By on December 5, 2017

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]

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50 Comments on “1999 Isuzu Vehicross Retro Review – You Can Go Your Own Way...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Call me weird but I loved these from the day they were released, but then I loved almost all the 2 door SUVs of the era. (I graduated college in 1999.)

    I thought there was a bit of brilliance in taking a common powertrain and wrapping a distinctive body around it. The dealership guys already know how to fix it but the style will stand out in traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I’ve always loved them. They still command decent money.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        They are starting to be considered collectible and ahead of their time. Prices are going up on clean examples.

        Always liked them.

        My ’85 Isuzu Impulse is stunningly well built. If GM built the Chevette on the T-Body as well as Isuzu built the Impulse (with the near double of naturally aspirated HP and a 5-speed manual/4-speed auto) the world might be different.

  • avatar
    jh26036

    It’s a beautiful SUV. There I said it. Every single one of these should be saved because it’s so awesome looking. I’ll have mine in a 6MT swap.

  • avatar
    gtem

    Looks like this one was spared direct injection, Isuzu implemented it on the 3.5L V6 on the Axiom and the last few years of the Rodeo. Bumped power from 215 to 250ish IIRC. Best avoided IMO. Isuzu’s GM-sourced 4L30Es are considered somewhat under-specced for the application, a transmission cooler and fresh fluid does them a lot of good. Worth noting that Chevy fit their own S10 Blazer with the stronger 4L60E.

    Really cool rig, looks quite capable in the rough stuff. I wonder if they had any sort of LSD in the rear diffs?

    • 0 avatar

      Did the Rodeo get a rear LSD? I’d say if it did, then this did.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        Looks like there was indeed an option for a Spicer “Trac-loc” clutch based unit in the Dana D44 rear axle. Isuzus are really underappreciated offroaders IMO. Lack of aftermarket support is a chicken or the egg kind of thing in this case.

    • 0 avatar
      Dave M.

      That GM 4L30E is my Trooper’s glass jaw. First replacement at 45k miles was under warranty so I didn’t pay attention. Second one at 140k miles I was “pfft, it’s a GM transmission, how much could it possibly be to rebuild?”. Then I found out it was GM-sourced from France and shared with BMW. WTH? Transmissions (and AC) are two of the things GM usually does right.

      Anyway at 240k let me just say we pussyfoot the Trooper now….

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I read that the later 3.5 V6 direct injection was better than the 3.2. Apparently the older motor had issues with excessive oil consumption.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        With Isuzu V6s you just have to pick your poison: the older SOHC 3.2Ls have issues with noisy lifters (harmless, just really clattery), the DOHC 3.2Ls indeed are known for oil consumption issues, IIRC the oil rings on the pistons get stuck from cooked on oil, something similar happened on ’98-’02 Corollas. Unless you had been super diligent and used synthetic oil, you would likely end up with some of oil burning, sometimes a lot. I did quite a bit of research on Troopers in the past when used-SUV shopping. If I came across a clean 5spd Trooper I might just bite, never mind that I already have a 1990s midsize Japanese SUV in my stable.

  • avatar
    ninjacommuter

    I was in Washington DC a few weeks ago and commuted by walking about a half mile each way during rush hours. Both days I had a bright yellow example of this pass me. It caught my eye both days, and like other commenters, I wanted one. Fun, bright, usable-looking, unique. I had no idea these were so rare or were an actually somewhat serious vehicle. Thanks for the article and pictures.

  • avatar
    gtem

    This is inspiring me to go Isuzu Amigo/Rodeo-Sport window shopping. When people are asking silly money for rusted out and beaten on YJ/TJ Wranglers, these Isuzu SWBs seem like the perfect way to get into a drop top 4wd fairly affordably, and with more serious power and highway performance than a Tracker/Sidekick, which by the way seem to be getting pricier by the day for unmolested ones.

    • 0 avatar

      The best-equipped Isuzu Rodeo is of course the Honda Passport.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        I’m sure you’re right, I’m speaking more to the 2 door with opening roof niche of SUVs. I think Passport was the 4 door variant only. A cursory glance is not encouraging. Some RWD Amigos, some rather rusty looking ones that people are still asking $3k for. Rodeos had a recall for the rear axle trailing arms rusting off of the body IIRC, or maybe that was R50 Pathfinders.

        • 0 avatar

          Yep, no two-door Passport. I haven’t seen a clean Amigo in a loooong time. That blue one in Muncie is so rusty for $3,500.

          Clean and low miles 4×4, with rebuilt title (no rust) asking $5900.
          https://lexington.craigslist.org/cto/d/2002-isuzu-rodeo-4×4/6397630314.html

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            Yeah I saw the rebuilt title one as well. Looks clean but with a branded title $5900 is about twice as much as I’d be willing to spend, and even then after a diligent looking over to see what sort of accident the thing had been in. Hard to tell looking at door and panel gaps on the photos, especially because it has black rub strips installed on the doors, and the bumper gaps on BOF SUVs of this era are just big to begin with.

          • 0 avatar

            Ha, I’m pretty sure on my Tahoe I can fit my fingers entirely in the bumper gap to the fender.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            You still hanging onto that thing?

          • 0 avatar

            It is 4SALE.

            People seem to think they can act interested, and then say “How about $3500?”

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            Well Corey – anything can be bought or sold at the right price. You’ve mentioned a bit of rust which I’m sure is scaring people off at the price you’re asking.

            Being a Tahoe durability is never a question. My district has a Yukon from about 2002 that is still in service. Slowly being pressed into less challenging service year by year, department assignment by department assignment but nevertheless still part of the fleet.

          • 0 avatar

            That doesn’t seem to bother them so much (always disclosed before they come look at it). The guy who offered me $3500 made a little list of things which *could* go wrong in the future, and then asked me to compensate him for those things which may or may not break.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            Remind them that any mechanic with even a room temperature IQ can keep a BOF GM product running right through a nuclear war.

          • 0 avatar

            I’ll find a buyer, just wading through the people wasting my time is quite annoying.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            I found that facebook marketplace got me a whole lot more hits than CL, but also a lot more low-ballers. I refuse to negotiate price before people come look at the car. That’s my litmus for even bothering to set up time to show it.

          • 0 avatar

            Yep, I put it on there too. I don’t waste my time with the “wat ur lowest price” people.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            I had some hilarious exchanges when selling the Ranger, including a guy just starting to message me in Spanish right off the bat lol.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I’ll give you $350, Corey.

          • 0 avatar
            JohnTaurus

            WHATS YUOR BOTTOM DOLLAR?

            HOW R THE BREAKS?

            IS IT IN GOOD CONDITIONS?

            WHATS WRONG WIT IT?

            will u take $2,000

            I want too trade you a 1993 Cutlass Ciera with only 230000k miles lost tittle an starts wit a scruw driver

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I found a two door last-gen Trooper in Florida a couple weeks ago. It sold quickly.

      I loved my ’86 2 door. I’d still have it if the trans hadn’t taken a $#¡Г.

  • avatar
    someoldfool

    There was some astronaut film 20+ years ago where one of the characters drove one of these. It was set in the near future, like 1998 or something. Could it have been Ron Howard’s car? It was so so futuristic I guess. Or a running vehicle no one had ever seen before.

  • avatar
    church

    Gernerally i’m SUV hater. There was one exception, and it’s this. Even more impressive that it provided those impressive & still modern looks THAT long ago. To me it was postercar worthy one on par of lambos & ferraris back then :). Pitty it’s availability in Europe (only in way of very few grey imports) was that much more scarce then those already small numbers sold in USDM/JDM :(. And this is a bit i don’t get .. imho demand for these should be many times more then small numbers it ran .. what happened with demand driving offer? What Isuzu were thinking of? They did not want to make product that people wanted to buy? :/

    • 0 avatar
      whynot

      Keep in mind that one reason why demand is so high for these things now is because they are rare. Have to remember that these were EXPENSIVE when new. ~$29,000 in 1999 which when adjusted for inflation is ~$43,000 today. For a small, rather basic, 2 door SUV with polarizing styling from a brand that was sliding towards irrelevancy even then.

  • avatar
    legacygt

    One of these made its way into my kids’ toy car collection. It holds its own even among some of the wilder Hot Wheels concoctions yet it’s a real car that people owned. I love it. I’d send the 15 mpg back to the 90s but the rest of the car is welcome anytime.

  • avatar
    DJM

    There’s a yellow one currently for sale in Canada.

    http://wwwb.autotrader.ca/a/Isuzu/VehiCROSS/WINNIPEG/Manitoba/19_10380239_/?showcpo=ShowCPO&orup=1_15_1

  • avatar
    matt3319

    Who would have thought Isuzu was ahead of its time 20 plus years ago. The Rodeo, the way cool Axiom and the Vehi-cross. The Rodeo was the only one people bought in decent numbers. I came close to buying an Axiom back then. A Tan one. I bet someday when the Japanese 90’s cars are collectible, the Axiom and Vehi-Cross will be sought after.

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    Saw one of these at work and looked inside: AWESOME interior

  • avatar
    manu06

    I almost bought a used yellow one of these but by the time I drove to the dealership it had been sold.
    I remember seeing the Ironman edition of these in the wild on occasion. If memory serves Isuzu
    shipped exactly one Vehicross from the factory painted green. That would be the unicorn to have.

  • avatar
    AoLetsGo

    The two door SUV’s were the best. Our first one was a 1988 GMC Jimmy 2 door, dark green and 4WD that got a lot of compliments. My son had an old Explorer Sport which looked good but was beat up and needed a lot of work.

  • avatar
    poopberrycrunch

    I owned on of these throughout college. If you have the patience for them, they are remarkable cars. They are full of character.

    The steering thing is easily fixable. There is a small bolt on top of the steering box, visible in the front left of the engine bay. Undo the lock bolt and tighten the main bolt just a little bit. Test the car in a parking lot and if further tightening is needed repeat. You don’t want to tighten it to much or the steering will stop returning to center. This will tighten up the steering to a degree but it will always be vague on center. Tell you friend to check his oil often as well. The 3.5 liter burns a bit and its always good to check.

    Enjoy the truck they really are awesome vehicles.

  • avatar
    Marko

    Glad to see I’m not the only fan of these!

  • avatar
    Marko

    Glad to see I’m not the only fan of these!

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    The ugliest car of the 90s, apart from the curvecrapular Ford sedans.

  • avatar
    MyerShift

    Looks like the Pontiac Aztek’s inspiration from several exterior angles. I never thought of that before.


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