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2003 Isuzu 1198 Ascender 4132 103358
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Expert Reviews

Larry Edsall
powered by New Car Test Drive
Isuzu has a new flagship for its fleet of sport utility vehicles for 2003. The Isuzu Ascender replaces the venerable Trooper. Ascender is new for Isuzu, but it isn't a completely new vehicle. Instead, it's a slightly modified version of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL introduced in the spring of 2002.

Ascender appears to be a good deal for both Isuzu dealers and their customers. Isuzu dealers get a proven new product to sell. Isuzu customers get an SUV that's roomier and more powerful than last year's Trooper. Ascender's base price is only $544 more than the Trooper's.

Best of all, the 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.

With the introduction of the Ascender, all 2003 models Isuzu sells in the U.S. are built in the U.S.

Model Lineup
Isuzu Ascender is available in four trim packages, S, Preferred, LS, and Limited. Two engines are available, both from General Motors: a newly developed 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine rated 275 horsepower and a 5.3-liter V8 rated 290 hp. All Ascenders come with a four-speed automatic transmission. Two-wheel drive and four-wheel driver versions are available. Ascenders come standard with four-wheel disc brakes, independent front suspension and a live rear axle, rack-and-pinion steering, 17-inch wheels, and a trailer hitch. All come standard with three rows of seats.

Standard equipment on the base S 2WD ($28,649) and S 4WD ($31,349) includes dual zone climate controls, power windows, power locks, keyless entry, CD stereo, fog lamps, tilt steering wheel, and a Homelink (garage door) transmitter. The Preferred Equipment Package ($500) includes a driver's seat with eight-way power and two-way power lumbar adjustment, illuminated vanity mirrors on the sun visors, and heated exterior mirrors.

The LS Package ($3,250) adds traction control, automatic climate control, power front passenger seat, six-speaker audio system, steering-wheel audio controls, rear-seat audio controls and headphone jacks, driver information center, TravelNote voice recorder, electrochromic (self-dimming) rearview mirror with compass, a one-year subscription to OnStar's Safe and Sound communications package, limited-slip rear differential, power moon roof with sun shade, alloy wheels, luggage rack crossbars. (LS package retails for $3,100 on 4WD models, which already have traction control.) The V8 engine ($1,490) is available as an option with the LS package.

The Limited Package ($2,110) comes standard with the V8 plus special monotone paint, black exterior mirrors, running boards, moisture-sensing wipers, leather-covered seating surfaces, heated front seats, Bose premium audio, and a memory package that sets seat position, mirrors, radio pre-sets and other settings for different drivers.

Isuzu Ascender shares much of its sheetmetal with the long-wheelbase versions of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. Ascender is large, some 20 inches longer than the Isuzu Trooper, but with a solid, handsome appearance. We wouldn't describe it as sleek, but it's far from bulky.

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.

We tested a 2003 Isuzu Ascender S 2WD model wearing Onyx black paint and a Pewter interior. But what Isuzu calls Pewter is what we call gray, and in the case of the Ascender that includes seats covered in a two-tone pattern that looks as if it was inspired by dropping small, dark, leafless twigs onto a light gray background. Aside from that small bit of artistic criticism, the interior was standard issue GM extended-wheelbase, mid-size SUV, which means it provides a pleasant environment for driver and passengers.

The driver and front passenger will find their shoulder belts mounted right into the seat for a proper fit. All seven seats have three-point harnesses, and front-seat passengers have both front and side airbags in the event of an accident.

Our Ascender came with the LS option package. We appreciated being able to control audio and climate with buttons mounted on the steering wheel. 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 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.

Driving Impressions
Our 2003 Isuzu Ascender had rear-wheel drive. It rode on BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, which are mud-and-snow rated yet we found them to be extremely quiet, even at highway speeds.

With its standard, 275-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine, the Ascender has no trouble ascending to highway speeds. In-line six-cylinder engines are naturally balanced, and usually run quietly and have exceptional longevity. This engine provides 275 pound-feet of torque and 275 horsepower and that makes it even more powerful than many V8 engines. It's a wonderful engine. It's thirsty, however, rated at 20 miles per gallon on the highway and only 15 mpg in town. However, we think its aging GM four-speed transmission prevents the engine from achieving its full potential. This Hydra-Matic automatic, used in the TrailBlazer, Envoy, and other GM products has proven itself over the years and miles, however.

Opting for the V8 engine boosts Ascender's towing capacity to 7,200 pounds.

Ascender comes standard with a premium suspension setup with Bilstein monotube shock absorbers. Our two-wheel-drive Ascender was smooth and comfortable, in town or on the highway. Its rack-and-pinion steering was sure and its four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, with 12.8-inch vented discs at every corner, never wavered.

The 4WD version, which comes standard with traction control, can be set in automatic mode and distributes power to the four wheels as needed. The driver can also select 2-Hi for rear-wheel drive. 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. We have enough experience with the four-wheel-drive versions of the GM-badged models to be confident of the Ascender's off-road and towing capabilities.

Isuzu Ascender is among the best of the mid-size sport-utilities. Its standard inline six-cylinder engine is much more powerful than the Trooper's V6 (275 horsepower versus the Trooper's 215 hp). Ascender is a significantly larger vehicle that provides three rows of seats and room for two more people or nearly 20 more cubic feet of cargo. Yet the base price of the 2003 Ascender is less than $600 more than the 2002 Trooper's.

So it would seem the choice between the Trooper and the Ascender should be an easy one. However, there is a more difficult choice that awaits potential buyers, though in this case we're talking about the potential buyers of the Chevy TrailBlazer or GMC Envoy. Do they go ahead and buy a TrailBlazer EXT or Envoy XL, or do they opt for the virtually identical Isuzu Ascender with its longer warranty?

Model as tested
S 2WD ($28,649)
Basic Warranty
3 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Moraine, Ohio
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Preferred package ($500) includes illuminated vanity mirrors, heated outside mirrors, eight-way power driver's seat; LS package ($3,250) includes limited-slip differential, traction control, power moon roof, alloy wheels, six-speaker audio system with controls on steering wheel and rear-seat headphone jacks, OnStar communications with one-year subscription, automatic climate controls, electrochromic rearview mirror with compass, driver info center and TravelNote voice recording device
Model Line Overview
Model lineup
S 2WD ($28,649); S 4WD ($31,349)
Safety equipment (standard)
front and side airbags, ABS
Safety equipment (optional)
4.2-liter dohc in-line six
4-speed automatic
Specifications as Tested
Three-row seating, fog lamps, tilt steering wheel, dual zone climate controls, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, CD player, Homelink garage door transmitter, trailer hitch
Engine & Transmission
4.2-liter dohc in-line six
Drivetrain type
rear-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
275 @ 6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear
solid rear axle
Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear
Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight
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2003 Isuzu Ascender
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