By on July 25, 2019

Last time on Buy/Drive/Burn, we considered three-door Japanese SUVs from 1989. In this edition, we move forward a couple years in history and down a size class. Up for grabs are compact SUVs with removable roofs, all of them Japanese.

Suzuki Samurai

The smallest of our trio was also the oldest. Suzuki started making their second generation Jimny in 1981, code named SJ30. The tiny truck wore about 13 different names depending on market, and was also sold as a Chevrolet, Holden, Santana, and Maruti. The first Samurais arrived in North America for the 1986 model year. Small revisions in 1988 upped comfort and livability factors, and late in 1991 the 1.3-liter engine was replaced by a new version which had fuel injection (TBI). A five-speed manual handled all 66 horsepower. Upcoming safety regulations killed the Samurai after the 1995 model year, though it remained on sale elsewhere through 1998. Samurai’s American market replacement was the Suzuki version of the Geo below.

Geo Tracker

Jointly developed between GM and Suzuki, production of the Geo Tracker began in Japan in 1989. Japanese production for the first two model years was an accommodation to the folks in Ingersoll, Ontario, who couldn’t get the new CAMI plant up and running on time. Our northern neighbours didn’t receive Geos, so the Tracker was called a Sunrunner and sold by Asuna, and later, Pontiac. Canada also called it the GMC Tracker. Through 1995, the 1.6-liter engine provided 80 horsepower distributed via five manual gears. The Suzuki Sidekick and Geo twins lasted through 1998 in their initial guise. Let’s just say things went way downhill from there.

Isuzu Amigo

The largest option of our trio, Isuzu’s Amigo made its way to North America as a 1990 model. The Amigo and Rodeo also had about 13 different names, like MU, MU Wizard, Chevrolet Frontera and Rodeo, and the Honda Jazz in Japan. The first couple of Amigo years were spartan: Options were limited to things like air conditioning, and whether owners wanted two or four seats. Rear-drive versions had a 2.3-liter engine, while the four-wheel drive version (today’s option) was blessed with a larger 2.6-liter inline-four. The five-speed manual wrangled 120 horsepower in that guise. A five-door Rodeo joined the Amigo for 1991, and North American examples were built at the Subaru-Isuzu plant in Lafayette, Indiana (learned something). Amigo took a nap after 1994, and the Rodeo soldiered on alone until 1998, when both models rejoined the fray for a second generation. Amigo became Rodeo Sport in 2001, and died with Rodeo after 2004.

Three Nineties SUVs that promise fun in the sun, which goes home with the Big Buy?

[Images: Geo, Suzuki, Isuzu]

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47 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Compact Japanese SUVs From 1991...”

  • avatar

    …and I thought you might include the Rocky in the mix! I’ve driven two of the three, so here goes:

    Buy: Tracker. For the time, not a bad truck. Had some as a rental car to take offroad, including near Mount Saint Helens and the logging paths near there, and just beat the living snot out of it. It was up to the challenge.

    Drive: Samurai. Consumer Reports death-mobile, yes. But it served its purpose well by being cheap, fun, and (after an ungodly amount of minutes) going topless. It could barely beat the John Deere riding mower in your garage in a straight line, but it could also go offroad, and was a cool accessory for the beach.

    Burn. Easy one…Amigo. Swing and a miss. Barely above a piece of farm equipment in terms of what it offered, and I recall them being rather expensive for what it offered. Looked a little odd, no charm, just a cash grab by Isuzu to get a piece of the pie.

    …still waiting for the supercar QOTD! ;-)

  • avatar

    Drive: Samuri – These are a lot of fun to drive. They fit on UTV and quad trails. If you roll one over, you only need four big friends or a come-along to put it back on its wheels and drive it home.

    Buy: Amigo – since it wont cost you more than $1000.

    Burn: Geo – its a Geo.

  • avatar

    Let’s see, I loved them all in all their awfulness

    Buy, the Amigo, it may be farm equipment, but it was the closest thing to a “real” SUV

    Drive, the Tracker, if you can find one running

    Burn, the Samurai, this was the real farm tractor

  • avatar

    Going on nothing but appearance: Buy – Amigo; Drive – Tracker; Burn – Sumurai.

  • avatar

    We did get Geos up here, just not the Tracker at the time I guess (or the Prizm). We certainly got the Metro and the Storm (as well as the Pontiac Firefly which was sold alongside the Metro).

    We eventually got the Geo Tracker later into the 90’s since the vast majority of these that still exist up here are Geo badged

    • 0 avatar

      Buy: Amigo, it’s still easily the coolest of all 3 of these and has a certain college parking lot charm.

      Drive: Tracker, it’s one of the most 90’s vehicles around, even though it came out in the 80’s.

      Burn: Samurai, most of them have been already

      • 0 avatar
        A Scientist

        “…has a certain college parking lot charm.”

        I couldn’t quite think of the words to describe why I like the Amigo better than the others, and this nails it! I like all of these, but my picks would be:

        Buy: Amigo. For reasons above plus seems like it would be the easiest to live with.
        Drive: Tracker. Would be a lot of fun.
        Burn: Samurai. Probably just as fun, but too much tin-can for me.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @Scott, you are correct. Originally it was sold as both the Chevy Tracker and GMC Tracker in Canada. Then the Geo Tracker. Then the Asuna Sunrunner. Finally the Pontiac Sunrunner.

      All basically the same vehicle as the Suzuki Sidekick.

      Buy: The Tracker, particularly if the 4 door is allowed. A competent, rugged vehicle. My mechanic still runs one. And I have even seen them used to plow.

      Drive: The Samurai, just to see if it is as tippy as reputed.

      Burn: The Isuzu. Which I am not even sure we got in Canada?

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, as Arthur said, we definitely got the Tracker as a Geo, even from ’91 – they used to be all over the place.

      Also, to elaborate for Corey’s sake, since Geo was sold through Chevrolet-Olds dealers, Buick-Pontiac dealers demanded an equivalent, which is why we got Asuna (and also why we got Pontiac-badged Aveos and Cobalts before the US did).

      • 0 avatar

        Canadian distribution is too complicated!

        I wonder how close Passport was to having a Tracker.

        • 0 avatar

          Considering Passport was sold alongside Isuzu (and the writing was inevitably on the wall with Saturn coming, and taking Passport’s place in Saab/Isuzu dealers), I’d imagine trying to bring a Suzuki in the mix might’ve been a debacle. On the other hand, the Passport Optima and Isuzu Stylus were sold alongside each other, so I don’t know how coherent product planning was besides keeping the dealers content.

  • avatar

    I WILL BURN NOTHING! I sorely miss this class of trucklet, I respect all of the ones listed for different reasons. I just wish I lived in a place where these make sense to own, like Costa Rica!

  • avatar

    Buy Samarai. It’s iconic and you can always sell it later for a profit. I once drove one all over the western half of Costa Rica, although I’m convinced that the 3rd world model had much less power than the US trim one based on road test results. On the longest stretch of straight pavement I found, I wound that rented Samarai up to 110. That’s kilometers an hour. The engine was screaming and it felt like a land speed record attempt. Then the pavement ended and we hobby horsed across the dirt and gravel in a manner that seemed conducive to executing a forward gainer. I wound that little SUV out to redline on every shift, and downshifted as soon as I wouldn’t exceed maximum engine speed in the next lower gear. My reward was rarely being tailgated by buses.

    When I got back to the states, I felt like my BMW was going to shoot out from under me. I asked a coworker who commuted in one how he did it, and he insisted that his kept up with traffic fine and could go 85 mph v. the 68 mph I achieved on a slight downhill in Costa Rica. His also had lots of miles, while the one I rented had 6,800 kilometers. The rental place wanted us to take a different one with 3,000 kilometers because they felt that it had too many kilometers to take it where we were going. Maybe we should have listened, but the other one didn’t have a back seat.

    Drive the Tracker. 80 hp!!!

    Burn the Amigo. At the end of the day, Isuzu is GM.

    I’ll take a Rocky over all of these. They were the best of the genre.

    • 0 avatar

      Izuzu isn’t GM.

    • 0 avatar

      You folks realize at that time both Suzuki and Isuzu were GM, correct? Burn both or neither, if that’s your criteria.

      • 0 avatar

        At one point GM owned 5.3% of Suzuki. At another point VW owned 19.8% of Suzuki. I’m not swayed. Suzuki in the ’90s wasn’t selling vehicles with heavy GM content in the US, Isuzu was. At the end of the day, 94.7% is an A and 51% is an F.

        • 0 avatar

          At one point (2000) GM owned 20% of Suzuki. That beats VW’s share of Suzuki.

          Burn VW too?

          • 0 avatar

            There are few VWs I wouldn’t burn. They’ve already burned me. 2000 is after the SUVs we’re discussing were made, so it is a moot point that GM metastasized their Suzuki position. Should I not admire Erik Carlson’s driving because GM eventually got its tentacles into Saab?

          • 0 avatar

            You’re in luck ~ even the decent, air cooled VW’s will self immolate if you ignore basic maintenance .

            I remember when Los Angeles was jam packed with Suzuki Kamikazes, at least 1/2 of them Ghetto rigs lowered and chromed beyond all good taste .

            There are still loads of them far out in the Desert, chugging along just fine if slowly .


          • 0 avatar

            “Should I not admire Erik Carlson’s driving because GM eventually got its tentacles into Saab?”

            I’m not quite sure what that has to do with GM’s ownership of Suzuki, but you’re free to admire whomever you like.

  • avatar

    I’m not a fan of that man’s giant sub handling decisions.

  • avatar
    kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh

    The Amigo is not a bad option, once you swapped in a smallblock.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Amigo- It’s based on the Isuzu Pup which makes it a real trucklet.

    Drive: Tracker-It’s far more substantial than the Samurai and better for daily driving.

    Burn: Samurai-Too agricultural but ok for off-roading.

    Honorable mention: Daihatsu Rocky-though most were sold on the west coast.

  • avatar

    All three choices can only be seen by Murilee – if he’s lucky to find one. The overwhelming majority have been crushed by now.

  • avatar

    Rules be damned, I’m not about to burn ANY open topped 2-door sports utility with BOF, rwd based 4×4 and actual off road capabilities. We need exactly this, and more of it.

    Drive the Suzukis (tracker is suzuki) for the hell of it but buy the Amigo. At the time it was the only credible challenge to the Wrangler—although it comes off more as a 2/3 scale Bronco or K5 in execution and appearance. Make sure it’s got 4×4, manual transmission and sunroof to get more of the open feel. I overwhelmingly prefer the first gen Amigo to the second gen which seemed more ‘soft’ and less utilitarian. Bummer these only had 4 cans under the hood but realistically, if I had one right now id use an all-Toyota (solid axle) drivetrain and a GM V6, either the 4.3 or 3800.

  • avatar

    If I could get a brand new built buy Suzuki two door convertible manual transmission 4×4 Tracker I would buy it.

  • avatar

    Very easy. Drive the Suzuki Samurai, the original. The Tracker and Amigo are just pale, half-baked imitations of the Samurai.

    In the early 1990s I did try out a German-spec Suzuki SJ with a 1.9 Diesel engine (Suzuki bought them from Renault and Peugeot). While not very agile, I did enjoy myself and rated the SJ as a lot of fun to drive. The car felt unrefined and like a truck, and these attributes suited its working character.

  • avatar

    Buy them all. They are all different and had different strengths and weaknesses. They were all competent offroaders.

  • avatar

    Confession: I own a 2002 Isuzu Rodeo Sport. ‘Izzy’ to my kids.

    The gen I have is much nicer than the Amigo. But I also feel like these are all great fun in their own way and a Wrangler alternative that won’t cost much to buy or operate (I see you, LR Defender 90.)

    Other than a few unique parts that needed international assistance to find vs. the regular Rodeo, its been my best value purchase in my history (20+) of cars and bikes I’ve owned.

    • 0 avatar

      I own a 1998 Rodeo which was the first year of the second gen Rodeo/Amigos. As long as you had the Isuzu 3.2L V6 they are very reliable. The 4 cylider engine was trash though. I’m about to put 300k miles on mine. The factory brake pads lasted 150k miles. If you can find the genuine Isuzu parts they last forever, but it’s getting harder to find them. Luckily you can still get them though Honda most of the time since they sold the Passports.

      Example: The Alternator went out at about 180k miles. I bought the OReiley remanufactured one ($140) and it barely lasted 3 years. Maybe 30k miles. Replaced it with an OReiley “NEW” ($190) alternate. That one lasted two years and maybe 10k miles. Ordered the genuine Isuzu one through Honda ($325) and it’s been going for the last 5 years since and coming up on 70 or 80k miles on it without problems. The Isuzu parts are pricy but every time they have been far superior to the auto part replacements. On the plus side I can change the alternator in about an hour now.

      • 0 avatar

        I may bug you the next time I can’t find something ;0

        Good to hear about the engine, as I have v6 as well. (We’re at just 92k miles) I believe the AT might be shared with GM (although I’ve had no issues yet.)

        I recently got bushings (specifically the rears were an issue, the fronts are shared with 4 door Rodeos/Passports) that I had to import from Serbia – these trucks also have Opel/Vauxhall part numbers that still are available (for now) thru certain sources throughout the EU and points east.

  • avatar
    DJ None

    Buy: the Amigo but it would have to be the 2nd gen one
    Drive: the Tracker ( i almost bought one as my first car a 5spd one)
    Burn: that horrible Samurai

  • avatar

    Is it wrong to make the decision based on quoted power outputs over all else? They all have similar aesthetic attributes and seem to be on tipsy side.

    Buy: FWD Amigo
    Drive: Tracker
    Burn: Samurai. Wasn’t this the guy that had a particular penchant for removing its passengers the easy way, rolling over?

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