The Isuzu VehiCROSS: Minor upgrades and strange happenings

Where lies the cutoff at which a vehicle is no longer “new” and becomes “old”? I’ve always been curious about this, and after beginning to work on my recently-acquired VehiCROSS I can say for certain that even though fifteen years may not constitute “old” it can definitely bring some quirks along with it. It didn’t take long for me to realize how and why working on an “older” vehicle is more…of everything. It’s more labor intensive, more thinking, more strategizing, more frustrating, and more satisfying.
Monday the fourth was a snowy fluke to the start of the first full week in April, and it was then that I was hit head-on by the new-found awareness that working on the VehiCROSS may be a bit tricky. While the VX was basking in its last few days of peace and quiet, I was researching, planning, and preparing. I had waited long enough already; it was time to get my act together and then got rolling with Project VX.

I’ll be upfront and issue a bit of a disclaimer: while I can somewhat hold my own, I’m no expert when it comes to wrenching. It’s something I do for fun when I can, something enjoyable and rewarding rather than something I rely on. I’ve done the basics like oil and fluid changes, and a little of the more laborious stuff like bushing swaps, tie rods, axles, and so on, though most of it has been on my four-wheel-drive ATV. I figure I spend ten hours working on my four-wheeler for every hour I spend riding it, but it’s a relatively simple machine aside from the voodoo magic carburetors. Still, working on the quad couldn’t prepare me for the oddities surrounding the VX.
The complexities began to rear their head(s) about a week earlier. The sun was shining, the birds chirping. I swapped out the interior dome light to an LED bulb with ease aside from the blinding shock that comes with not knowing the light was in the “on” position. Then I moved on and went to assess the daytime running lights. I removed the passenger-side fixture, twisted the backing away from the lens, separated the two– and stared as about half a cup of water poured out. No big deal. I’ll let it dry and come back to it in a few days. Simple. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t. Dielectric grease is everywhere and the new bulb only lights up when pressure is applied perfectly. Status: to be resolved.
Sticking with the lighting mojo, the headlights were up next. Cloudy lenses were made less so by use of a restorer kit, but they could still be better. Status: to be revisited. I bought brighter bulbs for the low-beams, hoping doing so would improve nighttime visibility and the looks as well (old yellow bulbs = no thank you). Lo and behold, the headlights are incredibly difficult to remove. Isuzu left an impossibly small space for one’s hand between the assembly and what sits behind it, with the washer fluid bottle on one side and battery on the other. Throw in a huge dose of dielectric grease, a dabble of corrosion and old cracked plastics, and the headlights refuse to come out. Status: to be revisited as well.

The questionable 18″ wheels that were on the VX upon purchase

As for the wheels and tires that came on the VX when I bought it, they had to go. Too much bling, not enough brawn. I decided to sell the chrome 18” set and buy steel 16”s for a few reasons. First and foremost, the smaller steel wheels are much better suited to off-road in both form and, much more crucially, function. A larger sidewall allows for more flex and deflection when airing down, and it also leaves less wheel to be damaged by rocks when out on the trail. The VX is also a pretty harsh riding vehicle so the extra sidewall will be nice on the street, too. The final factor in deciding on 16” wheels was that tires are much less expensive than a set of rubber for anything bigger. Add in a good deal in which I bought a set of half-used 245/75/16 Cooper AT3s off my buddy Dom, who was swapping them out for the new BFG AT KO2s on his F-150, and it was set.
The AT3s aren’t my first choice but they’ll do for now, especially considering the price. I ordered Black Rock Dune wheels from Summit Racing and, after selling the 18”s, barely had to spend any money out of pocket to get the setup I wanted. More on this in the next update though…
Cooper AT3s reporting for duty

Dom’s KO2s arrived well before my new wheels even shipped, so the AT3s landed in my garage while the chrome 18” set was still on the VX as of the day before I was to sell them. The VX’s original owner had also given me the OEM wheels/tires (yes..15 year old tires..dry rot included), so with no wheels for the Coopers the factory set had to go back on the VX in order for me to sell the 18”s. I invited Dom over to hang while I did the swap, and on that snowy mess of a Monday in early April, madness took over.
The Granite Alloys became a problem immediately. Either we didn’t have the proper tool (which is next-to-impossible given our combined arsenal) or we were totally overlooking something, but we couldn’t get the wheels off. A four-way lug wrench simply wouldn’t fit, and even the skinniest 19mm deep socket was too tight on the OD. As I said above, I’m not the world’s best wrench, but I’ve swapped wheels/tires an uncountable number of times. Here, I was dumbfounded. Dom on the other hand is a pretty solid wrench for somebody who does it for fun, so it was his brain that got things going.
With a bit of pressure from the clock, Dom decided to hammer the end of a breaker bar with a socket attached to it into the lug holes. Miraculously, in a blunt-force-meets-technique mash-up, it worked. We would hammer the breaker bar in, turning it such that eventually the socket would align itself with the lug nut. After loosening the lug until it slipped off, we would then hammer the breaker bar back in, loosen the lug, and repeat until it finally came all the way off. The process took hours longer than it should have, but all four wheels eventually came free.
One of the OEM place-holders

As we were nearing the end something inexplicable happened. Prior to getting started I had aired up the OEM wheels/tires and placed one in each corner of the garage for each respective corner of the VX. We were working on the last corner, the right rear, and went to put the last of the originals on. I had wandered over to the opposite side to put a socket away when Dom casually asked me where the last wheel/tire was, to which I responded equally casually that it was right there—right next to the VX, right where I left it. It hardly took careful visual inspection to see that it wasn’t where it should have been.
The next five minutes can best be described as perplexed mayhem, a wave of panic and confusion mixed with a bit of being creeped out. We flew into a frenzy searching the garage, underneath other vehicles parked outside, in the trees, down the driveway, and so on—but it was nowhere to be found. We broke out flashlights, phone lights, and even used the LED lights affixed to the front of Dom’s F-150 to comb through where we might have missed it, but amid the serene and unwelcome late-season snow, the tire seemed to be gone.
Cold, tired, and with other things to do, we gave up and decided to use the VX’s spare tire to hold missing #4’s place until it turned up or until my new set was ready. Fun fact about the VX’s spare—it sits inside the rear door, accessed by removing a plastic hideaway-type panel. This neat space-saving trick creates problems for those who want to run a substantially larger tire, forcing many to resort to creative fixes like using the roof-rack, fabricating interior mounts (sans back seat), or drilling into the rear door to mount a Jeep-esque carrier. Isuzu’s engineers were very clever with the placement of the space-saver, but they clearly didn’t think much about what other people might do with the VX in this regard.
When all was said and done with the wheel/tire-swap debacle, I took inventory. Casualties: one breaker bar, two flathead bits, one tire’s whereabouts, and, briefly, our sanity. I’ve seen some truly strange things, especially in the last couple years, but this was fighting for top spot on the list of weirdest.
The following morning, exhausted and still clueless as to how we could lose sixty-plus pounds of rubber and metal, I found the suspect about two hundred feet away. It had rolled out of the garage unannounced, maneuvered around four parked cars, gone down the driveway, across the street, and camouflaged itself in a patch of mulch. It even landed with the face of the wheel downwards so as to prevent any lights from reflecting off the chrome surface. I couldn’t help but laugh as I rolled the tire back into the garage; case closed, creepiness no more.
The old, crappy-condition runaway OEM wheel/tire

Amid the drama I’ve added a few other items to the VehiCROSS to improve livability. These are items that in a new car wouldn’t garner second thought but in a vehicle from 2001 are luxuries that make it much nicer in day-to-day life. Among these items are an AUX-cord cassette adapter for podcast and music enjoyment, vital for my listening habits. Then I tried out a cigarette-lighter USB power adapter but found it was functional only at certain spots and under certain pressure, not unlike the amber running light, which could be the fault of the VX or that of the product itself—I’m not sure which. The last add-on was a two-in-one windshield/vent phone mount which looks fairly out of place but will be helpful for navigational purposes.
So up to this point, the VehiCROSS still sits atop three OEM tires and one space-saver spare with a “MAX 45 MPH” sticker on it. The quirks continue to reveal themselves but luckily nothing as of yet affects drivability. Things could be better, and they could be worse, but progress has been made. I’m happy with progress, but the VX has a long way to go.
Note: the VX has progressed quite a bit since this publishing but the written updates are lagging behind real life. Stay tuned…

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10 responses to “The Isuzu VehiCROSS: Minor upgrades and strange happenings”

  1. TobyShine Avatar

    You may want to find a new hobby.

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      Don’t we all…

  2. Guest Avatar

    The Justy is currently my favourite Hooniverse project car, but the VehiCROSS is definitely in second, and might challenge the Justy for my favour in the future.

    Cool vehicle, good updates, keep it up!

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      Thanks! Hoping for to have the next update ready this week…

      1. Guest Avatar

        Awesome! Looking forward to it!

  3. BigRedCaveTroll Avatar

    I’m glad to see a VehiCROSS getting taking care of! They’re such neat little SUVs.

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      The owners are divided into those who love and care about them, and those who have neglected them entirely…
      This one was slightly neglected, so I’m trying to reinvigorate it a bit. Would hate to see another go unloved!

  4. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    That wheel SNAFU must have made you VeriCROSS.

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