1995 Isuzu Amigo
Say adios to the Amigo, amigos, because it looks very much as though this industrial strength but friendly little sport/utility is heading for its final siesta. The 1995 model is a carryover from 1994, and Isuzu has no immediate plans to replace it with a successor after this year’s offering.
The problem is that the Amigo has never really decided what it really wants to be. An accomplished off-road trail master? An economical boulevard roadster for the youth in all of us? A cross between a miniature truck and a sport coupe?
It hasn’t managed to be all of those things because of a few key weaknesses in the package, specifically: an awkward method of initiating the 4-wheel-drive system, high price relative to its main competitor – the Jeep Wrangler – a definite lack of engine power, and the fact that it’s not very useful as a sport/utility vehicle.
It has, however, established a reputation for tackling the toughest terrain with relative ease, and it makes a good second car for weekend jaunts in the outback.
The problem with this persona, though, is where it places the Amigo in the sport/utility competitive spectrum, which is, as we mentioned, squarely against the Jeep Wrangler.
Let’s elaborate on that just a little bit.
Although the basic engines of the Wrangler and the Amigo are about the same in terms of power ratings, the Wrangler offers the option of a much more powerful 6-cylinder. The Amigo’s base engine is also its only engine.
Also, the Wrangler, though far from roomy, is bigger than the Amigo and it’s also a little more capable when it comes to playing dirty.
That’s a pretty tough act to top.
If you aren’t looking for fun in your driving, you should forget about this category of vehicle entirely. These miniature sport/utilities are lightweight two-door jobs, most with removable soft tops of some sort, and most with the same overall size that helps slice through city traffic but hinders interior passenger room and valuable luggage space.
If purposeful has a cute side, it’s evident in the styling of the Amigo. Based on a pickup platform, it looks as substantial just sitting there as it feels when it rumbles down a country lane.
However, cuteness might not be quite as much of an asset as it seems. One of the sustaining traits of the Wrangler is its tough-guy styling, a look that’s not far removed from the original G.I. Jeep.
Although it’s got the kind of Beach Blanket Bingo looks that play well with the Southern California surfing set, the Amigo really is capable. Isuzu has a good track record with trucks, and the Amigo has far more substance than just-for-fun entries such as the Geo Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick. And even though the gnarly old Jeep Wrangler is even tougher, it’s also crude by comparison.
But there is a downside to its solid character – a class-high curb weight that robs the 2.6-liter engine of much needed horsepower makes that engine drink more fuel than a supposedly economical 4-cylinder should.
The engine’s torque is readily available, however, making the Amigo adept at escaping the grip of off-road obstacles. Slogging through the swamp is the Amigo’s strength, especially when equipped with optional 31-in. tires, but it’s likely this vehicle is more often used as a city car, and then much of the fun goes away.
The side-hinged tailgate, adorned with a full-size spare tire, made access to the modest luggage area an easy matter, but no such luck for rear-seat passengers. Clambering into the backseat requires some sprightly moves, beginning with a muscle-building pivot of the front seat to create the access room.
Whisk off your blindfold after climbing into an Amigo and you’d be hard-pressed to identify which Japanese manufacturer is involved here. The cockpit’s design will offend no one, nor will it capture anyone’s eye for its innovation. It’s purely functional, the gauges are all straightforward and the panels of plastic trim appear rugged enough to clean with a hose and brush.
A center console and a couple of cupholders are the only storage; not surprising considering the Amigo’s snug dimensions. Jeep solved the problem by offering an optional lockable storage trunk that fits behind the Wrangler’s rear seat, and the Amigo owner would be advised to search for a similar solution to the lack of security for items left in the vehicle. Security is a weak point with all soft-top vehicles.
Like others of its class, there is no airbag on either side, but Isuzu did install side-impact beams to add some measure of passenger-car safety to the Amigo.
The front seats are comfortable enough for everyday use and provide a good level of support when the terrain upsets the Amigo’s equilibrium. Try not to get put in the back, though, because the small bench seat provides little more than a stable platform to hang onto when the going gets rough. It’s better for stowing surfboards than people. This is really a 2-plus-2 type of vehicle more than a true 4-seater.
It’s also a more rewarding runner when the weather is warm and the canvas top is removed. However, you should plan on spending at least 15 minutes to remove or replace the top, which is still a little faster than the time needed to remove the Wrangler’s soft top.
Taking the top off also radically improves rearward vision. The plastic windows can be scratched easily and will most likely yellow over time, the effect being of trying to look through smoked glass.
A 5-speed manual transmission is the only one available in the Amigo (the Wrangler offers an automatic), and our vehicle became a very busy box as we attempted to find some usable power from the lack-luster engine. At the same time, drivers must pay attention to steering inputs, for the slow ratio of the steering rack requires some forethought as to where the front wheels should be pointed. That relatively slow steering response was perfect for off-road, but it made for a hectic drive on city street.
Slow and steady is the proper method for driving the Amigo. Its sporty image shouldn’t deceive the driver into thinking it handles like a sports car. The engine is undistinguished in daily driving and quickly becomes tiresome because of the need to apply a heavy throttle just to keep up with traffic.
Also, you can forget about towing. To be fair, the Amigo’s engine isn’t the real culprit in its leisurely straight-ahead performance around town. Isuzu has plenty of experience with small truck engines, and this one is reasonably stout in its lower operating ranges.
What holds it back is drivetrain gearing that tries to balance off-road capability and all-around fuel economy.
Isuzu seems to have missed the mark with the second goal. Keeping up with traffic requires a heavy foot, and fuel economy suffers as a result.
If it’s more power you desire, consider the Wrangler. It has a 6-cylinder engine option that makes it more acceptable as a daily driver.
Take the Amigo in the dirt, however, and its low-end torque and smooth power delivery make it seem like a completely different engine.
But engaging the Amigo’s 4WD system is a pain compared with other part-time units that feature shifting on the fly. With the Amigo, the driver must come to a stop, climb out and engage the manual front hubs. And then to take the drivetrain back to its normal rear-drive configuration, the driver must once again stop, climb out, unlock the hubs, get back in and back the Amigo up several feet to disengage the front axle.
The Amigo and others of its type are pure lifestyle vehicles, designed for specific needs. Particularly appealing to young drivers, beach proximity is almost a must. As a weekend play-mobile, it’s a combination of generous interior room and solid engineering. As a daily commuter, it’s a rather fatiguing experience. To be fair, the same can be said for the Wrangler.
The canvas/plastic top provides little noise insulation, and the powertrain roars its disapproval of anything above sedate speeds. But it does have visual appeal, it readily lends itself to fair-weather trekking, it’s deceptively rugged and dealers are probably ready to deal.