Project Isuzu VehiCross Part 1: What Are We Getting Ourselves Into?

Project Isuzu VehiCross Part 1: What Are We Getting Ourselves Into?

by David Zipf

Isuzu VehiCross.  If you have no idea what that is, well you're just like the DMV, insurance company, mechanic's shops, and about 95% of the general population.  Also, you're not reading MotoIQ enough, because astute readers will have already seen this particular VehiCross (or VX for short).  So what is a VehiCross and how did we end up with this latest project?

This.  This is a VehiCross, in Dakar Rally spec no less.  Source

Well the story begins in 1997 when Isuzu, mostly known for making big industrial trucks and the occasional cool little sport compact, wanted a way to do the following: go racing, build a halo car (erm…truck), and try out some new technology.  So they did that all at once by taking a mothballed concept from 1993 and putting it into production.  That truck was the VehiCross and it's a fascinating bit of kit.  The body panels are all pressed from inexpensive ceramic dies that are much cheaper to buy, but only last a few thousand runs before warping.  This is ideal for short run cars as traditional cast iron dies are too expensive to create for low volume cars (in the case of the VX, 5,958 bodies were pressed before the dies wore out of spec).  Borg Warner had a new computer controlled torque transmitting transfer case they wanted to try out, so the VX got it as well (dubbed Torque on Demand or TOD).  Underneath, the VX employed aluminum bodied monotube dampers with remote pressure reservoirs, unheard of for a street car in the late 90s, much less a big truck.  For racing, Isuzu decided to tackle the Production class in the Dakar Rally with the VX.  The VX actually won two stages in class during the 1998 race, and later took the 1999 Australian Safari Rally in Production class.

 

Can your brand new Explorer do this?  I think not.  Source

Despite all of this cutting edge 90s technology, the engine is the same tried and true 3.5L V6 Isuzu had been using in the Trooper since 1995.  The V6 is a DOHC motor with variable valve timing making a modest 215 hp.  This was enough to give a 0-60 in a touch under 10 seconds.  The racing inspired dampers, stiff springs, and double wishbone front suspension give the VX surprisingly sprightly handling.  You'll never mistake it for a sports car, but for an SUV it's very good.  The TOD 4WD and clutch type LSD in the rear axle give plenty of traction both on and off road.  For an SUV that needs to do everything, the VX ticks off pretty much every option one could ask for.  

In the early 2000s, a middle-school aged boy in Delaware picked up a copy of Test Drive Off-Road 3.  It was a unique off-roading game filled with fun tracks and unique trucks that you could modify.  Some of the trucks you could driver were the Dodge T-Rex concept, the Saleen Ford Explorer, and the Shelby Dodge Durango (yes, those were both things and sadly, not a single magazine held a shootout between the two).  But more pertinent to this story was the inclusion of the Isuzu VehiCross.  Yes, the blocky graphics didn't serve this truck justice, but that name always stuck with that 14 year old boy.  One day that 14 year old boy grew up and decided to start looking up cars on Craigslist and Autotrader.  And he would stumble on the VehiCross again and remember that game.

 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that 64 bits of rendering do not do the VehiCross justice.  And yet I still wanted one.  Baffling, eh?  Source

We found our VehiCross in Bowling Green, KY.  In its former life it was a contractor's truck, used for scouting locations before beginning work.  Compared to the previous owner's Ford Dually, the VX was a fuel sipping, nimble little runabout.  He too bought it because it was a dream car of his as a kid, but with a growing family, he needed to cut down on the toys in his life.  This particular VX was in good shape: a 2001 model with just under 140,000 miles.  The body was complete and showed only a few minor issues.  The chassis was rust free and the engine, while having a dead battery, sounded great and had plenty of power.  The transmission was smooth and the TOD worked.  However there was a reason this truck was so cheap (we paid less than half the Blue Book value for a pristine example of this truck): it needed work.  Quite a lot of work, if we're honest.  As we've mentioned before, this particular VX had missed out on most of its regular maintenance, which here included brakes, tires, spark plugs, fluids, leather conditioning, and washing and waxing.  “Needs some TLC” was a completely appropriate description of this VX: nothing was dangerously bad (well, except the tires) and only a couple of very small parts were missing.  On top of those issues, the VX had a number of design and quality flaws from the moment it left the Isuzu factory (in 1995 GM bought Isuzu and the build quality is on par with late 90s GMs, which is to say a step above British Leyland).  If you spend a few hours browsing through forums, you will find these issues one by one.  However, we found out firsthand that VX owners are fiercely loyal to their trucks and don't like to badmouth them.  Much like Land Rover owners, some of these “minor issues” are rather important to deal with and can be quite a shock when you move away from something as reliable as a Honda!

 

Yeah we weren't kidding with that whole Honda thing either.  This trusty CR-V has been our runabout for nearly 5 years and 60,000 miles.  Bit of a jump from comfortable, practical, cheap crossover to weird, quirky, rare truck, but a jump worth making.  Bowling Green was 100 miles away: the next closest VX was in Ohio and 50 miles further.  It also did not run, or stop and was in far worse shape than the one we ended up with (it also had the dull and undesirable gray interior).  The third closest VX was in a junkyard with a salvage title 300 miles away.  Yeah, these things are freaking difficult to find, so when we found one in budget, nearby, and in good shape we pounced on it!

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