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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JDE
JDE
4 months ago

The Rodeo seller sounds like a douche, and his claim of this broken 4wd damaged side curtain POS being mint just seems suspect.

Normally I would not even look twice at the car, but in the comparison here, I would have to go with it, just because I would not want to deal with the other guy.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
4 months ago

I went Spectrum for two reasons. One, a turbo like this is pretty much unobtainable, especially is decent shape. If you want an Amigo, they’re still somewhat available. Two, a small, yestertech, light weight, turbo, scrappy manual, is a recipe for fun.
However, I could easier go the other way if this was presented again. I’ve often told myself to go ahead and find a decent manual Amigo before they’re all gone. Right now they’re relatively worthless which is a boon to the buyer as they are a bargain Japanese Wrangler. Removeable top, V6 option, manual option, real off road chops. And you can score a decent one for less than you’re going to buy a decent ATV. This was a tough call which I think is represented in the score so far.

Cyko9
Cyko9
4 months ago

The Rodeo is priced about right. It warrants a pretty good look underneath to make sure too many parts aren’t dented or damaged. I don’t think there are enough takers for the Spectrum, but it is a decent example.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
4 months ago

This is one where I would like a both option!

I chose the Bandit … Err … Amigo … Err … Rodeo.

There weren’t any hobby shops in town where I grew up, so the best RC car I ever had was my Tyco Bandit. It was pretty darn quick, and it took an absolute BEATING the likes of which no other toy store grade RC vehicle I ever owned (and I owned many) could come close to taking. It was several years before my harsh treatment finally got the best of my Bandit.

So yeah, I voted because of the graphics.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
4 months ago

I’ll march t’ the beat of a different ‘trum.

Oldskool
Oldskool
4 months ago

Spectrum! Ever since about 1987 when an elementary school worker had an I Mark RS notchback, I’ve been in love with those cars. For the most part the Spectrum is the same thing. Manual makes it even better!

Yeah a rare imported turbo is probably gonna be iffy, but I’d drive it sparingly. Also makes it more fun when I really do take it out.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
4 months ago

I drove both of these, well an Amigo, as well as a VX. THE amigo is by far the better ride. My Spectrum did not have the Turbo and even the dealer service department couldn’t find the oil filter for a change. It also developed the habit of stalling on right hand turns. The Amigo was great except for going uphill. Get in the right lane with the semis. And the interior was as exciting as the exterior.

Last edited 4 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
4 months ago

Spectrum. Small car plus manual plus turbo equals fun. This one is just weird enough for people to do a double take but not so rare that parts are made from unobtanium.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
4 months ago

Spectrum, though I do enjoy the graphics on the Rodeo. 9 time out of 10 I’d be 100% voting for the Rodeo, but this is the one time where the competing vehicle brings back warm nostalgia feelings that just tickle the cockles of my cold, dead heart.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
4 months ago

I would have to repaint the Isuzu and fix the 4wd, I chose the spectrum as a good round the town/first car.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
4 months ago

The Spectrum seems to be in better condition, so I chose that one.

The 2.2L from the Amigo was also used in the Daewoo Leganza. It was also installed in the Opel Sintra, the second-gen U-body minivan exported to Europe.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Romigo for me because it’s MLK Day and I have a dream.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
4 months ago

I irrationally love that Spectrum. Actually drove a couple of them…or was it the GM captive “Nova” of the time? Regardless, my only pause would be to look at the underside, as this is for sale in salt country (close to me too), but by the looks of the wheel arches and rockers, I doubt that it’s a problem. Where on earth has this thing been hiding? You might not rule Radwood with it, but you’d certainly draw a crowd.

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
4 months ago

Yeah, Spectrum just so I don’t have to ever talk to this jackass:

clean title in hand price is OBO but don’t lowball me this thing’s mint and is only two wheel drive but there is a 4×4 button in there you can push to make yourself feel better if you want

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
4 months ago
Reply to  Redfoxiii

NGL, that line in the ad is fucking funny.

D-dub
D-dub
4 months ago
Reply to  Redfoxiii

“This thing’s mint except for all the shit that’s broke.”

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3WiperB
3WiperB
4 months ago

Tough choice. That Spectrum looks so clean and those wheels are amazing!. The Rodeo looks like a real bargain for the price, although I worry about how wet the interior is from not having working zippers on the back plastic. If the interior isn’t a disaster, I’d have to go Rodeo for the price.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
4 months ago
Reply to  3WiperB

The rear interior is just metal with unattached carpet laid down. On the bright side if you can find a replacement top it is very DIY.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

Amigo
A small, lightweight, manual car with 150hp should be right up my alley, but I’m dubious about 80s turbo technology—especially the fuel management sampling rate/response speeds.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Possibly better as many of those were pretty conservative.
And, I’m squeamish mainly because of my BugEye and the issues some had. I’ve looked at water/methanol injection, and like the idea, but a decent system easily costs more than I paid for the car.

Griznant
Griznant
4 months ago

A friend had an ’88 Spectrum turbo in ’91. His dad put it together as a rebuilt title and it worked fine for him through high school. The only thing I really remember was that it was bright red and had bright red hubcaps. That’s when I decided that body color matching hubcaps isn’t something the world needs. It was jarring, and too much red, even on a small car.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
4 months ago

Man, what a tough choice to start the week! That Spectrum looks like a blast, but I’d be too worried about driving it, plus the Rodeo’s a better deal even with non-op 4WD. We’ll take the truck.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
4 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

That was my take, even tho that Spectrum appears to basically be what a MK3 Ford Escort would have been if it wasn’t shit.

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
4 months ago

I like the Spectrum, but its about $1k too high for what it is. Rodeo please

Angular Banjoes
Angular Banjoes
4 months ago

I’ve seen that Rodeo around town before, but I could never quite figure out why the graphics were so familiar. The Bandit commercial was a delightful blast from the past.

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
4 months ago

I’d go with the Rodeo, there should still be a couple rodeo/amigos to source replacement 4wd parts from it, maybe. The graphics alone sell it!

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
4 months ago

Perhaps Ms. Streeter needs to run a Rock Auto price check before diving in on another Piech disaster.

DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
4 months ago

Doesn’t matter how cheap the parts are, if you have to buy all of them it’s gonna add up.

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
4 months ago

That Spectrum is sooooooo clean!! And Redwood.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
4 months ago

It’s probably a bad idea, but man, those graphics on the Amigo are calling my name!!

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago

Spectrum for sure. That interior is pretty well-equipped and forward (it doesn’t scream ’80s) for what it is, the red pinstripe matching the red TURBOs, and OMG those wheels. Not to mention the manual.

(and I actually now recall seeing more I-Marks than Spectrums on the road back when…wow)

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