Isuzu VehiCROSS: Forgotten Heroes

Isuzu is a company more known for their trucks and it is one of the largest producers of diesel-engines in the world, suppling all sorts of companies over the years from General Motors, Renault, Nissan, Toyota and many more manufacturers.

However, they are also known for producing some fantastic everyday road cars as well. Arguably their most popular car was the Trooper (also known as the Bighorn and Citation), but in this article we want to talk about an Isuzu that has become somewhat of a forgotten hero, the VehiCROSS.

Produced from 1997 to 2001, this small three-door SUV was one of Isuzu’s most interesting and quirky cars, and here is its story.

The Story Behind the VehiCROSS

1993 VehiCROSS Concept | Credit: Isuzu

The 1993 Tokyo Motor Show would be the event where the VehiCROSS would make its first appearance. While it was just a concept at this stage, it would show that Isuzu was looking to create a compact, unique SUV that was capable in a wide variety of use cases from high-speed of-road events to trips to the supermarket (hence the VehiCROSS name).   

The 15 to 20 member team working on the VehiCROSS project was headed up by Shiro Nakamura and Satomi Murayama, with the former being the man who would go on to join Nissan and help design some of their most iconic vehicles of the 2000s. Murayama, on the other hand, was the chief designer and manager at Isuzu’s European office in Brussels. Other significant members of the design team included Simon Cox, Andrew Hill, Nick Robinson, and Joji Yanaka.

The VehiCROSS Speeds to production

Credit: Isuzu

Unlike many other cars, the production version of the VehiCROSS followed fairly quickly after the first concept was shown to the public. This was due to a number of different factors, with the first of which being the strict guidelines that Isuzu’s top brass had laid out and their desire to get the vehicle out on streets in half the normal development time.

There were also relatively few design alterations made for the production car. In fact, the concept and production model are strikingly similar, an oddity in the automotive world where concepts are often radically different to the final model.

However, despite the similarities, there were some differences, with the main ones being the use of more standard materials on the production car. The carbon fibre grill, floor panels, fuel tank and bonnet/hood inserts were all removed for the road-going car, as was the lightweight aluminium chassis. Isuzu also removed the 205 section tyres, along with the direct-injection supercharged 1.6-litre engine, replacing it with a V6 unit. They also changed up the suspension design for the production car and removed the Sony Satellite navigation system and monitor that came out of the top of the dash.

Another, very significant reason why Isuzu could launch the production car so quickly was the way they made the stamping dies for the body pieces. The design team took a less conventional path. For most manufacturers it was normal to create cast iron dies that would take roughly four months to create. However, Isuzu decided it was better to go with ceramic stamping dies, which could be made in less than half the time at around a third of the cost. When you add up that a normal production car requires around 20 dies or more, this saved a significant amount of time.

Unfortunately, the ceramic dies also came with a very big downside, their wear rate. Cast iron dies are significantly more durable, which is largely why they are the industry standard. Isuzu’s ceramic solutions were significantly less durable than cast iron ones, and at the time of launch it was believed that they could produce roughly 2,400 vehicles a year until the dies wore out. A company spokesperson even stated to Motor Trend that they thought they might get around two years’ worth of cars before the dies ran out for the American market.

The last main reason why development was so quick is because Isuzu rummaged through their parts bin and used existing components for most of the car, so that they didn’t have to design and develop new ones.

Production Starts and Isuzu Unveils More Versions

Credit: Isuzu

Isuzu would begin producing the VehiCROSS for the Japanese market in 1997 and in 1999 United States based buyers could get their hands on the funky little SUV from $28,900 (Just under $51,000 in 2023).

Soon after the VehiCROSS was brought to the US, Isuzu would unveil two new concepts. The first car was basically a meeting of the compact and capable SUV with the design concepts of a sporty, open-top roadster like the Audi TT. Isuzu wouldn’t go on to produce this strange VehiCROSS roadster, but we would argue it is one of their most interesting concoctions to date.

The second concept was the VX-4, a four-door version of the VehiCROSS that retained the interesting styling of the original car. It was kitted out with 18-inch wheels, leather trimmed Recaro seats and a rear-view video camera system as the spare tyre limited visibility out the back.

Unfortunately, for Isuzu, the VehiCROSS was anything but a hit. Sales started off slow and just got slower. Poor sales combined with the less than durable ceramic dies meant that Isuzu was ready to call it a day on the VehiCROSS by 2001. They ended production after only five short years and a relatively small production run, making the car one of its rarest models ever produced.

So How Many VehiCROSS Cars Did Isuzu Produce?

A Total of 2005 cars were produced for the US for the 1999 year, 803 for the second year, and 1,345 for third and final year, making a total production of 4,153 units for the United States market. It is a bit more difficult to find production numbers for the rest of the world, but between 1999 and 2001 Isuzu produced 1,805 cars for the Japanese market in addition to the ones sent to the US.

The 4,153 figure is quite close to the estimated number (around 4,800) that Isuzu believed they could make with the dies they had on hand for the United States market. Isuzu may have been able to create more cars if sales were better, but this would have still required them to create new dies at a significant cost.

VehiCROSS Production Numbers for USA 1999 to 2001


What is the Design and Specifications Like?

Credit: Isuzu

As we mentioned earlier, the Isuzu team borrowed many components from their other vehicles to speed up development, with the majority of these components coming from the Trooper/Bighorn.

Depending on the market, the beating heart of the VehiCROSS was either a 3.2-litre 6VD1 V6 or a 3.5-litre 6VE1 V6, with the former being regarded as the better power unit (more on that later). When new, power was rated at 218 PS (215 bhp / 160 kW), while torque was as much as 312 Nm (230 lb-ft) at 3,000 rpm. Most drivers found this more than enough for off-road antics and the 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time of just under nine seconds meant that the VehiCROSS was fairly speedy on regular roads as well (at least for an SUV at the time).

All the power from the engine was sent through a four-speed automatic transmission that gave drivers the option of a “power” and a “winter” mode. Disappointingly for some owners, the power mode didn’t actually offer an increase in power as some of them expected, but rather a change in the shift points that helped provide better responsiveness during acceleration. Additionally, it also helped the VehiCROSS to operate better in situations like downshifting on hills when towing a heavy load.

Another key feature of the VehiCROSS was its sophisticated Torque-On-Demand (TOD) four-wheel drive system that was the result of a collaboration between Isuzu and Borg-Warner. In most normal situations like regular road driving, the four-wheel drive system powers the rear wheels. However, when things start to get a bit more dicey and slippery, torque is automatically sent to the front wheels to get things under control.

Unlike many other automatic four-wheel drive systems from the period, the one on the VehiCROSS uses a dedicated ECU that controls the transfer of power. A total of twelve separate sensors send information to the ECU which then compares the data to a preprogramed set of parameters and decides how much power to send to each axle. The benefit of such a system was that it could begin counteracting traction loss before it had even happened. Drivers can see this process in action via a display in the instrument cluster that shows the amount of torque being sent to the front wheels in real time. The TOD system is now commonly used on many modern cars.

When it comes to the chassis, Isuzu decided to drop the lightweight aluminium one from the concept and instead borrow the one from the two-door Trooper/Bighorn. This chassis uses double wishbones and torsion bars up front and a four-link setup with coil springs at the rear. Interestingly, the VehiCROSS was also kitted out with some of the most sophisticated shocks on any production car at the time. Manufactured from 6061-T8 aerospace-grade aluminium, these monotube dampers included integrated expansion dampers that were usually only normally seen on racing machines. This damper design helps keep the oil inside of it cooler, which helps performance during aggressive and/or bumpy driving.

On the outside, the somewhat futuristic bodywork (for the time) combined a sheetmetal body with a hardwearing polypropylene structure on the bottom that added protection from stray objects like rocks. The car was also given a black bonnet to help with glare and the spare tyre on the back was on the inside rather than the outside like most other SUVs. At the time of launch, the car was given 16-inch chrome wheels wrapped in 245/70S R16 Bridgestone tyres, but these would later change to 18-inch rims.

Stepping inside the VehiCROSS, the car is a bit more conventional. Isuzu gave it Recaro seats in the front and despite the more compact size it still features fairly good legroom in the rear. By far the biggest issue though is the poor rear and side visibility that shows you more of the rear tyre hump and C-pillars than what is going on outside.

Is the VehiCROSS Any Good to Drive?

Credit: Isuzu

Most of those who have driven a VehiCROSS will confirm that it is a surprisingly good performer. The combination of the excellent chassis and suspension design, the TOD 4WD system, and the reasonably powerful V6 engine make for a great driving experience. The VehiCROSS is capable and many reviewers at the time were impressed with the car’s nimble feeling and responsiveness. Body roll is minimal and the car doesn’t suffer from that floaty feeling that many other SUVs suffer from (especially at that time).

Why is the 3.2 Regarded as Better Than the 3.5?

It really comes down to reliability. The 3.2 is regarded as the more reliable and dependable engine. The 3.5 can be reliable and there are lots of examples of cars with this engine that have gone many miles, but it is generally less reliable than the 3.2 (all other things being equal).

Most of the problem with the 3.5 seems to come down to the fact that they burn a lot more oil. This is believed to be down to bad pistons and rings that are all crammed together. There are also very few drain holes which makes oil burning worse as it doesn’t allow the oil to get back into the case, so it gets burned in the cylinder. Some owners have drilled additional holes themselves to improve this issue, while others have switched to the 3.2-litre engine entirely.

Should You Buy a VehiCROSS?

That largely depends on if you can find one. They are fantastic cars, but they are extremely rare and getting spare parts for the unique bits of the car (body, etc.) is next to impossible. Still, if you don’t mind that the VehiCROSS is one of the coolest and quirkiest SUVs you can buy in our opinion. It offers great performance, interesting looks and is definitely something that is a bit of a modern classic.  


  • Ben

    From his early days playing the original Gran Turismo and with his Hot Wheels car set, Ben has had a long interest in all things automotive. His first foray into the world of automotive journalism was way back in 2009 and since then he has only grown more interested in the industry. Ben also runs and heads up the video production side of Garage Dreams, focusing on small informative documentaries about some of the world's most legendary cars.

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