In 1998 Leisure Wheels featured a driving impression of the Isuzu VehiCROSS. The unit had been imported from Japan for the Auto Africa Motor Show. Sadly, the vehicle, based on the Isuzu Trooper chassis, never went on sale here, depriving local enthusiasts of probably the most sporty Isuzu ever. Enter Sakkie Coetzee, who decided that he would have his VehiCROSS, come import legislation or high water.
Text: Danie Botha
“She is perfect in so many ways. And she’s capable in the sand, with a feel of a rally car about her. And that 160kW engine… you just step on the gas and off she goes… wham!” says 4×4 enthusiast Sakkie Coetzee.
When a man refers to a vehicle as “her”, the chances are he is rather fond of his ride. In Sakkie’s case, it’s more like a forbidden love affair that turned good in the end. All Romeo and Juliet-ish.
The VehiCROSS was only on show in SA at the 1998 Auto Africa Motor Show, imported as a showpiece of Isuzu’s forward thinking at the time. Back then we asked Alastair Ironside, product strategy manager for the former Delta company (and today the GM, marketing, at General Motors SA) if the vehicle would make it onto local showroom floors.
“No. The VehiCROSS was not engineered for export markets like SA,” said Ironside. And it never went on sale here.
Let’s just quickly put the VehiCROSS picture in perspective. It made its debut as a futuristic concept car at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show, and by 1997 production units — as close to the concept car as dammit is to swearing — rolled off the production line in Japan.
Just 1805 right-hand drive units were produced for the domestic market. In the meantime, American customers indicated that they also wanted it, and 4153 left-hand drive units were produced for that market.
Sakkie had been after a VehiCROSS for years, but with so few right-hand drive units made and the 4×4 becoming a collectors’ item, he faced an uphill battle.
“I applied for an import permit, supplying evidence on why it was considered a collectors’ item, which was the only classification that would allow me to import it. But officialdom simply shrugged. According to them this Isuzu was no collectors’ item.”
Last year Sakkie heard of a VehiCROSS for sale in Botswana, but after enquiring about it and learning that it had no export permit for SA, he decided not to pursue it further. More time passed. Then, out of the blue, his phone started going mad.
“Friends and fellow Isuzu fans who knew I was looking for a VehiCROSS told me to check out the Gumtree website. There was a VehiCROSS for sale on the site.
“It was the same vehicle from Botswana, and the South African owner had since moved back to SA, allowing him to secure a so-called returning citizen import permit for the vehicle. So I jumped into my Isuzu KB300, drove from Heidelberg to Johannesburg, and bought the vehicle on the spot. Now we are just going through the final red tape motions of getting it registered here,” says Sakkie.
Besides the unique look and the sportiness of the vehicle, it’s the way the VehiCROSS handles off-road conditions that has left Sakkie speechless.
Riding on a modified Trooper chassis, the VehiCROSS was designed to be the ultimate “cross” between a sports car and a sport utility. So it has a hotter version of Isuzu’s 3,2-litre V6 quad overhead-cam 24-valve engine that produces 160kW at 5600r/min and 295 Nm of torque at 3000r/min. Drive is sent to the wheels via a four-speed automatic gearbox.
In 1993, the Isuzu’s four-wheel drive system showcased the company’s 4×4 technology, and to this day it remains a brilliant system.
During normal driving all the power is directed to the rear wheels. But as soon as wheel slippage is detected or even anticipated, the Torque on Demand system sends a suitable amount of drive to the front wheels (up to a 50/50 split).
The VehiCROSS even has the option of low range, selected via a second gear lever. In this mode the drive remains split 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Further aiding traction is a limited-slip rear differential.
The off-road prowess doesn’t end there. The VehiCROSS rides on an independent wishbone and torsion bar front suspension and a coil-sprung four-link set-up at the back. The standard dampers used are off-road racing spec units, each with remote reservoirs. So it really is a bit like an off-road rally car, hiding in the body of a futuristically styled Isuzu.
No wonder a production-based VehiCROSS won two stages in the 1998 Paris-Dakar Rally, and won its class in the 1999 Australian Safari Rally.
“It really is amazingly capable in sand,” says Sakkie.
In December, he spent two weeks in Cape Town, and gave the VehiCROSS a good few workouts in the Atlantis Dunes.
“The combination of the punchy engine, the suspension set-up and the relatively small size and low weight of the vehicle ensured that we went everywhere the hardcore sandblaster 4x4s went,” says Sakkie. “At one dune I was told that only five 4x4s had ever made it across, and that I should maybe skip this one. It required lots of horsepower, big cahoonas and a good helping of skill to drift a 4×4 on the side-slope without rolling. By then I knew what the Isuzu was capable of, with the Torque on Demand system working its magic. So the Isuzu became number six to make it up there!”
It’s been a long mission to finally park an Isuzu VehiCROSS in his driveway, but now he is content.
“I love her.” says Sakkie. “She is the complete car for me, and I drive her every day. She really exceeded all my expectations, and the wait has been more than worth it.”
That’s the VehiCROSS – a modern classic that was way ahead of its time. Pity it never officially made its way here. It looks tailor-made for Africa, after all.
Isuzu VehiCROSS 3.2 AT
Engine: 3.2-litre V6 (quad overhead-cam, 24-valve)
Power: 160kW @ 5600r/min
Torque: 295Nm @ 3000r/mn
Transmission: Four-speed automatic (with transfer case)
4×4 system: Torque on Demand (up to 50/50 lock in high range), 50/50 lock in low range, limited slip rear differential
Suspension: Independent front, four-link rear, with off-road racing dampers
GOOD: Performance, smile-a-mile, off-road ability (especially sand and gravel), standard Recaro seats and Momo steering wheel, collectibility and exclusivity
NOT SO GOOD: Only contortionists and small children can get to rear seats; red tape makes it almost impossible to get hold of one
Price: About R150 000 (right-hand drive unit for sale in Japan), excludes all export and import duties.