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  1999 Isuzu VehiCROSS
Racy concept vehicle comes to life, puts the "sport" back in sport-utility
by Brenda Priddy and John Priddy

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii ó Another concept vehicle turned production? Weíve seen the Porsche Boxster and VWís Concept One spawn production versions. But with all the attention and variety of offerings in the SUV market, it would be easy to overlook Isuzuís 1993 showstopper, the VehiCROSS.

The VehiCROSS is based neither on the similar-size Amigo nor the Rodeo, but instead on the Japanese-only two-door Trooper. Isuzuís VehiCROSS is truly a limited-production crossover vehicle that delivers the best of two worlds ó sports car driving precision and four-wheel-drive athletics. Usually one precludes the other, but Isuzu put its money where its mouth was and pulled it off quite effectively.

Secret's in the suspension

Because an SUVís primary purpose is to provide the capability of at least occasional off-roading, ride quality and handling was expected, at best, to be a compromise. Isuzuís solution is to incorporate a double-wishbone/torsion-bar front-suspension design for better high-speed cornering and straight-line driving, yet without compromising wheel travel needed for off-road performance. In the rear, a four-link live axle with coil springs is used. At all four corners are disc brakes and (for the first time in a production vehicle) aerospace-grade extruded aluminum shock absorbers with attached expansion chambers. This shock design eliminates aeration and cavitation ó a mixing of oil and air within the shock absorber that could cause failure of shock-absorbing action ó while providing better shock cooling during high-performance driving.

The result of all this suspension engineering is a unique vehicle that combines a comfortable ride and stable handling with minimal body roll and excellent steering feedback.

But Isuzu didnít stop there. At the heart of any SUV is the transfer case. Providing power to the front wheels, in addition to the rears, has always been the selling point of off-road vehicles. How well that is accomplished often determines the success, or failure, of the vehicle. To that end, Isuzu teamed up with transmission expert Borg-Warner to develop and co-patent a Torque-On-Demand or "TOD" system. Rather than a viscous coupling unit, as is used by most other full-time 4WD systems, Isuzu opted instead for an electromagnetic/mechanical system (similar to what Jeep employed on the new Grand Cherokee).

"What ABS is to stopping, torque-on-demand is to going," commented Bob Reilly, senior vice president and general manager of light vehicles for American Isuzu.

Torque to the front wheels is controlled by a stand-alone computer. Data input is fed into the unit from 12 input sensors, including ones that monitor front and rear axle speed, throttle position, brake and ABS use. TOD compares the inputs to a preprogrammed "map" in the computerís database and then varies the voltage sent to an electromagnetic clutch pack in the transfer case. The change in voltage varies the strength of the magnetic coupling, which in turn varies the amount of torque sent to the front wheels. By reacting to more than just wheel slippage, the map data enables TOD to predict coupling requirements and make changes accordingly, as often as every 20 milliseconds. TOD operates at all times, unless low range is selected. Then the front wheels are locked in direct, bypassing the electronic system.

Sports car power

Power is supplied by an equally impressive 3.5-liter dual overhead-cam aluminum V-6, producing 215 horsepower. This updated engine uses a variable intake system ó a technology used in the past by some pretty exotic performance cars, including the ZR-1 Corvette and Taurus SHO V-6.

Below 3600 rpm, an electric solenoid closes a valve in the intake manifold and creates a longer path for the incoming air to travel before reaching the combustion chambers. This long port improves engine efficiency at low and intermediate speeds. Above 3600 rpm, the solenoid turns off, opening the valve and effectively creating a shorter intake port needed for optimal airflow and torque at higher RPMs.

This powerplant also incorporates the latest technology in valve train friction reduction, crankcase strengthening and vibration reduction. It also comes with direct-ignition 100,000-mile platinum-tipped spark plugs.

High-tech bodywork

All of this mechanical wizardry sits under the most exotic bodywork ever to cover a production SUV. Like the Boxster and New Beetle, the VehiCROSS strayed very little from the aggressive-looking, compact, two-door concept vehicle on which it is based. Matte-finished polypropylene lower-body extensions, along with front and rear bumpers, surround the futuristic-looking, aerodynamic steel body of the VehiCROSS.

Other features include a matte-finished panel inset in the hood to reduce glare, roof rack, an aircraft-type fuel filler door, and a side-hinged tailgate that carries the spare tire securely inside.

The show-car theme continues inside, where we find red-and-black leather Recaro bucket seats. Renowned for their comfort, the seats are accompanied by techno-looking carbon fiber trim on the door panels and instrument faces.

Curiously, the dash is the stock Rodeo unit. And that may be a blessing in disguise ó no gee-whiz gimmicks and flashing lights. Standard equipment includes power windows, mirrors, door locks and CD player. The back seat is roomy and comfortable but getting there requires the usual contortions required in two-door SUV's - it's a pain.

But it's the driving experience that pulls all the design and engineering elements together. The VehiCROSS is truck based and some of ride motions are still there, but are tamed by the double wishbone front end and high dollar shocks. Body lean in the corners is minimal and lives up to Isuzu's claim of sports car refinement. Engine performance is certainly adequate and road noise is absolutely minimal ó surprising in an SUV. Visibility is a problem, however. The wide C pillar and small rear window, a result of the slick spare tire storage makes backing up a two-person operation. Japanese buyers are treated to a rear view camera and dash mounted monitor, but unfortunately the Feds won't allow it here.

Isuzu plans to export only 200 units per month to the US, a mere drops in the bucket by anyone's count. The purpose is, of course, to showcase Isuzu's engineering and design prowess. But such limited production would not be possible if not for their newly developed ceramic stamping dies. At a fraction of the cost of traditional steel dies, Isuzu has opened the door to low volume production without losing a ton of money. They hope.

The VehiCROSS, which goes on sale in March of next year as a 1999 model, will list for $28,900 plus $495 for shipping. It comes fully loaded and will be available in silver, black, or in the optional Ironma


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