23 October 1998

IS IT A BIRD?

IS IT A PLANE?

NO, ITS A 4WD

Something unusual this way

comes… Isuzus Vehi-Cross

is show-car fantasy turned

into production metal.

Andrew Pearce drives it

ISNT it unsettling when someone youve known for a long while does something unexpected? Like Peggy Archer revealing a passion for The Clash, or your grandad turning up with a Mohican haircut and flares. Well, Isuzu has done it.

Best known in the UK for a completely competent but faintly dull range of off-roaders, suddenly theres the Vehi-Cross – pronounced Vee-Cross. At least it is in Japan. So far theres only one over here, brought in to try the market by importers International Motors. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Some people thought it was a boat, but they miss the point. This little 4×4, which is wider than the short wheelbase Trooper its based on, but barely longer, dares to be different.

Take a gander at that high waistline, the porthole windows, the pregnant tailgate. Probably all too much for those bits of England steeped in good taste and Discoveries, but just right for plenty of city slickers.

Now, if Isuzu had slipped the Vehi-Cross a quivering jelly of a motor the result would have been pure pose. But instead it gets substantial punch from an uprated version of the Troopers 3.2 litre, unleaded-burning V6. Given its head, this lumps 212hp (5600rpm) and 210lbf ft torque (3000rpm) puts some iron inside the flashy suit. But well come back to that

&#42 Watch your head

First, slip inside. Watch your head – even on 245-15 tyres this one tops out 12.5cm (5in) closer to the ground than the swb Trooper, so although the two doors are wide, theyre not deep. Fall into the dark-trimmed Recaro drivers seat and take in the neat Momo wheel. This is more sportscar than 4×4. But after the exterior fireworks the cabin is otherwise a letdown – dark plastics, silver trims and mock carbon fibre cappings dont disguise its pedestrian origins.

Mind you, there is one novelty. Set high is a mini colour screen which flips round to reveal the tape player slot and, when you take reverse gear, shows the view behind from a tiny camera in the back door. That may sound daft – the two big wing mirrors are fine – but the tailgates centre hump all but blocks the view directly rearwards, making vistavision a true safety boon where small children or machinery are about. And as the screen can connect to a TV tuner and video, theres also the chance to watch cricket of an afternoon.

Behind the hip-hugging Recaros is soft, semi-supportive seating for two that splits 50/50 to fold flat. Getting into the back is a struggle – this is a two-door, remember – and once youre there, the very wide centre pillar and tiny windows are more airliner than car. Youll look in vain for armrests, ashtrays or map pockets because theres just curvy plastic panels and more mock carbon fibre. But headroom is just OK and behind the back seat theres space enough for tools and a compact (or compacted) dog.

&#42 Tears of nostalgia

The ride would bring tears of nostalgia to an MGB owner. Its uncompromisingly hard. Despite independent springing up front and coils at the back, the Vehi-Cross reports every ridge and ripple of a lane, jars enthusiastically into manhole covers and never rests on a motorway. The payoff comes in corners. Wide tyres and a flat ride mean the little bug-eyed bomb can be pushed through quickly, with a limited-slip rear diff blocking inside-wheel spin. And out of sight, Isuzus new torque on demand system is ready to feed drive to the front wheels as the backs start to lose grip.

Steering is sharp for a 4×4, not too light and has plenty of lock. That, plus the hard springing, lets the car turn into bends pretty accurately, change direction well and stick to its line. When its time to stop, big capacity discs with ABS modulation do reassuring business.

Floor the throttle from rest and the Isuzu pelts to 100km/hr (62miles/hr) in around 9.5 seconds. On the move theres generally plenty of power waiting. If the scenery is moving a little too slowly – and it can if you ask for quick action in a tall gear – hit the transmissions sport button. Then the four-speed auto takes a lower cog, the motors rather nondescript whooshing swells to a roar and dawdlers just disappear.

At a good motorway clip, rush from the gale outside is noticeable but not a problem. And you can forgive this cars high speed transmission whine and tyre rumble; somehow its too much of a hoot to drive to be over-picky. Economys not bad either – 27.6mpg.

Off-roading didnt feature our those miles, mainly for fear of bending Isuzus only example. The omens arent bad, though – apart from a vulnerable-looking fuel tank the overhangs are pretty short, the driveline has a low ratio box and automation should get power to the wheels without driver intervention.

&#42 Sum-up

How to sum-up this little oddball? Engaging, fast and from the outside at least, quite, quite different; yet a car thats stranded somewhere between a sportster and 4×4. Given a softer ride and more Freelander-style flair in the interior, Isuzu will have a hit on its hands. Then if farmers see past the look-at-me styling to the entertaining drive underneath, the odd poacher is in for the shock of his life.

ISUZUFACTS

Model tested: Vehi-Cross.

Engine: 3.2 litre petrol V6, 212hp.

Transmission: Four-speed auto.

Drive: 4WD on demand.

Brakes: Disc, ABS.

Suspension: Independent front, beam axle rear

Weight: 1,750kg.

Price: Not yet imported officially.