Isuzu, the brand perhaps best known for its prevaricating ad spokesman, Joe Isuzu (played by actor David Leisure), increasingly went to the GM well for its truck and SUV products. Case in point: the 2003 Ascender. Sent in to replace the arthritic Trooper, an Isuzu-designed product, the long-wheelbase Ascender was a rebadged GMC Envoy XL (based on the same platform as the Chevy Trailblazer EXT). Availability of the short-wheelbase, five-passenger version would come in 2004.
As is often the case, not all the variants GM sold as Chevrolets or GMCs were available to Isuzu -- shades of Ford giving Mazda only the less-desirable two-door Explorers to rebadge as Navajos in the 1990s. In general, Ascenders were more modestly equipped than comparable-trim-level TrailBlazers, which may be a good thing if you’re looking for a less-than-opulent midsize SUV for a bit less money. Although we didn’t cross-check every trim level, comparing Ascender values with those of the TrailBlazer and Envoy across several iterations reveals the Isuzu to be worth between 15 and 20 percent less, according to IntelliChoice. Some of this comes down to the equipment levels, but remember the hardparts are the same, meaning you can have your Ascender serviced wherever you see a Chevy or GMC sign.
At the start of the model life, GM gave Isuzu a fighting chance. The Ascender got all the same engine choices, starting with the 4.2-liter DOHC inline-six rated at an impressive 275 horsepower and a decent 275 pound-feet of torque. Right from the start, Isuzu buyers could opt for the evergreen 5.3-liter OHV V-8 -- a GM engine as common as puncture wounds at a rodeo -- rated at 285 horses and a mighty 325 pound-feet of torque. If you tow a boat or camper, you want the V-8. In 2005, the V-8 was given cylinder deactivation for better fuel economy and a slight bump in power, to an even 300, alongside 330 pound-feet of torque. The next year, the straight-six gained 16 horses and two pound-feet of torque; it would be the only engine available in the last two years Isuzu sold the Ascender. Downstream of either engine is a four-speed automatic driving the rear wheels alone or all four through a conventional 4WD system with low range.
All the complaints leveled at the Envoy apply to the Ascender. Its body-on-frame architecture gives it good off-road capability, though you should realize this is no Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Suitably softened for the street, the Ascender remains slightly trucklike; owners and the media have criticized both its bulk and numb steering. Fuel economy is what you’d expect: 13 mpg city/18-19 highway for the V-8, and a somewhat disappointing 14/19-20 with the I-6.
There are too few Ascenders in the world to get a good read on maintenance, but the TrailBlazer and Envoy have had more than their fair share of electrical problems, largely centered on the gauge cluster. Complaints were raised about the inaccurate and inconsistent fuel gauge. The inline-six’s fan clutch can fail -- you’ll hear a clicking noise when it does. Given the Chevy and GMC’s history of wonky electrics, be sure to check that every system works properly in any Ascender you’re considering.
|2003-2008 Isuzu Ascender|
|Body type||Four-door SUV|
|Drivetrain||Front engine, RWD/4WD|
|Engines||4.2L/275-hp DOHC I-6 (291 hp, 2006-on); 5.3L/285-hp OHV V-8 (300 hp, 2005-on)|
|Brakes, f/r||Disc/disc, ABS|
|Price range, whlsl/ret (IntelliChoice)||$4438/$7247 (2003 RWD S); $10,840/$15,139 (2008 4WD)|
|Recalls||Too many to list, see www.intellichoice.com|
|NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/pass||3 stars/4 stars|