VIDEO: The 1990 Isuzu Impulse deserved better

The second-generation Isuzu Impulse never got enough love. It was cheap, but not quite cheap enough. It was sporty, but not quite sporty enough, especially compared to the competition from Honda or Toyota. Isuzu was more of a truck brand than a car brand, and no one turned to them for a sports coupe. They were also under GM ownership so even the badge-engineered twin, the Geo Storm, had a bigger US presence than the Impulse.

In Japan, the Impulse was called the Piazza and, like the Giugiaro-penned first-gen, marketed for its European Styling. We suppose it does look kind of like a modern Lancia Beta Montecarlo, which is cool. In their July 1990 review, Motorweek was not a fan of the front-end styling, which they deemed too 80s. Those half-exposed headlights look pretty nice today.

The test car Motorweek reviewed was an XS trim, which cost $13,954 (a base Impulse started at $11,999). It came with a naturally aspirated 16-valve, 1.6-liter twin-cam four making 130 horsepower. That yielded a not-so-peppy 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds. It’s too bad they didn’t wait a year to test the RS, which would have added a AWD, a turbo and 30 horsepower.

However, when it came to non-linear performance, Motorweek found the Impulse with an unexpected spring in its step. Steering response was good, and Motorweek called the stick shift a “joy” (though they found the clutch mushy). It behaved more like a rear-wheel-drive car than a front-driver. The nose tucked and the tail stepped out in hard cornering, but on highways it kept a composed and smooth ride. They even got the outside rear wheel to lift on a slalom course but the car was never unsettled. That’s because it wore a little green badge that said “Handling by Lotus.” Both companies were under GM ownership at the time, and it was a rare instance when those corporate synergies actually synergized.

The interior looked dreadfully cheap though, even by 90s standards. The plastic was dull and the buttons hollow-sounding. The dash and seats had zero design, and even instrument gauges were just black discs with the most spartan markings imaginable. The Impulse XS was rated at 26 city, 34 highway mpg, so it had pretty decent fuel economy for its time.

It’s sad that Isuzu had to withdraw from the US market. If it had hung on for a few more decades, its reputation as an truck brand may have saved it in these SUV-happy times. We can’t even remember the last time we saw a second-gen Impulse in real life. It’s too bad, because it seems like the kind of car that, even with its shortcomings, would be an interesting drive today.

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11 Responses to VIDEO: The 1990 Isuzu Impulse deserved better

  1. Lupus says:

    They are reeaallyy rare in Central Europe. But i think the car itself looks cool, very different from contemporary Celica or Integra. The shape is somehow similair to Mazda 323F/Astina.
    On some markets (Canada?) the Impulse was sold as Asuna Sunfire – this badge was radically AWESOME. 😀

  2. BlitzPig says:

    The word “cheap” is used several times in your article, and this sums up Isuzu quite well. A bottom feeder brand, much like Mitsubishi. All the style and feature set in the world will not make up for poor assembly quality, cheap materials, leaky, unreliable drive trains, and shoddy dealer networks. Just being Japanese isn’t enough.

    • Negishi no Keibajo says:

      I’m assuming you’re dissing the car side of things. Isuzu & Mitsubishi aren’t exactly slouches in small pick ups, SUV’s & of course heavy duty trucks. The trucks have certainly outlasted the cars. Both marques soldier on as well as rebadged former Chevy/GMC models.

      The Impulses that I drove or rode in seemed to have material issues, particularly UV damage to exposed plastics. They looked like the bottom of an abandoned sailboat in short order, but man I really liked the Giugiaro styling.

      • BlitzPig says:

        I’m leaving their medium and heavy duty vehicles out of this, different animals entirely. Same goes for aircraft and shipbuilding on the part of Mitsubishi.

        But their cars, SUVs, and light duty pick ups… Not a good one in the bunch.

    • Robbie says:

      My Isuzu’s (2 91 Impulse RS’s, one 90 Geo Storm GSI, a 99 Rodeo and my dads 81 LUV) were all super reliable. One RS has 243k miles on it, another has 165k, the Storm has 150k (and 50k miles boosted on 7 psi on a stock motor) my Rodeo had 210k and my dads LUV had 300k when it was donated. They were all put together well for their price and time and all were very reliable. The Storm and Impulses are fun, cheap hot hatches. I enjoy throwing them around and revving the engines straight to the redline. The dash plastic was cheap, but the driving experience was great. And the “leaky, unreliable drive trains” were not a part of my ownership experience.

  3. Long Beach Mike says:

    The second gen can’t hold a candle to the original Impuulse/Piazza, at least in terms of styling. Based on Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ace of Clubs show car was a real beauty. It also featured a Lotus tuned suspension beginning in 1988 and potent turbo variants were available starting in 84. It also drove like a rear wheel drive car because it was a rear wheel drive car.

    • nlpnt says:

      I also think this generation’s styling came courtesy of GM Design. It really hits me how the Geo Storm is the “pure” version of the design whose curvatures all match while the Isuzu version gets the slightly awkward nosejob and clunky addenda around the C-pillar and between the taillights.

  4. Speedie says:

    Ugly duckling to the swan. The car suffers from odd proportions with the front and back ends looking like different design teams worked on it. Isuzu’s cars were always different and did not compare well to the Toyotas and Hondas they competed with for sales.

  5. Christophr says:

    I owned an ’84 Impulse, bought it in ’85 with 4800 miles on the clock. I have to disagree with the ‘poor materials and shoddy workmanship’. Of course, my car was a different animal than the subject of the article, being first gen, and RWD. The handling was incredible, and I could find no fault with build quality or materials, my wife’s ’83 Accord’s interior wasn’t any nicer than that of the Impulse. Although it was down on power, 90 hp, from the 1.9 SOHC, the 5-speed was slick, which was good, because you had to row it, to keep the car moving at a brisk pace.Basically, it was a sport hatch, with an econobox engine. Got fantastic mpg’s, but not many mph! I drove it six years, and traded it in on a ’91 Galant VR4 (which I still own, with 114,000 miles currently).

  6. Mark F Newton-John says:

    It was really the brand that made the Geo version more popular. People loved the Geo Storm, but when it came to Japanese brands, it was pretty much Toyota with its Celica, or Nissan with the 240SX.

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