2001 Isuzu VehiCross Off-Road Drive: Finding Forgotten Treasure in a '90s Halo Truck

The VehiCross was too weird for this world, but it's still a stellar off-roader.

Isuzu VehiCross Off Road
Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

Early on a cool California morning, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, I meet Julian Carmona and his 2001 Isuzu VehiCross. Some low clouds burn off just as we ease into the San Gabriel Canyon Off-Highway-Vehicle Area

We pay the $8 fee to get dirty. The only way to enter the expansive sandy wash is a stream crossing—to Julian and his VehiCross, it’s barely a warmup. We trundle deeper into the canyon, the 3.5-liter V6 purring along while Julian gets into his history with this oddball platform that demands dirt and double-takes in equal measure.

“When you buy a vehicle that's an off-roader you want to take it off-road. Being in LA you drive on the highways a lot and it's still fun, but I can't drive without hoping I’m going to come across a mud puddle or hill of some kind.”

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

2001 Isuzu VehiCross, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $30,350
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 | Four-speed automatic transmission | "Torque on Demand" four-wheel drive with low range
  • Horsepower: 215 hp @ 5,400 rpm
  • Torque: 230 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 13 mpg city | 17 highway
  • The Promise: A future-proof off-roader from the depths of '90s Japan.
  • The Delivery: Odd and alluring, the VehiCross makes you wonder what Isuzu could've been.
Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

There’s no denying that the VehiCross has presence. It stands tall and has a sort of brutish stance that telegraphs its off-road prowess. Unpainted plastic panels below the beltline give it a rugged yet toy-like visage. The relatively short wheelbase, at 91.8 inches combined with a stock height of 66.9 inches also contribute to the stout look.

When the world first saw the VehiCross in 1993 at the Tokyo Motor Show, reactions ranged from delighted to dismayed. Head Isuzu designer Simon Cox, previously known for the Lotus Elan and Esprit, was lauded for the drastic design language and his commitment to taking concept styling into production. That unsubtle vibe is exactly what drew people like Julian to the VehiCross.

“It was just so different,” he says.

But what happened between the concept unveiling in 1993 and the first production vehicles rolling off the line in 1997? You might assume Isuzu was hard at work perfecting a road-vehicle, but that wasn’t the case. The concept was essentially forgotten until five years later when Isuzu decided to go racing. The VehiCross was to be their halo off-road racer.

In order to streamline the racing effort, Isuzu took the unusual step of having the VehiCross built to rally homologation spec right from the factory. That’s to say, every VehiCross off the assembly line would be ready to compete in terms of engine and suspension; just add safety equipment and you’d be set for the Dakar. A promising racing effort began with multiple class wins at the 1998 running of the legendary long-distance race, followed up with a W at the 1999 Australian Safari Rally. Sadly, its career petered out after production came to an end in just three short years.

The VehiCross was rushed into production with ceramic stamping dies instead of the normal steel molds used to mass produce vehicle body panels. This was both cheaper and quicker—but those benefits came with a built-in expiration date, as ceramic dies wear out much faster than their metal counterparts. Without the demand for a quirky two-door SUV to justify the expense of replacing them, the Isuzu VehiCross ended production in 2001 with 5,958 units sold in Japan and the United States.

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

Julian’s own Isuzu history started when a few modifications on his first VehiCross in 2010 blossomed into something much bigger as he got to know the vehicle.

“Fortunately I’ve owned five, so I’ve gotten to experience them from totally stock to modified and everything between,” he says. Julian still owns that first one, but numbers two, three, and four were all modified and sold to other VehiCross enthusiasts. This truck we're riding in is his latest project—let's call it VehiCross 5.0, a 2001 model from the final year production run.

It benefits from knobby Toyo Open Country 35 inch mud tires and wheel spacers along with a few cosmetic changes. Julian is encyclopedic when it comes to various available modifications, but also insists that a stock VehiCross is nearly perfect as-is. Regardless, he prefers the visual differentiation of a slightly modified car, pointing to touches like the Method 18x10 magnesium alloy wheels.

It's a tough little machine, which explains why he thinks one of the best things about a VehiCross is catching some air. "We did some off-roading in Moab and I definitely jumped it at least once. It was fine."

It helps that the VehiCross was specially prepared from the factory to handle repeated stress on the suspension components. Kitted up with an aluminum monotube shock system that benefitted from dual reservoirs, the VehiCross kept a constant damping rate which was especially important for high speed off-road running. Back in 1997 this technology was pretty much only used by the off-road motorcycle crowd, so seeing it in a four-wheeled, road-going application was rare. This alone is the main reason Julian's left the stock suspension untouched.

We pull his VehiCross into a shady area where the morning sun hasn’t yet warmed the sandy dry river bottom. A perfect opportunity to hop out and take a few minutes to soak in the soft cool air. No one else is around, and it feels like we could be hundreds of miles from civilization. Julian tells me we'd be just fine if that were the case.

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

"I just did a cross country trip back in October," he says. "I drove a little over 3,800 miles during the two-week trip. No mechanical issues whatsoever. I did an oil change prior to taking off, and I'm still running on the original spark plugs."

A few minutes later a four-door Wrangler full of kids comes tearing through the brush and does a donut in front of us before shrieking off. A little reminder how close to the LA suburbs we really are. The sight of a Jeep puts Julian in a braggadocious mode.

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

“This Isuzu is such a seriously well-thought out vehicle,” he says. “I like vehicles that are very underrated. I like an underdog. You just wouldn’t expect to see a stock VehiCross outperform a Jeep, but it happens.”

In addition to a solid rear axle, the VehiCross sports an advanced-for-the-time “Torque On Demand” all-wheel-drive system from BorgWarner with 12 different sensors to detect slip and send power to whichever wheel has the most traction. Four Wheeler magazine rated it as first runner-up in its Four Wheeler of the Year comparo in 2000.

As I walk slow laps around the SUV during a break, taking in each angle, I ask Julian what drew him to the design.

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

“It just looked so futuristic when the concept first came out,” he says. “Very rarely did the actual car look anything like the concept. When airbags were first mandated and other specific safety measures were being brought to all cars, it really messed with automotive design language. The VehiCross was one of the few cars that really stuck to the concept during that period.”

Continuing along toward the southern border of the park, we find some shallow streams to splash around in. Because every off-road excursion requires a big splash, we did a big splash, too. Or two. The truck is dripping muddy water and looks perfectly at home in the dust and grime.

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

Up on higher ground we sight a friendly crew. A group with a few other Isuzus has spotted us and frantically flags us down. Parked up on a sandy hill with a handful of like-minded enthusiasts, Julian seems even more smitten with his coveted VehiCross. Contact info is exchanged and laughs are shared. Isuzu hasn’t sold a passenger vehicle in the U.S. in a decade, but this seems like clear evidence that the community around the brand's best off-road work has never been stronger.

When we start for the park exit a while later, our talk turns to timing—and how Isuzu just had theirs off when it came to the VehiCross.

“It was kind of a weird time because the demand wasn't quite there yet for SUVs,” Julian says. “People were only just starting to want bigger four-door vehicles. So when the VehiCross came out with only two doors, there just wasn't much market demand for it.”

Coupled with the comparatively high price of nearly $30,000 in the US, its...creative styling, and the overarching time-limited manufacturing issue, the VehiCross never took off. It’s especially disappointing in 2019 when we’re presented with all-manner of bastardized SUV “coupes,” yet there was no room at the inn for the offbeat VehiCross back when it really was offering a two-door, all-terrain runabout.

“It's just ugly in a beautiful sort of way. If the car stood out by design in the ‘90s, and here we are 20 years later and it's still standing out by design,” Julian says, “it really says a lot.”

Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126
Jonathan Harper | @jbh1126

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