Way to go, Isuzu! With your VehiCROSS, you've pulled off a coup - creating an attention-grabbing SUV in a world filled with look-alike sport utility vehicles. I'll leave it to the appropriate aestheticians to debate over their Bud Lights whether the VehiCROSS (hereinafter referred to as VehiCross, to save some ink) attracts the right kind of attention. My experience in piloting it about the Tristate for a week was that the heads snapping were attached to young male bodies.

Indeed, its exterior aspect suggests a severe case of testosterone poisoning. Huge expanses of polypropylene cladding anchor the machine, suggesting its life's mission is to crush gravel, rather than glide over asphalt. The headlamp housings even have a protuberant wind split molded in, and the hood has a massive piece of polypropylene inset, too. It could be argued that this latter reduces glare - it'll certainly save on wax.

In the rear, the spare tire carrier is molded into the rear door, Continental-style, the upper half body color, the lower that thematic flat plastic. It's a different approach, which I'd admire more if it didn't reduce the rearward visibility to by-guess-and-by-golly. You cannot see the cars behind you save via the exterior rearview mirrors. The massive "B" pillars behind the doors add their quantum to the tank-like view of the world, too - a classic case of style conquering functionality.

Obviously, Isuzu doesn't mean to dominate the market with this piece - it's more of an image-builder. The VehiCross was first shown in 1993 as a design study at the Tokyo Auto Show, and the home audience was so enthusiastic about it Isuzu brought it to market there in limited numbers. In the U.S., it's meant to add a little luster to the other sport-utility members of the family, the Rodeo and Trooper.

I think kids might have gone for a stripped-down version of the VehiCross on styling alone. Four-cylinder engine, manual transmission, two-wheel drive (heresy!), vinyl interior - such abstemious touches could have made it affordable for those starting out in the world of monthly payments. But Marketing decided it was more important as a platform for showcasing Isuzu's engineering capabilities, and didn't want to risk cannibalizing sales from the vehicles whose tooling has long since been amortized. So, they made it a $30,000 machine, which, once you look beneath the skin, seems a pretty decent value.

The VC is a full-time all-wheel-drive machine, like the RAV4 and Honda CR-V, though its system is arguably more sophisticated than theirs. Torque distribution is managed via an array of sensors and a dedicated microprocessor programmed with specific instructions developed by Isuzu to cover a range of operating conditions.

The package is styled TOD - Torque-on-Demand. An all-wheel-drive system which allows varying amounts of torque to go fore and aft typically employs a viscous center coupling, which reac ts to one axle rotating faster than the other by reapportioning power until equilibrium is restored. This usually occurs quite quickly and seamlessly, with no driver input.

Isuzu's system also monitors throttle inputs, the better to anticipate - rather than react to - changing torque demands. Its center clutch normally sends 100 percent of the engine's output to the rear wheels; when any slippage is noted, as much as 50 percent can be reallocated forward. (It must be noted that some of the "passive" systems Isuzu scorns can effect a 2:1 split.

Weather conditions allowed no testing on wet or snowy roads, but the VehiCross felt unusually competent on paved roads and surmounted modest obstacles at a construction site with aplomb. As a plus, it has a low range transfer case, something the aforementioned competitors lack. This is quite useful in heavy going, and invaluable when descending slick, steep slopes, when even a tap on the brakes might be counterproductive engaged, with the vehicle stopped, by pushing a console-mounted lever forward. Little pressure was required and actuation was nearly instantaneous. Ratio is a hefty 2.48:1.

There is a little graphical display amid the main instruments which shows the extent to which torque is being sent forward. Beyond being mildly amusing, it can be a telltale for when traction is deteriorating. In the 0-60 burnout testing, I lit two of the three forward segments before the two rear tires stopped squealing and smoking. Yes, there's enough juice to light the tires.

The engine is a 3. 5-liter, all-aluminum 75-degree V-6 with twin camshafts and 24 valves. Though biased toward the low end, quite properly, with a max torque of 230 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm, it can still brag of 215 hp, at 5,400. That output was sufficient to produce low-8-second 0-60 dashes in a vehicle that topped two tons with me aboard. Such are the realities of physics and aerodynamics that this machine gets estimates of 15 mpg city, 19 highway from the EPA. In my exertions it was 15.7 overall, with quite a bit of freeway running. The engine, however, was green, with only a few hundred miles on it.

The sole transmission is a 4-speed automatic overdrive unit, with both "winter" and "sport" programming biases available at the push of a button. It was swift and barely noticeable, even when I was fooling around. Ride quality, with only me aboard, was just fair. Harshness was insufficiently filtered. Springs and shocks appeared to be tuned for a heavier load, and the diminutive wheelbase - a mere 91.

8 inches - made it rather hoppy over rough roads. (The toylike RAV4 has a 95-inch wheelbase, the CR-V 103). That argument can be turned on its head, of course, to emphasize how apt the VC would be for sneaking through the woods.

The two rear passengers have a generous amount of legroom, but would soon become claustrophobic, I fear, because of their limited outlook.

Cargo capacity is a mere 13.9 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 50 c.f. with it folded. Gross payload is 697 pounds (that's folks and stuff), and the machine is not rated for towing.

The large ventilated brakes fore and aft produced exceptionally short stopping distances, and were easily modulated, even after they got hot.

The stereo was plenty powerful - the VehiCross is pleasantly quite at freeway speeds - and had good tonality, if somewhat lame in FM reception.

Base price on the VehiCROSS is $30,350. There obviously are no stripped-down versions. The basic equipment load includes the engine and drivetrain as discussed above, both premium items, ventilated disc brakes with ABS, front air bags, skid plates, rear defogger, power outside mirrors with defoggers, air conditioning, power windows and locks, 6-speaker AM-FM-cassette stereo, 6-disc dash-mounted CD changer, cruise control, front leather seats, keyless remote entry, security system and very supportive Recaro seats for driver and co-pilot. The test machine had only two add-ons: a cargo mat, $50, and the wing-style roof rack, $293. Total price, with freight, was $31,388.

That's probably out of reach for the youthful audience which the styling is designed to attract, unless they have something entrepreneurial going for them. But you have to admire Isuzu's no-holds-barred approach to its image machine.

"The Gannett News Service"