The 2005 Isuzu Ascender features improved safety features, a freshened face and interior, and added creature comforts. The Ascender is based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer, but continues an Isuzu tradition of rugged capability with body-on-frame construction and available four-wheel drive.
Ascender comes in 5-Passenger and 7-Passenger versions. The five-passenger version is shorter and it handles better than the seven-passenger version and is much easier to park. We feel the 5-Passenger Ascender ranks among the best of the mid-size SUVs, particularly for buyers who want a rugged vehicle. It features a pleasant cabin and a versatile cargo area. It's relatively smooth and offers responsive handling for a midsize SUV. GM's inline-6 is an excellent engine, smooth and responsive, with strong torque.
The 7-Passenger version, on the other hand, is built on a stretched wheelbase and feels long and cumbersome. The standard six-cylinder engine struggles with the additional weight. The optional 5.3-liter V8 is a better match and, for 2005, it's more powerful and more fuel-efficient than last year's V8. The new V8's Displacement on Demand seamlessly shuts off cylinders at light throttle cruise to further fuel economy.
Safety is enhanced with upgraded airbag systems. Late-2005 Ascender models offer the availability of rollover-sensing roof-rail curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for outboard passengers in the first and second rows. The available OnStar system, which we recommend highly, has been upgraded to better alert emergency crews and summon them to the scene in the event of an accident.
Ascender offers a slightly better warranty than the nearly identical Chevy and GMC models. Ascender comes with Isuzu's three-year/50,000-mile basic warranty, a new seven-year/75,000-mile roadside assistance program, and seven-year/75,000-mile powertrain coverage. The Chevrolet and GMC versions of the vehicle are covered by a three-year/36,000-mile warranty program.
Isuzu Ascender 5-Passenger S 2WD ($25,959), S 4WD ($27,959); 7-Passenger S 2WD ($28,569); 7-Passenger S 4WD ($31,398)
Isuzu Ascender has a solid, handsome appearance. The 5-Passenger models look best. The 7-Passenger version looks long and a bit out of proportion.
Ascender shares its architecture with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. Styling details distinguish Ascender from the TrailBlazer and Envoy. Ascender gets a distinctive chromed grille that features the Isuzu badge on a bold horizontal beam intersected by a pair of vertical bars. Ascender also has a unique front bumper with fog lights, halogen headlamps, and special overfenders, protective door trim, and rear bumper. Its five-spoke wheels look like 10-spoke wheels because of the blacked-out center section of each of the spokes, which are arranged in a star-like formation.
The Ascender's cabin is a pleasant place for driver and passengers. It's similar to the interiors in the GM models.
The driver and front passenger will find their shoulder belts mounted into the seat for a proper fit. All seven seats have three-point harnesses. Front-seat passengers have both front and side airbags in the event of an accident.
We appreciated being able to control audio and climate with buttons mounted on the steering wheel, part of an upgrade package. The steering wheel was easy to tilt into a comfortable driving position. One unusual feature was a button on the steering wheel that controls the interior lights.
Switchgear is easy to find and to use. The heating and ventilation systems provide good air flow and we didn't have to constantly fiddle with the settings as we do on some so-called automatic climate control systems. The stereo sounded surprisingly good for a vehicle in this class. There are plenty of cupholders and storage compartments for those sitting in front or in the third row, but there are only two cupholders and audio jacks for the middle seat, which seats three people.
The second-row seatbacks can be reclined, a nice feature that adds to the comfort of rear passengers. Access to the third row is provided either by flipping forward the second-row seatback or by tumbling either side of the seat forward.
The third row folds flat for hauling cargo: The seat bottom cushions tumble forward and the backs flip down. The third-row seatbacks include a panel that extends the cargo floor forward, filling the gap to the folded second row. It isn't a seamless, perfectly flat cargo area, but it works well. Access to the cargo area is made easier by a rear window that can be opened without having to open the entire tailgate. Ascender's cargo area features a package shelf that can be placed in a high or low position, providing an extra surface for holding cargo and cover for the packages beneath it.
The Isuzu Ascender comes in two lengths, and it is the shorter of the two that's the better vehicle, at least from a driving standpoint.
The 5-Passenger model has no trouble ascending to highway speeds. Inline six-cylinder engines are naturally balanced, and the Ascender's inline-6 is smooth and quiet. It idles so smoothly that it's sometimes hard to tell it's running. This 4.2-liter engine generates 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. It's a wonderful engine, more powerful than many V8s.
It's thirsty, however, EPA-rated 15/20 mpg City/Highway on 4WD models. It comes with GM's four-speed automatic transmission. Called the Hydra-Matic, this transmission has proven itself over the years and many miles in the TrailBlazer, but it doesn't seem to let the engine achieve its full potential.
We found the ride excellent, very smooth without being too soft. The 5-Passenger models are easy to maneuver in crowded parking lots, with tight turning circle of 36.4 feet. Ascender uses an independent front suspension and a live rear axle with premium-quality Bilstein monotube shock absorbers.
We found the 4WD model impressively stable on washboard surfaces. 4WD versions come standard with traction control. When it rains, snows or turns icy, the driver can select the automatic mode and the system will distribute power to the four wheels as needed. For driving off road, the 4-Hi mode provides for a 50/50 front/rear split in the engine's power. Shift into 4-Lo and the Ascender can ascend steep grades, plow through deep snow, or slog through slimy mud. For dry conditions, select 2-Hi for rear-wheel drive and best fuel economy.
We found the 2WD Ascender 7-Passenger model we drove smooth and comfortable, in town and on the highway. Its rack-and-pinion steering was sure. Its four-wheel disc brakes with ABS never wavered. Its BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires on 17-inch wheels are mud-and-snow rated, yet we found them to be extremely quiet, even at highway speeds.
But we find the 7-Passenger Ascender less compelling than the 5-Passenger version. It's longer and narrower than a Chevy Tahoe. It's harder to park. It wallows in corners and doesn't feel as stable when entering a turn at high speeds. And because it's heavier, it taxes the standard six-cylinder engine.
Opting for the V8 engine improves this latter situation, but it doesn't turn the 7-Passenger model into a rocket. The V8 is new for 2005 and features Displacement on Demand, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders when they are not needed for up to 8 percent better fuel mileage under light-load conditions. The engine-management computer instantly revives the sleeping cylinders the moment the driver tips the throttle. This all happens seamlessly; we could not feel it. With this new V8, the 7-Passenger Ascender 4WD gets an EPA-estimated 14/19 mpg. The V8 and 3.73 axle ratio boost Ascender's towing capacity to 6,600 pounds on the 2WD version, 6,200 pounds for the 4WD.
The Isuzu Ascender 5-Passenger SUV is among the best of the mid-size sport-utilities. Its standard inline six-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful. It rides and handles well. And its interior is convenient and versatile.
The 7-Passenger Ascender is less compelling. Built on a longer wheelbase, it lacks the responsive handling and rock-steady stability of the shorter 5-Passenger models and its increased weight diminishes its acceleration performance.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Larry Edsall is based in Arizona; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.