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Cars you didn't know you want: 1997 Isuzu VehiCross

A crossover SUV from Isuzu with the off-road ability to match its futuristic styling.

The Isuzu VehiCross looks like it’s been lifted straight out of the pages of a Japanese comic book. There’s a fantastical quality to its design, far ahead of its time. It wouldn’t look too out of place in new car showrooms today but when you consider it was launched way back in 1997, its futuristic design becomes all the more remarkable.

Better yet, unlike today’s proliferation of crossover SUVs, the VehiCross had the off-road chops to match its high-riding and rugged stance.

The VehiCross was never intended to be a high-volume production car from the Japanese carmaker, better known for its rugged utes and off-roaders.

But, in a whimsy of fancy, Isuzu decided to push into production its futuristic 1993 Tokyo Motor Show concept virtually unchanged. And that meant the VehiCross in production form looked like something out of a sci-fi movie when it launched in 1997.

Thanks to its low-volume run, Isuzu employed some innovative production methods to help keep costs down. Inexpensive ceramic body-stamping dies were used in place of the usual steel dies employed for mass-market vehicles, while much of the VeriCross’s underpinnings were pilfered from the Isuzu parts bin.

The use of ceramic dies reduced costs as well as production time, but came with a trade-off. Ceramic dies wear out much quicker than steel dies, and that meant from the outset, the VehiCross was always going to be built in limited numbers.

Underneath that funky body, lay the platform of a three-door, short wheelbase Isuzu Trooper, better known in Australia as the Holden Jackaroo.

Isuzu beefed up what was already a decent suspension tune on the Trooper, to increase its off-road credentials, adding stiffer springs as well as monotube shocks with external heat-expansion chambers. They worked to keep the pressurised nitrogen of the shocks separate from the damping oil, improving cooling and adding off-road durability. It was revolutionary technology at the time.

As was the VehiCross’s on-demand 4x4 system, which utilised 12 independent sensors to apportion power to the wheels with the most traction. Rear-wheel drive was the default but the system would also send drive to the front wheels as required. And a display in the instrument cluster illustrated exactly how much toque was being sent to which wheels.

Power came courtesy of Isuzu’s 3.5-litre V6, making 160kW and 312kW. A four-speed automatic transmission sent those numbers to the wheels.

Contemporary reports spoke of a “stout powertrain” and “Baja 1000-ready suspension”.

Car and Driver wrote of the VehiCross: “Our most aggressive running failed to bottom out the suspension, and we were struck by the VehiCross’s sharp-for-a-sport-ute steering response, quick turn-in, minimal understeer, and really-flat-for-an-SUV cornering… It’s the sexiest Isuzu ever, and it may well be the sexiest of all sport-utility vehicles”.

Inside, the VehiCross’s cabin couldn’t match its outrageously-styled exterior, the interior treatment straight out of the 1997 playbook. The second row was, according to reports, practically unusable for adults, while the inclusion of a full-size spare located inside the rear barn door ate into luggage space.

But, as a package, the VehiCross looked like nothing else on the road, while its limited production run (just 5958 rolled off the production line before the ceramic dies gave out) ensured it gained something of a cult-like following.

Of the near-6000 production run, 4153 made their way to the US while the rest remained in Japan. They weren’t cheap either, commanding almost US$30,000 (AUD$40,000) when new. Despite their relative scarcity, their value today isn’t exactly off the charts, a quick internet scan revealing prices ranging from a low of US$3795 (AUD$5000) to a high of ¥2,405,000 (AUD$28,000).

For that coin you score yourself a two-time stage winner in the Production Class of the 1998 Paris-Dakar as well as a class winner in our own gruelling 1999 Australian Safari Rally, again underlining just how capable the VehiCross was as an off-roader. And even today, it’ll certainly turn heads.

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