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2002 Isuzu Axiom

Road Manners of a Car, Wheeling Abilities of a 4x4 Truck. Almost.

Jon ThompsonPhotographer, Writer

There seems to be no decline in interest in standard SUVs, and Isuzu has that area covered with the Trooper. But one popular SUV sub-family for which manufacturers are now conjuring up members, is this odd beast that looks like an SUV, but drives like a car. Of this genre, the Toyota Highlander, based on the Camry chassis, is a fine example. If you’d expect such vehicles to have serious four-wheeling pretensions you’d be wrong. Unless, of course, you’re expecting those pretensions from Isuzu’s new Axiom.

Though the Axiom uses the Trooper’s powertrain and is built around a separate ladder frame that is based on the Rodeo frame, the Axiom further blurs the already blurry line between car and SUV. Using IFS and a 5-link rear beam axle, it manages to deliver acceptable road manners, good levels of comfort and refinement, and surprising off-highway prowess all in a single package. Combine that with a bold new look, and the result just might be a nice success for Isuzu.

Most of the right ingredients for that success are present in the powertrain, in the form of the smooth, powerful 3.5L V-6 lifted from the Trooper, and that same unit’s four-speed automatic transmission, its Borg-Warner Torque On Demand (TOD) transfer case—this is operated by a rotary dial at the far left of the dash—and its rear suspension componentry. Most of this gear we approve of. The engine and transmission are nicely complementary, and move the Axiom with smoothness and verve. Computer controls abound—not only to govern engine function, but also to monitor a host of other conditions in the engine, transmission, brakes, and chassis to decide which of 17 possible positions to switch the shock absorbers to. Isuzu calls this feature Intelligent Suspension Control, and it works well. The Axiom is secure and stable in highway driving, with a ride that is firm yet fluid. More importantly, the Axiom’s suspension mostly worked well on trails as well, providing a well-controlled ride that was marred only by bottoming of the rear suspension in particularly rough areas. It handled washboard roads particularly well, but was out of its element when trying to make time over a two-tracker that was impacted by whoops and big bumps. Not enough tire, not enough suspension and travel, and not enough wheelbase for such activities.

The transmission, meanwhile, benefits from something called “grade logic,” which is designed to help it automatically select the right gear for climbing or descending grades. For the most part we were happy to stick the transmission in Drive and allow the systems to do their respective things. The transfer case shifted smoothly and securely every time we asked it to, and its 2.05:1 low-range ratio combines with the torque converter’s functional gear reduction to provide a lower crawl ratio than the actual numbers might suggest.

The Axiom is, like so many others, easy to get stuck—all you’ve got to do is get it crossed up in ruts or bumps so that one front wheel and a rear wheel on the opposite side are off the ground. When that happens, the wheels in the air are the ones that spin, and you ain’t goin’ nowhere, bub, until you back up and try another line. Ride the brake all you want—and the Axiom’s 4-wheel system is powerful, with the pedal providing good feel and better-than-average modulation—you’re still going to back and fill.

Fortunately we didn’t have to do much of that, because for all its car-like nature, the Axiom remains surprisingly capable. It took on our Area 85 test site easily, and climbed our test hill, which is composed of loose, sharp rocks, far more easily than we thought it would. We did get hung up a couple of times—the Axiom’s limited-slip diff seemed AWOL—but the biggest problem in all our off-highway testing was the Axiom’s lack of ground clearance. Even on trails that the Axiom handled with ease, we were contacting rocks and ruts with the framerails, front fascia, and rear-mounted spare tire.

The Axiom’s interior is very car-like, if a little confusing because of its mixture of textures and shapes. We mostly didn’t mind those textures and shapes, but what we did mind were the Axiom’s front seats and the contortions that the interior’s packaging forces on the driver’s right leg. About those seats: They’re low in the cabin, contributing to the Axiom’s exemplary amount of headroom but are thin to the point of being almost spartan. They’re not uncomfortable, but they sure don’t coddle you. They’re electrically adjustable fore and aft, and the back also has an electric adjustment. No tilt for the bottom cushion, though, which means if you’re a driver who expects thigh support from a driver’s seat, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Headroom is good, so is legroom for taller drivers. Except for this: The accelerator is placed so that the driver’s right leg is cocked at an angle, and that leg’s shin is in constant contact with the vertical edge of the left side of the console. One tallish tester found this to be the Axiom’s single most infuriating feature.

Sure, the Axiom has some characteristics we don’t much care for. But what vehicle doesn’t? For the most part, the Axiom represents honest value that should be very attractive to anyone shopping for a vehicle that drives like, and feels like, a car.

Check It Out If:
You’re looking for a compact SUV with great pavement manners and enough four-wheel-drive capability for occasional trail use.
Avoid It If:
You need lots of room and lots of ground clearance.