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First Drive

There's a Capable Isuzu Under That Alien Skin

November 26, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Badges front and rear on this polypropylene pod claim it was manufactured by Isuzu. Forgive us for doubting the builder of Trooper, Rodeo, Hombre and other stylized cinder blocks. Our guess is that Isuzu's 1999 VehiCROSS--how's that for an aerospaced-out name?--was whelped in space and recovered from the desert near Roswell.

Twin chromed fangs salivate in the grille and serve no purpose other than to suggest Mad Max had a hand in market research. Turn signals are plexiglass blisters above each halogen headlight assembly and definitely from the Jurassic Park school of automotive design. The fuel filler cap is a flush, stainless steel flap, and if that makes you think of Indy pit stops, F-16s and afterburner power, then that's just fine with Joe Isuzu.

Only serious special-effects folk would think of wrapping the lower half of a vehicle in black, unpainted thermoplastic resin that is all looks and no reason for being. This plastic bodice is held up by Allen screws. Exposed, like rivets in a tank. Like having your very own bulletproof vest.

One can only assume that Isuzu, respected builder of handsome to pretty good trucks and buses, is betting on visual shock therapy while reaching bravely for a foothold where it doesn't even have a toehold: in the compact sport-utility niche for vehicles designed for personal fun, not conquering the Everglades.

That's why the VehiCROSS is a two-door, because four doors suggest family and big, smelly dogs. Introductory literature for this mud-rat (expected to go on sale in the spring, and somewhere north of $25,000) makes no mention of a talent for towing bass boats. A startling high-tech interior that shows two-toned (burgundy and indigo), leather-covered Recaro seats, plus great splashes of faux-carbon-fiber trim on dashboard and doors, is not the kind of stuff you'll find parked at Home Depot on the weekend.

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Yet underneath all this smoke, mirrors and implants is the viscera of a very capable little wagon. The engine is a 3.5-liter, 24-valve, double-cam V-6 producing 215 horsepower and 230 pounds-foot of torque. It's inclined to work hard and make a lot of noise while doing it. The only transmission is a four-speed automatic that, when booted hard, makes as much din as the engine and tires.

On-road, this rascal scoots along with freeway traffic with only medium rolling in turns; off-road, a driver is reduced to computer operator, thanks to a system of gas pedal, brake and wheel sensors that proportions power to front or back wheels, depending on surface or obstacles. With the gearbox locked in low, we rollicked and thumped through some pretty unhealthy ruts, gullies and similar scars of El Nino without bottoming out the suspension.

As with all two-door compacts, there's a severe shortage of seat room in back. Think Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and similar caricatures of the real thing. But the grossest flaw of the VehiCROSS is a spare wheel stored inside the tailgate. It shrinks rear vision to a squint, and when looking back, your only view is of hairlines and roof lines.

The VehiCROSS went public as a concept car at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show and went into production a year later. It was done with confidence but in haste, with Isuzu ruling that "there would be no consumer research clinics, no long, drawn-out development processes and no courtroom-like hearings with the Isuzu Finance Department."

That played in Japan, where the VehiCROSS was voted 1997 car of the year. But will that lack of development and research play in Peoria, a town not particularly rich in Trekkers?

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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