by Steve Laser
In a surprising example of cross-cultural pollination, the most "Japanese" concept at the Tokyo Motor Show turned out to be a vehicle conceived in Birmingham, England. The Isuzu ZEN artfully blends the rugged spirit of a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), the functionality of a Commercial Vehicle (CV) and the stolid demeanor of a traditional Japanese tatami room. Isuzu says that the major design themes for the ZEN are Japan's ancient essence of harmony and interior volume enclosed by geometric lines that echo modern architecture.
If that sounds familiar, it's because ZEN builds on the tradition established by Isuzu's KAI concept that premiered at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1999. Influenced by architectural themes and culture, KAI sported a curved roofline that resembled a Japanese bridge, a front fascia that looked a bit like a torii gate and horizontal character lines that appeared to be created with a woodcarving tool. Geoffrey Gardiner, chief designer of Isuzu Motors Europe Limited's ITCE Design in Birmingham, uses the term "Architexture" to describe the concept.
For inspiration in developing the ZEN, Gardiner visited the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, Tate Modern displays a collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day. Included are major works by Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol.
Combining the seemingly disjointed elements of an SUV with a pickup bed has met with success in America (witness the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Chevrolet Avalanche, et al). Yet in Europe and Japan, where small vans proliferate, Darwin might approve of cloning an SUV with a delivery van. Although this sounds like an idea that would quickly be discarded by other automakers, it's a natural for the master truck builders at Isuzu.
Like an exquisite Japanese gift, the beauty of ZEN lies in the attention to detail and the cleverness of the presentation. Viewed from the side, one sees three separate sections, or zones. The stubby front end houses the powertrain -- an Isuzu 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 common rail direct-injection Turbo Diesel engine. The passenger compartment is framed by radiating window panes that Gardiner says are inspired by unfolding a Japanese "Ogi" paper fan. At the rear are windowless, thick D-pillars, representing the cargo bay. Like a Rubic's Cube, these elements seem disjointed until assembled in the correct fashion at which point the design "clicks."
ZEN has other classic Japanese touches such as the lower panel of the tailgate, which slides upwards to reveal a view of the outdoors like a Japanese sliding paper door in the traditional "yukimi-shoji" style. With an overall height of 1980 mm and a width of 1900 mm, ZEN is taller and wider than an Isuzu Trooper. Yet it appears more compact upon first glance. Credit design cues such as the angled cutlines of the doors, prominent fender flares and triple rocker panel moldings that help to visually break up the bulkiness of its flanks.
In the "passenger mode" ZEN is fitted with two rows of bucket seats that resemble finely crafted aluminum, wood and fabric covered folding chairs. They do indeed fold, but in a most unusual fashion. The front seats stow away in a manner that covers the dashboard while the rear seats disappear into the floor. Thus, the cabin is instantly converted into the "room mode." Four large, reversible floor panels are covered with wood for transporting heavy cargo, as well as bamboo and straw matting for the look of a traditional Japanese room.
Unlike the current crop of concept vehicles that are overflowing with electronic gizmos, computers and cellular phones, the serenity of ZEN's interior is quite refreshing. How could one best use all of this space? The possibilities are only limited by the imagination. Gardiner says that it's a matter of one's personal needs and desires. In Europe, ZEN could serve as a mobile artist's studio or gallery. In Japan, where many adults are forced to live with their parents by necessity, ZEN becomes a private place for meditation, relaxation or weekend rendezvous. In America, ZEN might serve as a plumber's van by day and a rolling sushi bar by night, complete with karaoke.
Like the rest of the interior, ZEN's dashboard is a low-key affair. Right-hand drive seems quite proper for a vehicle designed in England and displayed in Japan. The digital instrument panel is positioned in a thin, horizontal space near the base of the windshield, bringing to mind the design of the Toyota Prius. A wide center console that runs from the cowl to the floor houses controls for the HVAC and audio systems. A small compartment that folds out from the base of the console contains a ratchet-like handle for the driver to select gears for the automatic transmission.
Riding on a completely new platform that will be used for the forthcoming GM-Isuzu Alliance pickup truck, ZEN employs an independent double-wishbone suspension up front and a rigid rear axle supported by parabolic tapered leaf springs in the rear. While the latter may seem a bit archaic for a modern SUV, the compact height of the springs permits a low, uninterrupted cargo floor -- a necessity for the ZEN's interior characteristics.
Unlike some concepts that are sans powertrains (also known as "gliders"), ZEN is a drivable vehicle. That's quite an accomplishment considering it was created in a mere nine months following corporate approval. Coupled to the Diesel engine is a 4-speed automatic transmission that transfers power to the front and rear axles via Isuzu's electronically controlled Torque-On-Demand four-wheel drive system. Massive 225/65R-20 run-flat tires were specifically designed for the ZEN by Bridgestone. The elimination of the spare tire serves to free up space in the cavernous cargo compartment.
With production models like the VehiCROSS to its credit, Isuzu is obviously willing to take risks in design. A straw poll proves that Isuzu hit the mark with the ZEN. Members of the Japanese press politely removed their shoes before entering the interior when ZEN was outfitted with tatami mats. If Isuzu has its way, mobile tea ceremonies could become the next big thing.