"One tonne rodeo… he drives a one-tonne-row-day-ooo…" is the song that played in my mind after purchasing my one owner, sea foam blue (yes, you read right) manual, three point two litre V6 petrol-powered 4WD dual-cab ute. This car was a pragmatic choice…not an affair of the heart. I desperately wanted a '4 by 4' to go bush and lug a dirt bike around.
I wanted to do 'Fraser' repeatedly and knock over some off-roading with mates, all for a budget of around 15K. I wanted to have solid car, with low kilometres that was clean and trouble free. Champagne dreams on a beer budget is where I was at. So why a Rodeo?
Having had a previous 2WD Rodeo with high kilometres that was picked up for a song, I figured I had some history (and left over spares) that could be used on this next purchase. These are built by Isuzu, not Holden, and can be very reliable if maintained well.
They are simple to work on, are relatively cheap to buy and if you look online, lots of dreamers are trying to sell them with odometers that match a Powerball Jackpot.
If people have driven them to the moon and back and are still asking money for them they must be solid. Being Japanese, I would imagine they were screwed together with some form of care and precision. I also know that Isuzu builds trucks and will assume they have some expertise in creating a quality utilitarian vehicle capable of repeatedly dragging or carrying loads around all day without fuss. So there you have it… this was my quintessential logic at that time of my life.
I spotted the car online and instantly grabbed the phone, but did not read that it was in Queensland. Living in Melbourne meant that checking it out was a $400 one way ticket gamble. Thankfully, it was immaculate and at 13.5K - this one owner, low km and highly accessorised Isuzu/Holden love child was just what I was looking for… referring to the logic in the previous paragraph.
It had just ticked over 100,000km, had a full history and a long list of useful custom and purchased accessories. It was also absurdly clean, and had a bonnet free of stone chips thanks to the grandpa spec bonnet protector. Looking for issues without success, I opened the doors to suss out the cabin. The inside was squeaky clean, and the paper work was in order - this was all looking too good to my savvy little eyes.
I could tell the owner absolutely loved his car, as he had purchased a custom carpet cover for the dash – must have been an Autobarn special. It had been meticulously positioned with velcro-backed stickers. These were strategically placed to hold it perfectly in position in order to maximise the blocking of the sun, preventing decay of the el-cheapo hard plastic dash. Love it!
Yes, it was very clear that I was looking at a car that represented more to the owner than to me. You could see the detail everywhere and the pride in his face. Bless people like this… I wish everyone had this sort of commitment and passion when looking after their rides. The decision to buy got easier as I walked around the car repeatedly like a cat trying to find its ideal spot on your favourite cushion.
Dual batteries, custom bull bar and sliders, 2m x 2m aluminium tray, tool boxes, custom canvas canopy, roof bars, custom under tray water tank, an extra set of alloys, long range fuel tank, TJM spotlights, towbar, air bags in the rear suspension, pioneer head unit, additional petrol filtration system, the list was huge.
I was expecting to see inch-thick mud under the car and a ton of black paint over the chassis rails to cover up scratches and rust. The undercarriage looked like it had spent most of its life on road rather than off - I was not complaining as there were no nasties for me to discover.
After a quick spin around the block to double-check that all was in order, as well as a call to the vehicles securities register, I handed over the cash without haggling and headed home nearly 2000km away.
Along the journey no surprises came up. I could feel the weight of all the accessories which became more apparent at the bowser. My previous 3.2L V6 could manage flat 9's on a country run, and this one was lucky to get 12 litres per 100 kilometres. Despite the heavy fuel consumption, the car felt great and did not rattle, squeak or make any odd noises. The seats were super comfy and the owner claimed he had taken them out of an old Nissan GTR and got them trimmed to match the interior. Talk about keen.
This car took me on many repeated memorable journeys through Toolangi, Gembrook and Bunyip state forest without any breakdowns. I got to do 'Fraser' a number of times and loved every minute of it. When catching up with mate for some off-roading, the company around me was always in more costly machines that were far newer and more capable than my low buck Rodeo. Despite being a near standard, I was never left behind.
That’s not to say the Rodeo kept up effortlessly. Understanding its limitations meant it gave me many heart in mouth moments as I used all my skills (not to mention hope as a strategy) to keep it upright when the going got hard. Being in a less capable machine meant where others just drove over things, or down steep descents, I had to use momentum or apply some serious butt clenching to negotiate the same path.
I was able to keep up 99% of the time and not suffer the indignity of getting bogged or dragged over an obstacle. Even the odd ambitious rock step was clambered over without too much fuss or panel damage.
Well done Mr. Isuzu for building a good little unit that could operate outside of its intended brief. These cars are not serious off-roaders, nor do they pretend to be. From the factory they are low, have little wheels and tyres and come with archaic torsion bar suspension in the front and standard leaf springs in the rear. Suspension articulation is limited and no locking centre differential exists, just an LSD in the rear.
To help it out off-road I did give it a cheap 2-inch suspension lift. Some time on the end of a rattle gun helped wind up the torsion bars. This sort of lift does have its compromises as front wheel droop is lost, meaning off road articulation suffers more than at the standard height. A 2-inch body lift helped me clear the larger tyres I had in mind as I had purchased another set of wheels fitted with near new 32-inch Cooper STT's to maximise my ability to run with the pack.
The big tyres toughened the look of the car at the cost of fuel consumption, performance, and gearing. 13.5-14L/100km on a light run was the best it could manage while trundling along.
Off-road, the factory LSD differential was the main blessing to give it some push as it helped me climb out of many an awkward rut or difficult obstacle. The big tyres unfortunately also hurt the low range gearing, requiring some clutch abuse to keep it going through the gnarly stuff. Where the big tyres shone was in up-hill mud climbs.
Deep tread blocks combined with lots of ground clearance (for a Rodeo) and being relatively light in weight meant it walked up tracks that it could never have looked at in stock trim. Being sensible and patient, I got the Rodeo through everything without hurting the old girl. I did not want to disrespect the effort that the previous owner had gone to.
The engine was a perky mid-capacity unit - in typical Japanese style it was smooth, reliable but lacked charisma despite being an indulgent drinker. Low down torque was not great, but it was adequate for most situations. When my trusty Holden station wagon broke down near home, I hired a tandem trailer (1250kg), then winched the car (1550kg) onto the trailer and towed it to get fixed.
Without realising it at the time, because I was trying to quickly get my dead car off the road, the little Isuzu was tugging a mass of around 2.8 tonnes. It did this without fuss or sway. Go the Isuzu…
Being a Rodeo, it has a 6-stud wheel pattern that is common to many other makes. This allowed me to access various 'fun' wheel options that were relatively cheap to buy. Having an extra set of wheels wrapped in street tyres meant I did not have to use my STT's on the road and suffer from mud tyre roar, excessive fuel consumption, vibration and poor on road handling.
Once behind the wheel, the first thing you notice is that the interior space has a cosy feel to it; not too big or too small. The dash layout and controls are functional as opposed to stylish. Switch gear, pedal placement and gear levers were laid out logically and were easily accessible and light to use.
The plastics were good and stood up to some abrasion without becoming overtly damaged in the process. Infotainment was an old tape deck that had been replaced by a nice pioneer unit.
The ride was acceptable considering its utilitarian purpose. It was a little bouncy without a load in the rear. The steering lacked feel and precision, but it was something you got used to quickly.
A lack of ABS caught me out a few times in the wet when during hard braking I became a passenger in my own car waiting for the car to find traction and stop… not fun, especially as hospital food was not good the last time I visited.
Over my 4 years of ownership, the experience was always positive. It was budget motoring at its best and I would definitely recommend this car to anyone who wants to explore Australia without a massive outlay. I've had no mechanical issues apart from needing an air con re-gas when a connection vibrated loose.
Yes, it is not frugal, nor is it the most capable or spacious ute on the market. But at around $15K fully set up for my combination it made financial sense for an affordable way to get into off-roading without spending big, compromising on build quality or resale.
When I scored a job overseas and was unsure of my return, I put the sea foam blue (*it looked green) Rodeo ute on the market and it sold in a flash to another like-minded soul who hopefully will experience trouble free motoring for years to come.