VehiCROSS – part 1

It was 1993 when I ran into Isuzu Vehicross concept car at the Birmingham Auto Show while I was studying at the Royal College of Art. Vehicross, designed by Simon Cox§, was a concept car that is a perfect blend of intelligent, dynamic and futuristic design languages. The style is neither light nor heavy, is neither playful nor boring. In fact, this kind of exquisite design quality is not easy to find.

The unique name – VehiCROSS – is a combination of vehicle and motocross. Some say that Vehicross has opened the current generation of crossovers, which is a bit exaggerated I think.

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Isuzu Vehicross Concept

Vehicross went into production in 1997, six years after shown at the debut at the auto show. (Produced in Japan in 1997-1999, in the United States in 1999-2001). When a concept car becomes a production car, it is common that the first fresh concept disappears because of constraints on mass production, cost pressures, and safety requirements. However, in the case of Vehicross, the concept didn’t get lost, which is a very rare case. It was even more surprising that it was born with a design that was never imagined to be based on the plain and boxy form of the Isuzu Trooper, which was the basic chassis for Vehicross. I would call Trooper and Vehicross non-identical twins as they share the core but look completely different.

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Isuzu Trooper Short body

Of course few features couldn’t make it to production, such as the step that drops down when door opens, and the air outlet on the engine hood. However, there was literally no difference between its concept car and production in case of Vehicross. I would give the credit to Shiro Nakamura§, then Isuzu’s chief design officer (now Nissan’s chief design officer) and his design team for making it possible.

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With Nakamura in Shanghai. April 20, 2017

§ CORRECTIONS: Nakamura led the design of the concept car design of VehiCROSS with Cox. The concept car design, which took lots of attention and sent to the Isuzu design team in Japan to turn into the production design, which turned out to be one of the most successful concept – production translations. (Per Nakamura, 04. 20. 2017. Thanks for the correction.)

Despite the success in changing the image of Isuzu known as a successful commercial vehicle maker, Vehicross was unfortunately not very successful in the market. Only 1,800 units were sold in Japan for two years, and in the much larger market in the US, only 4,100 were sold for two years, total of less that 6,000 units. This is a tragic failure given that at least 100,000 automobiles should be produced to cover the cost. This is a common fate for future looking designs often encounter. Ironically though, the scarcity made Vehicross an iconic car that and a car which only the people who know knows.

The concept car that stole my eyes became mine 14 years later. In the fall of 2001, I bought one on Ebay. A 1999 silver Isuzu Vehicross for $ 25,200. I was living in Manchester, New Hampshire then, and I had to drive for four hours to get it in White Plains, New York to bring it to my garage.

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Vehicross at my garage

The design of the Vehicross is smooth and tough with a curvaceous body and black plastic cladding fixed with torx screws. Plastic cladding is not glossy, so if you look at it from a distance, it looks as if the car is gliding in the air. Vehicross, which seemed to come from the future, made a strange contrast with my old home with cedar siding. Vehicross stands out wherever it passes or stops.

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I was a design director for Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research & Development in Manchester, New Hampshire. Dean is a famous inventor known for Segway and many other breakthrough innovations. He is, in a nutshell, a multi-faceted genius. Like some other notable geniuses, he did not complete a college and made a fortune with a portable dialysis machines developed while in college. He flies a jet and two helicopters, and drives a first-generation Hummer.

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Dean’s Hummer and my Vehicross often parked side by side, showing extremely opposite design languages. Although he is an owner of a high-tech development company, he would wear blue jacket, jeans and boots even when he meets the President at the White House. So a Hummer fits perfectly with him.

Vehicross is a small size SUV with a radical tumblehome (the ratio of a car body narrows as it goes up), so the front projected area is quite small. But when you actually meet one on the street, I feel like. In the picture above, you would feel as if it fills the road.

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Vehicross is equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine and featured advanced 4WD with Torque-on-Demand system, which quickly switches from RWD to 4WD when it senses a slippery road. So it was perfect for New Hampshire region where everything – the sea (Atlantic Ocean), the White Mountains, the river, the lake – is 30 minutes away. The engine was big (for the size of the car) and fuel economy was not good (13 mpg), but it was not a problem at that time when gasoline was about $1 a gallon.

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When I left DEKA in August 2003 to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, to join the University of Cincinnati as an industrial design professor, we traveled for 14 hours on a minivan Toyota Previa and Vehicross. The Previa was designed in 1990, but there is no minivan that surpasses Previa’s futuristic design to this date. It has clever rears seat that splits in half and folds up to create an ample space and stylish dashboard reminiscent of a spaceship’s cockpit. Plus the style is elegant, light, and has no flab. Next time I have a chance, I will also write about Previa.

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Vehicross next to Previa

This Previa had been with our family for nine years from 2000 and took us to places including Washington DC, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Memphis, Williamsburg, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Orlando, and many more. When I switched it with a Honda Element in 2009, I felt like I was leaving a family member.

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Finally we have arrived our new home in Cincinnati. Ohio is a larger than South Korea most of the State is flat except Cincinnati, a beautiful city on the southwestern tip. Cincinnati is often dubbed as the City of Seven Hills because it has many hills so it is often slippery even with a little snow. Therefore, Vehicross was quite useful there.

[To be continue in part 2]

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