This seems to be the millennium for wacky cars. Chrysler's PT Cruiser and Pontiac's exceedingly ugly Aztek are so off the wall that they can't be put into traditional categories. Then there are the studies in retro: Volkswagen's Beetle, Ford's Thunderbird, Audi's TT, BMW's Mini.
Isuzu arguably sells the wackiest sport-utility vehicle. Its VehiCROSS looks like something from one of those futuristic cross-country race/gladiator movies.
Clearly, the VehiCROSS wasn't designed for everyone. Some aspects of its design - the very things that make it attractive -- make it awkward to use. But the VehiCROSS does have some redeeming qualities. Its small exterior dimensions hide a surprisingly spacious interior. It handles great, it has lots of power from its smooth, quiet V6, and its sophisticated four-wheel-drive system provides stable cornering on dirt roads. Wacky isn't for everyone. If it was, it wouldn't be wacky anymore.
VehiCROSS ($30,350); with Ironman Package ($31,345)
Automakers around the world put wild concept cars out on the auto show circuit to gauge interest from visitors. Conceived as an over-the-top concept for the 1993 Tokyo Auto Show, the VehiCROSS attracted so much interest that Isuzu offered it for sale. Usually when automakers decide to build a popular show vehicle for production, they take out the same distinctive elements that drew the attention of show goers in the first place. That didn't happen here. The VehiCROSS at your local dealer is every bit as striking as the original concept vehicle that wowed visitors to the auto shows a few years ago.
The VehiCROSS continues to draw stares. It's unusual appearance is heightened by its relative rarity. Slide into a parking spot at the grocery store or mall, and you'll quickly find yourself drawing interest from onlookers.
One strong design element is the headlights; shaped like snake-eyes, they glitter like jewels. But the overall appearance is difficult to take seriously. Maybe it's the bulge on the rear hatch that serves to conceal the spare tire. Or the hefty black polypropylene side cladding that is held in place with exposed machine bolts. Nearly 67 inches tall, with 8.5 inches of ground clearance beneath it, VehiCROSS sits high on its haunches.
The wild design continues inside with a red-and-black leather interior, faux carbon-fiber door panels, and racy seating. The Recaro seats are firm and comfortable, with full bolsters to keep you planted. The instrument panel features graphics on the speedometer and tachometer that change to high-contrast amber at night.
There's lots of rear-seat head room and leg room. But rear-seat passengers say it's visually confining, providing only a porthole view of the world.
The interior has its drawbacks, however. There's little usable storage space, the radio buttons are small, the interior door handle is awkward, and the exterior door handle is hard to grab and will snap away from your hand if you're in too much of a hurry. And we could not figure out how to open the tailgate without using the key.
Rearward visibility is lacking. There isn't much of an opening to begin with in the rear hatchback, and the spare tire obstructs the center of the window to the point where you may not notice a smaller car driving behind you. (The original concept solved this problem with a video camera, but that was one thing that didn't make it to the U.S. model.)
The VehiCROSS handles amazingly well on winding roads, given its ground clearance and off-road orientation. Its effort-sensitive recirculating-ball steering is unexpectedly sharp, crisp and responsive. Despite its height, VehiCROSS provides a comforting sense of stability through even the sharpest corners.
Isuzu's Torque-On-Demand all-wheel-drive system adds to that stability by constantly redistributing power to whichever tires offer the best grip. Stab the throttle in the middle of a quick, tight corner and it doesn't upset the handling. Of course, this system really shines when driving on slippery surfaces, such as dirt, snow or wet pavement.
The front suspension uses unequal-length control arms and torsion-bar springs, while the rear mounts a live axle on four links and coil springs. Thick anti-roll bars front and rear improve handling on the road. Aerospace-grade aluminum monotube shocks with heat-expansion chambers are almost impossible to overheat-so you shouldn't lose shock damping no matter how rough the road. Furthermore, approach and departure angles (the available ground clearance front and rear for climbing over and descending large obstacles) are impressive, allowing VehiCROSS to traverse some seriously rugged terrain.
At 3,955 pounds, the VehiCROSS is surprisingly hefty, nearly 1000 pounds heavier than the similarly sized Toyota RAV-4. But this is, of course, a true body-on-frame truck, not a unit-body car.
To move all that mass, there's a 3.5-liter V6 with a computer-controlled induction system helping to boost output to 215 horsepower at 5400 rpm, and torque to 230 pound-feet at a flexible 3000. The engine is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and a Borg-Warner Torque-On-Demand (TOD) four-wheel-drive system that includes a limited-slip rear differential. Computer-controlled TOD continuously monitors axle speeds and throttle position-among other things-and is smart enough to shift torque around even before the wheels start to slip. This sophisticated powertrain does its work through a set of P245/60R-18 mud and snow radials.
It may look like a rocket, but VehiCROSS takes nearly 9 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. That's not slow by SUV standards, but it won't keep up with a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (one of the quickest SUVs).
The wheelbase, at 91.8 inches, is nearly two inches shorter than a standard Cherokee, and you'll notice the difference on rutted roads. With its rugged suspension, VehiCROSS rides hard and has a tendency to pogo on rough pavement. On smoother roads, however, it delivers a solid and stable ride.
Isuzu's VehiCROSS offers quick acceleration, good handling on smooth roads, and, of course, wild styling inside and out.
There are some tradeoffs for the sake of design, and the price tag is relatively high. But if you want something truly different, this is it.