From the November 1989 issue of Car and Driver.
Never let it be said that we at Car and Driver don’t make that extra effort to find new and exciting locales for our road tests. In our never-ending quest to bring you the best in automotive entertainment, we’ve battled Baja, assaulted Alaska, braved countless German autobahns, circled the Transportation Research Center’s big bowl at more than 230 mph, and conducted comparison tests from Florida to California.
So far, none of these excursions have been off-road. At least not intentionally. For our latest adventure, therefore, we decided to play dirty: we organized the first-ever C/D sport-utility desert test.
Why, you might legitimately ask, would we bother to test a squad of small four-by-fours in the desert? After all, isn’t this magazine by and for pavement guys? Well, yes. But we had a good reason: we wanted to. Besides, by now everyone knows that trucks have become a popular alternative to cars for tens of thousands of buyers. And among trucks, small sport-utility vehicles have acquired an almost fanatic following. Little sport-utilities have their own clubs, their own newsletters, their own magazines, and an aftermarket parts and accessories network every bit as loony as the one that grew up around sports cars.
Before we had time to come to our senses and call off our desert duel, we booked airline tickets, organized a group of four worthy test vehicles, and hired an experienced desert guide. Our destination: the Mojave Road, an off-road trail reputed to be bereft of creature comforts but loaded with history, rattlesnakes, cactuses, and the bleached bones of luckless travelers.
As our guide we hired Spencer Murray, a veteran of the Southwest deserts and a man who has logged decades at the editor’s desks of numerous off-road magazines. Murray would make an ideal chaperone not only because he knows the Mojave, but also because he understands the need for endless photo stops. This, after all, would be a C/D comparison test, not a Lewis and Clark expedition. Which meant that in the case of a crash, the first priority would be to call for the photographer, not an airlift.
Four C/D staffers cleared their schedules to make the trek: Rich Ceppos, Csaba Csere, John Phillips III, and yours truly. As our mounts, we gathered the only four small sport-utilities with peel-off tops—an essential part of the “cheap Jeep” experience. Our quartet: the Geo Tracker Convertible, the Jeep Wrangler Islander, the Isuzu Amigo XS, and the Suzuki Samurai JL.
One other item bears mention. We decided to conduct our little adventure in late July, the hottest time of the year. Maybe this would turn out to be a Lewis and Clark expedition after all…
The Mojave Road traces a rough arc from Needles, California, on the western bank of the Colorado River, to Barstow, California, in the middle of what is commonly called “nowhere.” At its highest point, the road reaches an elevation of 5200 feet.
Centuries before the white man arrived, the Mojave Indians blazed this trail to barter with the coastal tribes in Los Angeles. Although the desert flats offered an easier walk, they contained no water—and the Mojaves couldn’t carry enough to sustain them all the way to the coast. They therefore followed a trail that connected natural springs at roughly seventeen-mile intervals—short enough distance for a dedicated Native American trader to walk in a day.
Until the first white men arrived, the Mojave Indians were peaceful, friendly farmers who kept their fields irrigated by the annual flooding of the Colorado River. Their crops and the abundance of game around the river provided a rich diet, and the Indians grew as big as professional wrestlers.
When Jedediah Strong Smith showed up in 1826 looking for a way across the desert to the Pacific, the Mojaves courteously led him across their trail. This landed Smith in the history books as the first white man to make the overland trek. Prior to that, the best way from the Atlantic to the Pacific had been around South America by ship.
As more and more white settlers showed up and threw their weight around, Mojave courtesy ran thin. Wagon trains on the Mojave Trail were ambushed. Eventually the government stepped in and built a fort on the eastern bank of the river, restoring peace at the point of rifle. Also, a number of smaller forts, called “redoubts,” were built on the trail to fend off the nomadic Chemehuevis Indians, who lived in the deep desert.
By the late 1800s, the railroad had pushed through, rendering wagon trains, the Mojave Trail, and even the Mojave Indians obsolete. The trail sank into the ooze of history and faded from public knowledge until the early 1960s.
It was rediscovered, in a sense, by Dennis Casebier, a desert historian and a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy. Casebier had read of the trail in obscure historical accounts—journals and records in the National Archives referred to it simply as “the Government Road”—but in all his years in the desert he had never seen it. Casebier did his initial explorations by airplane and was able to pick out some traces of the trail that the desert hadn’t reclaimed. He next followed the trail on foot, taking eight days to cover its 139-mile length.
Since then, through the efforts of Casebier and the Bureau of Land Management, the newly named Mojave Road has been opened to the public. This is a good news-bad news situation. Generally, the first thing the public does when entering virgin territory is to relive history by getting drunk and shooting everything in sight. Fortunately for this piece of real estate, members of the Friends of the Mojave Road, an organization headed by Casebier, regularly patrol the road, collecting litter and repairing what damage they can.
Our expedition packed no weapons other than barbed wits and sharp comebacks. We did, however, carry snake-bite kits, an assortment of tools, a tire inflator, CB radios, coolers stocked with food and water, and notebooks for recording our impressions or leaving a few last words for the search parties.
Fourth Place: Suzuki Samurai JL
Okay, let’s get the sniping out of the way. In its logbook, the Samurai was alternately called “the penalty box,” “the Suzuki Sand-inside,” and “the Hamamatsu Matchbox.” But forget about that. We wanted the little Samurai in this test. It was, after all, the vehicle that launched the so-called cheap-Jeep revolution. And it was valuable for purposes of comparison; how far have the Samurai’s competitors really come?
A long way, as it turns out. In addition to offering the least horsepower and torque, the Samurai also offers the least storage capacity. The rear seat, which is of no known use to any adult, should be unbolted and stored permanently in a kitchen cupboard. The clutch takeup is so abrupt that each of us stalled the Samurai at least twice. In testing, the Samurai delivered the worst 0-to-60 acceleration and achieved a top speed of only 77 mph. And with the air conditioning engaged, simply maintaining 70 mph required continuous wide-open throttle. Given the Samurai’s 10.6-gallon tank, you’ll soon become expert at planning your fuel stops.
At the front and rear of the Samurai are rigid axles located by leaf springs—basically a seven-eighths-scale copy of the Jeep’s underpinnings. But while the Jeep makes use of an extremely rigid frame mated to springs with relatively long travel, the Samurai takes the opposite tack, mating a mushy, flexible frame to springs that are as stiff as a locomotive’s. This lash-up actually deals satisfactorily with large, low-amplitude undulations. But washboard surfaces, broken pavement, and rocky trails trigger abrupt ride motions, some pitching and pogo-sticking, and more cowl shake than you’d find in a pranged MG Midget. (Suzuki recently set out to mitigate the ride problems by reducing the number of leaves in the front springs and reducing spring thickness at the rear. This “fix” still isn’t entirely successful. But if you are Samurai-smitten, be sure to ask for the upgraded model.)
Of course, no vehicle that has sold so briskly can be wholly vile, and so it is with the Samurai. The gear shift is light and smooth, the front seats are nicely bolstered, and the 1.3-liter four is surprisingly quiet and vibration free. Climbing steep off-road grades, the Samurai—despite its carbureted 63-hp engine—runs out of traction before it runs out of power. (Never, incidentally, during 450 miles of brutal on- and off-road driving, did the Suzuki so much as threaten to take a header.) Because of its stubby wheelbase and length (it is 33.1 inches shorter than the Amigo!), the Samurai’s nose and tail don’t drag over even the craggiest terrain. And the turning circle is a tight 33.4 feet.
Strictly from a fiscal standpoint, the Samurai remains the king of the cheap-Jeep class, and it deserves some credit as the vehicle that inspired the niche in the first place. But the fact is, the as-tested price of our Samurai was only $661 less than the base price of the Geo Tracker Convertible. The Geo, meanwhile, feels twice as substantial and twice as much fun. Nowadays, “cute and cheap,” the phrase most often mouthed by Samurai owners, just isn’t enough. —John Phillips III
1989 Suzuki Samurai JL
63-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2100 lb
Base/as-tested price: $8854/$9734
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 4.5 sec
60 mph: 18.7 sec
1/4 mile: 20.5 sec @ 64 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 219 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.71 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
We spent the first night in Needles, with the intention of getting an early start. As it turned out, we got a late start—mostly because we became emotionally attached to the air conditioners in our motel rooms. It isn’t exactly hot in Needles. In July, it’s unbelievably, awfully hot. And it would get even worse during our trip.
As we gassed our vehicles, one of the station attendants asked us where we were going. We told him, and he mentioned that a man from Los Angeles had been killed on the Mojave Road a few weeks earlier when his truck turned upside down. We told him we were professionals. And besides, we had Crescent wrenches, aspirin, and plenty of duct tape for the injured.
We started our trip on the west bank of the Colorado River, at a point where the pioneers forded their wagons. Back then, the river was anywhere from a quarter-mile to a mile across. Nowadays, due to the dams upstream, you can throw a rock across it. It was here that Ceppos, in typical C/D don’t-do-something-easy-if-you-can-make-it-difficult fashion, decided that the only manly way of making the trip was without air conditioning. We rolled up our eyes, rolled down the windows, and prepared to eat dirt for the next 138.8 miles.
Within a few miles of leaving pavement, the feeling of isolation was all-enveloping. Trust us: no amount of PBS nature programming can fully prepare you for the onslaught of the desert. It has its own fatal beauty, like a .357 Magnum in the hands of a well-maintained heiress. Looking across the vast, empty Mojave, it was easy to understand how the Indians saw spirits in the hills and heard voices in the wind. Either that, or we were already beginning to suffer from sunstroke.
At our first vehicle swap, the question of the moment was, “They really took wagons over this?” Although hardly a challenge for modern four-by-fours—even the miniature machines we were testing—it seemed impossible that overloaded, animal-drawn wagons could have made it over this tortured terrain. To a bunch of guys who consider driving a car with less than 200 horsepower a barbaric hardship, the thought of inching along in a wooden bucket, defying a broiling sun, disease, and snakes, seemed as unfathomable as quantum physics or South American politics. Plus, the pioneers had to do it without Gatorade.
We bumped along at 10 mph in gapejawed wonder. For the duration of the trip we couldn’t shake the feeling that the pioneer must have been made of stronger stuff than we modern travelers. Or else they were flat out of their minds.
Around mid-morning, roughly 23 miles from the start, we arrived at the ruin of Fort Piute, built in 1860 on a hill overlooking Piute Springs. Actually, calling this place a fort was a dumb idea. “Fort” Piute, built entirely of stone, was essentially one big room with an attached corral. Designed to protect passing wagon trains, it was manned by a small contingent of cavalry. All that remains are crumbling walls. We searched for artifacts and relics from the cavalry day , but found only scores of modern rifle shells—fired, no doubt, at cactuses, rocks, trees, and at what’s left of the fort. The American yahoo mentality apparently flourishes in the desert.
Down the hill from the fort we visited Piute Springs, a magical wet spot in the middle of the arid desert. From deep in the earth, 250,000 gallons of water daily rises up through a fissure, creating an oasis of trees, brush, and bizarre desert flowers. If you’re lucky, you’ll see desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles. We weren’t. And didn’t. A creek from the springs runs for a mile down the canyon and then sinks back into the sand. Settlers stopped here to replenish their water supply, graze their animals, and no doubt ponder why in the world they ever left Connecticut.
After leaving the hills of Piute Springs, we descended to Lanfair Valley, a flat plain that long ago had been the bottom of an ocean. In fact, most of what we were crossing was once ocean floor. There were places where the road sinks five or six feet into what looked like a drainage ditch. Our small, narrow sport-utilities were perfect in these little trenches.
By now every vehicle—and driver—was coated with a thick layer of dust. The Samurai looked the worst. For some reason it attracted dust like a magnet, becoming so thoroughly plastered with grit that it was impossible to see the instruments.
It was blazingly, incredibly hot. Ceppos—he of the no air-conditioning rule—started feeling sick. John Phillips began a regular ritual of staring blankly into the distance and shouting, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” Though we hadn’t yet melted into helpless lumps of protoplasm, we were clearly starting to unravel. The water and the Gatorade were disappearing fast. And we were still two hours—about twenty miles—from the nearest shade and lunch.
We pushed on. At several points during the next two hours we noticed a long, tan scar in the desert running parallel to the road. Murray explained this was an underground telephone cable that ran from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles. It had been installed by the government at the height of the nuclear-war paranoia in the early 1960s, the theory being that if the Ruskies dropped the big one, at least both coasts would be able to communicate—albeit while slowly croaking from radiation poisoning. The cable is still patrolled by government aircraft and occasionally serviced—at taxpayer expense, of course.
We made it to Rock Spring for lunch. Rock Spring is another oasis where water magically rises to the desert surface. In the summer it’s just a trickle, but it has been known to gush a quarter-mile-long tongue into the sand. Murray produced a photo, taken in 1863 by a photographer named Rudolph d’Heureuse, of a group of miners at this spot. With that photo in hand, our expedition lensman, David Dewhurst, organized us on the same site and took a similar picture. If you compare the two, you’ll notice that the sand floor of the wash has dropped considerably since 1863 but the rocks remain as they were.
Third Place: Jeep Wrangler Islander
The Jeep Wrangler is the civilian descendant of the rock hopper that helped win World War II. So if it seems as old and quirky as your Uncle Ernie on Remembrance Day, well, you shouldn’t be too surprised. Old and quirky isn’t necessarily bad, as Porsche has amply demonstrated with its venerable 911. Indeed, when AMC hinted in 1985 that it might kill the Jeep, the Jamboree junkies whipped themselves into the sort of frenzy that would make the NRA look positively spineless.
And so the Jeep soldiers on, although few soldiers—and certainly not George Patton—would recognize the current Wrangler Islander, with its festive complement of sunrise decals, stripes, carpeting, high-back bucket seats, and spoked wheels.
What General Patton would recognize, at any speed above 25 mph or so, is the racket in the cockpit: metal-to-metal groans and rattles combined with the roar of wind and the furious flapping of canvas. And he’d also recognize the jittery, bone-jarring ride, in part a consequence of the stiff, old-fashioned semi-elliptic multileaf springs fitted at all four corners.
The Wrangler Islander’s most endearing feature is its gutsy 4.2-Iiter inline six, which produces 210 pound-feet of torque at 2000 rpm—barely off idle. This optional engine costs $417, and you’re out of your mind if you forego it. Among our four comparison vehicles, the Jeep scored the best 0-to-60 sprint, although at 14.0 seconds that run is more a saunter than a sprint. Off-road, all of that extra torque means that you simply select first gear and, without any extra throttle, the Islander happily walks up steep embankments, along rockstrewn goat trails, maybe up the side of the Queen Mary.
With a ground clearance of 8.1 inches and a relatively short wheelbase, the Jeep feels unstoppable. On the Mojave Road, it once idled over the bank of a particularly nasty dry wash—a geographical impediment that had, a moment earlier, stopped the Tracker almost dead in its tracks. Even the Wrangler’s sloppy steering—its two or three inches of play are a constant nuisance on the highway—works to your advantage off-road, where kickback is virtually nonexistent.
Alas, even die-hard dirt donks have to drive to work. Come Monday morning, the Jeep’s great off-road tricks are suddenly of little value. At 60 mph, the canvas seems determined to rip cleanly from its moorings, and when the side curtains are dusty, the outside mirrors are virtually invisible. The carbureted engine delivers poor fuel economy. The seatback is not adjustable for rake. And the sharp aluminum steering-wheel spokes are about as inviting to hold as mail-order steak knives.
We might forgive those imperfections if it weren’t for the Islander’s as-tested price of $15,339, a figure that did the Jeep serious damage during our value-for-money voting. Still, two C/D staffers own Wranglers (“a genuine chunk of American history,” rationalizes one editor). And it is only in a Jeep that you can stand in the driver’s seat and, peering at distant sand dunes, shout, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” —John Phillips III
1989 Jeep Wrangler Islander
112-hp inline-6, 5-speed manual, 3420 lb
Base/as-tested price: $11,721/$15,339
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 4.1 sec
60 mph: 14.0 sec
1/4 mile: 19.5 sec @ 69 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 230 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
The rocks and boulders around the spring are dotted with ancient Indian petroglyphs and vintage graffiti scratched into history by the pony soldiers stationed on a nearby bluff. Mercifully, we didn’t see any graffiti of the spray-can “Bon Jovi rules” variety, but—as usual—the desert was littered with spent .22 shells and shotgun hulls.
Rock Spring sits at an elevation of 4800 feet, so the temperature was a cool 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The frigid weather did nothing to cure Ceppos’s whirlies, though, and Phillips continued to bellow into the dust in a vain attempt to summon the ghost of Erwin Rommel. Only Dewhurst and Murray appeared normal, mostly because they weren’t official test subjects and thus were allowed to run the air conditioner in their Toyota Land Cruiser support vehicle.
After leaving Rock Spring and driving a few miles farther, we stopped at Government Holes, which by now is nothing more than a well, a stock tank, and a few trees. At one time, Government Holes was the center of the East Mojave cattle industry. A house once stood on the site—which turned out to be the scene of the last recorded gunfight of the Old West. It seems a gunslinger named J.W. Robinson, hired by a local cattle baron to intercept cattle rustlers, had it out with Matt Burts, a former employee of the same cattle boss. The details of the encounter have been lost to history, but apparently both men emptied their guns into each other and both died on the spot. That was in 1925.
By the time we reached Marl Springs, 70 miles into our journey, our water was practically gone. We figured we’d gone through a couple of gallons per person. The odd thing about the desert is that no matter how much you drink, you never really sweat. You sort of glow with a thin layer of moisture that, because of the very low humidity, evaporates instantIy. But you’re moist enough that the dust sticks to your skin. After several hours of driving in the dust wake of the vehicle ahead, you look like a piece of batter-dipped chicken. And you feel like one. The trucks looked as if they had been cast in sand.
Marl Springs, another of nature’s leaky faucets, was populated in the early days by miners. You can still see remains of their ore-crushing operations. A little further on, we came to the mailbox that the Friends of the Mojave Road have installed. This metal box contains a register that travelers are encouraged to write in. In it you’ll find lots of “What are we doing here?” notations and other zircons of wit. The register gives the FMR and the Bureau of Land Management an idea of how many people use the road. Pressing on, we reached Willow Wash, a five-mile stretch of deep, soft sand that skirts the edges of a crumbling lava bed. It provided a perfect high-speed test venue. We bombed through Willow Wash at warp speed, partly to test the vehicle but mostly because we were getting just a touch insane with the heat and the dust. The run had a restorative effect—for most of the group. The color seemed to return to Ceppos’s face. And Phillips dropped his George S. Patton impersonation. Whereupon Csere began mumbling verses from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
By now we were getting ready to bail out for the night. The consensus was “Let’s get some air conditioning. Fast.” Murray guided us to Kelbaker Road, a graded county highway, and we headed to Baker, where we had reservations at Arne’s Royal Hawaiian Motel. We descended on the lobby like dirty laundry.
Second Place: Geo Tracker Convertible
It is conceivable that the Tracker’s name was derived by U.S. auto execs who were tracking the Tracker’s bizarre lineage. Let’s see: the Tracker is a Japanese design from Suzuki (identical to its U.S.-market Sidekick), built by CAMI in Canada, and marketed through an import division of Chevrolet—where it shares Geo showroom space with vehicles built by Toyota and Isuzu. Fortunately, buyers need not grasp any of that. Sitting behind the wheel of a Tracker, you quickly learn it is a simple, straightforward, singularly fun vehicle.
Although the Tracker and the Samurai are both built by Suzuki, they share nary a single surface. Nor do they feel alike on the road. The Tracker, riding atop its beefy ladder-type frame, feels solid and competent, even when perched on three wheels in the middle of the Mojave Road. That same indelicate posture threatened to twist the Samurai’s dashboard into rigatoni.
The Tracker’s clutch engagement is smooth, its shift linkage is slick, its steering wheel is perfectly positioned, and its radio and ventilation controls are up high, where they are visible and accessible. The rear bench accommodates two riders—barely—and can fold forward to produce a 32-cubic-foot cargo hold. And there are styling touches that simply tickle us: the engine vents on the sides of the hood, for instance, and the neat windowsill cutouts under the side mirrors.
Off-road, the Tracker’s ride is choppier than the Amigo’s—although still better than the Jeep’s—and on some surfaces it’s prone to an unsettling lateral rocking. On the other hand, the steering is easily the best in this group: direct, with crisp turn-in on paved surfaces, yet light enough that rugged trails don’t become an exercise in arm-wrestling. Serious dusteaters should note that the Tracker offers the least ground clearance of our quartet. On the Mojave Road, the Geo twice scraped its belly along articles of geology that never touched the other vehicles.
All four trucklets in this test have fiddly canvas tops that require painstaking disassembly—no spur-of-the-moment stuff here. In only a few seconds, however, the foremost third of the Tracker’s roof folds back to the B-pillars, producing an ersatz sunroof. The ’89 Tracker Convertible was not offered with air conditioning but, mercifully, A/C will be a $695 option on 1990 versions.
The Suzuki-built 1.6-liter engine produces only 80 hp at 5400 rpm, but that turns out to be less of a handicap than it sounds. At 2320 pounds —only 220 pounds heavier than the tiny Samurai—the Tracker is the Sugar Ray Leonard of sport-utility vehicles. Its drag-strip figures are within a blink of the Wrangler’s, yet its observed fuel economy is better than the Samurai’s.
So how come the Geo, which triumphed in the fun-to-drive category, didn’t win overall? Because it is still as much a 4wd pickup truck as it is a passenger car—an enviable design feat, we admit. But few vehicles in this niche spend more than ten percent of their lives off-road. So the more carlike Amigo inched ahead in our voting. Still, it’s startling to think how enormous the cheap-Jeep market might be today if Suzuki had, five years ago, built the Tracker rather than the Samurai. —John Phillips III
1989 Geo Tracker Convertible
80-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 2320 lb
Base/as-tested price: $10,395/$11,919
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 4.0 sec
60 mph: 14.6 sec
1/4 mile: 19.1 sec @ 69 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 200 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.70 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg
The digital clock-thermometer across the road at Pike’s Restaurant said it was 5:05 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit. We asked if that was right, and Arne—or whoever he was—said, “That thing reads a little low. It’s around 126.” By 10:00 it had cooled down to 110. We were sure that by the morning we’d all be talking in tongues.
Baker isn’t much of a town. The only reason it’s there is because people don’t maintain their cars properly. The town’s leading industry is dispensing radiator hoses and Prestone. The Baker Grade, a long, hard climb on Interstate 15, turns a lot of trips to Las Vegas into forced overnight stays in Baker. Still, thanks to the air conditioning and the swimming pool at the Royal Hawaiian, our stop in Baker felt like a trip to the Riviera.
Our plan for the next day was to travel the remaining 40 miles of the Mojave Road and reach Barstow in the early afternoon. We started off across Soda Lake around nine a.m., with the temperature already well into the triple digits. By now we were keeping our faces cool by soaking our bandanas in the ice melting in our cooler and tying them around our necks. The bandanas would stay wet for all of five minutes, and then they dried and firmed up like pieces of day-old toast. But those first five minutes were pure heaven.
Soda Lake is what an ocean looks like after it dries up and can best be described as a 3000-foot-deep mud bog topped with a thin crust of dirt and sail. Dennis Casebier and friends have staked out a trail over the firmest part of the lake, and the unwritten rule is “Don’t stray from the trail.” Some people who haven’t heeded this rule have watched their vehicles sink in the mud right up to the headliner. Tow trucks from Baker charge $250 for the call—but they don’t go out on the lake. Instead, they park on the shore and charge you $1.75 for each foot of cable it takes to reach you. The trucks carry 500 feet of cable. If you’re farther away than that, remove your belongings and wave bye-bye to your vehicle. Nothing short of a giant army helicopter can save you.
By special arrangement, we were able to visit Zzyzx, a “town” founded by Dr. Curtis Howe Springer in the mid-1940s. This place is closed to the public, but our man Murray cut considerable red tape and led us in.
Springer and his wife landed in what was then called Soda Spring (another leaky faucet) and set up a combination way station and dry-out clinic for alcoholics. Springer made frequent trips into Los Angeles, where he would round up stumblebums and offer them free food, lodging, and a cure for their problems. Once he’d hauled them back to Soda Springs, Springer put his new arrivals to work making brick and fashioning them into buildings. A dedicated evangelist and proponent of health food, Springer generated cash by producing inspirational tapes that he mailed free of charge to radio stations all over the country. In the tapes he requested donations for his mission. To all contributors, Springer would send out a “health” compound made from Soda Lake minerals. He got so much mail that the Baker Post Office—built for a town of fewer than 200 people—got upgraded to first-class status.
As Springer’s “business” flourished, he dropped the name Soda Springs and changed it to Zzyzx, ‘The Last Word in Health.” It was certainly the last word in the atlas. Springer and his wife were generous to a fault. Anyone passing through could eat and spend the night in Zzyzx free of charge.
The Springers carried on with their mission for 30 years. Then, in the late 1960s, the Bureau of Land Management decided that the mining claim that Springer was using to control Zzyzx was being abused and that the land should therefore be returned to public use. The IRS, the FDA, and a half-dozen other government agencies jumped on the bandwagon. By 1974, Springer had been kicked out. After a lot of wrangling, a consortium of California universities took over Zzyzx as a study and conference center, a situation that exists to this day. The land has yet to be returned to the public, however. So much for the BLM’s stated reason for evicting Springer.
First Place: Isuzu Amigo
Amigo means “friend” in Spanish, which works out swell. This Isuzu is clearly the most desirable of the “cheap Jeeps,” the one we all wanted to befriend. It doesn’t look friendly, though, what with all those brawny bulges and flares and B-pillars the size of Frigidaires. In fact, the Amigo looks mean, like Brian Bosworth on a bender, El depravado Amigo.
Alas, it’s all a ruse. The Amigo is civilized, almost cushy. And despite its 2.6-liter engine, which produces more ponies than any other in this test, there’s not much get-up-and-go under those rippling flanks. That’s partly because, at 3440 pounds, the Amigo is a candidate for Weight Watchers counseling. It’s partly because of the enormous Michelin XC All Terrain tires, whose large rotational mass turns them into individual, Ferris-wheel-size flywheels. And it’s partly because of the dreadful spacing between second and third gears. Both the Tracker and the Wrangler easily edged the Amigo in the 0-to-60 sweepstakes, and all three had virtually identical top speeds. The moral: Do not even consider opting for the smaller, 96-hp engine.
Apart from the powerplant, however, there is a lot to like here. The black and gray interior looks clean and modern, the seats are comfortable, the instruments are logical and legible, the air conditioner could chill a penguin, and the shifter is accurate (the steering somewhat less so, hindered in part by the King Kong tires and their considerable tread squirm). Plus, the Amigo tracks down the freeway with no more wind noise than you’d hear in a three-door I-Mark.
Furthermore, the 21.9-gallon tank gives the Amigo a 350-mile cruising range. And it’s the only vehicle in this group with four-wheel disc brakes. And it is the sole mini four-by-four whose back seat you don’t have to dismantle in order to haul a full collection of Samsonite.
What really zinged us, however, was the supple suspension. Note that the Amigo earned best-in-class honors for on-road ride, on-road handling, and comfort. So we fawned all over the Amigo because it works most like a passenger car? You bet. Be honest for a moment and ask yourself how many days per year you’ll actually spend on the Mojave Road. If you’re not in the dirt, why not drive something that works like a car?
Which is not to say the Amigo is a poor off-roader. Indeed, bumping along the Mojave Road, the Amigo’s well-damped ride was again a boon, although large undulations tended to trigger mild hobbyhorsing. Otherwise, there were no river banks or knobby hillocks that the Amigo handled any less gracefully than the Tracker. And dune whackers will love the 9.3 inches of ground clearance.
Parked next to the other vehicles in this test, the Amigo looks like a Kenworth. And on narrow sections of the Mojave Road, it occasionally felt Bosworth-bulky—particularly when a U-turn laid bare its 35.8-foot turning circle. El ponderosa Amigo.
Still, this is the one mini four-by-four that we would willingly buy as primary transportation. With a base price dangerously close to $13,000, however, it is also at the limit of what we are willing to pay for a specialty-niche vehicle. El opulento Amigo. —John Phillips III
1989 Isuzu Amigo XS
120-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3440 lb
Base/as-tested price: $12,969/$14,728
C/D TEST RESULTS
30 mph: 4.8 sec
60 mph: 16.1 sec
1/4 mile: 20.5 sec @ 66 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 210 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.69 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
After leaving Zzyzx, we headed across the huge Mojave River flood plain. This is an enormous sandbox—at least when it’s dry. When it rain it turns into a muddy, forbidding bog. It was bone-dry when we crossed and heavily creased with blown sand and dunes. The topography here changes every time the wind blows, which is nearly always. To help people steer their way across, the Friends of the Mojave Road folks have erected stout wooden poles. By playing connect-the-dots with the poles, we slowly drove across the flood plain and reached the mouth of Afton Canyon.
In the canyon we found lots of standing water and made the mistake of splashing through it. It smelled like something you left in the fridge for six months, and once the water got on the vehicles everything smelled. Worse, as we made our way through and around this muck, a rock sliced a hole in the Wrangler’s right rear tire.
The spare, unfortunately, was secured by one of those theft-proof nuts that require a special key. The key, of course, wasn’t in the vehicle. The only solution was to remove the wheel and take it into Barstow for a new tire. As we worked on the Jeep, a couple of A-10 ground-attack aircraft buzzed us. They were so low we could see the pilots wave as they circled our little party. Eventually the planes left, and Csere and Murray drove off to have a new tire mounted.
The rest of us waited under a railroad bridge half a mile from the stuck Wrangler. We were lucky the flat happened this close to the end of the trip. Had it happened someplace deep in the desert, we would have had a real problem. Two hours later, Csere and Murray came back with a particularly attractive whitewall, the only available tire even close to the size we needed.
We bumped along for a few more dusty hours before working our way back to Interstate 15, about twenty miles east of Barstow.
Our desert adventure was over, and when we tallied up the damage, there was none to speak of. Other than the flat, the vehicles had accumulated only a few scratches from brush and cactuses. No vital fluid had leaked, and nothing went blooey. Considering what they went through, the four little four-by-fours proved remarkably rugged. And, thanks in part to Spencer Murray’s help, we desert novices did all right, too. Hot as it was, our trip across the Mojave Road turned out to be both fun and memorable.
Even if Phillips never did get to duke it out with Erwin Rommel.
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