From the April 1999 issue of Car and Driver.
I’ve pored through the owner’s manual, but it’s no help. I checked the index for “delta-wing jets, deploying” and “submarine thrusters, activating” and “Hovercraft skirts, inflating” and found nothing. But one look at this Isuzu VehiCROSS, a wild concept car come to life, indicates there must be more to it than just land-bound travel. How else can you explain all the dead space in the fat doors and rear quarters? Or the hefty 3920-pound curb weight—roughly 1000 pounds more than the similarly sized Toyota RAV4?
The styling certainly suggests a “multi-purpose” mode of transport intended for use by the Transformers, the Power Rangers, or some animated Japanese superhero. But until we stumble across the secret control panel (we’ve already looked without result, turning several of the 36 Torx-head screws that ostensibly hold the lower bodywork on), we’ll evaluate it at face value—as the sportiest of sport-utes.
That’s Isuzu’s claim for the VehiCROSS—a name that is meant to evoke notions of cross training in multiple sports. To reinforce the point, Isuzu cosponsors the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii and sells a special Ironman “pace car” version of the VehiCROSS (see, it must be amphibious if it paces the swimming segment). But in the panoply of off-road vehicular sports, this outrageous Isuzu has trained hardest for high-speed off-road racing on dirt and gravel, which leaves it a bit too muscle-bound to be an agile rock climber—or a comfy car pooler.
Exhibit one: the suspension design and tuning. The basic layout is pure Trooper (the VehiCROSS rides on a three-door Trooper chassis that is available only in Japan). Suspension is by unequal-length control arms with torsion-bar springs in front and by a coil-sprung live axle in back located by trailing links, a central link, and a Panhard rod. To handle rough terrain at high speeds, the VehiCROSS’s spring and bushing rates are way up—35 percent stiffer in front, 60 percent stiffer in the rear relative to the Trooper sold in the U.S. To maintain an even keel, the front anti-roll-bar diameter is up almost 8 percent (the rear stays the same). The pièce de résistanceis a set of 6061-T8 aerospace-grade aluminum shock absorbers with external expansion chambers. The chambers help keep the pressurized nitrogen gas separate from the damping oil, eliminating the aeration and cavitation that can occur during a prolonged off-road workout. They also keep the shocks cool. Isuzu is the only manufacturer to fit such exotic shocks to a production vehicle.
HIGHS: Mean-mutha’ looks, smooth and stout powertrain, purpose-built Baja 1000–ready suspension.
The parts work as advertised. Our most aggressive running failed to bottom out the suspension, and we were struck by the VehiCROSS’s sharp-for-a-sport-ute steering response, quick turn-in, minimal understeer, and really-flat-for-an-SUV cornering. Its ultimate dry skidpad grip of 0.75 g compares well with the sportiest utes we’ve tested lately—the blistering Mercedes ML430 managed just 0.73 g. The Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires also provided ample grip during the early blizzards of ’99. We were able to extract a snow-banked Camry, even though we were pulling uphill on a slippery driveway, by engaging both the low range and the transmission’s “winter” driving mode.
Straight-line performance from the 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 is about what you’d expect from a Trooper that has Slim-Fasted away 460 pounds. Sixty mph takes 8.8 seconds, and the quarter flashes by in 16.9 at 81 mph. A similarly priced Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo V-8 is quicker, at 7.7 to 60 mph and 16.1 at 84 mph in the quarter, but run ’em down a drag strip, and all eyes will be on the Isuzu.
Braking is another VehiCROSS strong suit. Our best stop from 70 mph took just 182 feet—way shorter than the Trooper’s 216 feet, or the Grand Cherokee’s 193 feet.
When it comes to rock hopping, the VehiCROSS’s approach, breakover, and departure angles are impressive (about like the new Grand Cherokee’s), so it won’t drag its chin, belly, or bum very often. But those tough springs and anti-roll bars mean it’s not very flexible—it’s incapable of drooping one wheel way down to grab traction while another wheel is up on a rock.
LOWS: Claustrophobic and difficult to access rear seat, exotic-car visibility, choppy hobby-horse ride on pavement.
So it’s not the renaissance man of off-roading. So what. Land Rover and Jeep have staked out the rock-climbing niche, and at last check, the purpose-built high-speed desert-racer niche was unclaimed, so bully for Isuzu.
And it looks so cool! Up front the visage is totally menacing. The leering headlamps include little vertical devil’s horn projections out the top, and the grille has fangs. The black-plastic cladding parts around the bottom provide protection and reveal the niche nature of the VehiCROSS. The molds that cast them are made of an inexpensive ceramic and are only capable of casting a limited number of parts. That helps keep the price down ($29,315 fully loaded, with a CD changer and roof rack as the only options). But after 5000 or 6000 of the vehicles are built, the molds will be shot. Just 2500 VehiCROSSes will be sold here in the first year, and rumor has it that Isuzu will then make new molds to start building the edgier VX2 concept from the ’97 Tokyo auto show.
As a larger-than-life self-propelled cartoon character or as an off-road runner, the VehiCROSS excels. As daily transport, it’s a bit compromised. The driver’s view of the world is rather like that out of a Lamborghini Diablo perched atop monster tires. That is to say, reasonably good for the 180-degree field of forward view, marginal looking up at traffic lights, and abysmal to the rear. In Japan, a video screen and a rear-mounted camera augment the view, but Americans are left to rely on the outside mirrors and listen for crunching metal. We found ourselves aiming the large outside mirrors in toward the vehicle to show what’s behind as well as next to the car. Owners may wish to invest in one of those inexpensive aftermarket reverse-sensing sonar warning systems.
The red and black leather-covered Recaro seats are as comfortable as they are outré. Ditto the steering wheel, on which the two-tone leather offers a functional bonus—the red leather positioned where one grasps the wheel is quite grippy, and the black leather at the top and bottom of the wheel slips easily through the hands when flailing through opposite-lock power slides.
Life in the back seat is less pleasant. Access into the rear seats of this three-door vehicle is from the passenger’s side only, as the driver’s seat doesn’t slide forward to facilitate rear entry. Even there, it’s tricky snaking through the narrow, oddly shaped entryway past the front seat and seatbelt. Once situated, adults may regret having made the effort. The view is like that out of a Sherman tank, thigh support is nil, hairs rub the ceiling, and because the seat is directly atop that tautly sprung Ivan “Ironman” Stewart rear suspension, the harsh short-wheelbase, hobby-horse ride tends to impart a vibrato to the rear-seat riders’ voices as they scream out “Wha-a-ad-a’ya-a-sa-a-ay” over the wind and tire roar.
But if vibrato whining from the back seat bothers you, crank up the stereo. Of course, there may be an ejector-seat button, if we could just figure out where Q hid the secret control panel.
THE VERDICT: It’s the sexiest Isuzu ever, and it may well be the sexiest of all sport-utility vehicles.
I logged 800 miles in a Rodeo and then 250 in an Amigo, and I’m stunned at Isuzu’s progress. Both vehicles are carlike and refined, if blandly styled. So along comes the VehiCROSS, with a larger V-6, and I should hemorrhage with joy, yes? Well, sort of. The VehiCROSS’s inner door panels are intrusive (and the faux carbon fiber plays hell with your elbow), visibility is grim, the rear seats jam your knees into your upper molars, and the cargo area is no more practical than an Amigo’s. So the extra $10,000 for the VehiCROSS buys, what, the extragalactic styling or the additional 10 horsepower or the harsher ride? I will say this about the VC: In terms of handling, it’s the Miata of sport-utes. —John Phillips
I drove the VehiCROSS at its introduction on the Big Island of Hawaii, and I’ve driven it in a foot of snow in Michigan. I still like this sport-ute very much—for its gutsy powertrain, its terrific driver ergonomics (you can’t beat the snug feeling of its Recaro front seats), and its Captain Marvel styling. In Michigan, though, I did become aware of the penalty one pays for the jazzy styling: The driver cannot see cars driving directly behind him or her because the design of the rear door cuts high into the glass to accommodate the spare tire. How important is that? Not very. But it’s an unnerving example of style besting function. And three doors instead of five are another styling penalty. —Steve Spence
It looks darn interesting in photos, but in person, the Isuzu VehiCROSS is kind of wonky—long-legged and spindly. It gets plenty of stares, but not all of them in admiration. From the driver’s seat, outward visibility is just dreadful, almost Lotus Europa-like. That big spare-tire hump on the rear hatch can hide a Lincoln. And on the road, the highway ride is jittery and abrupt. It gets points for off-road capability and its talent for navigating snow-covered streets, for the gutsy engine, and certainly for originality. But the rear seat is too difficult to access to be useful on a regular basis, and that alone precludes it as a choice for many potential sport-ute buyers. —Steven Cole Smith
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