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New Car/Review

1999 Isuzu VehiCROSS

by Carey Russ

The auto industry is in turmoil. Intense competition is forcing major changes in the vehicles made and sold. Old categories fade; new ones appear. The situation is a classic case of adaptive radiation: evolutionary diversification of new forms into new niches. Diversification is the name of the game. New microniches are created in the automotive marketplace, and new types of vehicles fill them. The Isuzu VehiCROSS is undeniably one of these new types of vehicle. It's a hybrid between a two-door sport-utility and a sports coupe, a road (and dirt)-going version of a European-style long- distance rally vehicle.

Like so many radical new vehicles, Isuzu's VehiCROSS was originally a concept vehicle. It went into limited production for the Japanese market after the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show, and was the 1997 "Car of the Year" in Japan. Now it is available in the U.S. As is often the case with concept vehicles, the VehiCROSS uses plenty of innovative technology. Its futuristic body panels are stamped out with ceramic dies instead of the more common cast iron. The lower cladding is recyclable and resilient  unpainted polypropylene. Isuzu's "Torque-On-Demand" four-wheel drive system quickly and automatically adjusts the torque balance between the front and rear wheels for maximum traction in all conditions, without the drawbacks of simpler 4-wheel drive systems.

A VehiCROSS has been my transportation for the past week. It's an interesting-looking vehicle, and draws plenty of attention. But it is more than an exercise in audacious styling. Among sport-utilities, the VehiCROSS comes closest to sport-coupeness, with much better handling and performance than expected from an SUV. Based on a two-door  Isuzu Trooper platform, the VehiCROSS looks to be the first sports-performance sport-utility. Think of it as a sports coupe that doesn't mind a little dirt, a four-wheeled enduro bike.

APPEARANCE:  Greetings, Earthling. We come in peace... Never mind "Paris to Dakar", the VehiCROSS looks ready for the Martian desert. Isuzu has bypassed the 21st century and gone straight to the 25th. The two-box shape and proportions are late-twentieth-century sport-utility, but the curvaceous body panels combine the look of a European distance rally racer with the style of Japanese science-fiction animation. The cat-like front face has faired headlights with integral running lights for eyes and a blacked-out grille for the mouth, with two vertical aluminum bars for canine teeth. The polypropylene plastic lower cladding helps give the VehiCROSS its futuristic appearance, and also helps prevent minor damage from shopping carts, twigs, stray meteorites, and the like. The large truck mirrors are a good feature, as the thick B-pillar and high spare-tire container in the side-hinged rear door do severely limit rearward visibility.

COMFORT:  Intrepid travelers need comfort, whether going to Dakar, Luna City, or the local shopping mall. The VehiCROSS delivers, with standard two-tone leather Recaro "Trend" front buckets and a level of refinement equal to a comparably-priced sports/luxury coupe. Carbon- fiber-look trim on the doors and behind the instruments sets the tone inside. Although the interior styling is as high-tech and futuristic as the exterior, it is completely functional. Instruments are visible and logically placed. A pictorial diagram shows which wheels are being driven. Switchgear and controls well-designed and easy to use. A high- quality sound system with an AM/FM/cassette head at the top center of the instrument panel and a 6-disc, single-feed CD changer at the bottom and an fast-acting climate-control system add civilized comforts. The front passenger seat moves forward for rear-seat access, and preserves its original position when returned. The 50/50 split rear seat has plenty of room for two, and each seatback reclines or folds forward individually. All four seats recline enough for emergency camping bivouacs. The rear cargo area has tiedowns and a cargo net.

SAFETY: The 1999 Isuzu VehiCROSS has dual front air bags, 4- wheel antilock vented disc brakes, side-guard door beams, and skid plates under important mechanical parts.

ROADABILITY: Although the VehiCROSS sits higher than a sports coupe, and so has a higher center of gravity, high-tech suspension refinements help its ride and handling on or off the road. It is far closer to a sports coupe than any other SUV - call it a "sport-utility coupe". The ride is firm, but without truckish harshness. Credit dialed-in spring rates, remote-reservoir extruded aluminum shock absorbers similar to those used in off-road racing cars and motorcycles, and the four-link rear suspension that locates the rear live axle well. The rounded shape helps the VehiCROSS to track true in strong winds, and four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes stop it quickly.

PERFORMANCE:  Because of its rugged body-on-frame truck construction and four-wheel drive hardware, the VehiCROSS is considerably heavier than a sports coupe, with a curb weight of nearly two tons. But its 3.5-liter twincam aluminum alloy V6 is a state-of-the- art powerplant with a healthy 215 horsepower and 230 lb-ft of torque. The VehiCROSS is quick off the line or in passing, and has plenty of low-rpm grunt for off-road work. A 4-speed automatic transmission suits it well, and the computer-controlled "Torque-On-Demand" four- wheel drive system ensures that the power gets to the wheels that can best use it on any pavement or light-duty off-road surface. It also helps prevent wheelspin. A traditional 4-low range gives the VehiCROSS more serious off-road ability as well.

CONCLUSIONS: Futuristic styling and everyday comfort are not just for the pavement-bound. The latest in a long line of Isuzu sports coupes masquerades as a sport-utility vehicle.

1999 Isuzu VehiCROSS 

Base Price               $ 28,900
Price As Tested          $ 30.389
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6
Engine Size              3.5 liters / 207 cu. in.
Horsepower               215 @ 5400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           230 @ 3000 rpm
Transmission             4-speed electronically-controlled
Wheelbase / Length       91.8 in. / 162.6 in.
Curb Weight              3955 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    18.4
Fuel Capacity            22.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium
Tires                    P245/70 SR16 Bridgestone Dueler
Brakes, front/rear       vented discs on all 4 wheels,
                          antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent double wishbone with
                          torsion bars /
                          solid axle with coil springs and 4
                          locating links
Ground clearance         8.4 inches
Drivetrain               front engine, full-time four-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
city / highway / observed     15 / 19 / 16
0 to 60 mph                   8.8 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               16.6 sec
Towing Capacity               not rated for towing


Ironman Package - includes:
  exterior graphics, embossed front seats,
  special floor mats, wing-style roof rack   $ 995
Reversible cargo mat                         $  92
Roof rack delete                           -($ 293)
Destination and handling                     $ 695