The Adarna Group Foundation had this two-part mission for Nueva Ecija. First, scout a route through rough roads to an elementary school on the eastern approaches to Gapan City, the place where they’d be bringing their Barangay Early Literacy Program (BELP) the following month. Second, bring volunteers to do BELP classes for the kids and caregivers at the Bahay ni San Jose Orphanage in San Antonio, west of Gapan.

Crosswind-RWD-routeThe drive would be a 260km loop through the near north and we needed a vehicle that could: (1) handle rough or broken roads, (2) carry as many as nine people along with a big tub filled with books and equipment, and (3) convey us comfortably enough to have people arrive rested and ready to teach animatedly. And I had a vehicle in mind, an institution by now, actually.

I had driven the top-spec Crosswind Sportivo last year for a story, the one with an automatic transmission, and I was impressed enough with it that I really wanted to see how any of its base models with a manual gearbox would compare.   So I reached out to Isuzu Philippines once again and they readily responded, happy to help out.

Early on August 24—a Monday, the day starting out very wet with Typhoon Ineng about to depart Philippine waters and head up to Japan—we rolled out for our first stop in Gapan City, snug in a ten-seat 2015 Crosswind XL.

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The hundred thousand

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Crosswinds from across the years, they’re everywhere

Early this year, Isuzu Philippines announced having sold its 100,000th Crosswind. Think about it, after launching it initially as the Crosswind HiLander in 2004 and subsequently as simply the Crosswind in 2007, the more than 9,000 units they’ve sold on average for each of those 11 years since means that if you stack these all up, one on top of the other, they’d form a pillar 186km high—enough to put the topmost 14,000 Crosswinds into low earth orbit.

And from a satellite’s vantage point, if you line up those 100,000 Crosswinds bumper-to-bumper, it wouldn’t take any magnification to spot it from space, that 450km long column that could reach from Quezon City all the way to the northern tip of Luzon.

Finally, just to complete the spatial spectacle, if you put those 100,000 side-by-side and abreast, these would form a 170km wall wide enough to span Luzon’s breadth, from its western to eastern coasts, through what would become a border town San Fernando in Pampanga. That’s a lot of Crosswinds.

A replaceable but classic engine

IMG20150827091519Just before and still after it reached the 100,000 mark, there was talk that the venerable Crosswind is on the final stretch, that it’ll be retired soon because its diesel engine isn’t Euro IV compliant. That’s a rather short-sighted observation if you ask me.

Isuzu Philippines is also in the powerplant business, after all. It supplies diesel engines that are sought after by our own jeepney builders, and its technologies are innovative enough that these prompted giant Toyota to buy stake in their global parent. Is it really a stretch to imagine them updating to a Euro IV engine soon and also offering this as a retrofit for older Crosswinds out there?

But yes, the Crosswind’s inline-4, direct-injection turbodiesel is a hard act to follow. Though it’s only Euro II compliant, doesn’t yet have high-pressure common-rail direct injection, and mounts just a low-boost turbocharger, the Crosswind’s 4JA1-L, with well matched ratios on its manual MSG5K gearbox, delivers torque exactly where its needed for transporting heavy payloads, particularly on rough or hilly terrain.

Kicking in when it counts

While the rugged and fuel-efficient diesel packs torque roughly equivalent to that of a 140hp petrol engine, its nominal power is just 85hp because, well, because it’s a diesel. With longer strokes on those pistons to achieve almost double the compression ratio of petrol engines, diesel combustion is leveraged into much higher torque but with a tradeoff in terms of top revolutions. There’s lots of torque on the IMG20150824075506low end. It builds and peaks early, plateaus for a short stretch, then drops off as revs approach redline.

On the Crosswind, the torque is already substantial at a little over idle, say at around 1,200rpm, and peaks early at 2,000rpm. On a normally aspirated engine, torque would then start to decline perceptibly, the power equation then relying heavily on increasing revs to deliver peak horsepower. But on the current-model Crosswind, with the turbocharger effectively increasing engine displacement, compressing more fuel-air mix than normal in the cylinders, the turbo spools up and reaches its boost threshold at around 2,500rpm—just in time to take up the slack and bolster torque as it starts to wane on a non-turbo. The result is a relatively flat power curve as the engine reaches peak power output at 3,900rpm, and fuel efficiency that’s downright phenomenal on a heavy hauler. The best I measured on the Crosswind XL with its 5-speed manual transmission was 12km/l in moderate city traffic, and 14km/l on the highway with medium to heavy load-out.IMG20150827085139

The turbo is easily taken for granted, that’s how low its boost is, but it kicks in at exactly the right time. When you hit cruise and have time to observe your revs against speed, the turbo’s subtle benefit becomes apparent when you decide to go faster than a relaxed 80km/h and reach for 100km/h, or beyond. The engine sounds unstressed but still with its teeth firmly clamped on the bit, always pushing.

Exquisitely elegant in its application, the low boost turbo doesn’t widen the power-band much, but it does flatten it. Peak torque to peak power from 2,000rpm to 3,900rpm is the same as on a normally aspirated 4JA1. But the torque you feel while traversing that power band is really something else with the engine milking each erg of energy from burnt diesel. Unladen or heavy, the Crosswind easily handles a short-shifting regimen with upshifts triggered around 2000rpm at 15, 30, 45 and finally 60km/h to reach fifth gear. Acceleration isn’t immense, but it’s relentless, as you reach a moderate top speed on the order of 130km/h, this even with the Crosswind heavy with people or cargo.

Truck tough

First-generation HiLanders are still on the road, in good repair. More so are those successor Crosswinds from first-flight onwards that are still on mission, in the cities IMG20150824103221and the countryside. And just this year, the quintessential AUV got its second major facelift after the first one a decade ago. Compared to the Crosswind’s decade-spanning timescale, the updates on rival models look as frequent as those for smartphones and casual-dress sneakers.

Individual Crosswinds could be on the road, and the Crosswind model kept online and relevant, for a service lifespan that rivals that of military vehicles. And why not? I know you saw this coming a mile away: the Crosswind is built like a darned tank.   I’ve said it before (though in a story with another publisher), and so say it again: the Crosswind comes across as two tons of truck in thick gauge steel. The only evidence of crumple zones are polymer bumpers, and those side shapers and fender flares on the up-market variants.

She’s heavy, with a curb weight at 1,600kg, but that comes with seating capacity for as much as 10 souls, and a payload nearer to a ton than just a half, its realistic gross weight certainly much more than Isuzu’s officially published 2,200kg.

Finessed down under

All that weight is sprung on a typical truck’s suspension that, like its engine, is far from what you’d expect it to be. The front has independent double wishbones and a IMG20150827084115stabilizer bar guiding the chassis’ motion over tough, compact torsion springs.   And, while the rear is on those familiar semi-elliptical leaf springs, these ones come with a welcome twist.

In back is what they call a FlexRide MOVE suspension. What it does is put five leaf springs on each wheel where only the top, longest spring is actually bolted to the chassis. The middle three leaves are merely shackled at both ends to the top spring, to let the upturned ends slide against each other as the whole set compresses down under load. And the bottom spring, the shortest and the stiffest, is shackled only on its front end. This brings that fifth bottom spring into play only IMG20150826071835when the vehicle rolls through a major bump or is laden heavily enough to make the Crosswind go way down on its rear haunches. That fifth spring stiffens up the rear’s ride only when needed, hence the “Flex Ride.” The effect is a comfortable ride for when you bring the Crosswind around unladen, or a reinforced and steady one when you’re going heavy.

On the base XL variant with 180/100R14 Yokohama Super Van 356 truck tires, that high-walled rubber allows for a wide range of inflation options. Recommended max pressures are 28psi in front, 47psi in back. But on the drive to Nueva Ecija with loads varying from five to nine people, with stretches on prime highway tarmac as well as unpaved track, in both wet and dry conditions, I opted to balance control and traction (as well as comfort) with 26psi in front, 35psi in the rear. It worked out fine.

The Crosswind’s substantial weight, tires, treads, suspension and low end torque profile (to take grades gently) made me look good, helping me deliver a surprisingly smooth ride over broken, or frequently absent, pavement. The apparent robustness of the platform, its freedom from extraneous body roll and ambient squeaks, kept me relaxed and surefooted, insulated from the roughness that we undoubtedly would’ve felt if we had been in a flimsy, smaller-wheeled ride.

See the video, it wasn’t just okay, it was downright fun rolling over those holes and bumps.

A rolling box, like an APC

The Crosswind is from an age when internal volumes were kept straightforward and big. Look inside the cabin and you’ll get this sense of being in a simple box, all straight lines and contiguous space. The only significant interruption in the cabin’s cubic area comes from the rear wheel wells which are elegantly put under the foldable side facing seats in the last row.   The floor is a flat continuous slab, its height enough to be flush over the rearwheel drive axle.IMG20150827085325

IMG20150828104020The best thing about the XL is the contiguous cargo volume you could free up by folding away the second and third row seating. Feel free to double-check me on this, but with all seats behind the front row stowed away, that space looks equal to the cargo bay of a pick-up truck.   And on the XL variant, with low maintenance features that include hand-cranked windows, vinyl upholstery, textured linoleum matting, and easy acceptance of bare painted metal peeking between finer interior touches, the utilitarian space simply works.

Decades of Crosswinds

Back when AUVs had that Asian “A” to make a proud pragmatic point, and not to marginalize these in the global market, Indonesia’s Astra conglomerate was the first to roll out these hardy utes with curvy-edged full-pressed hard-bodies. First came the third generation Tamaraw (the Kijang in Indonesia) from Toyota Astra Motors in 1986. Then, five years later, out came the first generation HiLander (their native Panther) from Astra Isuzu Indonesia in 1991.IMG20150826183450

The models were groundbreaking, the first shaped-metal bodies designed in and for Southeast Asia. Those models that came before (recall the Ford Fiera, the early Toyota Tamaraw, and even the VW Sakbayan) were all fabricated with sheet metal bent to shape and welded together to form boxy, angular bodies.

IMG20150824142926The HiLander, the Crosswind’s first generation if you look past the name shift, was built shapely from the start, though still on a truck’s robust chassis, and after Astra had half a decade to work out what else and more they’d like to do with a Kijang-like vehicle. The result was a utility that was purpose-built for the region’s roads (or lack of these), our climate (hypothermia cold to blistering hot, low and flooded to high and dry), and with the payload capacity to carry the extended family or anyone’s cargo. Introduced in 1991 globally, the HiLander got to our shores in 1996 and stayed in production until 2004.

With its eight years on the line, the timescale really makes the HiLander look like the precursor, a “demonstrator” in military-speak, of the Crosswind, its operational successor. Already sixteen years in after it was introduced globally in 2000, though introduced here four years later in 2004, new Crosswinds could be rolling off the production line until its two-decade mark … could be even three, it’s happened before.

Rugged because it needs to be

There’s talk that Isuzu’s recent introduction of the mu-X, echoing what others say about that Euro II engine, spells the impending retirement of the rearwheel drive Crosswind’s line. In fact, Isuzu admits that the introduction of the mu-X heralded a significant reduction in sales of its bestseller Crosswind. But do note the difference IMG20150827084719in price structure.

While the Crosswind’s top-spec and sleeked up Sportivo variant lists at PhP1.195M, slightly above the PhP1.188M for the 4×2 base model of the mu-X, the million-peso range where these intersect is still substantially above the PhP0.794 for the base XL variant I’d driven. The XL makes no reference at all to SUVs, doesn’t dress up into one, the best analog being those vanilla white utilities we saw foreign aid organizations using in-country before the turn of the century. And, although last priority seating is on a vestigial bench ledge between the driver and front passenger seats, that 10-seater capacity is still the most I’ve seen done on anything short of a full-blown passenger van.

The mu-X, an SUV, works because it’s ruggedized, made tough and above things enough to navigate the rougher corners of the land. In contrast, the Crosswind is rugged because it has to work. There’s a difference. It was built for the average multitude who live near or in hinterland. And, after all these years, the Crosswind is still on mission.IMG20150824103205

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