Irrational Love – Isuzu VehiCROSS

On the surface, this love doesn’t seem all that irrational. I’m far from alone in my admiration for the Isuzu VehiCROSS. In fact, many consider the funky three-door as one of the coolest SUVs ever produced. But why? Why do we love it so?  

It wasn’t because it was fast. The VehiCROSS came equipped in North America with a 3.5-liter V6 producing 215 hp and 230 lb-ft. of torque. Not bad figures for 1999, but when saddled with nearly 4,000 lbs. of body-on-frame SUV, it didn’t exactly light the world on fire.

It wasn’t a particularly competent handler either. The Isuzu focused more on off-road ability with its high sidewall tires. Ride quality was decent, but it wasn’t slathered in the finest of materials inside or latest technological geez-whiz gadgets.

So why did we love it?

To understand our wonderment with the VehiCROSS – simply take a look at it. The styling was unlike anything that came before it or has come since. It was a concept car come to life. Like some futuristic dune runner. The high riding proportions of the three-door body style gave it a meaningful off-road stance.

That theme continued with the bottom half of the SUV that was completely covered in plastic cladding. Adding a bit of extra sinisterism to the overall look, the grille was flanked by two trim pieces that looked like fangs.

Inside the VehiCROSS could be just as flashy with an optional two-tone leather interior that covered the doors, seats and steering wheel in orangey brown and black. The spare tire was carried wholly within the rear tailgate that opened to the side instead of skyward. Because the tire was stuffed in there, it led to an interesting asymmetrical rear opening.  

Hell, even the SUV’s name was unusual with the all capitalized CROSS at the end of it.

Not a Pretender

The big meaty tires and high ground clearance wasn’t just for show, the vehicle was fully capable off-road. A lot of this had to do with the trick Borg-Warner torque-on-demand fully automatic four-wheel drive system. It allowed the VehiCross to remain in rear-wheel drive mode until one of the 12 sensors detected slip and sent power to the front wheels. This may seem like standard fare today, but 20 years ago it was pretty slick.

The SUV also featured a manually engaged four-wheel-low transfer case for more serious off-roading. The downside of this advanced four-wheel drive system was that it came paired only to a four-speed automatic transmission in North America.  

Cult of VehiCROSS

But how did the VehiCROSS achieve its cult-like following? Most likely it is because it came from Isuzu. Everyone loves an underdog story and here we had a plucky small automaker who took a gamble and actually built a SUV concept without watering it down.

Helping the vehicle’s mystique is the fact it is rare. It was only sold in North America for three model years and just over 4,100 vehicles made it to our shores. For reference, Dodge sold more Vipers during those three years in America alone.

To this day, every time I see a VehiCROSS on the road I can’t help but smile. And I know I’m not the only one. The sad reality is, seeing one in the wild is getting less and less frequent and that is a damn shame.

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