Isuzu Motors America hopes the December launch of its new Ascender SUV will dig it out of a big sales hole in the U.S. Right now, it appears questionable whether even an aggressive restructuring program that calls for a re-freshening of several of its lackluster products, a buffing-up of its tarnished brand image and cost-cutting consolidation of its U.S. operations will be enough to turn around Isuzu's ailing North American operations.

U.S. sales fell 19.5% from 104,485 light vehicles in 2000 to just 84,083 in 2001, and another dip, down 7% for the current year to 78,000 units (6,000 of which are fleet), is forecast.

Isuzu first-quarter results fail to meet even those modest 2002 projections, having sold only 12,558 units after the first three months. At that pace, the importer would deliver little more than 50,000 units this year, falling more than 35% short of target. The January-March tally trails year-ago's 20,830-unit count by 38.9%.

The Axiom cross/utility vehicle has had disappointing sales of just 2,020 so far in 2002, putting the CUV at an annual pace of just over 8,000 units — a fraction of the 32,000 Isuzu hoped to sell in the vehicle's first year. The vehicle was too early to market, an Isuzu spokesman says, adding that production has been more than halved year-on-year (1,533 in the first quarter vs. 3,991 in like-2001) to be more in line with demand.

The Ascender, a version of General Motors Corp.'s stretched midsize SUVs, has a few styling changes but is identical to the 3-bench GM versions and equipped with the same I-6 or V-8 engine options. Isuzu also says it will market its niche status to spur sales.