Isuzu Piazza: Media Ownage

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The other day we did a feature on the Isuzu 117 Coupe and we concluded the article with a short mention of its replacement, the Piazza. That got us to thinking about the Piazza and now that we have 20yrs worth of hindsight, I think it’s about time we examined the oft-scorned coupe.

In Australia the image of the Piazza is unambiguous: it’s a lemon. But did fate play the attractive Italian-styled coupe a bad hand? Was it really such a bad car? We at GrandJDM are willing to fire up our trusty time machine to find out!

First, some history. The Piazza debuted in Japan in 1981 as a replacement for the 117 Coupe. Powerplants were a carry-over injected 135ps DOHC 2.0L four cylinder from the old 117, but the fast model was a 2.0L SOHC turbo four pumping out 150ps. Suspension was essentially based on the RWD Gemini econocar, which meant double wishbones up front, and a simple live rear axle suspended by trailing links and a panhard rod. The Piazza was perhaps a little on the heavy side at 1280kg but the turbo especially was a good performer, putting away the qtr mile in 16.3s.

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To put this into perspective, the 1981 RA40 Celica was an extremely crude RWD coupe with a SOHC 2.0L engine that wheezed out 90ps. The Celica had strut front suspension and also a live axled rear. Mazda was still doing well with the 1st gen RX-7 but that was also a RWD coupe with a live rear axle and only 115ps. The Honda Prelude of the same time was a FWD coupe with only 77ps. And Nissan’s sports car was the 280ZX, which was a heavy 140ps coupe that had long abandoned its sporting roots.

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So in comparison to other JDM cars of the same age, the Piazza does in fact hold up very well. The problem was that Isuzu did not introduce the Piazza to foreign markets until 1986 (USA market in 1983).

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And the problem the (now half decade old) Isuzu faced was that the game had moved on. Big time.

In comparison, the 117 Coupe had it much easier. In 1969, a benchmark sports car was the 240Z, but by the time the 117 bowed out in 1981, the Zed car was now the 280ZX and had not moved on that much dynamically (heck, in 1981 MG was still selling the ancient MGB…). The problem the Piazza faced was that in 1986, a new generation of JDM sports cars emerged which moved standard upwards by quite a lot. In 1986, standard bearing sports cars included the Mk3 Supra, the FC RX-7 and the DOHC FWD Celica (which was a such a huge step forward compared to its predecessor).

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But first, let’s look at the reviews.

In general the European magazine reviews were quite kind. The 2.0L Turbo motor was said to be quite coarse and harsh, but journalists praised its torquey, low lag feel with some articles even saying that the Piazza engine was clearly a generation ahead of say the Starion motor. The interior would come in for mixed reviews, with comments being quite universal about its decent rear room and luggage practicality (things the Piazza shared with its 117 Coupe predecessor) but reviewers were lukewarm about the gimmicky digital dash and minor controls (which were clustered around the instrument binnacle in “pods”).

 And EVERYONE loved the Giugiaro-penned styling….but the handling is where the negative comments begin.

snippet.JPGIn a comparison against the ’86 Celica and Prelude, CAR (UK) magazine said “The Piazza scores well in handling, but cant quite match its two rivals. It leans more, understeers in a similar manner to the Prelude when first turning into the corner, and in the damp, can be tempted to get its tail out with surprisingly little difficulty. In the dry, the tail always behaves itself and understeer is the dominant characteristic….in fact it often feels more like a front drive car than the Celica…but the live axle…can be made to jump and patter on uneven roads…around Castle Combe (racetrack), the axle would frequently hop under heavy braking or when you’re trying to accelerate through a turn.”

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However the axle location issues were not enough to prevent CAR from labelling the Piazza a “competent handler”. Overall, CAR ranked the Piazza last behind the Celica and the Prelude, but did conclude that the Piazza was a good straight-line performer. Other UK magazines came to the same conclusion.

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The big bombshell occurred when the Piazza was released in Australia as a Holden. Big two page ads would appear in magazines touting the Piazza as “Pure Adrenaline” and the ambitious marketing campaign came with an ambitious sticker price: $34500. To give you some perspective over that, in the UK the Piazza was priced the same as the Celica and Prelude. But in Australia, the Celica was a $23000 car, the Prelude a $29000 car (then considered quite exhorbitant).

Whereas in Europe the Piazza was priced against Toyota and Honda’s small FWD coupes, Holden’s ambitious pricing pushed the Piazza right into the next class: into competition with the Mk3 Supra and the FC RX-7.

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And so the Piazza’s first Australian magazine review would come in the July 1986 issue of Wheels Magazine (Australia’s best selling car mag). In a straight-out comparison against the Alfa Romeo GTV6, Mitsubishi Starion, Toyota Celica, Nissan 300ZX Turbo and RX-7….and the results of that review were so scathing that it would have dire ramifications for Holden.

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Read the review today, and the positives pretty much echo the UK reviews. Great engine (again the comment was made that it felt a generation newer than the Starion’s turbo motor), good interior room, tacky dashboard, LOVE that styling and….horrible chassis.

But the Aussie reviewers would go further than the English journalists. A lot further: “…the front end tends to skate around and the car lacks steering sensitivity. Bumps send it offline and damper control is desperately inadequate. And hard braking causes rear axle hop reminiscent of the old rear-drive Gemini…the Piazza also made a meal of the Oran Park circuit, terminal understeer coming to the fore when its was pushed to its early limits. Steering response was not good, cornering done in a welter of understeer and tyre squeal.

piazza2.JPGThe Piazza came dead last in its laptimes, clocking a 59.3s lap around Oran Park’s South Circuit (by the way that is a time that any half decent hatchback can beat). In a straight line the Piazza was a near-match for the Supra (in fact the Piazza was the 3rd fastest car in a straight line) but all that power went to waste as the Supra lapped Oran Park no less than four seconds quicker. Now that’s a lot of laptime to lose just through handling alone!

…but Wheels wasn’t done yet. After concluding the 7 car comparison article (where the Piazza finished last), Wheels broke out a separate article to focus on the Piazza’s faults  just on its own: “…for a car with such brisk performance, the Piazza is a real handful in performance driving: bump steer, roll oversteer, understeer and alarming nose dive under brakes – it’s all there.

Yes. Aussie journalists don’t hold back.

Other Aussie magazines followed suit and the Piazza sales tanked spectacularly. Within a few months, Holden had modified the rear suspension and reduced the sticker price by 20%. Piazza customers who paid the original price were offered a partial refund and a free retrofit of the rear suspension mods. But it was too late and the Piazza was withdrawn from the Aussie market within a year.

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In the UK, notwithstanding the more warm reviews, the Piazza was doing no better and the UK importer was also forced to drop the price 10% in a bid to move all that Isuzu metal.  The Piazza was a flop, in every sense of the word.

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So it was rather unexpected when in 1988 the (now 7yr old) Piazza got a new lease of life. Isuzu was controlled by GM, who also owned Lotus at the time, so Lotus was engaged to revise the Piazza’s suspension and it is no surprise that most of their efforts centred on that oft-criticised rear axle. The locating links were modified, new Armstrong shocks were fitted, spring rates were revised, swaybars were thickened, and at the front, the ride height was lowered and the steering tweaked for more feel. And just in case you missed the point, there were Racing Green badges all over the car (including the dashboard) proclaiming that the Piazza now had “Handling By Lotus”.

snippet6.JPGCAR UK revisited the Piazza in May 1988: “..while the revamped Piazza still doesn’t have the suspension refinement of say the Celica, it is now a fact that the best feature of the Isuzu Coupe is its chassis. It used to be the worst. For a coupe, the ride around town is very good…overall the car is supple. It handles too. Turn in from the reasonably high geared steering is sharp and the car holds the road pretty well once you’ve committed it to the turn. Again, you don’t get the feel or the communication that you do from either the Celica or the Honda Prelude. Mind you, you get a more comfortable ride…

So finally with a little help from Lotus, the Piazza is at long last a decently handling car. 7yrs after its Japanese launch.  And where does this leave the Piazza with us GrandJDMers? Time has been unkind to the Piazza, especially if you live in Australia where it’s a bit of a joke car. But in hindsight it does have some good things to offer but was handed a rather raw deal by fate.

The period from 1980 to 1986 brought tremendous amounts of change and progress when it came to sports cars.  The decade opened with antiquated old wheezers like the MGB and Triumph TR7 still selling well in the sports car sector, but a scant 5yrs later would see cars like the FC3S RX-7 Turbo and 250ps Supra Turbo lead the sector instead. 

Compare say 1990 vs 1996 (or 2000 vs 2006) sports cars and there really isn’t the same huge leap….and the Piazza had the misfortune of straddling that astonishing early 80s era of progress.  It was clearly ahead of the game in many ways in 1981 yet was hopelessly behind the pack in 1986.  The car magazines were right, and Isuzu as always didn’t have the funds to develop or upgrade the old Piazza in any meaningful way, at least until Lotus came along to help out.

But if the Piazza was introduced to the rest of the world in 1981 (instead of 1986) it would undoubtedly be much more fondly remembered (and at least would have enjoyed a few years in the limelight).

Wrong car, wrong place….wrong time.  Sometimes that’s just how it is.

Magazine snippets above from: Wheels July 1986, CAR January 1986, CAR February 1986, CAR May 1988

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