1999 Isuzu Vehicross Retro Review – You Can Go Your Own Way

1999 Isuzu Vehicross, Image: Steph Willems

The most successful piece of used car advice I ever gave a friend involved telling her to buy a secondhand Chevrolet Cobalt.

Shock! Horror! Boredom! It panned out, though. No lie.

My friend was on her way to take a newspaper job in the wilds of northern British Columbia. She needed something reliable and ubiquitous. Something affordable to buy, but more importantly, something affordable to fix in a market not exactly saturated with premium imports. I knew from experience that the bland box’s 2.2-liter Ecotec was pretty bulletproof. Six years on, and that ’08 Cobalt, now located on the other side of the country, is still going strong. Operating expenses? Practically nonexistent.

Not long ago, a very different phone call preceded another friend’s used car purchase.

My godson’s dad, a full-time entertainer and owner of a Scion xB (past owner of a ’72 Super Beetle, too), doesn’t do things quietly. Kudos for being avant-garde, even in your driving preferences. Having just recently moved to a remote lakeside compound in some rugged territory over an hour north of town, the lure of a second vehicle had grown overwhelming. Work gigs, a wife who works in the city, two kids staying over on the weekend — maintaining a one-car lifestyle was next to impossible. Never mind what the bike fanatics say.

“I’ve found a four by four,” he told me.

“Oh yeah,” I said, assuming he’d locked in on an old four-wheel-drive GMC Sonoma, or perhaps some beat-up, mid-2000s crossover.

“You’ll never guess what it is,” he continued. Well, consider me intrigued … and suddenly worried.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross, Image: Steph Willems

Go figure. The guy had fallen in love with a vehicle never even sold in this country. In fact, the model so coveted by my friend hadn’t sold more than 6,000 copies worldwide. It was, in keeping with his tastes, a total oddball — the low-volume Isuzu Vehicross (“VehiCROSS” in Isuzuspeak).

My mind, now jogged with memories of articles read nearly two decades prior, reached the conclusion that he was nuts. This wasn’t an appropriate course of action for a guy on a budget. My sensible side, always the overpowering, lecturing square, arose in a fury to denounce this insane decision. A nearly 20-year-old import with 130,000 miles on the clock, and a rare one at that? Forget it!

Then something happened. I began to grow enthusiastic. I wanted to see him buy this vehicle. (I also wanted to drive the damn thing, obviously.) And so it was — the Vehicross, black on black (the second-hottest color combo that year, with 564 sold in the U.S.), made its way from the driveway of the Montreal seller to my friend’s rural property, some three hours distant.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross, Image: Steph Willems

Even at the close of the 20th century, when two-door SUVs not in possession of a Jeep badge were still a regular sight on American roads, the Vehicross was pure weirdness. Sporting a ribbed and cladded body not far removed from the concept vehicle that preceded it (that sort of thing actually happened back then), the SUV sold for just three model years in the United States (1999-2001), finding just 4,153 buyers. The Japanese took the remaining 1,805.

Still, despite the polarizing looks, there’s steak to go with all the sizzle. The Vehicross earns top marks for originality — two-tone Recaro seats with thigh extensions and a ribbed headliner convey the model’s offbeat character within the cabin — while proving itself a tough, brawny off-roader. Its paltry wheelbase (91.8 inches; you’re almost sitting atop the rear axle while in the front seat) makes older Jeep Wranglers look like Town Cars, and also makes for exciting times when encountering a speed bump. Keep that belt on or risk creating a sunroof with your head.

Short front and rear overhangs, coupled with generous ground clearance, makes for aggressive approach, departure, and break-over angles. At least for something with this much style.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross

It wouldn’t be fair to call the Vehicross a failure, as Isuzu never intended the toothy-faced model as a high-volume offering. There were plenty of Trooper parts lying around at the time, and what better way to make a splash than actually bringing a show car to life with components already at hand? Running the thing in the 1998 Paris-Dakkar Rally to burnish its off-road cred was another tidy bit of PR.

It’s the vehicle’s rally-inspired suspension, coupled with its short wheelbase, that gives the Vehicross enough on-road quirks to match its stop-and-stare body. Piloting the Vehicross on a narrow, mountainous forced road was akin to riding a go-kart in the sky. One can’t forget how close that rear axle is to the front when making a course correction. The model’s double wishbone front end and four-link rear is aimed at serious off-road duties, usually at speed, so to say this thing isn’t softly sprung would be a great understatement. It’s stiff as a British headmaster. Take a speed bump at 10 mph and you’ll wonder if there’s any shocks or springs in play at all.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross, Image: Steph Willems

While testing the Vehicross’ playfulness in an abandoned sand pit, my friend learned a valuable lesson in momentum. As in: keep it. All American-market Vehicrosses came with a rugged and modern BorgWarner Torque-on-Demand 4WD system — with this setup, there’s no need to reach for a transfer case lever to engage the front wheels; a computer handles the torque transfer, with a lit-up gauge cluster display showing which wheels are engaged at any given time. Only selecting low range requires any arm exercise.

While traversing a low, talcum powder-like dune, buddy made the mistake of slowing down, rather than punching the throttle to bring those front tires into play. We soon found ourselves temporarily bogged down. After making like kids at the beach for a minute or two, we were back on our way.

The Vehicross doesn’t want for power. Isuzu’s familiar 3.5-liter V6 makes 215 horsepower and 230 lb-ft of torque, plenty of motivation for this 3,955-pound rig. A four-speed automatic handles the transmission duties. There’s no manumatic function, but there are two console-mounted buttons — “Winter” and “Power” — if you’re looking to tinker with shift points. Thankfully, no gas station access road is too unmaintained for this terrain-conquering beast, as it’ll need to make the journey often — an EPA combined rating of 15 mpg means your exposure to Slim Jims will never be higher.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross

Naturally, with retro reviews come issues not experienced by first-time testers. A mild overheating issue noticed early on in this vehicle’s new ownership was rectified by the installation of a radiator sourced from a 5.2-liter Dodge Ram. Cool Runnings is now this vehicle’s favorite film. Unfortunately, an unsolved linkage problem means there’s still excessive play in the steering wheel. But what do you expect from a 4×4 that’s old enough to vote?

No one buys a Vehicross because they’re looking for a serviceable sport-utility vehicle. All the off-road prowess is merely a perk. The Vehicross is all about garnering stares, and it gets its wish wherever it’s parked. In Canada, which never received the model, this thing’s as rare as a free speech center on a university campus.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross

And there’s just so many nifty features to discover in this thing. Side-hinged rear door with internal spare tire? Check. Reclining two-person rear bench that collapses and folds upwards for extra cargo room? A must. Early faux carbon fiber door trim? It’s not nearly as impressive as it was in the Spice Girls era, but it’s there, all right.

Luckily, both my buddy and I held on to our cassette tapes and CDs during the Great Digital Revolution, so there was more than enough Offspring, Silverchair and Green Day albums to fuel our retro-themed jaunts across the countryside. (As a premium-priced offering, the Vehicross came equipped with a tape deck and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. That’s something still worthy of bragging about.)

1999 Isuzu Vehicross

Props to my buddy for bringing along Kilroy Was Here by Styx. One can’t forget the teachings of Mr. Roboto, who could very well have owned a Vehicross.

Now, what about this particular vehicle? Will my godson’s dad keep the object of his affection? Will it become a family heirloom passed on to his son, and his son’s son? Well, he’s already had an offer from his mechanic — $4,000 over what he paid for it. I fear the list of uncompleted maintenance work, if it gets too long, might seal this vehicle’s fate. What a shame.

Then it’ll be someone else’s turn to admire the acres of plastic cladding, slip behind the wheel, crank up that last unscratched compact disc, and live the late Clinton-era dream.

1999 Isuzu Vehicross

[Images: © 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]