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Track 'em, Amigo

Veteran Isuzu Amigo and Chevy Tracker show newer SUVs what for

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The persisting buzz from the swarm of new-for-2001 SUVs has reached drone proportions. So it’s understandable why some not-so-new SUV designs are going relatively unnoticed, even after several years of quite serviceable duty. While the headlines (including some of our own) are highlighting Ford’s new Escape, its twin the Mazda Tribute, and new entries from Hyundai, Acura, Pontiac, and even Buick, stalwarts like the Isuzu Amigo and Chevrolet Tracker are generally passed over as if their seniority were, in fact, senility. The precious little secret, however, is that some special values await the diligent shoppers who burrow beneath the headlines. With a bit of extra makeup adding luster to their time-tested track records, Isuzu’s and Chevy’s grandes dames of SUV society still have a thing or two to teach an upstart debutante.

Isuzu Amigo S 4WD

My week with Isuzu’s Amigo was like a trip back in time—to a time, in fact, when “four-wheel-drive” meant bustin’ trails, splashing mud, and devil-may-care what the neighbors think. Although genetically related to the Isuzu Rodeo, whose longer platform it shares, the Amigo is spiritual cousin to the military-style Jeep Wrangler. It’s a big-horsepower, brute-force type of machine that snaps its fingers in the face of sissier fashion queens who can’t cross a mud puddle without tiptoeing across Sir Walter Raleigh’s cape.

Ramming home this point was the $962 option on my tester dubbed the Ironman Edition package. Consisting mostly of decals and a paint scheme meant to glorify the Xtreme sports craze du jour, the kit does nevertheless feature one quite notable element: an adjustable “intelligent” suspension that toggles between smooth-riding “normal” mode for pavement and stiffer “sport” mode for off-road high jinks.

Attempting high jinks behind the wheel of Isuzu’s Ironman Amigo, moreover, is a definite probability, thanks to the combination of its 205-horsepower appetite for action and its push-button, shift-on-the-fly method for engaging four-wheel-drive. Because of what I take to be a consciously intended absence of frills—in the way this Amigo both looks and feels—a driver is psychologically primed for rousting about. And the dirtier and bumpier the better. To my taste, Amigo is as relentless and dogged on the trail as a stymied politician chasing chads in a disputed precinct.

Amigo’s torquey, 3.2-liter twin-cam V6, its five-link, coil-spring rear suspension, and its standard four-wheel-disk brakes with ABS supply the bona fides on its résumé. Shame is, however, that image-makers are spinning the SUV story away from brawny competence and toward city-slicker commuter appeal. So, yes, the Amigo is noisy; it’s a tight squeeze for its full complement of five; and it’s somewhat harsh riding, even in “normal” suspension mode, compared to the kinder, gentler SUVs of the modern crop.

Isuzu counters such gripes with an impressive “value” strategy: The four-door, four-wheel-drive V6 Amigo S starts at $20,495 for 2000. (Amigo’s 2001 figures remain unannounced at press time.) This is a great, eye-catching price that’s a good five-grand below most of its newer rivals—except that most civilities like air-conditioning, power conveniences, and a decent sound system are add-ons with Amigo, while they’re standard on the competition. My own tester jumped to $24,842 after totaling all the options. Compared, for example, with the well-equipped Chevy Tracker described below, the add-ons put the initially cheaper Amigo at an as-tested disadvantage of costing $2,000 more.

But bug-in-the-teeth off-road commandos don’t need a lot of frills anyway. For those willing to rough it without a bunch of fancy extras, Amigo represents a tough, affordable antidote to SUV sissification.

Chevrolet Tracker LT 4WD

One look at 2001’s new LT edition of the Chevrolet Tracker, and you know that this venerable little gadfly among SUVs has pitched its lot with the fashion crowd. It is, I have to say, quite cute; and among the pageant of contenders that includes Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4, as well as the aforementioned Ford and Mazda models, this two-tone Tracker is a zoot-suited looker.

It’s a number of other interesting things besides. For one, it’s a Suzuki. In fact, the big news in 2001 is that the Tracker LT finally receives standard V6 power that Suzuki formerly reserved for its own similar Grand Vitara model. Tracker LT is also quite an exceptional value. Although $900 more expensive than Isuzu’s Amigo at base price, my tester included HVAC, CD-stereo, power windows and locks, and much else as standard amenities. Only anti-lock brakes and leather seating cost extra, bringing the as-tested total to $22,845.

Another chief Tracker virtue is roominess—and this from a vehicle dimensionally smaller than Amigo. Tracker’s designers have achieved a perception of more interior passenger space, and that’s a clever feat. Clever, that is, until it comes time to pack cargo. Tracker’s maximum cargo space of 45 cu. ft. is almost 30 percent less than Amigo’s 62 cu. ft. Ironically, however, Tracker’s 937-lb. maximum payload capacity exceeds Amigo’s by almost 50 lbs.

Ultimately, though, it all boils down to Tracker’s twin-cam V6 powerplant. Displacing only 2.5 liters, the motor is smooth and free-revving, but it makes a relatively puny 155 horsepower. One way to judge this criterion is by the Tracker’s meek 1,500-lb. tow rating; the Amigo can pull 4,500 lbs. by comparison. A shift-on-the-fly transfer case does indeed give Tracker versatile off-road capability, but with nearly 25 percent less power and grunt, drivers are advised to keep their Trackers on the main track and to leave the really rough stuff to more brawny Amigos.

That’s likely to be a moot point anyway, since Tracker’s real forte is its stylishness on the cheap. As consumers continue to bid SUV ownership into higher levels of status, cute little Tracker LT curries the same affordable snob appeal as does the Martha Stewart Collection at K-Mart.

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