When former NBA player Penny Hardaway was with the Orlando Magic, he was presented with designs by Nike designer Eric Avar for the second version of his signature shoe. Most of the drawings were rejected until Hardaway noticed an obscure sketch within Avar's desk, chock full of crazy style elements. Hardaway then grabbed the idea from Avar's desk, and the 6' 7" player's eyes bugged out at the diagram. It was (in Avar's words) inspired by the "hideous" morphing of a roach and a beetle, in a hue that reflected the Magic's blue road uniforms. "This is what I want," said Hardaway, and turned those "hideous" shoes into a public interest matter.

The shoes themselves (which became the Nike Air Foamposite One) produced perhaps one of Nike's best technologies to date and became a cult classic. The shoes were the very first to undergo the Foamposite process (in which the upper, midsole and outsole of a rubber shoe is integrated via a mold poured over with synthetic liquid), resulting in a form that closely matches the human foot and provides superior comfort and feel. In pop culture, the Foamposite One became (NBA player) Mike Bibby's game shoes when he led the University of Arizona to the 1997 US NCAA basketball championship, grew on everybody (due to the substance-over-style design) and produced several love it-or-hate it talks.

Why this writer chose the Air Foamposite One introduction is because the multipurpose vehicle (MPV) recently tested in today's motoring section - the Isuzu Crosswind Sportivo 2.5L - is exactly like the said basketball shoes. It's got great technology, it totes a smile-or-frown design and is a cult classic due to its priority of substance over style.

Practical styling

Outside, the Sportivo mixes MPV practicality with an SUV look and feel. Let's face it, MPV designs aren't that nice yet aren't that ungainly either. The Sportivo is no exception to the aforementioned maxim, but its outside features are crucial for Philippine transport. The one-piece headlamps and foglights provide more than ample lighting during night drives, while the underside skid plate effectively deflects loose asphalt, rocks and dirt from the Sportivo's engine bay. The side step boards (and the a-pillar assist grips) help in entrance and exit immensely, for you sit high (1900 mm overall height) in the vehicle and ingress/egress can be difficult for short people. The rear mounted spare tire (with body-colored cover) is easy to access should the Sportivo develop a flat. And the wide chrome side mirrors (with light emitting diodes or LEDs), new rear lights and third brake light effectively serve notice to oncoming commercial vehicles (CVs) of the Sportivo's turning intentions.

Inside, the leather-wrapped Sportivo seats handle eight to nine people comfortably. It's a good thing the second row folds and tumbles, for the forward facing third row is cramped and forces tall passengers to position themselves at odd angles and grumble. It's also better if the third row can also tumble forward (instead of being removable) to swallow large cargo such as balikbayan boxes. And speaking of the tumbling ability of the second row, this writer suggests that the second row's tumbling latches be painted in a clearly visible color. The Ford Explorer's second row tumbling latches are painted bright red for them to be seen instantly by occupants during loading and unloading. In contrast the Sportivo's second row's tumbling latches are painted in the exact same color as the seat frames, making their search difficult.

Storage and in-car entertainment are like-or-dislike matters. There are nine storage areas in front (including the extremely useful three-tier center console), but lacks cupholders and the front door storage areas are too narrow. The second row features a middle cupholder area that can handle one-liter bottles and folds down from the backrest, but there are no door storage areas. The third row features two zippered-top mesh seatback pockets that can store magazines or envelopes. The DVD-ready JVC head unit (and its two 6.5-inch front backrest monitors) play DVD movies without interference, but should be scrapped in favor of the Alterra's Pioneer audio-visual system, for the buttons on the former are hard to read and there's no radio frequency locking feature. Also, the Sportivo's speakers' tone replication is inconsistent.

Where substance takes the reins

The test unit featured here totes a 2.5L inline-four-cylinder naturally aspirated diesel engine (mated to a five-speed manual transmission or m/t), capable of 81ps at 3900 rpm and 17kg-m at 2300 rpm of torque. As expected of Isuzu diesel, pulling power is good enough to move its 2210kg anywhere (giving one good mileage), but because of the diesel's high compression ratio don't expect quick acceleration. The good news is that the unit's m/t gearing is evenly spaced and the clutch engages smoothly, so one can outrun CVs. In fact this writer got 155 kph on the southbound portion of C5 one Saturday night and got 12 kilometers per liter on six days of city driving.

As with its Alterra and D-Max siblings, the Flex Ride semi-elliptical leaf spring suspension is bouncy without load at the rear, but the bouncy feeling is reduced with five to eight people (or its equivalent weight if one is hauling cargo) seated in both second and third rows. This can cause discomfort for one's daily city commute, but if you're constantly hauling medium to heavy loads, the ride gets better. Flog the MPV on hard turns and the unit displays moderate body roll and pitches like crazy. The good news is that the grippy Michelin A/T ATX 235/70 R15 all terrain tires warn you quickly (60+ kph on hard turns and corners) when understeer occurs.

Braking power is excellent, with little fade showing up at nearly all speeds. Steering is light and gets lighter as speed increases, yet provides good road feedback at all times. Driving ergonomics are all within reach or sight of the driver, and the white-faced gauges offer excellent viewing 24-7-365. Arguably the worst part of this MPV's safety and security features are its reverse gear-activated parking sensor and auto alarm, which is really loud (the parking sensor) or tends to have a mind of its own and goes on/off without warning (the auto alarm).

The verdict

The Sportivo is an MPV that grows on you, despite all its quirks and shortcomings. The ho-hum styling and quirky driving dynamics may turn off some people, but who cares if you look good if you're hauling loads constantly. It may be an ugly duckling to some, but in these trying economic times and messed-up world, an ugly duckling may very well be an attraction and an asset. Just ask the several satisfied Sportivo customers in Metro Manila and the provinces.