It’s no news that the sport utility vehicle has redefined the American automotive market. Our streets are fertile ground for new domestic and import branded SUVs of all shapes and sizes. So it’s ironic that Isuzu, one of the first successful import brand SUV providers, has found only limited success for their latest designs like the Axiom. So where does Isuzu go for help? Why, to their family of course.

Luckily that family just happens to be General Motors. When Isuzu needed a platform for their new 2003 Ascender SUV, they took advantage of their corporate relationship with GM. By borrowing the chassis and drive train from GM’s long wheelbase 7-passenger Chevrolet Trailblazer XLT and GMC Envoy XL, Isuzu quickly joined the upper mid-size SUV ranks, while saving billions in development costs.

Sheet metal, including fenders, doors, and rear body panels, are all shared with the Envoy XL. But Ascender S, LS, and Limited get a unique grill treatment and body cladding. In the rear, distinctive tail lights and a rear bumper treatment tied into the side cladding give Ascender a very modern, if more traditional, SUV look than its corporate high fashion cousin, the Axiom.

Under the hood of our test Ascender LS is the critically acclaimed GM 4.2 liter, twin cam, 24 valve, inline six. This sophisticated all-aluminum engine features variable valve timing and produces 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. A 5.3-liter, 290 horsepower V8 is optional. Power is smoothly and quietly delivered by a Hydromatic 4-speed automatic transmission, and delivered with real intensity! 0 to 60 takes only 9.3 seconds. Quarter mile times of 16.9 seconds at 84 miles per hour makes Ascender one of the fastest Isuzu SUVs ever. Power builds quickly with the inline six providing a fairly broad power band and great muscular growl. The V-8 is a bit quicker, but we think the 6 will be quite adequate for most.

One of the chief advantages of adapting Isuzu’s latest SUV to the TrailBlazer/Envoy chassis is that it’s one of the most state-of-the-art, body on perimeter frame platforms available. The true truck frame is completely boxed and hydroformed for lightweight and impressive strength and rigidity. In the front is a Short-Long Arm suspension with coil springs and rack and pinion steering. In the rear, the solid rear axle is held in place with a five link set up and soft coil springs. The result, as we’ve noted in other tests of this chassis, is a very smooth, quiet ride, with an almost luxury car feel. A rare comment for a body-on-frame SUV. Even winter pothole- ravaged roads were easy to take. That soft ride does take its toll on handling, however, as Ascender is prone to quite a bit of body roll. That and the long wheelbase produce substantial understeer, which keeps the driver from pushing Ascender beyond the limits. The only other negative was that some staff members felt Ascender’s rack and pinion steering was a bit over boosted and would benefit from more road feel.

We had no reservations about braking as stops from 60 miles per hour came in at an acceptable 130 feet. Despite quite a bit of nosedive, the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes should have no trouble keeping the Ascender from becoming a ‘‘rear-ender’‘.

Our LS-grade test vehicle came with the limited slip rear differential and traction control. Ideal for locations where water seldom freezes. But for those of us living where freezing is a winter thing, or for true off-roading, GM’s On-demand Autotrac 4-wheel-drive system with its low range gearing is available.

No matter what the weather, Ascender passengers should find plenty of comfort. All the usual SUV amenities are there. The interior is wide and spacious with the tall greenhouse providing excellent head room even with the optional moon roof. The standard tilt wheel and optional 8-way power front seats make it easy to find a comfortable, well supported, driving position. While the stereo and optional automatic dual-zone climate controls, lifted directly from the Envoy, are a clean, proven design.

Many SUV’s are now bought in lieu of the family minivan, and so people capacity is a real consideration. Here the 7-passenger Ascender really benefits from that longer wheelbase. The roomy second row seating reclines and folds for surprisingly easy access to the third row. Better than the larger Chevy Tahoe to be sure. Unlike many third row seats designed only for children, two full sized adults can enter and ride in relative comfort. Even with the third row seat in place there is room in back for smaller bags. Flip all the seats down, and it opens up 81 cubic-feet of cargo room.

The numbers that impressed us most are the Ascender’s prices! Base price for a two wheel drive, six cylinder S model is $29,274, or about $1,600 less than a comparably equipped Envoy XL. Our test vehicle’s LS trim and preferred equipment package bumped the price up to $33,581, again a considerable pricing advantage over its GM cousins. As is the Isuzu warranty. Isuzu’s 3 year/50,000 mile whole-vehicle, and 7 year/75,000 mile powertrain warranties are substantially more generous than GM’s.

So will the Ascender save the day for struggling Isuzu? After all, the mid-size SUV market is one of the toughest in North America. But with attractive styling, a solid engineering base, extremely competitive pricing, and great warranties, we think that the 2003 Isuzu Ascender will take off to Isuzu’s best SUV sales in a long, long time.


  • Engine: 4.2 Liter, Twin Cam, 24 Valve, Inline-6
  • Horsepower: 275
  • Torque: 275 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 9.3 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 16.9 Seconds @ 84 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 130 Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 15 MPG City 20 MPG Highway