I have often said that I have no room in my soul for huge SUVs that can barely squeeze 15 miles from a gallon of gas (6.4 km/l). But I will admit that for the right vehicle, I might just be able to clear out a little corner... and the Isuzu Ascender has its own reserved parking space. The Ascender combines jumbo-SUV room with mid-size SUV maneuverability. Though similar to GM-branded SUVs, it gets a longer warranty (3 yrs/50,000 miles) and lower starting price.
First Glance at the Ascender
Things are quiet at Isuzu. The company has scaled their consumer product line way, way back. In fact, they've trimmed down to just one model for 2005, the Ascender, albeit in two versions (5-passenger short-wheelbase and 7-passenger long-wheelbase). Don't take that as a sign that Isuzu is fading awayit's not. Here in North America, Isuzu does a thriving business in commercial trucks, and they provide the Duramax diesel engine that powers Chevy and GMC's heavy-duty pickups. Thinning the product line has worked: Isuzu is now turning a profit. If the Ascender looks familiar, that's because it's a General Motors design, a near-twin to the GMC Envoy and Chevy TrailBlazer. Styling is tweaked, access to the tow hitch and wiring is better, and there are minor mechanical changes. Ho-hum. But check this out: The Ascender has a lower starting price than either the GMC or the Chevy, and its warranty is longer, 3 years or 50,000 miles on the whole truck and 7 years/75,000 on the powertrain (engine, transmission, and the bits that deliver power to the wheels), plus 7 years/75,000 miles of roadside assistance (towing, jump starts, etc.). The GMC and Chevy get 3 years/36,000 bumper to bumper and roadside assistance, and that's it.
In the Driver's Seat
It may seem odd for Isuzu to stake their future on someone else's product, but check out the Ascender and you'll see they made the right move. Trucks are what General Motors does best. The front seats are exceptionally comfortable and the view out is fantastic. The plastics and fabrics are thick and substantial feeling. All the controls, buttons, dials, etc. are easy to read and reach. The only thing that seems incongruous is the handbrake mounted between the seatsit looks out of place in a big truck. Isuzu was kind enough to let me try both the 5 and 7 passenger versions. I've always complained that most SUVs have tiny door openings that give lousy rear-seat access, so I really like the 7-seater's increased wheelbase (distance between the wheels) and nice big back doors. The rearmost seat is great for kids but a punishment for adults. It folds down for more cargo space, but even with all seven seats full the big Ascender has adequate luggage room. Just make sure your kids bring books or Game Boys, because a DVD entertainment system isn't offered. And take your maps: There's no GPS navigation system either. OnStar is standard, with turn-by-turn directions from a live person available as part of a monthly subscription.
On the Road in the Ascender
If you prefer a smooth, floaty ride, then you'll find that the Ascender drives like a dream. Both models are comfy, quiet and relaxed cruisers; the long-wheelbase model boasts a slightly more gentle ride. The trade-off is response: Ascenders weigh between 2 1/4 and 2 1/2 tons (2040-2270 kg), and you'll feel it when you stomp on the brakes or swerve. Low-speed maneuverability is good, even with the long wheelbase; the turning circle is remarkably tight considering the truck's length, and it's easy to park. The standard inline 6-cylinder engine puts out 275 hp. That's V8 territory, friends. 7-pass Ascenders offer a 300-hp 5.3 liter V8 as an option; my test-truck was so equipped. Its cylinder-deactivation feature cuts off fuel to 4 cylinders when power demands are low, such as highway cruising. It works seamlessly and probably explains why I saw similar fuel economy (13-15 MPG) in both Ascenders. Personally, I think the 7-pass gets along fine with the 6-cyl, but I know some would disagree. The automatic is wonderful, with imperceptably smooth shifts and near-instant kick-down. Rear-wheel-drive is standard; an electronically-controlled 4-wheel-drive system offers automatic engagement and a low range for down-and-dirty off-road work.
I doubt I'd ever buy a big SUV, but if I did, the 7-passenger Ascender would be my pick. I like the fact that it offers so much useable interior space, yet doesn't make me feel like I'm trying to park a 747. I cringe at the thought of the fuel bills, but at least the Ascender's strong acceleration shows it's making good use of all that gas. Similar deal with the price: Mid-20s for starters, nearly $40k tops, but at that price the Ascender is lavishly equipped. I feel like I did years ago when John McKane was running for the Republican presidential nomination. I'm a died-in-the-wool Democrat (please don't hold that against me, it's an inherited trait), but I could see myself voting for John. Likewise, while I prefer cars and crossovers to truck-based SUVs, I can see myself owning an Ascender. The high points are many, and the faults are common to most SUVs in this size class. By purchasing your GM-designed SUV from an Isuzu dealer, you get the advantage of a longer warranty and, if you're looking for a model with less equipment, a lower starting price. It makes me want to dig up the old marketing cliché: Why go anywhere else?