By Charles Krome
Looking at it today, it’s hard to imagine how radical the design of the 2002 Isuzu Axiom seemed when the vehicle was first introduced. But its sophisticated, highly stylized exterior was unlike that of any other SUV or crossover on the road at that time—and remember, too, that there weren’t very many of the latter on the road at all back then. Both Honda and Toyota had deployed their crossovers, but the only unibody crossover entries from Nissan or the Big Three were the Ford Escape and Plymouth PT Cruiser. That era’s Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 were taking pains to hide their pedestrian beginnings as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, respectively, and the whole concept behind crossovers was looked upon with disdain by a fairly large swathe of American buyers.
On the other hand, change was clearly in the air, and it was obvious that people were beginning to expect a more refined experience with their SUVs as those products began to enter the mainstream. Toyota and Honda—and, eventually, the vast majority of the industry—decided the solution was to package SUV style on top of a car platform. Isuzu’s stroke of not-quite-genius was to develop an entry-lux station wagon with body-on-frame construction. In fact, it’s telling that in a contemporary Autoworld.com story about the vehicle’s evolution from the striking Isuzu FXS Concept to the production Axiom, we have Scott Hyde, then the executive manager of SUV product planning for Isuzu in the U.S., saying, “The Axiom Sportwagon was designed as a ‘hybrid vehicle,’ combining two uniquely American vehicle types: the SUV and the stationwagon, hence the name ‘Sportwagon.’”
(Yet equally telling is that the whole “Sportwagon” business, and any kind of connection to station wagons, was gone before the Axiom got too far into its life cycle. Wagon-phobia again rearing its ugly head.)
Isuzu supported its case for the Axiom as a civilized SUV with what was then a cutting-edge suspension; up front was an independent double-wishbone/torsion bar combination, while the live rear axle used a five-link setup with coil springs. But to really push the envelope, the 4X4 Axiom also had a two-mode, driver-selectable “Intelligent Suspension Control (ISC)” system. This was high-tech stuff in 2002, with an onboard computer that could adjust the Axiom’s shock valves for optimum ride and handling —in real time—based on the terrain and the driver’s choice of “Comfort” or “Sport” suspension modes. And ISC was combined with Isuzu’s “Torque-On-Demand” four-wheel-drive system, capable of varying the amount of torque being distributed to the front and rear wheels for enhanced traction.
(It’s also worth pointing out, as further evidence of the Axiom’s forward-looking approach, that it was the first SUV in the U.S. with a gasoline direct injection, introduced for the 2004 model year. And for what it’s worth, its name was selected via a contest held on something called the “Internet”—how 21st century!)
When the suspension was put to the test, however, the results seem to have been mixed. Plenty of folks, including some at the auto mags, complained about the truck-like handling of the Axiom, which, despite Isuzu’s best efforts to hide it, still rode on the same platform as the totally truck-ish Isuzu Rodeo. But others, like Chuck Schifsky writing for Motor Trend, said that the “new Axiom sport/utility features a steel box-section frame-just like a truck—yet it drives like a car-based SUV. On curvy roads the Axiom handles as smoothly as a sedan.”
Of course, there also was one particularly crucial area in which the Isuzu could not surpass its car-based rivals, and it’s something that certainly had a hand in the Axiom’s quick demise. The fuel efficiency of the Axiom was awful. In its first year of production, its 3.5-liter V6 made 230 hp and 230 lb.-ft. of torque while ringing up an EPA line of 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway/16 mpg combined even with two-wheel drive. I suppose it’s a moral victory that the 4X4 version could achieve the same city and combined ratings, with an 18-mpg mark for highway driving, but the Toyota Highlander at the time offered an I4 that could go 19/25/22 in FWD and 17/22/19 in 4WD.
The advent of GDI technology in 2004 boosted the Axiom’s power to 250 hp/246 lb.-ft. of torque, and EPA ratings to 16/22/18 and 15/20/17, but during the same time, the four-wheel-drive Highlander bumped up to 18/23/20 (with no change in the two-wheel-drive model). The Axiom might have been able to overcome this deficit with its own four-cylinder engine, but none was forthcoming. And Isuzu didn’t build unibody crossovers with which to offset the Axiom’s numbers and improve customer perceptions that way.
But even that might not have sealed the Axiom’s fate if it hadn’t have been for the vehicle’s avant-garde design. As I mentioned above, there really was nothing like it nine years ago, even though it ended up informing a whole new design aesthetic for crossovers with upscale pretensions. The sculpted, slab-like front end pre-figures the massive faces of vehicles like the Ford Edge and, in terms of proportions, entries ranging from the Audi Q7 to the GMC Terrain and Chevy Equinox to various and sundry Land Rovers. The way the roof line and the top of the side glass fall back toward the rising lines of the Axiom’s body also is being used by the Audis, as well as the Land Rover Evoque and others. And the three-quarters rear view is suspiciously similar to that of the Dodge Journey.
Unfortunately, Axiom sales peaked in 2002, with 8,989 deliveries, which dropped to 5,783 in 2003, then 3,153 in 2004, and a meager 1,319 in 2005. Even with the 5,851 sales squeezed into calendar-year 2001, the entire Axiom run just barely topped Isuzu’s initial sales expectations of 24,000 units per year.
Which perhaps may illustrate another automotive axiom: A vehicle’s sales tend to run in inverse proportion to how far its exterior design departs from the norm.