June 8, 2023


Creative living

Isuzu VehiCROSS history, specs, details

6 min read

There are plenty of cars I remember existing, but actually know very little about due to the passage of time or just not particularly caring when they were new. Take the Isuzu VehiCROSS, which I fondly recall as this wackadoo off-roader from the late 1990s and early 2000s. But honestly, that’s about it.

So, since I’ve got a little extra time kicking about, I decided to fall into the rabbit hole labeled Isuzu VehiCROSS for an hour to see how much I could find out about this SUV (or “sport/utility” in 1999 parlance) that shared labeling with the watch I wore in 1999. Enjoy.

1) The VehiCROSS was not based on the Rodeo, as I always assumed, but rather the Trooper RS. Oh, so that bigger, boxier Isuzu they turned into an Acura? No, no, no. The RS was the two-door Trooper, and specifically the second-generation two-door Trooper, which I just discovered was a thing. And what a gawky, dorky, that-has-to-be-Photoshopped thing it was. Apparently, the Trooper RS was sold in the United States from 1993 to 1995, and in very small numbers. That is not surprising.

2) It was probably obvious, but the VehiCROSS was based on a concept car. Specifically, a concept car shown at the 1993 Tokyo auto show

3) The quick turnaround from concept to its Japanese market introduction for 1997 was the result of some innovative manufacturing methods at the time (it arrived in the United States in 1999). According to the Motor Trend first drive, “There would be no time-consuming clinics, no ‘courtroom drama’ with the finance department, and to oversee the project, a ‘Zip Team’ consisting of 15-20 members was given the task of developing the vehicle in about half the normal time.”

Among its accomplishments, the team came up with a way to more quickly and cheaply produce the VehiCROSS’ unique body pieces. Again according to Motor Trend, Isuzu used carbon stamping dies inside of the conventional cast iron dies. Though the carbon could be used far fewer times and result in a reduced overall capacity, they cost one-third to one-half as much and could be made in about six weeks – the cast iron ones would take four months and run about $1.5 million in 1990s dollars.

Isuzu estimated they’d only be able to produce 2,400 VehiCROSSes per year until the carbon dies wore out. Then that would be it. According to sales data on Wikipedia, Isuzu managed to sell 2,005 in the U.S. alone in year 1 and 4,153 in total. In Japan, there were 1,805 sold in total. So, divided by its three-year run, and it looks like those die estimates were on the money.

Photos from Bring a Trailer

4) Why is the middle of the hood black? Why, that would be to reduce glare from the sun into the driver’s eyes. I’m guessing this was rationale a designer cooked up to add something he thought looked cool since it was on the concept. Rather than, say, something added after discovering catastrophic, driver-blinding glare during Death Valley testing.

5) The suspension consisted of double wishbones and torsion bars up front, with four links and coil springs in the rear. The shocks were some of the most sophisticated found on any production vehicle at the time, according to Motor Trend. They were monotubes “constructed with 6061-T8 aerospace-grade extruded aluminum,” which really is fantastic, cause the 6059-T7’s were total crap. They also had integrated expansion champers, which was a design used more in racing at the time and intended to keep the shocks’ oil cooler and resistant to fade.

6) This is what Motor Trend had to say about the handling: “Living up to its sporty image, the vehicle’s handling is nimble and responsive. Body lean is minimal, and corners can be attacked with the zeal and confidence of a sport sedan.” Boy, I’d love to test that assertion today. Who’s up for a 1997 Isuzu VehiCROSS vs 1997 BMW 328i comparison test?

By contrast, the recirculating ball steering was deemed to be accurate but vague on center like other SUVs of the time (though MT used the quaint descriptor style of “sport/utility”) and “lethargic during aggressive driving.” The New York Times echoed the positive handling review and actually liked the steering.

7) The engine was a 3.5-liter DOHC V6 that produced 215 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque. That’s pretty good for the era. The VehiCROSS weighed 3,955 pounds, which is 200 pounds more than a base two-door 2020 Jeep Wrangler. According to Autoweek at the time, it would go from zero to 60 mph in 8.82 seconds, which they noted was quicker than a Mercedes ML320, Dodge Durango and Infiniti QX4 (remember that?!?).

The website zeroto60times.com indicates that some publication managed a time of 8.7 seconds, which was a second slower than a 1998 Isuzu Amigo S V6, but a second quicker than its four-door Rodeo sibling.  

8) It had a four-speed automatic, which sounds like total crap today, but was the norm back then for virtually everything. It achieved 15 mpg city and 19 mpg highway by the old EPA standards. With the new ones it gets even worse at 13 city, 17 highway and 15 combined. So yeah, we’ve come a long way in 23 years. And by “we” I don’t include Isuzu, cause they’re effectively nowhere.

9) The VehiCROSS came with the “Torque-ON-Demand” full-time automatic 4WD system, which is pretty normal today, but rare back then. It was co-developed by Isuzu and Borg-Warner. The Motor Trend first drive extols its ability to automatically send power to the front based on conditions and anticipate slippage thanks to its novel, whiz-bang electronic control unit that draws input from 12 input sensors, 3D software maps, etc. This is totally normal stuff today. The Isuzu VehiCROSS, ahead of its time!

Photo from Bring a Trailer

10) The interior design was 100% Rodeo, which was also 100% Amigo. All were as dull as ditch water.

11)  According to ConsumerGuide.com, the base 2001 VehiCROSS started at $31,045, including destination. In today’s dollars, that’s apparently $45,370.

12)  Also according to ConsumerGuide, the VehiCROSS came standard with a limited-slip diff, dual front airbags, antilock brakes, skid plates, tow hooks, chrome alloy wheels, keyless entry, automatic climate control (fancy!), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather seats, a cassette deck and a in-dash six-CD changer. In other words, it was pricey, but came with lots of turn-of-the-century equipment.

13)  In its first year, the VehiCROSS could only be had in silver, white or black in the United States. This expanded in the subsequent years to yellow, green and red, however, there was a vast array of choices available in Japan, including some that were only applied to three to five units.

Photos from Bring a Trailer (left) and Isuzu

14)  Every VehiCROSS interior in the United States was two tone, either black/red or black/gray.

15)  The spare tire was mounted to the tailgate, but inside, rather than outside. Weird!

16)  And finally, long before there was the Hyundai Kona Iron Man, there was the Isuzu VehiCROSS Ironman. However, rather than Robert Downey Jr., this Ironman (note the lack of a space) refers to the triathlon – though at the time, it was probably better recognized by the popular Ironman series of Timex watches, of which I definitely owned several. According to Edmunds.com, the package cost $995, was available only in white, and added Ironman decals on the tailgate and C-pillar, as well as Ironman Triathlon embossed in the black/red leather seats. There also seems to have been a sticker added to the blacked out hood and Yakima roof rack cross bars.

So that’s what I learned about the VehiCROSS. Go ahead, tell me what I missed?

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