Home » Rocky Mountain High-Mileage 4x4s: 1997 Isuzu Rodeo vs 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Rocky Mountain High-Mileage 4x4s: 1997 Isuzu Rodeo vs 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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Good morning, and welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! Today we’re heading into the mountains and looking at two SUVs that are both north of 200,000 miles. Now, yesterday I gave you some terrible choices, because I felt like it. I am a capricious and occasionally cruel junky car god, and sometimes there just are no good choices. But let’s see where things ended up:

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The Vega wins, by two to one. It was those turbine wheels, wasn’t it? Can’t miss with those things.

Now then: When I was a kid, we took vacations to Colorado almost every summer. The two-day drive from Chicago was worth it when we saw the mountains appear on the horizon, and the hot sweaty plains of Nebraska were forgotten once we got up above five thousand feet. One of my favorite activities on these trips were “Jeep tours” on the roads and trails around the old gold mines. These never took place in actual Jeeps; the two vehicles I remember were a Chevy Blazer and an International Scout, both topless, both equipped with an extra row of seats, no seatbelts, and a rudimentary roll bar. It was the ’80s. We were tougher then.

Since then, I associate 4x4s with rocky trails leading up to mine shafts, strewn with old railroad ties, bits of rusty and broken mining equimpent, and the characteristic yellow gravel of gold mine tailing piles. Colorado and four-wheel-drives are permanently intertwined in my mind, so I wanted to see what sorts of cheap 4x4s were actually available. Here’s two that I found in our price range.

1997 Isuzu Rodeo LS – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.2 liter overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, part-time 4WD

Location: Englewood, CO

Odometer reading: 203,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

It’s not uncommon for vehicles to have different names in different countries, and it seems like the US often gets stuck with the worst choice. For example: in Japan, this SUV is known as – get this – the Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard. Mysterious. Utility. Wizard. I mean, come on. Europe got the rather dull but inoffensive name of Opel/Vauxhall Frontera, and here in the US, apparently the marketing department were all Garth Brooks fans, and called the thing Rodeo.

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I always liked the style of these things, and they’re pretty good to drive, too. Early Rodeos came with GM’s 3.1 liter pushrod V6, but by the time this one was built, they had switched to Isuzu’s own 3.2 liter overhead cam V6, which made more power and was less thrashy. This one has an automatic transmission, as so many Rodeos did, and part-time four-wheel-drive with a dual-range transfer case.

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This particular Rodeo seems to be holding up well after more than 200,000 miles. It’s a bit dusty, and it looks like someone forgot about it in the back row of this particular used car lot, but I think with a bath and some maintenance, it would look all right. Because it is in a used car lot, we’re not likely to get much of its history, so an inspection is probably a good idea.

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One curious thing that does seem to be missing are the lower cushions for the back seat. I believe these are the type where the lower cushions flip forward before the seat backs fold down, so I can’t imagine why anyone would remove them. You don’t gain any cargo space by doing so. And why not put them back in before trading it in? Where did they go? Mysterious utility, indeed.

1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited – $2,700

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.0 liter overhead valve inline 6, four-speed automatic, full-time 4WD

Location: Aurora, CO

Odometer reading: 226,000 miles

Runs/drives? You bet

One thing I have never understood about used car ads is the need to make everything shiny. A good wash and vacuum? Yes please. A spritz of Armor-All on the tires? Unneccessary, but whatever. But once in a while, you find a car like this, greased-up like an Austrian bodybuilder, looking like someone dipped the whole thing in glycerine. I mean, look at the center console on this thing:

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Ew. You can feel the slippery sliminess through the photo.

This particular Jeep Grand Cherokee is in good shape for having 236,000 miles on it. Only the driver’s seat really shows its age. We don’t get a lot of information on its condition, other than “runs great” and that it has a new “Catalina converter” (which I presume changes the exhaust to a salad dressing from the ’70s?). I don’t see V8 badges, so I’m assuming this Jeep has the ubiquitous 4.0 liter inline six under the hood.

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This Grand Cherokee is an automatic, of course; otherwise I’d be required by David to use terms like “Holy” and “Grail” to describe it. The automatics in these don’t have a stellar reputation, but with as many miles as this one has, it has either been cared-for, or replaced.

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It’s a Limited, so it has snazzy gold trim and lots of toys inside. And according to the seller, it all works, which is a bonus for a truck this old. It’s just too bad it’s all slathered in goop.

So that’s what we’ve got today: two old cheap 4x4s, both with lots of experience, but still going strong. Which one will it be?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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53 Responses

  1. If only the Isuzu was red…this song being cranked on the radio would make this choice a no brainer: https://youtu.be/5_yJ2J0Yry8

    Much more appropriate than the Garth Brooks song mentioned. I always liked the Isuzu Rodeo and Amigo but agree the Jeep would be easier and cheaper to source parts for.

  2. More fun facts. It was also sold as a Holden as a Fronterra (I think briefly sold in New Zealand as the Isuzu Wizard??), the Rodeo was the pickup.

  3. The Jeep looks to be in better shape, the long lived 6, and I am assuming better aftermarket support. Seems like an easy choice. The Rodeo was pretty popular back in the day, but think the Jeep had a much longer run.

  4. You are in good form Sir.
    Jeep . Had this car and it was stout. Shit broke of course, as it will at 250K, but I felt good (OK,- ish) about fixing it and having it fixed.

  5. This Jeep looks like a winner. If you live in a part of the country where a “winter rat” is a good idea, you could do a lot worse for $2700.

  6. Useless fun fact, when Isuzu pulled out of passenger car operations in the U.S., GM took over. When GM pulled out of passenger car operations in South Africa, Isuzu took over.

  7. The Jeep hands-down. When my wife and I were younger and much less fortunate job-wise we had one. She was just about to finish college when her Chrysler Lebaron was side-swiped and she was left car-less. I bought her a 79 Ford Fairlane Futura as a place-holder because the people in the on-campus married housing next to us had one for $500. I found one of these Jeeps (with the v8 though) for about $400 that was non-running and a “potentially good trans” and bought it. Upon examination it had thrown a rod. I bought a good 80k mile Dakota V8 that almost exactly just bolted up and she had one hell of a nice ride for some poor college kids in 2004. She had it for a couple years until it started to drain every battery we put in it and the dealership couldn’t figure it out. Great vehicle for a total of about $1400 that I sold for $2500.

  8. IIRC, this Rodeo was the vehicle Honda rebadged as the first Pilot (that wasn’t a motorcycle) at the time they found themselves behind the market and needed product fast, so two Isuzus models became their first SUV and minivan (-ish type thing. But it was an Odyssey.)
    So if it’s good enough for Honda, it’s good enough for me.

    1. Never mind everything I said about the Odyssey, as It was Honda, not Isuzu. Damn, mistakes like that haunt me.

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