An off-road arms race has been growing over the past dozen years or so. Ford wants you to get behind the wheel of an F-150 Raptor R or its Bronco. Stellantis sees you putting the pedal to the metal in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 or laughing like a James Bond villain in a Ram 1500 TRX. Off-road-spec vehicles are in vogue and many automakers are delivering the goods, or just slapping cladding on a crossover and calling it a day. Back in 1997, Isuzu released a funky off-roader that was perhaps too far ahead of its time. The Isuzu VehiCROSS was weird and packed full of technology that would make it capable even today, 26 years later. Yet, because of the way it was built, few hit the road anywhere in the world.
Last time on Holy Grails, reader Jeff H took us down memory lane back to the early aughts. The Lincoln LS stunned the automotive press in how much it wasn’t like your average Lincoln. This wasn’t grandma’s wingback chair with four wheels bolted to it. No, the Lincoln LS was designed to make buyers of European sport sedans think twice with its good handling, understated looks, and just enough luxury. At launch, it was Lincoln’s stiffest car and its first car in 48 years to get a manual transmission. Oh yeah, a handful of buyers specced their Lincoln LS with a V6 and a manual transmission.
Today’s grail takes us in a different direction. This vehicle isn’t a factory hot rod or a special version of a common car. Many of the cars featured on Holy Grails have been rare versions of cars otherwise produced in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of units. Today’s grail is an entire model and that’s because, in this vehicle’s entire run, fewer than 6,000 units were produced. This is the Isuzu VehiCROSS, and it’s a 4×4 ahead of its time.
This suggestion comes from reader tacotruckdave, and he has recommended the VehiCROSS as a grail for months. I think it’s time that we shine a light on it.
Isuzu Used To Be Pretty Wild
If you’re in America, you probably know Isuzu best for its commercial trucks. An “Isuzu NPR” truck may have even delivered appliances or furniture to your residence. As a car enthusiast, you may remember some of Isuzu’s automotive fare like the Ascender SUV, Isuzu i-Series pickup, or perhaps the Geo Storm. Isuzu no longer builds cars, but it does construct crossovers and pickup trucks in other markets. That wasn’t always the case and the company’s history goes back over a century.
I’ll let Isuzu take the mic:
Our roots go back to 1916 in Japan. That is when Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Co., Ltd. and Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Co. initiated plans for automobile production. Three years later in 1919, Japan’s first truck was built. That was the beginning of a series of industry firsts that continues today.
In the U.S., the very first Isuzu truck arrived at the Port of Jacksonville, Florida on November 10, 1984. This was the KS22 truck with an 87-hp naturally aspirated diesel engine mated to a manual transmission. The Isuzu low cab forward design introduced U.S. business owners to a smarter way to work with trucks that are maneuverable, offer a low cost of ownership and deliver remarkable durability. After two short years, Isuzu trucks became the best-selling low cab forward trucks in America – an accolade that still holds true today.
What Isuzu’s American arm doesn’t say is that in 1918, the conglomerate joined forces with Britian’s Wolseley Motors Limited. Tokyo Ishikawajima Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd gained the rights to build Wolseley cars in East Asia. The first, a Woleseley Model A-9, was completed in December 1922.
The name “Isuzu” came up in 1934 with a truck that the company built to Ministry of Trade and Industry standards. In 1937, Tokyo Automobile Industries Co. Ltd. was established. Isuzu says that this is its predecessor company and it didn’t get the Isuzu name until after World War II. The Isuzu name translates to “fifty bells” and the company was named after the Isuzu River.
Let’s fast forward to the 1980s. As Motor Trend notes, Isuzu was picking up slower than its competition. Marques like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda hit the market with strong competition. Isuzu, riding in the same strong Japanese economy as everyone else, decided to dream big and weird.
This meant building cars like the Asso di Fiori, also known as the Piazza and Impulse.
It was a Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed wedge-shaped rear-wheel-drive hatch that Isuzu claims came with “the world’s first memory tilt steering, variable multi-adjustable seats with quick-adjust mechanism, semi-tractable headlamps, digital meters and a satellite switch.”
Isuzu’s exploits in the 1980s got even wilder and included the 3.5-liter P799WE V12 that was meant to race in Formula 1. That reportedly 750 HP engine was planted in a Lotus 102C experimental racer, but it was six seconds slower than the Honda piloted by Ayrton Senna. Isuzu tried pitching the engine to McLaren for the F1 hypercar, but it declined, looking for an automaker with a racing pedigree.
In the 1990s, Isuzu continued its dream of weird and innovative vehicles and that brings us to our grail, the Isuzu VehiCROSS. Reader tacotruckdave owns one of these and has been championing this 4×4 for months in our comments. I’ll splice a few of his comments together:
Instead of picking one of the usual suggested sleds I will suggest an Isuzu Vehicross. From 97 -2001 a 250hp motor, borg warner 4wd system, style that looks modern even today, how about a car way ahead of its time that without help competes against cars 20 years newer.
Rarer than 99% of your Holy Grails you push. The best car ever built, advanced before its time, better style and performance than any Jeep.
Holy Grail at 15,000 for one year? The Isuzu Vehicross had a 5 year run with a third less production at 10,000. Where are the Isuzus? Anyone ever think about Joe Isuzu anymore? Noooooo.
As Hagerty writes, while just 5,958 VehiCROSS SUVs were ever built between 1997 and 2001, the rarity of these vehicles wasn’t because nobody wanted them. In 1993, Isuzu unveiled the VX concept. In typical concept fashion, the VX was a bold, futuristic off-roader that you might think wouldn’t ever come into production. But this is Isuzu and the company had a way to bring the wild concept into production without too many changes.
To get the VehiCROSS into production quickly, Isuzu brass decided to use some strict cost-cutting methods. A team of 15-20 people was tasked with getting the concept into production in about half of the time it would normally take.
In doing so, the team adopted an inexpensive method to develop the vehicle quickly. Instead of using a cast iron die that would have cost around $1.5 million and four months to make, they used a ceramic die, which cut costs by about half or more and took a little over two months to make. As Motor Trend notes, a typical vehicle took 20 to 30 dies, so this would save a ton of cash.
Unfortunately, using ceramic tooling dies came at a disadvantage as they wear out much quicker than cast iron dies. Thus, the VehiCROSS was always going to be a limited-production vehicle and Isuzu limited production to 2,400 units a year until the dies wore out. Isuzu expected to get two years of production before the dies weren’t able to be used anymore, but Isuzu managed to trickle them out for three model years in the United States. Production started in 1997 in Japan with the States getting them for the 1999 model year for a starting price of $28,900 ($52,917 today). When production ceased in 2001, America gobbled up 4,153 units.
What You Get With An Isuzu VehiCROSS
Right from the jump, the first thing you’ll notice about the VehiCROSS is its funky design. I mean, even the name is sort of weird, given how Isuzu styled it. The VehiCROSS isn’t going to win any beauty pageants but it has a design that keeps you staring at it. It’s one of those vehicles with so many details that you may learn something new every time you take a peek.
The cladding is likely to be one of the first parts that grab your attention. The VehiCROSS has cladding so bulbous I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that it could be amphibious. It might be unsightly for some, but I dig it. Anyone who has taken their 4×4 down a tight trail knows that trees and shrubs love to leave pinstripes and little dings all over your bodywork. In this case, your plastic pontoon cladding is going to take most of the hits.
Cladding aside, there are other neat design elements to look at from the fanged grille and the ribbing on the doors to the prominent spare tire carrier on the back. Since this is ultra-weird, however, the spare tire is actually on the inside of the door. I’d say the VehiCROSS has an endearing design.
Perhaps even cooler than the funky design is how innovative the rest of the VehiCROSS is. Sitting in the engine bay is a 3.5-liter 6VE1 V6 producing 215 HP and 230 lb-ft torque.
That’s driving a four-speed automatic through Isuzu’s advanced Torque-On-Demand automatic 4×4 system. Developed in a partnership with Borg-Warner, this system uses 12 input sensors and a software map to try to detect slippage before it occurs. Under normal driving conditions, the system sends power to the rear wheels. When the system detects slip, it sends power to the front axle. Inside the cabin, you get a neat display to show you what is going on. Torque-On-Demand software looks at parameters like throttle input, vehicle speed, and wheel speeds to determine if your VehiCROSS is slipping or is about to slip. The idea is to stop a loss of traction before it happens.
This kind of system would be pretty neat to hear about today, but remember, Isuzu did this 26 years ago! Of course, you also got a low range as well.
More Than Just A Great 4×4 System
Backing the four-wheel-drive system up is a suspension that features aluminum monotube shocks with external heat-expansion chambers. Isuzu marketed these shocks as nearly impossible to overheat while providing extra damping over regular shocks. You’ll find shocks like these on all sorts of off-roaders today, but as Isuzu notes, they were more for racing back then. This wasn’t a coincidence as the VehiCROSS was built to rally homologation spec. Isuzu even entered them into the 1998 running of the Dakar and the 1999 Australian Safari Rally.
All of this translated into a fantastic off-roader. Check out this excerpt from Four Wheeler Magazine’s review:
Isuzu used sophisticated remote-reservoir mono-tube gas shocks at each corner, and although that tended to stiffen overall ride quality, it didn’t take a driver long to feel the benefits. In the twisties, that means the Vehicross is probably the best-handling SUV made, save for the nearly $70,000 Mercedes ML 55 AMG. Testers loved powering this little sportster through tight switchbacks, all the while hugged in place by the super-supportive Recaro buckets.
However, it was where the pavement turned to dirt that the Vehicross really surprised. Our Trail Performance category encompasses everything from smooth dirt roads to Rubiconesque rockclimbs, and the ‘Cross won this section by a good margin. Over desert whoops, there isn’t a vehicle made that can run the speeds (with control) the ‘Cross can. Yes, you could overdrive the suspension and get into the bumpstops, but at reasonable speeds, the truck felt amazingly composed.
One may assume slow-speed, low-range four-wheeling could suffer due to the firm suspension, but that wasn’t so. The ‘Cross ramped a best-of-the-bunch 561, which is a record for an IFS-equipped 4×4. And that score, combined with the traction of the Borg-Warner Torque-On-Demand transfer case, with 2.48:1 low range and one of the tightest rear limited slips on the market, changed its nickname from space buggy to rock buggy.
Inside, the front occupants of a VehiCROSS sit in leather Recaro buckets and the overall theme is sporty. You’ll find carbon fiber trim and a leather-wrapped steering wheel to amp up the theme. Sadly, Isuzu did save some money on the interior and the dashboard is borrowed from an Isuzu Rodeo.
Despite how awesome the VehiCROSS is, it never seemed to reach the classic status that some of its contemporaries have. Buyers are willing to snatch up clean Jeep XJ Cherokees for alarming amounts of cash, yet you’ll find a VehiCROSS on your local classifieds for around $5,000. Even practically brand-new Ironman limited editions struggle to reach $20,000 on a platform like Bring a Trailer. Though, for tacotruckdave and readers like you, that means you can find a cheap and weird off-road gem.
(All Images: Isuzu, unless otherwise noted.)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
You Could Get A 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS With A 350 And A Manual Transmission, But There’s A Catch: Holy Grails
Not Long Ago Lincoln Sold A Fun Sport Sedan With Rear-Wheel-Drive And A Manual Transmission
The Last Car To Get Volkswagen’s Fabled VR6 Engine Bowed Out With Rare Sport Model: Holy Grails
Infiniti Used To Make A V8-Powered Crossover For People Who Like Driving: Holy Grails
In theory, these should be great. In practice, buying one now would be a worse money pit than a boat. My first 4×4 was a 91 Isuzu P’up 4×4. It was a reliable truck that gave me 100k of good service. So when I wanted a SUV, I looked into getting a Trooper. I found a 01 I liked, and bought it. It shares the drivetrain with the Vehicross – 3.5L engine, GM AT, and BW transfer case. Those three items are the main problem. The 3.5L V6 has known issues with the oil rings. Mine used more than a quart every 150 miles on the highway, a little less consumption in town. The fix is replacing the rings in the pistons. Second, there’s the GM 4L20 transmission. It’s known to be pretty weak, mine failed shortly after buying the Trooper. No prob, I’ll get a used one and throw it in. Ha! Just try to find a good used one these days. They don’t exist at any reasonable price. I tried having my rebuilt – 3 times. Every time it had the same failure within 5k miles. Third is the BM transfer case with the 12 sensors you mentions. Yeah, try tracking down any problem with those. I actually managed to do so on mine – but it took a year of trouble shooting with factory wiring diagrams to pinpoint the 3 problems (bad sensor, bad wiring and a bad 4×4 solenoid. Oh – and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it’s stability in snow/ice. That super tight limited slip means the back end got squirrelly pretty easy, and it took a second or two for the front axle to kick in. Even then the back end wanted to slide around a bit.
Oh – and that 200+ HP V6, felt like a 4 cylinder with the fuel economy of a V8.
I test drove one around 2001 or 02, I was not impressed with the rather slow power delivery. I guess I expected more coming from a 4cyl Nissan pickup. The back seat had absolute contortionist level access. I decided not to buy when the dealership would not budge on price- if I remember correctly they had 9 or 10 all spec’d exactly the same but different $ for each one. I wanted a black one which was for some reason higher $. I got irritated and left. Anyway… now of course I’d love to relive my 24 yr old youth. The unobtanium of the sheet metal and plastic pieces gives me pause however.
I’m actively looking for a winter driver for next winter. I briefly considered one of these (as in looked to see what years they were made). I already have one low-production semi-exotic special interest car (S2 RX-8, ~5K US market), and the parts hunting does not give me much appetite for another.
I vividly remember my first live sighting of a VehiCROSS. Coming out of a theater after a kids’ movie, I saw it and stopped dead-like, the lady behind me ran into me, dead. I was transfixed. I was into rally at the time (always taping Speed(?) at 2 or 3 am as I recall), and this looked just >perfect<. My daughter tugged my hand to pull me out of the trance, and I babbled about it all the way home. Her response: “Yeah, cool truck, Dad”. She drives a Honda CUV now. But, still remembers enough that, when I told her I was going to be wrenching on my new Subaru, she reminded me to grab a couple extra 10mm sockets: “I won’t be there to find ‘em for ya!”
Great article about one of my favorite vehicles ever. I so desperately wanted one of these when I first heard about them towards the end of my college career.
I still see them fairly regularly in my area…a white Ironman edition, a silver one that someone heretically dumped onto an XJ frame, and a yellow one with a matching roof cargo basket.
I would never have guessed that the production numbers of the Vehicross were so low. That’s because I feel like I’m always stumbling across another one – whether just parked on the street or listed for a few thousand bucks on Facebook Marketplace. I guess it’s such a striking design that it looms larger than it’s actual numbers.
I’ve always wanted one of those.
Your idea about the evolution branching makes sense, but I think it split into more than 2. The navigator escalade branch is the natural evolution of those 70s and 80s barge luxury cars, they can put any and every sort of luxury feature in them and never worry about them being too heavy or too big since they’re on a truck chassis. And the car which only looks like a truck branch is for people who only have one parking spot. They don’t need to pull a camper or anything, but maybe it snows sometimes where they live, or they want to buy some cinder blocks from home Depot. Not everybody needs a real truck. This coming from someone who owns a Nissan Armada.
Alas, the demise of two door vehicles in general leaves me saddened. Loved the 2 door Jeep Cherokee I had. Along with with most any other two door vehicle I’ve had. Not much beyond a Miata remains. (Now that the mustang is a bastardized EV…)
Wrangler still survives as a 2-door.
My cousin had one of these new in 2001(?) Ironman edition. He daily drove it through nyc/Bronx NY and it handled our crappy roads with ease. I remember the recaros being awesome in it and comfortable at the time. I rmeber the stories of it being a homologation street truck, but I don’t remember the ceramic tooling bit. I was always a fan I learned to drive stick in a 88 Isuzu Pickup, with a tint banner on the front windshiled that read “restricted styles”lol I always wanted an impulse awd too. Isuzu was a pretty cool company for a time. Just like Saab, fucking GM…
Assuming I fit, I would totally daily one of these. I don’t see any locally and only one on Ebay, though.