Two years down the track the Rodeo 3000i V6 auto remains unique, unchallenged

in its own personal market niche.

Why this should be so is, on the surface, puzzling. After all, the vehicle

falls firmly within the sport-utility segment of the South African market. And

as even a cursory examination of what is available in that segment will show,

for most manual-transmission versions there is an autobox equivalent. There

are certainly no doubts about the automatic 'boxes being physically up

to the job - some high-end SUVs simply do not offer a manual option -

although questions may be asked about their suitability for certain off-road

conditions. A possible answer to why other manufacturers have not bothered to

compete may lie in the double-cab being seen as more of a workhorse.

There are distinct advantages to having an auto off-road. Because of the transmission's

inherent slip, throttle control is easier and so wheelspin is harder to induce.

Moreover, selecting the right gear off-road is much more important than on-road

because of the hazardous terrain involved. Manual-shift vehicles require a skill

and anticipation honed by extensive practice; all the auto needs is a simple

planting of the right foot.

But generally there is one big disadvantage. The higher gearing required to

match the torque converter's torque-multiplying action results in a pronounced

lack of engine braking. On steep downhills this can require use of the brakes,

which is usually ill-advised (if not dangerous when carried out by unskilled

drivers) to avoid a runaway.

To a lesser extent this can present a problem on uphills too, particularly

rocky slopes, which in a manual might be tackled comfortably by tick-tocking

upward in low gear, but in an auto mean some revving and jerky progress.

But many would be prepared to make the tradeoffs for the convenience of automatic

shift. Those coming to SUVs from upmarket road cars will probably be among them.

And to be fair, in most conditions falling short of ultimate bundu-bashing the

auto is quite at ease.

It's a handsome-looking vehicle, the Colt, in flagship Rodeo form. Wheelarch

extensions, outboard lights and colour-matched nudge and central roll bars add

the typical macho touches to a package that includes alloy wheels and two-tone

paint job. Adding that retro turn-of-the-century touch is chrome on the grille,

headlamp surrounds and exterior rear-view mirrors.

As befits a flagship model, the Rodeo comes with a full complement of toys

as standard fitments. Air-con, premium sound system, power windows front and

rear (one-touch for the driver) and power adjustment for the exterior rear-view

mirrors are just a few. Sitting atop the facia is an instrument binnacle displaying

tilt angle, outside temperature and charging rate.

Among the other convenience features are a sliding rear window, twin cupholders

that pop out of the facia, and a lidded central storage compartment that doubles

as an armrest for front occupants. Other stowage for knick-knacks besides the

glovebox includes a small facia tray and front door bins.

As we have noted before, the interior is perhaps a little on the workmanlike

side for this style-conscious market. Light grey vinyl trim and matching faintly

patterned cloth complete the rather bland ambience.

Accommodation is comfortable, the front chairs providing reasonable back and

seat cushion support although the side bolstering looks better than it works.

Driving position is good, with a left footrest provided, and tilt-adjustable

steering. The rear bench seat is shaped for two passengers, with matching head

restraints, although a third will fit in the middle. The rear doors are typically

narrow and access is not the best in class.

Queries there may be about this Colt's abilities off-road, but on the

tar there is no doubt that it makes the grade. Its V6 power-plant puts out a

class-leading 133 kW at 5 250 r/min and 255 N.m at 4 500, sufficient to provide

performance that is quite exhilarating in a double-cab. At 12,83 seconds it

is about a second slower to 100 km/h than its manual-shift equivalent tested

in March 1999, and that gap is maintained to the kilo-metre marker. Top speed

is very close - 173 vs the manual's 175.

One noticeable difference between the two models is fuel economy. The auto

gobbles 12,18 litres of unleaded per 100 km at a steady 100 km/h, and consequently

our fuel index, which is based on this figure, predicts overall thirst of a

rather alarming 17,05 litres/100 km. Having said that, the manual is not much

better at 16,01. Based on our experience with the manual version, in normal

use the index figure should be easily bettered.

It seems almost odd to have a multi-mode electronically controlled transmission

at your disposal in a vehicle like this. It's not quite up to the standards

of the most sophisticated auto shifters, which adapt their cog-swapping patterns

to driving style, but this four-speeder does have three shift modes. Normal

mode is, well, normal, Sport mode offers more immediate downshifts and sustained

acceleration by delaying upshifts, and Hold allows some measure of ÒmanualÓ

shift quality for situations such as towing. It's a little odd having

the mode switch on the facia, away from the gearshift console, though.

Considering the involvement of electronics the engagement of four-wheel drive

and low range could have been left to a simple switch too, but the Colt has

the usual auxiliary shift lever alongside the hefty main lever. Two other convenience

measures are front freewheel hubs that engage automatically as you select 4wd,

and the provision of a repeater display showing what gear you are in between

the 200 km/h speedometer and the tachometer red-lined at 6 000 r/min.

Upgrades to the Colt's running gear and body construction have been

made in a bid to counter previous criticisms of harsh ride. Absorbent and well

damped, the present vehicle rides with superb comfort for its type and is an

effortless long-distance cruiser. Limits of grip are relatively low, but that

is not unusual for a big lump like this. Additionally in the Colt's favour

are good stability at speed and a general predictability to its responses.

Although overall there was no great improvement, braking was more predictable

and consistent than with the manual version during our simulated emergency braking

test.