Concept vehicles go on display at auto shows to give us an idea of what we might be driving in the future. At recent shows, we've seen the Audi Allroad Shooting Brake, Volkswagen T-Roc, and the Volvo XC Concept Coupe. They share several characteristics: crossover vehicles with elevated ground clearance, all-wheel drive, short overhangs, two passenger doors, the impression that someone spent many hours sweating over the styling, and a distinct resemblance to something that people were buying 17 years ago.
The Isuzu VehiCross was a ride ahead of its time. This two-door compact SUV looked like nothing else on- or off-road. Only now are designers using elements that made the VehiCross stand out.
A team led by Satomi Murayama was responsible for the design. Murayama has since gone on to work for Nissan, so obviously not a guy afraid to try something different, given some of Nissan's recent output. Another member of the crew was Simon Cox, a Brit. He has also worked for Cadillac and, at the moment, is at Infiniti. The consensus among aficionados is that Cox was the main man behind the striking looks of the VehiCross.
It started out as a concept, unveiled at the 1993 Tokyo Auto Show and touted as "lightweight, compact, ecologically clean and functional." The transition to the assembly line involved only a few changes. No carbon fiber fuel tank or small-displacement turbocharged engine as imagined for the original idea, but see how modern vehicles are going down this road?
Underneath that remarkable skin was some cutting-edge hardware. At its heart is the "Torque On Demand" (TOD) system. While we have almost come to expect computer-controlled all-wheel drive system to be able to direct torque to the wheel or wheels with the most traction, this was a big deal in 1997. It also has a transfer case and a locking differential for low-gear off-roading ventures.
The suspension includes monotube shock absorbers with external reservoirs -- again, unusual for a factory-stock vehicle built in the late '90s. No wonder it did well in the 1998 Paris-Dakar Rally, taking class wins in a couple of stages.
Although the VehiCross went into production for the Japanese market in 1997, models spec'd for the United States came along in 1999. It was always meant to be a limited run model, and 4,153 units were earmarked for the U.S. The last of those arrived in 2001. There are probably more daily sightings of Elvis than there are of the VehiCross.
However, it is immortalized on both the big and small screens. One makes a fleeting appearance in Babylon A.D., a 2008 Vin Diesel movie. There's another in the Joseph Gordon-Leavitt film Premium Rush. On TV, the Dark Angel series (co-created by James Cameron and featuring Jessica Alba) had the VehiCross co-starring with what is generally regarded as one of the world's ugliest automobiles, the Pontiac Aztek. Television producers could get away with all sorts of stuff back then.
What looks like a convertible version acted as the wheels for Gary Sinise's astronaut character in Brian de Palma's 2000 movie Mission To Mars. But it turns out to have been a VX-02 concept, which is more or less a VehiCross convertible, overdubbed, in this instance, with jet engine noises.
As the now-discontinued Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet illustrates, the world still isn't ready for a soft-top crossover. Maybe one day people will look back on the original Isuzu VehiCross and call it a design classic as they sit in their Mars colony home, reminiscing about the old Blue Planet.