2001 Isuzu VehiCROSS Update III: Maiden Voyage — Project VX finally sees the road
Quick note: Hot on the tails of Update II, this update comes well after the following events happened in real life. Doing my best to keep things current, but there’s only so much time in the day…
“That’s my dream car, man.” The voice aimed in my direction me caught me by surprise. Usually people don’t stare at or speak to you as you walk through the parking lot, or at least not in the parking lots I frequent. And yet, it was happening: the guy I was just about to walk past was staring straight at me, and apparently speaking to me as well. I tripped over my confusion and blurted out a semi-mumbled “Thanks!” as my brain caught up to itself, just in time for him to talk again: “I’ve loved those things forever, man, been waiting to find a clean one for years but it hasn’t happened yet.” We spent the following few minutes discussing the VehiCROSS, its quirks and rarity, and his knowledge hit me as both refreshing and pleasingly unexpected. I casually let slip that this was the first time my VehiCROSS was on the road since I bought it, and watched as for some reason he got even more excited, gave me a big congratulations, a handshake, and a parting “good luck with it!” Free of the conversation, and wondering if this would become the norm, I then continued my short walk into the supermarket, smiling like an absolute fool.
That wasn’t the only VehiCROSS-related interaction that caught me off guard that day; mere minutes earlier I’d been stopped in a gas station parking lot by somebody who wanted to know about it, repeatedly telling me how cool it is and that it looks like it would be great in the woods. Minutes before that, a young kid in the passenger seat of a black JKU stared, jaw literally dropping so far that it was resting on the window frame, as whoever was commanding their Jeep turned and put the VX in full view for the kid to lay eyes on. And minutes before that, a passing car pointed directly at me and I could see the pointer talking to his passenger overly enthusiastically, then looking up at the rearview as I passed by. All of this in the first half hour of driving the VehiCROSS? Not what I expected. Better yet, it drives well too. But getting it there has been…interesting.
The Missing Tire Debacle was still a fresh memory, but with new wheels and tires the VX was finally ready to be registered and inspected. I snagged a few hours before work one morning to run to the DMV, the land of painfully long lines and even more painfully bland and irritated employees. But arriving early was the perfect trick: I was in the door and back out, on my merry way, in a grand total of 9 minutes. Nine minutes—is that a record? It may as well be. I may have gotten robbed by New York state with how much it cost to bring about a “road legal” status, but I got plates and got out of there in a short enough time to not be pissed off.
It’s worth noting, in my mind at least, that the letters on the orange-and-blue NYS tags reads HFS—you can guess the acronym if you’re prolific in Urban Dictionary— but it gave me a laugh. On the day of what was to be the VehiCROSS’ first drive, work somehow flew by and next thing I knew I was in a one-man sprint race home. Nerves were running high, and then the slew of things I should have finished days earlier had to get done quickly before my excitement got the best of me. I ran through the basics: check tire pressure, oil levels, turn signals and lights, and give the whole vehicle a quick once-over to see if anything looked in dire need of attention. It then became a simple matter of affixing the new plates, sticking on the registration sticker, and spilling filling enough gas from a jerry can to make it to the station. All systems were go, Project VehiCROSS was ready to rock; there was nothing left but to go for it.
The day was Cinco de Mayo. Regularly it isn’t more to me than a reason to eat some good food that I enjoy only semi-regularly, and to drink the brands of beer that I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot tongue. But this wasn’t a regular year; this was the year of the VehiCROSS. Registration had finally been completed, plates had been acquired, and it was time to start driving the little Isuzu. With desire for a celebratory holiday beverage in mind, I set out to the local beer distributor in my newly road-legal 4×4.
One deep breath and I was on my way. I’d driven it down my street and back, and had test-driven this VX months before, but hadn’t actually legally been out on public roads just yet. While nothing had been done in the way of drivetrain, the new wheels and tires certainly should improve its on-road abilities, primarily: accelerating, cornering, stopping. Otherwise, everything is in good shape. Brakes are there (and somewhat new), transmission runs through the gears without problem, and the motor sounds and runs strong. But none of this matters if it doesn’t drive well. So how’s it do?
Quite well, much to my delight. Power is good down low and the throttle response is so instantaneous that it borders on too jumpy/touchy for its own good. Your first few tries leaving from a stop will not be smooth, almost as if the VX has a manual (it wasn’t even offered with one) and it’s your first lesson. In turn this gives it a deceptively snappy and quick feel off the line, but the gearing in conjunction with the amount of power the 3.5L V6 still makes means you’re never really craving more push. Mid-range levels out and there’s not much up top, but cruising doesn’t faze the VX at all and it can easily hold highway speeds or long, steep climbs without struggle.
How about when the road turns twisty? Steering feel is very much non-existent on center (perhaps due to old/worn parts?) but once you turn the wheel past five-to-ten degrees or so– the exact amount varies, weirdly– there’s a good amount of feedback and confidence sent to your hands. While the front tires don’t tell the driver exactly what they’re doing, you really do get a better idea than you’d expect in a vehicle of this age, class, and tire. Body roll is minimal since the suspension basically sits on the bump-stops all the way at the bottom of its travel, which while preventing the weight of the vehicle (nearly two tons) from getting too far over itself when you chuck it hard into a turn also makes for great down-travel off-road in flex positions. I promise you, a Jeep Wrangler will never corner like the VehiCROSS (but a VX will do a high percentage of what a Wrangler will do off-road). It makes it much more pleasurable and exciting to drive on the street, all while giving it a sporting feel you wouldn’t expect but are pleased to find in a four-by-four.
It honestly handles astonishingly well, especially so in cases like cloverleaf on/off ramps and tight mountain roads. But said competence in the turns comes at the expense of your spine though, as when it hits any imperfection—pothole, highway joint, crater, storm drain, bump, etc—it’s transmitted directly through the chassis to the seat you’re sitting in, which isn’t very plush, and thus straight into your back. I’ve been in a full-blown, gutted, caged drift car that hurt less over crappy road surfaces, and have only experienced a few times in my life the kind of shock the VehiCROSS transmits upon hitting a sizable bump. You come to brace yourself for impact, preparing mind and body for what could mean discomfort to the point of pain. It also doesn’t help that there’s so little headroom that you sometimes hit your dome-piece on the roof, but aside from those hard hits it otherwise rides great on smooth surfaces and on highways. And it handles shockingly well. And it’s quick and responsive. Its flaws are overcome by how likable it is, and it’s pretty great on-road all things considered.
But it can’t compare to how great I felt driving it. My face became one with a smile, the expression radiating wide enough and lasting long enough to cause the kind of cheek pain that only beaming for so long can do. Every tick of the odometer was matched by a boost to my mood and ego, enough so to make me glow with smugness through the following days. And to think that first drive was so simple: acquire beer, fill gas tank, stop at supermarket for chips and salsa. Errands that in any other vehicle would have been an ordinary run to the store(s) instantly became an adventure, exhilarating and new and fun. That’s what makes the VehiCROSS so great: every time you climb in, turn the key, and go for a drive, it’s exciting. You feel alive, like your senses are heightened and your attention is at its peak. You become acutely aware of your surroundings, of every sensation the VX sends to your hands and eyes and ears and nose, of what’s happening now. It’s living in the moment, enjoying the drive, vehicular fun and excitement at its peak. And all this is at or around speed limits on public roads. It’s a hell of a good time driving the VehiCROSS.
I returned home ecstatic. My hopes and dreams were fulfilled: not only did the VehiCROSS run, but it ran well. Not only was it road legal, but it was good to drive on said roads. Not only had I accomplished a goal, but the VX helped make it memorable and enjoyable.
So I locked the VX, went inside, drank some beers that Dominic Toretto loves but I hate (aside from the on fifth of May), and sat down to re-assess. I felt good. The VX was good. All should be good, right? Well, no. There were some hiccups along the way, and some in the future:
- It took four tries to pass inspection. Nothing seemed to be wrong; we figured worst case scenario was a bad oxygen sensor but figured it was worth giving it a shot to see if it would work itself out. Fun fact: if you disconnect the battery (which I did) it can take up to ~500 miles for the computer to reset and re-learn the vehicle to the point of not showing any codes or red flags on the inspection machine. But then, on its own, it will clear itself out and all will be fine. Such was the case with the VX: four tries, four days in a row, for it to be legally approved and inspected properly as per NYS law.
- The hood insert is still sitting on my office floor and, regrettably, not on the hood of the VX. I’ve sanded it down enough to be ready for paint but didn’t have the time to do two coats and a clear-coat before the first trip. I did sand down and clear-coat the areas on the hood itself where the insert gets mounted, but haven’t gotten further than that. Nothing critical, nothing that endangers vehicle or driver; it can wait.
- It might be burning a little bit of oil. And might be leaking a little bit of oil. Not sure which of these is the case, but something is happening on this front. Almost every VX motor burns oil, and the previous owner warned me this one might too, but there was a small area of oil on my driveway that could have been from the VX or from another vehicle. Most likely the VX though. Ruh roh.
- There’s a driveline vibration that I can’t pin down. The u-joints are tight and the wheels/tires have been freshly balanced and are mounted on properly, so it has to be from somewhere else in the driveline that I’m overlooking. It’s not violent, but it’s certainly a shake that shouldn’t be there. At certain speeds (very slow; highway) it’s unnoticeable but at others (30-50 MPH) it’s concerning. Not like “needs-to-be-dealt-with-immediately” concerning, but somewhat unpleasant.
- It’s become apparent that sourcing parts is pretty difficult. Some Trooper parts fit but most of what’s available is either aftermarket (expensive) or used (questionable). As for the VehiCROSS-specific items though, if you can’t find somebody on the forum or Facebook group selling the exact item you need you’re S.O.L. at best. Makes it difficult to have aspirations of modifying, let alone keeping it on the road should something go wrong.
- The air conditioning isn’t what you’d call “fully functional”, with the HVAC fan blowing only cool air even on its coldest setting. When I initially looked at this VX the owner mentioned something about the A/C, perhaps using the phrase “I’m not sure if it works”—which should have been a red flag that it didn’t. It’s not bad for the spring (though this is being published in July…) but is a definite problem in the summer. Would be nice if the driver window worked properly…
- Driver window still not working. Goes down, doesn’t go up without manual help. Gave up for now. Driving now requires rolling down the passenger window (the only other piece of glass that rolls down), which is unpleasant at highway speeds especially for a passenger. Brutal.
All that said, the miles have started to pile on and in a mostly problem-free manner. Obviously some things need to be worked out (or straight-up fixed) but for a fifteen-year-old vehicle in the condition the VX is in it’s been relatively smooth sailing so far. And, somehow, it’s managing an average 18.5 MPG, not too shabby for what it is. But what is it? An offbeat, out-there, quirky Japanese 4WD SUV that turns heads and is pretty fun to drive, that’s what. An homage to the Dakar races and to extremist styling together as one. A genuinely interesting little truck that I’m proud to own, though do so with caution.
And there I was, not even a half hour into having the VehiCROSS out on the road, and people were coming up to me to ask about it and to tell me of how much they adore it. This was foreign territory for me; I knew it would turn heads and drop jaws, but not like this. The level of attention was astounding (though not as much as Mike’s truck, I soon learned), and that it felt great to actually drive it and that it was actually pretty great to drive were the icing on the cake. After a few long months of little progress and dreaming of someday actually having it road-ready, my VehiCROSS was finally both drivable and being driven. But things weren’t perfect. No; not even close. Rather, things were becoming quite problematic. Not in ways that would compromise its mobility, but in ways that would prove just how annoying a fifteen-year-old somewhat-neglected-for-the-last-five-years little niche 4×4 SUV can be. For now let’s leave it at this: a sub-$5k vehicle that you want to be reliable and fun is never truly a sub-$5k vehicle. Stay tuned.
**Full-disclosure super-current update: I wrote all of the above but never posted it, saving it for Project Car SOTU week. Up until this point things were going great with the VehiCROSS. Or at least going well. “Great” is a bit optimistic. But then I moved, and things came to a crashing stop. For now let’s just leave it at this: one parking space, two vehicles. Things are about to change. Drastically. There will be more updates to come, but the end of the road may be near for Project VX. Stay tuned.**