Once known as the Amigo, the Isuzu Rodeo Sport is a spunky little two-door sport-utility vehicle that comes in hard and soft-top versions.
The Rodeo Sport should enjoy a slight performance advantage over the four-door Rodeo on and off the road, thanks to its shorter wheelbase and lighter weight. It is, after all, simply the Amigo by another name, with the same short, stout body and semi-convertible soft top; the same rugged four-wheel drive and optional V6 power. And yes, a glass-window hard top is still available for travelers who want more weather protection than the soft-top affords.
2WD 4-cylinder: hard top 5-speed ($16,100); Soft top 5-speed ($16,375); hard top automatic ($17,100)
2WD V6: hard top automatic ($19,295); soft top automatic ($19,570)
4WD (all V6): soft top automatic ($22,045); hard top automatic ($21,770)
The first decision when buying a 2002 Rodeo Sport is whether to get the soft top or the hard top. Which you choose says a lot about your lifestyle and where you live. The soft top looks best turning onto Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on the way to the Hungry Valley off-road park. The hard top looks ready to head into Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a week of trout fishing.
Although they cost less, hardtop models look more upscale and are ultimately more practical than soft-top models. Made of polypropylene, the hard top covers the rear half of the body formerly occupied by the fold-down soft top. The hard top comes only in black and is non-removable. (Isuzu officials said their research indicated most Jeep Wrangler owners never removed their removable hard tops.) Compared with the soft top, the hard top provides better soundproofing, better visibility with its glass windows, improved weather protection, and heightened security for valuables. It comes with a heated rear window, and neatly hides the huge rear roll hoop and support bars. The hard top also lends the Rodeo Sport a more handsome and sophisticated appearance. It complements the already athletic look of the lower body, where wheel wells are packed with 16-inch mud-and-snow radials.
If you opt for the soft top, you'll want to remove it when the weather permits. You'll find it easy to remove. By releasing two interior clamps, unzipping the rear and side windows and unsnapping the top from the roof frame, the top can be removed and stored. Rear and side windows are replaceable should they become scratched or lost.
Adding to the Rodeo Sport's visual appeal are small optional fog lamps and art deco taillights. The large rear tailgate door, with its relatively short window, eliminates the square appearance of most sport-utilities. Blister fenders with the optional gray overfenders and form-filling tires add an appealing muscular demeanor. The spare tire-mounting bracket supports a high-mounted rear stop lamp that is fastened to the lower portion of the tailgate door. When the tailgate is opened, the spare swings with it, allowing safe and easy access to the curb whether the soft top is up or down.
The 2002 Rodeo Sport interior is straightforward and utilitarian in appearance. The dash and center console are in a standard arrangement. The floor shifter in four-wheel-drive models can be easily reached from the driver's seat. The seats could use a greater range of adjustments and a bit more lumbar and side support. Also, the steering wheel isn't perfectly aligned with the driver's seat, a common occurrence on many vehicles, but more noticeable on this one. Operating the radio underway is a challenge with buttons that are hard to read.
In the back seat, there's enough room for three adults. Folding the rear seat down reveals 62 cubic feet of cargo room. Climbing up and into the back seats isn't easy, however, because the passage is narrow.
The hard top comes with two moonroofs. The front moonroof has a tilt option and can be removed. The rear moonroof can also be removed. The most obvious benefits of the hard top are the glass side and rear windows in place of the somewhat fussy zip-in plastic units on the soft-top. The glass dramatically improves visibility out the sides. A rear defroster and wiper are standard.
The available 3.2-liter V6 revs quickly, providing quick getaways from intersections. Strong low-end torque peaks at 214 pounds-feet at 3000 rpm. The Rodeo sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, a strong performance for a small SUV.
Wide 245/70R16 tires are standard on all Rodeo Sport models. They don't provide a lot of grip in paved corners, but the Rodeo Sport's handling is very predictable and that makes it entertaining to drive. The 16-inch tires do offer excellent compliance with the coil-spring suspension, which smoothes out the ride considerably, although the rear tires do have a tendency to bounce around over really big bumps.
With its ladder-type frame and live rear axle, the Rodeo Sport retains some of its truck heritage. It shudders over bumps. In comparison, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, which are based on passenger-car chassis, ride smoother but cannot match the off-road capability of the Rodeo.
On smooth highways, the V6 gallivants happily. It's a pleasure to drive on curvy mountain highways where torque is at a premium. The transmission shifts smoothly and the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering responds well. At lower speeds, the steering is precise, which is equally helpful when negotiating crowded city streets or tight dirt trails. The Rodeo Sport handles much better and is more fun to drive than the similarly priced Kia Sportage.
Four-wheel-drive models come with disc brakes front and rear, which provide ample stopping power. Drum brakes in the rear are standard for two-wheel-drive models. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on all Rodeo Sports. With all that off-road suspension travel, there is some nosedive under hard braking.
When equipped with the automatic transmission, the Rodeo Sport can be shifted from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive on the fly. Simply press the button on the dashboard. Most off-road hazards don't occur on the fly, but it's nice not having to stop when the pavement turns to gravel. For extreme off-road conditions, stop and shift into the low-range gears for maximum torque by engaging a floor-mounted lever. The Rodeo's part-time four-wheel-drive system is designed for loose surfaces and should not be used on dry pavement.
The Rodeo Sport really shines on steep, difficult grades. We learned this in the San Bernardino Mountains where the Rim of the World Pro Rally is held. The torque of the V6 works well with the tough but compliant tires. Shifting into four-wheel drive, we drove over huge rocks and climbed through deep ruts. We explored craggy logging roads loaded with large rocks near Lake Arrowhead, thankful for galvanized steel shields that protect the radiator and fuel tank.
The 2002 Isuzu Rodeo Sport offers distinctive, funky styling that helps it stand out from a herd of boxy SUVs. The hard top appeals to buyers who want practicality and a more sophisticated appearance, while the soft top model delivers top-down, fun-in-the-sun motoring.
One of the most attractive features of the Rodeo Sport is its price, which is competitive with the Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and other small SUVs. Yet Rodeo Sport offers more space and more driving entertainment.
The Rodeo Sport is, in a word, endearing. It may no longer be an Amigo, but it's still a friend.