Project Isuzu VehiCross Part 1: What Are We Getting Ourselves Into?

by David Zipf

Isuzu VehiCross.  If you have no idea what that is, well you're just like the DMV, insurance company, mechanic's shops, and about 95% of the general population.  Also, you're not reading MotoIQ enough, because astute readers will have already seen this particular VehiCross (or VX for short).  So what is a VehiCross and how did we end up with this latest project?

This.  This is a VehiCross, in Dakar Rally spec no less.  Source

Well the story begins in 1997 when Isuzu, mostly known for making big industrial trucks and the occasional cool little sport compact, wanted a way to do the following: go racing, build a halo car (erm...truck), and try out some new technology.  So they did that all at once by taking a mothballed concept from 1993 and putting it into production.  That truck was the VehiCross and it's a fascinating bit of kit.  The body panels are all pressed from inexpensive ceramic dies that are much cheaper to buy, but only last a few thousand runs before warping.  This is ideal for short run cars as traditional cast iron dies are too expensive to create for low volume cars (in the case of the VX, 5,958 bodies were pressed before the dies wore out of spec).  Borg Warner had a new computer controlled torque transmitting transfer case they wanted to try out, so the VX got it as well (dubbed Torque on Demand or TOD).  Underneath, the VX employed aluminum bodied monotube dampers with remote pressure reservoirs, unheard of for a street car in the late 90s, much less a big truck.  For racing, Isuzu decided to tackle the Production class in the Dakar Rally with the VX.  The VX actually won two stages in class during the 1998 race, and later took the 1999 Australian Safari Rally in Production class.


Can your brand new Explorer do this?  I think not.  Source

Despite all of this cutting edge 90s technology, the engine is the same tried and true 3.5L V6 Isuzu had been using in the Trooper since 1995.  The V6 is a DOHC motor with variable valve timing making a modest 215 hp.  This was enough to give a 0-60 in a touch under 10 seconds.  The racing inspired dampers, stiff springs, and double wishbone front suspension give the VX surprisingly sprightly handling.  You'll never mistake it for a sports car, but for an SUV it's very good.  The TOD 4WD and clutch type LSD in the rear axle give plenty of traction both on and off road.  For an SUV that needs to do everything, the VX ticks off pretty much every option one could ask for.  

In the early 2000s, a middle-school aged boy in Delaware picked up a copy of Test Drive Off-Road 3.  It was a unique off-roading game filled with fun tracks and unique trucks that you could modify.  Some of the trucks you could driver were the Dodge T-Rex concept, the Saleen Ford Explorer, and the Shelby Dodge Durango (yes, those were both things and sadly, not a single magazine held a shootout between the two).  But more pertinent to this story was the inclusion of the Isuzu VehiCross.  Yes, the blocky graphics didn't serve this truck justice, but that name always stuck with that 14 year old boy.  One day that 14 year old boy grew up and decided to start looking up cars on Craigslist and Autotrader.  And he would stumble on the VehiCross again and remember that game.


I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that 64 bits of rendering do not do the VehiCross justice.  And yet I still wanted one.  Baffling, eh?  Source

We found our VehiCross in Bowling Green, KY.  In its former life it was a contractor's truck, used for scouting locations before beginning work.  Compared to the previous owner's Ford Dually, the VX was a fuel sipping, nimble little runabout.  He too bought it because it was a dream car of his as a kid, but with a growing family, he needed to cut down on the toys in his life.  This particular VX was in good shape: a 2001 model with just under 140,000 miles.  The body was complete and showed only a few minor issues.  The chassis was rust free and the engine, while having a dead battery, sounded great and had plenty of power.  The transmission was smooth and the TOD worked.  However there was a reason this truck was so cheap (we paid less than half the Blue Book value for a pristine example of this truck): it needed work.  Quite a lot of work, if we're honest.  As we've mentioned before, this particular VX had missed out on most of its regular maintenance, which here included brakes, tires, spark plugs, fluids, leather conditioning, and washing and waxing.  "Needs some TLC" was a completely appropriate description of this VX: nothing was dangerously bad (well, except the tires) and only a couple of very small parts were missing.  On top of those issues, the VX had a number of design and quality flaws from the moment it left the Isuzu factory (in 1995 GM bought Isuzu and the build quality is on par with late 90s GMs, which is to say a step above British Leyland).  If you spend a few hours browsing through forums, you will find these issues one by one.  However, we found out firsthand that VX owners are fiercely loyal to their trucks and don't like to badmouth them.  Much like Land Rover owners, some of these "minor issues" are rather important to deal with and can be quite a shock when you move away from something as reliable as a Honda!


Yeah we weren't kidding with that whole Honda thing either.  This trusty CR-V has been our runabout for nearly 5 years and 60,000 miles.  Bit of a jump from comfortable, practical, cheap crossover to weird, quirky, rare truck, but a jump worth making.  Bowling Green was 100 miles away: the next closest VX was in Ohio and 50 miles further.  It also did not run, or stop and was in far worse shape than the one we ended up with (it also had the dull and undesirable gray interior).  The third closest VX was in a junkyard with a salvage title 300 miles away.  Yeah, these things are freaking difficult to find, so when we found one in budget, nearby, and in good shape we pounced on it!
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Thursday, August 06, 2015 2:13 AM
Since you kept mentioning it runs hot and you also want to tow things with it, fix the problem and install some type of custom hood vent or louvers on it yo. And damn thats alot of things wrong! I always liked these and the other cool looking Isuzu but now I'm sure glad I never followed thu.
Thursday, August 06, 2015 7:58 AM
MY EYES!!! MY EYES!!! What's next, project AZTEK?!?!?! :)

Love these things, I wanna see some pics of you taking it off of some sweet jumps! :)
Thursday, August 06, 2015 8:44 AM
Before you go replacing the booster, hook up a mityvac or similar to the vacuum line and check to see if it holds pressure. I know you said tipping the throttle seems to help, but pedal sinking to the floor usually means master cylinder.

And, I'm with Chris, if you are going to be painting the hood, throw on a pair of generic louvers over the exhaust manifolds. If it truly is just plain white, I would check with a local paint supply house and have them mix you up a bunch of rattlecans of factory color and DIY.

DEI makes heat shields which sit over hot things and are secured via stainless hose clamps....that might help keep some heat out of the cabin while preventing you from having to pull out all of the interior.

I always liked these trucks, looking forward to reading more of your updates!
Thursday, August 06, 2015 9:49 AM
There's youtube videos out there of someone that shoehorned an LS in one of these.... I have no idea how good of a job they did, or how that worked out in terms of heat rejection, considering that's already a problem.... but all the same...Just sayin'
Thursday, August 06, 2015 11:17 AM
@ Chris: I should have been more clear. It doesn't overheat or run hot in that way, but everything under hood heat soaks from the lack of airflow. I hadn't planned on cutting up the hood (since I'm usually opposed to cutting and welding on a rare car in any way), but since the hood is already tweaked I wouldn't feel so bad about it. An oil cooler might be in the works too if there's room for one up front.

@Rockwood: Only if you want to see my spine shoot through my skull (though I admit that could be very entertaining). Literally the stiffest ride of anything I've ever driven. Remember the Princess and the Pea? It's like the Isuzu and the road gravel. You feel every little ripple when you drive.

@stylngle: I've had bad MCs before and this is quite different. On a bad MC you can usually pump the pedal and bring back some pressure. The problem we have is when engine RPMs drop, the pedal gets mushy and drops a couple inches. If you hold your foot on the throttle, the pedal stays high and firm (phrasing, I know). Allegedly these engines are not very efficient and tend to burp out a lot of carbon. I'm thinking some of this carbon has built up in the check valve for the booster and is keeping it open. The same carbon deposits also could be clogging the EGR. Clogged EGRs happen in Troopers too. I've just been living with those problems for now, we'll be digging into it soon enough.

I'd like to have a set of stainless steel headers fabbed up at some point. SS will help contain the heat and we can wrap them before they go back in to further reduce heat soak. More power and less heat soak would be very welcome.
Thursday, August 06, 2015 11:51 AM
They make LED-compatible turn signal relays for a lot of makes, any idea if there's such a replacement? $15 and a simple relay swap is a lot easier than wiring in load resistors and (hopefully) almost as easy as keeping ordinary incandescent bulbs...
Thursday, August 06, 2015 12:49 PM
@ 8695 Beaters: stiffer just means you need to go faster!

Seriously, stiffer is better on jumps, less likely to crash into the stops and such. I increased the spring rates on my buggy and it greatly improved the overall off road ride harshness since it stayed off the stops.
Thursday, August 06, 2015 1:58 PM
From the rally world I hear soft springs with a ton of compression damping is the best way to go for off-road performance. Thoughts?
Thursday, August 06, 2015 7:05 PM
Soft springs suck for roll resistance and need too much preload. You can do more with the shocks, but then you're trading bump travel resistance for heat. If he were running separate bypasses, this would sorta work, but soft springs and hard shocks to make up for it will make for inconsistent damping once they get to scorching hot.

But yeah, springs to hold the car up at about 50/50 or 60/40 bump/droop with minimal preload, then tune shocks for the rest is the popular method. Too little droop and the whole vehicle drops into a hole every time one is encountered, beating up the occupants and limiting traction in the slower stuff.

If you're going slow, 30/70 bump/droop is a hot ticket to allow for good articulation.
Thursday, January 07, 2016 12:56 PM
Best of luck on your VX project. One of the mods I did to my VehiCROSS was to replace the tiny stock transfer-case skidplate with a beefier Isuzu Trooper skidplate. I also bought a Trooper tubular push-bar for the front end and had a welding shop cut the brackets down by an inch or two, to snug it up closer to the front bumper.
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