Two decades ago Japanese carmaker Isuzu, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, unveiled the radically styled VehiCROSS – a vehicle nearly ten years ahead of its time; and the real pioneer of the modern crossover genre … Ferdi de Vos explains why.
“Is this the new Isuzu?”
Peter Schulze of Gordons Bay has faced this question countless times since he brought his VehiCROSS to South Africa after he purchased it as a used car in Tanzania.
When he tells the interested enquirer that the vehicle is actually a twenty year old model, his answer is met with incredulity and disbelief.
“No way, it canno be. It looks brand new!” is the usual response.
And that is exactly the reason why the VehiCROSS was not really a commercial success.
It was way ahead of its time – created in an age when the term crossover was not even coined yet.
Parked alongside the latest KB double-cab X-Rider the VehiCROSS still looks coolly contemporary, and in terms of styling it can still hold more than its own against modern crossovers, such as the Nissan Qashqai, Juke, and Toyota CH-R.
Fallaciously, the Qashqai is widely regarded as the first crossover, even though it only was presented in 2006 – nearly ten years after the VehiCROSS was introduced in Japan.
And here is the clincher: both the VehiCROSS and the Juke were championed and designed by teams led by the revered Japanese designer, Shiro Nakamura.
The Nakamura link
The VehiCROSS was originally shown as a concept vehicle at the 1993 Tokyo International Auto Show.
It was the result of a team led by Satomi Murayama, at the time the chief designer at the European office of Isuzu in Brussels, but the concept was championed by Nakamura.
It was conceived to counter the Toyota RAV4, the first SUV worldwide, released in 1994, and the production model, launched in Japan in 1997, had very few design changes.
It utilised many readily-available Isuzu parts and shared its underpinnings with the Trooper, including both its 3.2-litre and 3.5-litre V6 engine producing 160 kW at 5 400rpm and 312 Nm of torque at 3 000 rpm of torque.
The small, sporty two-door crossover also features a BorgWarner produced Torque on Demand 4-wheel drive system with 12 independent sensors (a lot back then!) to detect wheel spin and redirect power to the wheels with the most traction.
Citing its short three-year production period (from 1997 to only 2001) and low sales figures, some commentators describe the VehiCROSS as a spectacular flop, yet sales were intentionally limited.
Only 5 958 were built; 1 805 for the Japanese market (curbed due to its non-compliance to Japanese regulations for exterior dimension and engine size) with the remaining 4 153 going to the United States.
Meanwhile the instinct and creative flair of Nakamura got him noticed by none other than Carlos Ghosn, and one of the first moves Ghosn took after taking control of Nissan in 1999 was to poach Nakamura from Isuzu after a 25 year stint.
At Nissan, Nakamura immediately rekindled his crossover dreams with the Qashqai, revitalising the besieged European business of the automaker when the production version became an immediate bestseller in 2006.
Other creations by the Crossover King include the Murano, the Rogue, the quirky Juke, and the Infiniti FX, while he also revived the performance heritage of Nissan with a resuscitated 370Z and a more assertive GT-R.
Now Nakamura, 66, is retired (he stepped down at the end of March this year), quite fittingly a day before his benefactor, Ghosn, handed over his duties as Nissan CEO to Hiroto Saikawa.
VehiCROSS in SA
While the VehiCROSS was never made available in South Africa, Isuzu (then part of the Delta Motor Corporation) imported one for display at the Auto Africa Motor Show in 1988.
I was fortunate enough to drive it back then, and its power, on-road handling, and off-road prowess impressed me. However, I found its design a little wayward, while the cramped rear seats and lack of luggage space made me wonder about its practicality.
Interestingly, twenty years on, and the styling of the VehiCROSS is much more palatable compared to the likes of the recently introduced Toyota CH-R, the Nissan Juke and the Lexus NX.
“It is that unique styling that attracted me at first,” says Peter. “It is a real head-turner, but I soon realised it had other competencies, such as its solid reliability, rally-car like handing on tar, its ample power, and its capabilities in sand.”
It may be decades old, but even now the sporty Isuzu stacks up well in the crossover power stakes, while its Torque on Demand four-wheel drive system, driven through a four-speed auto gearbox, is still brilliant.
It also has a low range transmission, selected via a second gear lever. In this mode the drive remains equally split between the front and rear axles, while a limited-slip rear differential further aids traction.
The off-road ability of the VehiCROSS is further aided by an independent wishbone and torsion bar front suspension and coil-sprung four-link arrangement at the rear, with monotube shocks, each with remote reservoirs.
In this guise, a production-based VehiCROSS won two stages of the 1998 Paris-Dakar Rally, and also won its class in the 1999 Australian Safari Rally. However, Peter found the ride a little too hard for his liking, and softened it by fitting modern aftermarket shocks.
Now the compact crossover is surprisingly comfortable on the road (aided by Recaro seats up front), and in terms of road behaviour it compares amazingly well with the latest machinery in this class – despite its age.
Yes, the power steering is perhaps a little vague, and the shifts of the automatic gearbox slightly slow, but the V6 still sounds the business and it is the combination of a punchy engine, short wheelbase, and low weight that makes it possible to venture where even hard-core 4×4s falter.
Besides this baby of Peter, there are two more VehiCROSS vehicles in the country, both still in daily use and in immaculate condition … and owned (and loved) by enthusiasts who went to considerable trouble to get them here.
Nowadays, it is a highly collectable vehicle, not only because it is virtually impossible to get hold of one due to the limited number produced, but also because no successor is forthcoming.
Yes, a concept four-door version (the VX-4) and a roadster (VX-O2) were shown at the 2000 Los Angeles International Auto Show, but neither reached production.
Still, even by the standards of today the original VehiCROSS is an impressive vehicle – one which challenged convention, broke the mould, and established a whole new genre in the automotive world.