Isuzu’s VehiCROSS is the sports car of four-wheelers. Its long hood, low roof, ribbed doors and unpainted plastic lower body panels draw the same kind of gap-mouthed stares as a slinky sports coupe.
Its futuristic styling first appeared at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1993. Strong public response prompted it to be approved for production, and about 200 a month are being imported. Because of its limited production, higher-than-sticker prices aren’t uncommon and some dealers may not have more than one.
Built on a chassis with a 91.8-inch wheelbase (shorter than a Jeep Wrangler), its overall length is 10 inches more than a Wrangler. It is wider, as well.
The VehiCROSS appears to have gone from auto show turntable to production with a minimum of changes, in much the same was as the Dodge Viper and Plymouth Prowler. As a consequence, it won’t appeal to everyone. Those who do like it will be willing to put up with a lack of headroom, hard ride and limited cargo space in order to drive a vehicle with cutting-edge style.
All of which is not to say that the VehiCROSS misses the mark, because it doesn’t. It just has a specific clientele. If you think of it more as a two-door sports car that can be taken off road than a truck for heavy hauling, its role becomes clearer.
I liked driving it, but then headroom has never been much of an issue for me because I am not tall. I soon acquired the knack of simultaneously stepping up and ducking my head to get in. Proper use of the outside mirrors is required because rear vision is seriously impeded by the spare tire that intrudes into the rear window and small side windows. It was, however, no worse than driving some minivans or sports coupes.
The Recaro seats, covered in red and black leather, held me in place like a giant glove. While the interior might be too bright for some, it does a good job of capturing the concept-car feel without being clownish.
The instrument panel is pretty standard, unlike the concept vehicle. The stereo and climate controls have been squeezed into a pretty small space and that makes them somewhat hard to use because their buttons are small.
A nifty in-dash, 6-disc CD player swallows discs one at a time and takes up hardly any space.
The split-folding back seat is hard to get into and fairly small.
The side-opening tailgate completely encloses a full-size spare tire, which is removed by taking off an inside panel. Cargo space is pretty small unless the back seat is folded down.
Power comes from Isuzu’s 3.5-liter V6. This DOHC, 4-valve-per-cylinder design pumps out 215 horsepower and performs well at both low and high speeds thanks to a variable intake system that switches from a high-torque setting to a high-power setting at 3,600 rpm. This results in crisp throttle response from a start and adequate power for passing on the highway.
The automatic transmission has both power and winter modes.
Four-wheel- drive features Isuzu’s Torque-On-Demand (TOD) system, a complex method of shifting power from rear to front wheels depending on driving conditions and tire spin. TOD works seamlessly in the background, and a small indicator on the instrument panel displays how the power is being divided front-to-rear.
Although set up to provide good all-weather traction, TOD comes into play on wet roads, in turns and under braking. Power transfer is through an electromagnetic multiplate clutch, and Isuzu’s engineers have tuned it to engage smoothly in light traction situations. When the anti-lock brakes are activated, the TOD system helps maintain braking stability, according to Isuzu.
In the rain, I could floor the throttle and TOD would send power to all four wheels, eliminating wheelspin instantly. Accelerating around turns was notably free of drama, too.
And speaking of turns, the VehiCROSS did not feel top heavy or unwieldy in turns. The ride is firm, to be sure, but well con rolled. The independent suspension uses aluminum shock absorbers with a separate expansion chamber, an unusual feature for a standard production vehicle. This design helps cool the oil inside the shock absorbers and keeps their function uniform.
It’s not often a vehicle comes along with the road presence of the VehiCROSS. While styling is its highlight, the fact that it drives more like a sports car than a truck will endear it to buyers willing to put up with a small back seat and lack of headroom.
The base price of our test vehicle was $28,900. Add in a cargo net and transportation costs and the sticker price was $29,687.
Three years or 50,000 miles.
Point: The VehiCROSS’s futuristic styling draws plenty of attention. The ribbed body, unpainted plastic and fully covered spare tire have the panache of a concept car. A sophisticated four-wheel-drive system and tight suspension add to its pavement prowess.
Counterpoint: Rear vision and headroom are both limited. The back seat is small, too, and there is not a lot of cargo space. The ride is firm, but handling is good.
ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6
CONFIGURATION: four-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 91.8 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,955 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $28,900
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $29,687
MPG RATING: 15 city, 19 hwy.