s Napa Valley. The 2002 Isuzu Axiom, they argued, is the antidote for the want-it-all SUV buyer. Based on the ZXS concept first shown in 1999, the new Axiom has a daring design and performance that rivals a sports sedan.

“This clearly is a crossover vehicle,” said Duke Hale, the chief operating officer of American Isuzu, who joined the company in November after previously working at Mazda and Volvo. “It has that feel of a European sedan — the ride, the interior — as well as the strength of a truck.”

As SUV choices blossomed from 29 to 52 in the past few years, “the growth of the broader consumer base demanded vehicles that blurred the lines between the traditional SUVs and sedans,” said Scott Hyde, Isuzu’s executive manager of product planning.

“In essence, they’re looking for vehicles that combine the size and strength of an SUV with the refined road manners of a car,” he said.

The ’02 Axiom, which went into production at the joint Subaru-Isuzu plant in Indiana in January, goes on sale in April. Isuzu thinks dealers will sell about 32,000 Axioms a year. Price hasn’t been set yet, but the vehicle is expected to start in the mid-$20,000s.

Although Isuzu calls the Axiom a “high-performance crossover vehicle,” it uses the same ladder-frame chassis as many truck-based SUVs, including the Rodeo and Trooper. Other sport-utilities, such as the Lexus RX 300, utilize unibody construction that is generally thought to produce a better ride. Isuzu engineers said a ladder frame keeps the Axiom within the Isuzu family of SUVs and also gives the vehicle better strength, reliability and longevity.

Executives admit that the Axiom comes from the SUV side of the crossover spectrum but insist that its “bold design sense,” its 230-horsepower, 3.5-liter, V-6 engine and its upscale interior will persuade buyers to give it a try.

The bottom line, Hyde said, is “a vehicle that performs and handles like a sports sedan but lives up to Isuzu’s rugged character.”

One thing already makes the vehicle a unique choice. The name, Axiom, came from Hakan Urey, a Redmond, Wash., electrical engineer who submitted one of the nearly 50,000 entries in a name-the-vehicle Web contest. For his winning choice — in mathematics, an axiom is a self-evident truth — Urey will get one of the first Axioms.

Gary Tucker, American Is uzu’s vice president of marketing and product planning, said the Axiom will attract new buyers to Isuzu. “This is not the traditional Rodeo or Trooper buyer,” he said.

He wouldn’t categorize the Axiom, saying it “blurs the boundaries” as a vehicle that’s sportier than a traditional SUV, tougher than a sports wagon and “edgier” than a sports sedan.

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