Home » Where’s David Leisure When You Need Him?: 1987 Chevy Spectrum vs 2001 Isuzu Rodeo Sport

Where’s David Leisure When You Need Him?: 1987 Chevy Spectrum vs 2001 Isuzu Rodeo Sport

Sbsd 1 15 2024
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Good morning, Autopians! I hope you all weathered the weekend storms all right. Today we’re taking a look at cars made by a company with the most dishonest spokesperson of all time. Only one of them wears an Isuzu badge, but they’re both fine examples of the absolute greatest forms of transportation ever conceived.*

Friday was all about Chevy, and this was one of those times when I honestly didn’t know which car was going to win. As it turns out, the old blue Malibu sailed to an easy victory. I think I agree; if the Lumina were closer to the same “grandpa” spec as the Malibu, I probably would go for it, but I don’t want the headache of that fancy DOHC V6, nor the threat of drips from a leaky sunroof.

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And thank you to those commenters who filled in the missing Cake and Say Anything references about the Malibu that I completely forgot to include. Try as I might, I can’t jam every pop-culture reference in here. (And I think David’s head might explode if I did.) I’m bound to miss a few. So thanks for having my back.

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Now, speaking of pop culture: If you’re a struggling car brand trying to carve out a niche for your excellent but unknown vehicles, what do you do? Create a buzz. These days, I suppose you’d turn to social media, and have some famous person be seen driving your cars. But back in the ’80s, we had to rely on TV and radio and print ads for such things. Isuzu hung their hopes on actor David Leisure, who portrayed Joe Isuzu, an untrustworthy yet somehow still likeable pitch man who would tell you anything.

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One of these came after Joe’s time, and the other was actually sold as a Chevy, but there’s still enough of a common thread to tie them together. Let’s check them out.

1987 Chevrolet Spectrum Turbo – $2,800

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.5 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Coatesville, PA

Odometer reading: 160,000 miles

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Operational status: Runs and drives well

Before there was Geo, Chevrolet simply sold its captive import models under its own name. This car was built by Isuzu in Japan, and sold there as the Isuzu Gemini. Here in the US, Isuzu marketed the exact same car themselves as the I-Mark. If this seems like an overly-crowded market, that’s not the half of it. You could walk into a Chevy dealership in 1987 and buy an Isuzu-built Spectrum, a Suzuki-built Sprint, a NUMMI-built Nova, or Chevrolet’s own home-grown Chevette or Cavalier. That’s right – five small car models, all competing against each other, under one roof. With the demise of the Spark in 2022, Chevy no longer sells any small cars (unless you count the Trax, which I don’t).

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Not only were there five choices for small cars from Chevy in 1987, there was a high-performance version available of all of them except for the Chevette. “High-performance” is relative, of course; this car’s 1.5-liter turbocharged engine makes only 110 horsepower, but for a lightweight car with a stickshift like this, it was probably plenty.  I know Lotus had a hand in tuning the suspension in some of the sporty Isuzu models, but I don’t know if this is one of them. Even if not, a small car with fat tires is always a good time on twisty roads.

It runs and drives well, according to the seller. That’s a good thing, because these weren’t common in the ’80s, and today they’re pretty much unheard of. I’ve seen a few Spectrums (Spectra?) for sale over the years, but I think this is the first Turbo I’ve seen for sale in at least three decades. Luckily, it looks complete, and in good shape.

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Whenever I’m featuring a rare car like this, I like to check RockAuto to get an idea of what parts are still available. It looks like all the mechanical bits you might need to keep this one on the road are still available, and not even very expensive. But whatever you do, don’t mess up that interior, or damage any of the trim. You’ll never find replacements.

2001 Isuzu Rodeo Sport – $1,600

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Portland, OR

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Odometer reading: 130,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives fine, but 4WD is not functional

Isuzu’s small cars are nowhere near as well known, of course, as their SUVs: The boxy Trooper, the weird and wild Axiom and VehiCROSS, and this little gem, the open-top Jeep competitor formerly known as the Amigo. In 2001, Isuzu dropped the Amigo name and rebadged this vehicle as the Rodeo Sport. Neither name is anywhere near as cool as the name by which it was known in Japan: the MU, short for Mysterious Utility.

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The most mysterious thing about this utility is the origin of those amazing graphics. I remember seeing, and photographing, this car outside my office window a couple of years ago. The graphics, for those of you who don’t know, are a tribute to the Tyco Bandit, a toy-grade RC truck from the early 1990s, a fun, tough little truck that dominated many a backyard. The Bandit was modeled after a Nissan D21-series “Hardbody” pickup, not an Isuzu Amigo, but I think this truck wears its graphics well.

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Instead of a Mabuchi electric motor and a 9.6 volt “Turbo” battery pack, this big Bandit is powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine built by GM’s erstwhile Australian division Holden. It has a five-speed manual transmission, and allegedly part-time 4WD, but from the sounds of it, the 4WD system doesn’t work. Apart from that, it runs and drives “just fine” according to the seller. It does appear to have a body lift of a couple of inches as well.

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It has a soft top, but the zippers on the side-curtain windows are broken. A convertible top specialist should be able to replace the zippers, so a replacement top won’t be necessary. I do wish we had a photo or two of the interior; as cool as the exterior graphics are, if the interior is trashed, it’s nowhere near as cool.

Like the old Avis commercials told us, when you’re number two, you have to try harder. And when you’re number five or six, you really have to hustle. Isuzu’s cars and trucks always reviewed well, but the sales never measured up, and the ride ended in the US in 2008. Their spokesperson may not have been honest, but their cars were. Which one of these is for you?

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(Image credits: Spectrum – Facebook Marketplace seller; Rodeo – Craigslist seller)

*He’s lying.

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TheNewt
TheNewt
3 months ago

High school girlfriend had an I-Mark. I always liked the look of it. It seemed sportier than the Spectrum. It was a decent car except for what I think were some very noisy CV joints. I still like the Rodeo better.

Aardvark775
Aardvark775
3 months ago

Is nobody gonna mention that David Leisure is running for president and came in last place in the Iowas caucus today?

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
3 months ago

Rodeo Drive!

Greensoul
Greensoul
3 months ago

David leisure, what a story teller he was on commercials. I remember him being the refrigerator pillaging tacky neighbor on the “Empty Nest” sitcom and the liar that claimed an Impulse turbo was faster than a speeding bullet. God rest his lying soul

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
3 months ago

“Wanna see the airbags?” … Joe Isuzu

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
3 months ago

I’ll take both, please!

Danger Ranger
Danger Ranger
3 months ago

I went for the Rodeomigo. It’s going to be a summer ride anyway so take the top all the way off and keep an eye on the forecast.

Voeltzwagen
Voeltzwagen
3 months ago

Considering I had a Tyco Bandit in the early 90’s, this was an easy choice for me.

Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
3 months ago

I rode to school in an I-Mark just like this spectrum when I was a kid. The same guy also had a Corolla GT-S. That dude had good taste in cars. The I-Mark did have the handling by lotus badge. Back then, compared to my mom’s crappy Delta 88 at least, those cars felt like the future.

Last edited 3 months ago by Rusty S Trusty
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
3 months ago

Chevy Spectrum because cars are better than trucks!!!

Fight me!!!

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