Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Soldiering On

SUV's influence culture, even through language

By Marc K. Stengel

JUNE 19, 2000:  So manic and unfettered has the SUV trend become that it's actually beginning to morph the language. The very label "essyuvee" has entered the vocabulary by now as a common noun without need any longer of its verbal chaperon, "sport/utility vehicle." And now there are sport/utility trucks (SUT), sport/utility sedans (SUS), S/U Hybrids, All-Activity Vehicles, Mini-Utes...we're fast becoming a race of extraordinarily sporty utilitarians by the sounds and looks of it.

Meanwhile, as manufacturers clamor for attention for their next new go-anywhere, do-anything, change-the-way-we-live-and-drive contenders, sport/utes of the first four-wheeling generation are still marching dutifully to war against their newer, more exotic rivals. These rank-and-file, First-Gen SUVs garner few headlines even as they bear the brunt of the daily struggle for the hearts and minds of the commuting public. Vehicles like Isuzu's battle-tested Trooper and Oldsmobile's veteran Bravada are both about a decade old, yet they continue to soldier on even as newly commissioned cadres of whippersnappers nip at their heels. Taking stock of the way both Trooper and Bravada have evolved--or not--in their separate attempts to curry contemporary favor, it's possible to get an interesting view of the state and prospects of the febrile SUV marketplace.

2000 Isuzu Trooper LS 2WD

Ironically, the biggest news for the Trooper this 2000 model year is its availability with a two-wheel-drive powertrain. Now that SUVs have entered their Mannerist phase, it has finally dawned on most levelheaded people living in the Sunbelt states that they're really not likely to scale the Rubicon Trail on their way to and from the grocery store. Why, then, pay for exotic four-wheel-drive systems that cost more both to buy and to maintain? In the case of Trooper, a 2WD version of the nicely equipped LS model costs $28,650, which is around $2,000 less than its 4WD sibling.

Cost, moreover, isn't the only beneficiary. The "2-by" powertrain is notably nimbler and smoother in highway and suburban traffic. A standard-equipment limited-slip differential still delivers significant traction advantages in all but the gooiest, iciest conditions. The 2WD Trooper enjoys a smooth and moderately gutsy V6, whose 215 horsepower and 230 ft.-lbs. of torque are adequate for towing up to 5,000 lbs.

Above all, the Trooper is spacious indoors, with rear seat dimensions approaching limousine proportions while still maintaining 90 cu.-ft. of maximum cargo capacity. This comes as no surprise, of course; the Trooper is conspicuously big in its exterior dimensions as well. So it is curious why there's no provision to add even temporary extra seating for two more small passengers, so that the vehicle can hold seven passengers instead of just five.

Except for the absence of a secondary shifter for the transfer-case, you might never know the Trooper lacked four-wheel-drive capability. Certainly, it continues to ride as high and as proud as any truck, and for some, the nosebleed perch is unappealing. It is indeed remarkable how Trooper's ride has matured in terms of both comfort and control from its earliest days as a military-style convoy truck. Still, with its big, wide 16-inch wheels shod with heavy mud-'n'-snow tires, there remains plenty of wheel deflection to make itself felt through the steering wheel due to so much unsprung weight.

Isuzu's LS package includes a nice batch of amenities in the form of power conveniences and luxury touches, such as fog lamps, six-CD changer, rear footrests, and heated front seats. Infinitely less sexy but perhaps more significant is Isuzu's best-in-the-business new powertrain warranty good for 10 years or 120,000 miles. It's even transferable, so long as the next owner is a member of the original owner's immediate family. In its battle for the hearts and minds of SUV consumers, then, Isuzu appears to be marshaling a significant portion of its forces upon the home front.

2000 Oldsmobile Bravada

Once upon a time, Oldsmobile stood the high ground with a clever scheme for providing its near-luxury Bravada compact SUV with "variable traction" technology. SmartTrack was one of the first widely available all-wheel-drive systems that exploited the also-then-new ABS braking system to sense when front and rear wheels were slipping at different rates. If the rear wheels are losing their grip, a "viscous couple" directs temporary driving power to the front wheels until such assistance is no longer necessary. It was--and still is--a great idea. Oldsmobile was among the first to offer it, but now the Bravada wallows back-o'-the-pack as an SUV also-ran. So much for the restorative power of The Great Idea.

There are many reasons why sales of the Olds Bravada fell by 3 percent in '99 to fewer than 30,000 units overall; but comfort, drivability, and "scamper factor" are not among them. It's just that Bravada, harking from one of General Motors' least "truck-flavored" divisions, simply cannot make itself heard within the madding SUV crowd--particularly when that crowd includes more promotable, less expensive siblings from Chevrolet (the Blazer) and GMC (the Jimmy). By now, all are basically equivalent vehicles with the same 4.3-liter, 190-horsepower V6, while Chevy's and GMC's AutoTrac powertrain answer the same need as SmartTrack.

Arguably, however, the Bravada is alone among GM's compact SUVs in offering as standard equipment such conspicuous consumables as puffy leather upholstery, upscale sound system, and power-everything accessories. To the $31,498 base price of my Bravada tester, heated front seats and "Jewelcoat Red" paint added most of the $400 in option costs. In a world of worked-over Nissan Pathfinders wearing Infiniti badges, that may not look too bad. But who's looking at it that way? More to the point is who wouldn't buy an obviously similar GMC Jimmy for less? It takes a lotta Bravada to suggest consumers aren't paying attention.

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