- Ross Ballot
The Isuzu VehiCROSS: A cult icon you should(n’t) buy
The year was 1993. Isuzu had pulled the wraps off a concept that dropped jaws. Four years later a quirky four-by-four called the VehiCROSS entered production against all odds. The Japanese manufacturer hit hard with groundbreaking technology and, as you can and probably have seen, polarizing styling. In a time when two-door four-by-fours were the common Isuzu had brought out something different.
But it wasn’t just different: It had real credentials. 4WD trickery called Torque on Demand used traction control sensors to send power to the front or rear axle. It had Recaro seats and a (then) powerful V6 engine. Isuzu also swung hard with the styling and, well, you be the judge. I love it, but I guess I’m one of the weirdos. The VX’s price was high and Isuzu's manufacturing approach was the final strange straw: Isuzu set out with new stampings and tooling for the VehiCROSS with the intent that once both were used and worn, production would end.
Those molds didn't last long. By the time VehiCROSS production wrapped up only 4,153 units had been sold on our shores. (5,958 total were built.) For perspective, Ford sells that many F-Series trucks every two days. DMC built over twice as many DeLoreans. Isuzu had unknowingly delivered a would-be cult vehicle to our doorstep with one of the strangest vehicles sold in the last few decades. If not ever.
The VehiCROSS may not have been a sales success but its styling and out-of-this-world-ness brought it lasting fame. It's enough so that the fabled VX came up on the EDD podcast a few times recently. But on the podcast and as is the case with the VX-- and with every limited-run, short-lived vehicle-- there’s good and bad. What comes with the territory of VehicROSS ownership? And what should you know about them should you be in the market for this limited-run four-by-four? I should know: I owned one. Let's dive in and explore what to keep in mind when searching for a VehiCROSS or any limited-production cult vehicle.
This is the starting place for the VX and what serves as its core, its driving force. Few people have seen a VehiCROSS before and those who have likely gave it a double-take but had no idea what it was. In the VX you’re the oddball reflecting the vehicle's personality. If you want to be the center of attention then you’re in luck, because everyone stares at you.
Then again, everyone stares at you. Attention is from anyone and everyone, for better or worse. The uniqueness is mimicked in the difficulty of finding parts, since most are out of production and those that still exist in good shape are hard to come by...and thus expensive. More on that later.
It handles better than any 4x4 should
One of the VX’s party tricks was how well it performed on tarmac. I can vouch for it: The handling genuinely shocked me the first time I drove one. Turns can be taken at speeds that, in other vehicles with this much ground clearance and such a high center of gravity, would mean a full-on rollover. The short wheelbase, short overhangs, and short distance between you and the front of the hood mean visibility is good and in turn so is confidence on the road. You point, plant your foot, and steer. It goes where you tell it to, and fairly quickly. For something of this stature, at least.
Then again, you might not want to do so, because the ride quality is truly awful. My VehiCROSS was on suspension half as old as the SUV itself and rode on three-year-old tires-- not unreasonably dated-- and it still shook my core anytime I hit a bump. Look at the VX and the reason for this becomes clear: The suspension's static position leaves the little Isuzu effectively sitting on its bump stops. It allows for substantial suspension down-travel but in turn means that up-travel is limited. Even the smallest imperfections bounce you nearly out of the seat, only the belt restraining you and preventing head from impacting the roof. And those Recaros are supportive but extremely firm, so the combination of stiff dampers plus little uptravel and hard seats mean you spring like on a four-thousand-pound, overly-taut trampoline.
It has some features that are amazing
Then again, as harsh as they can be, those Recaros look killer and offer a substantial amount of lateral support and bolstering, especially compared to what’s usually found in a 4x4. And to have Recaros from the factory this early on, before they became a household automotive name, is neat in of itself. There’s other quirky features, too: The fuel door is locking and opens with a dual-action release. The back seats fold flat so the fronts can be laid down, and turning the passenger area into a bed. They can also be easily folded up or removed, to store gear or an upsized spare tire that won’t fit in the molded spare tire housing.
Unfortunately those features and the exclusivity drove the price up substantially. Adjusted for inflation, the VehiCROSS’ 1997 base price of $28,900 translates to just over $46k in today’s money. That’s a bunch, approaching loaded two-door Jeep JL Rubicon coin and well into lightly-optioned four-door Rubi territory. Not to mention it's closing in on the 4Runner TRD Pro, and sits squarely against the MSPR of our new fascination, Ford's recently re-released Bronco. Luckily the VX’s MSRP hasn’t translated to the used prices. Yet.
It sacrificed practicality in the name of style
Is it surprising that such a wild, outlandishly-styled four-by-four hasn’t caught the love and affection of the larger automotive public? It can’t be ignored that the main reason that those fascinated with the VehiCROSS are so because it looks like a Mars Rover or whatever your fantasy of an inter-planetary 4x4 was a kid was. Compared to its competitors, the VehicROSS was other-worldly. And with that dramatic style came some drawbacks.
For example, good luck changing the headlight bulbs. The lighting assemblies were so exaggerated and the equipment in the engine compartment so packed-in that a fair amount of disassembly is required just to change the driver side light. And adding a bigger spare tire? You’re stuck throwing it in the trunk or on the roof. The built-in spare that intrudes into the rear window also creates a large blind spot, and there’s FJ Cruiser-like blind spots at the rear three-quarters as well.
It shares a lot with Trooper
Simplicity in maintenance and usability may not have been its priorities, but at least the VX’s bones were stout. Utilizing the family-friendly Isuzu Trooper’s platform and four-wheel-drive system meant the VehiCROSS was truly capable off-road. The widely-used 3.5L V6 engine and GM-sourced 4L30-E transmission meant it was fairly reliable, too (short of TOD sensors and window regulators). It also meant that basic maintenance was relatively simple and widely-accessible.
Not that it matters without easy access to parts. The Trooper was sold widely, in fair numbers, and borrowed parts from other manufacturers (like the aforementioned GM transmission). So while parts are cheap, they are forever getting harder to find than those for comparable-era competitors from the likes of Jeep, Toyota, and even Mitsubishi. And when it comes to VehiCROSS-specific parts like panels, lights, and the hood insert, it’s a vulture’s market. The resemblance to that of the DeLorean is absolutely there, except that DMC is now making continuation parts; the VX’s stampings are, as mentioned above, supposedly forever finished.
They were rare when new and have become even more so
It’s bits like this that reflect the price you pay for rarity. And that rarity can’t be discounted: In the VehiCROSS you steal the show at Cars & Coffee. Even a run to the local supermarket means trip in a vehicle rarer than any other you’re likely to see on your journey. And, of course, you’re destined to Radwood glory.
The increase in popularity of 1990s Japanese vehicles combined with the cartoonish looks mean that the VehiCROSS is, finally, appreciating in value. It’s a good thing if you already own one but bad if you’re lusting from afar and contemplating a purchase sometime down the road. “Buy and hold” is the appropriate term here. (Yes, I should have kept mine and stashed it in a barn.)
You can buy one for $5k
But even as pristine examples are on track for Bring a Trailer worthiness, a VX can still be had reasonably cheap. $5k buys one you could live with if you’re not afraid of tinkering and spending a little money on upkeep and repairs. And at this price point, few other vehicles garner this much attention. And it’s not all show since the VX is genuinely capable off-road and fairly fun on-road for the money, too.
Don’t get caught off guard, though. A five-thousand-dollar VX will likely need some work which will drive the price up quickly and exponentially. See: Expensive and hard to find parts. You can certainly buy one cheaper but it’ll need a lot of hard-to-find-items. And a perfectly clean one with no issues is quickly approaching the $10k mark.
It looks like nothing else out there
This is the VehiCROSS’ core competency. You’re the talk of the town, or at least the enthusiasts who care enough to know what it is. You get the glances and attention of everyone.
Cons for this? See above. And double-check your personality and patience for such.
By now things may sound fairly redundant. In short, the things that make the VehiCROSS so great also house its severe limitations. It’s not for the feign of heart. You have to be comfortable attracting attention. You have to be comfortable hunting long and hard for parts that may or may not be available. But therein lies the double-edged sword of owning a limited-run vehicle. It grabs and holds attention but it also makes vehicle ownership difficult in the hoops through which you have to jump in order to keep it in its best operating condition.
The Isuzu VehiCROSS is one of the vehicles that fits into peak Radwood and being a four-by-four with two doors only amplifies its radness. It's hard to explain to those who don't get it based on its looks alone. It is, by definition of the phrase, a cult vehicle.
Owning a vehicle that was only made for a few years and in small numbers brings good and bad with it. My experience with the VehiCROSS was that it was a joy to drive (on smooth surfaces), a laugh to own, and more difficult than it was worth given its off-road merits, difficulty in finding parts, and general complications. Do I miss mine? Almost never. And when I do, it’s purely because it was so hilarious to drive around simply for the sake of catching peoples’ stares. I’d love to LS-swap one, throw on some good tires, and daily-drive it. Let's not talk about the disposable income to do such, though; it makes me shiver.
But life and finances don't work like that. Know what was a lot more fun, more useful, more practical, and more of a real vehicle than just a toy? A Toyota 4Runner purchased for nearly the same price as what I paid for the VX. And in the real world, when money and space and time and patience are enormous factors in vehicle ownership, I’d pick the 4Runner every time. It’s not a direct comparison, not even close, but today, over two decades after the VX debuted, it remains a weekend toy, a jaw-dropping and massively frustrating vehicle to own. And while I love looking at them and thinking about them, that’s where it ends. YMMV, but I’m calling the infatuation with the VX at that. Buy one (or don't) at your own discretion; I'll just be happy to look on from afar.