I’m only four days into my New Year’s resolution of not buying another car in 2019, and I’m already being tempted by the forbidden fruit. I thought it would be easy to drive and review the cheapest Isuzu VehiCROSS in the U.S. without actually purchasing it, but I’m actually having a hard time giving it back. I never expected this weird little SUV to actually be good.
Despite its ’90s futuristic body shell, the basic engineering of the VehiCROSS is very ancient. Roughly the size of an old 1960s Ford Bronco or International Scout, it also shares the ancient technique of frame on body construction, and unlike smaller SUVs of today, it actually has real off-road credentials — including a 1998 Dakar rally stage class victory under its belt. The only "smaller" SUVs offered in the U.S. today with this kind of sturdy construction include the Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner, but both of those have been dramatically supersized over the last decade.
While body cladding is something better remembered on the infamous Pontiac Aztek, I personally feel the riveted plastic paneling actually works with this weird little SUV — especially since it could actually need this protection during hardcore off-roading. Still, there’s lots of other styling weirdness going on with this VehiCROSS, like the door panels that are ribbed for nobody’s pleasure — and I suspect the silly rear spoiler was added to comply with third brake light regulations. While the strange looks no doubt contributed to the low sales figures, I suspect pricing was the real limiting factor. Starting at $32,000, the VehiCROSS cost $10,000 more than a well-equipped Jeep Wrangler Sahara — and only $3,000 less than a Mercedes-Benz ML320.
Of course, Doug DeMuro had a field day with all the quirks while reviewing a very nice, mint condition, one owner example — but the VehiCROSS I drove has a lot more character, and can be purchased for only $3,000. It’s certainly showing its age, with weathered paint, a heavily worn interior and a dashboard littered with warning lights — but it still drove really well. Not bad for this orphaned oddball when you consider it has 230,000 miles.
For those worried about parts availability for this discontinued vehicle, it doesn’t appear to be an issue. When my dealer friend Bob bought this VehiCROSS at auction, it needed new shocks badly, which were only $30 each new. The engine and transmission are shared with more common Isuzu models like the Trooper and the Axiom, so availability for mechanical wear items isn’t an issue either. As for the strange body parts, like the horned headlights and body cladding, availability on the second-hand market seems fairly plentiful as well.
So restoring this VehiCROSS shouldn’t be too challenging, and I think it would be fun to build this into a tribute of the Dakar racer — and making it an even more serious off-roader. Unfortunately, I have to restrain myself, and throw this fish back into the water for someone else to catch. It actually looks way more like a frog now that I think about it, but you get the analogy.