When they take the wraps off the 2002 Isuzu Axiom “crossover” vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Jan. 14-21, it no longer will be the concept model unveiled at the New York Auto Show only nine months ago — yet it'll be almost identical: Axiom heads for production this month at the Subaru Isuzu Automotive Inc. (SIA) plant in Lafayette, IN, and will reach Isuzu's 550 dealers on April 10.

Normally, a concept vehicle can take years to become a reality, but American Isuzu Motors Inc. (AIMI) shortened the lead time by giving the program the green light even before whetting the appetite of show-goers in the Big Apple. Axiom is based on the Isuzu ZXS concept shown at the Tokyo auto show in fall 1999, so clearly Isuzu had a head start in that direction.

It's a new strategy that could be risky if the new vehicle bombs. But AIMI and its parent in Japan, Isuzu Motors Ltd., obviously are convinced their first foray into the crossover game — and the first Isuzu designed in the U.S. — will entice new customers beyond the loyal off-road crowd they've developed with Trooper, Rodeo, Rodeo Sport (nee Amigo) and VehiCROSS.

“Existing Isuzu owners don't like Axiom; they want Trooper and Rodeo,” says AIMI President Yasuyuki (Sonny) Sudo. “But,” he chuckles, “that may be encouraging from a marketing standpoint.” Translation: Axiom may bring in a new kind of buyer.

Mr. Sudo reckons Axiom will only cannibalize about 20% of Rodeo's sales. AIMI research shows buyers typically will be in their high 30s, split evenly male and female. Men are by far the predominant buyers of other Isuzu SUVs.

Although built on the Rodeo truck platform, Axiom rides and handles more like a passenger car — as do other crossovers, most derived from front-wheel-drive car chassis.

Axiom is lower, sleeker and more boldly styled than its more macho siblings, yet still is offered with 4-wheel drive and other accoutrements associated with Isuzu's sport/utility vehicle (SUV) heritage.

Available in 2- or 4-wheel-drive, both with automatic transmissions, Axiom is powered by a 230-hp high-output double-overhead-cam V-6 producing 230 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,000 rpm. Ride is controlled by Isuzu's second-generation intelligent suspension with “sport” and “comfort” settings, and a “Torque-on-Demand” feature provides added punch on 4wd models.

AIMI has modest goals for the newcomer: 22,000 sales in 2001 and 32,000 in its first full year. That forecast factors in an expected softening in the U.S. market this year, and generally easing SUV sales. Price: In the “mid $20,000s.” Chief target: Toyota Motor Corp.'s recently introduced Highlander.

Axiom isn't the only news at AIMI. Mr. Sudo reveals in a WAW interview that AIMI will unveil a short-box SUV off the Rodeo platform aimed at Ford Motor Co.'s Ranger SportTrac at the Detroit show. Production start-up is set for 2003 as an '04 model, he says. General Motors Corp., which boosted its ownership in Isuzu Motors from 37.5% to 49% two years ago, reportedly plans a similar vehicle — code-named GMY305 — for that time period.

AIMI also will show a low-priced SUV called the BVX in Detroit. Mr. Sudo says it will start at around $15,000 and will be slightly larger than Trooper.

Besides SUVs, AIMI also distributes Isuzu diesel engines and medium-duty commerical trucks in the U.S. Mr. Sudo makes it clear Isuzu's ties with GM, which date to 1971, are growing closer.

He reveals that Isuzu is developing “an all-new” common rail, direct injection V-6 turbodiesel for use by both companies in midsize SUVs, pickups and minivans. Still awaiting final approval, the new engine would be built at the Isuzu-GM DMAX Ltd. diesel joint venture in Moraine, OH.

DMAX began producing the 6.6L diesel V-8 used in GM's full-size light trucks last July. Trooper gets that engine in 2003, and the powerplant also may power medium-duty commercial GM and Isuzu trucks produced in Janesville, WI, he says. In yet another development, Isuzu may get GM's 6-cyl. inline gasoline engine for some models, he says.

Isuzu already builds advanced 1.7L diesels for GM's Adam Opel AG subsidiary.

In yet another GM tie-up, AIMI soon will offer GM's satellite-based OnStar navigation and communications system on at least one model, he says.

SIA also will lose volume as Honda Motor Co. Ltd. phases out the SIA-built Passport SUV, replacing it with its own model patterned after the recently introduced Acura MDX, he acknowledges. Passport sales in 2000 totaled around 22,000 units. “That's acutally good for us, because SIA can allocate more to us,” he says. Isuzu shares Lafayette's 240,000 annual capacity equally with Subaru, in which GM acquired 20% ownership in late 1999.

It's Axiomatic

American Isuzu posted the “Ultimate Naming Challenge” on its Website, seeking a name for what became the Axiom and received 46,577 entries. The winner: Dr. Hakan Urey, an electrical engineer from Redmond, WA, who chose the name “because of its mathematical definition: a self-evident truth,” says AIMI.

He'll get an Axiom when one becomes available, but meantime is driving an Isuzu Rodeo, courtesy of AIMI.