American Isuzu Motors has launched its new Amigo, a sport utility vehicle it hopes will match the success of its notorious, lying ad pitchman, Joe Isuzu.

The introduction pushes Isuzu into the market for the smaller, cheaper sport vehicle popularized by Suzuki's Samurai, and further moves its emphasis away from passenger car sales, where its success has been limited.Isuzu's advertising agency said the company expects to sell only 6,000 Amigos this year, but hopes the new offering eventually will become its top seller.

Isuzu's car line has not outsold its truck line since 1981, its first year in the United States. At that time, Isuzu sold 17,805 cars and only 9,959 trucks. The truck segment inched past the car segment the next year and when the Trooper, a more expensive sport utility vehicle than the Amigo, was introduced in 1984, the difference was dramatic: 17,233 cars sold vs. 45,379 trucks.

Isuzu has maintained that its relatively low quota under Japan's voluntary export restraints has hurt its ability to move cars. "You see, they've had a tough time with their car allocation, which started at 17,000 and has always been low," said Dennis Remsing, a senior vice president with the Isuzu's Los Angeles ad agency, Della Femina McNamee, WCRS.

Isuzu expects to sell a limited number of Amigos this year primarily because of a newly imposed U.S. Customs ruling regarding sports utility vehicles, according to Remsing.

Customs now considers them trucks, requiring the company to pay a 25 percent tariff. Isuzu had hoped to import the Amigos as cars, which pay only a 2.5 percent tariff, said Remsing.

"It performs like a sports car but it's a truck," Remsing said. "It's a lot more agile and lighter than the Trooper, but it's heavy enough to be safe."

The basic Amigo, with a 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine and 2-wheel drive, lists for $8,999. The 2.6-liter, 4-wheel drive version lists for $12,969.

AutoPacific's Peterson said the only real competitor to the new Amigo is Mitsubishi's sport utility vehicle, the Montero.