The cars we loved.
Ironically, for a decade known for its garish bad taste and excesses, designer fever seemed to be rampant in the 80′s. From jeans to jewelry, superficial designer labels seemed to be on everything. Cars were no different. The trend of designer editions had been gaining steam since the 70’s with various AMC, Lincolns and Cadillac’s. Often they were no more than decorated embellishments with a designer’s name on it. Sometimes, the designer makes the car – or their interpretation
goes beyond simple embellishment. That was the case for Isuzu and its Pizza.
For a small company like Isuzu, every car announced was a special event. Their small lines of vehicles were usually second nature to the trucks that it was known for in Asian markets. The long affiliation with GM gave Isuzu options whenever any new product was added. So instead of using GM’s resources for one of its shared designs, Isuzu went for a designer label in a big way. It would not be the first time. Isuzu’s handsome 117 Coupe was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giugiaro’s firm Italdesign would pen the 117’s replacement called the Piazza. Isuzu had a history of commissioning top designers for its cars and left the original products un-altered for the most part. For a company with trucks usually on its mind, no one was worried about bruising the egos of its in-house design team.
After creating quite a bit of excitement at Geneva and Tokyo auto shows in 1979, the Piazza went into production in 1980. The original concept car’s design was left almost unaltered for production. The clean lines were unique in that they appeared seamless at some points. Seams along natural parting lines gave the car an all of one piece look that made other cars of the
era look stitched together and over styled. The rounded wedge shape looked futuristic, and has managed to age well over time. The overall shape may have inspired VW’s second generation Sirocco. Giugiaro designed the first Sirocco and the new Piazza showed what the design could have evolved into. Under all of that designer flash was a simple GM T chassis, the same underside Chevettes rode on in America. GM sold versions of the Pizza under the Holden name in Australia while they were marketed as Isuzu in Europe.
Isuzu’s use the Chevette chassis combined simplicity with high technology and useful advances in ergonomics. The initial engines were inline four-cylinder 2.0L units in SOHC or DOHC configurations. They produced 120 or 135hp respectively. The Piazza was sold all over the world, but in the US, it was not until 1983 that it was available under the name Impulse. With a
starting price of about $10,000, it was considered to be a bargain and competed with more expensive and capable GT cars. Even with only one engine, a 2.0 SOHC four-cylinder with 90hp, the Impulse compared well against Toyota’s more
expensive Celica. Like the Celica, the Impulse had rear wheel drive and as such proved to be entertaining to drive if the driver was able to keep the car from under steering. A nose heavy 58/42 weight ratio made extreme maneuvers tricky for all but the most experienced behind the wheel. The press made note of this shortcoming, but it did not dampen their enthusiasm for the car. The lower power rating did mean that the Impulse was very efficient, especially when equipped with the five speed manual transmission. 36mpg could be achieved and not much less with the four speed automatic. For all of the Impulse’s efficient engineering, it was a comfortable GT car at best.
One of the car’s best features was its interior. A simple but effective pod system put controls within easy reach of the driver, giving the cockpit a way out, but useful look. The overall feeling was of that of a much more expensive car in the looks department, but in America, performance would have to wait. Higher performing models of the Impulse would not arrive
until 1985 with the turbo version of the 2.0. Now producing 180hp, the Impulse could compete with the Starion/Conquest pair as well as the Supra. Non turbo cars could hardly reach 60mph in 12 seconds, but the turbo models easily posted times in the low 8 second range.
Despite having a simple double wishbone front suspension and a three link live axle rear, the Impulse became a decent performer thanks to Lotus. In 1988 the Impulse would get revised dampers, roll bars and spring rates many upgrades in performance with special “Tuning by Lotus” badges denoting the performance upgrades. All Impulse/Piazza’s rode on 14 inch wheels, with varying alloy wheel designs. Even the Lotus tuned cars retained this realitivelly small wheel size. The Lotus partnership took an odd turn as Isuzu of the UK went out of business (due to high prices) and leftover cars became known as Lotus Pizzas for a while. There would be other changes in 1988 like revised fixed headlights as opposed to the pop ups of before. Like with many trendy things in fashion, initial sales were strong in the US, but gradually diminished as a new breed of front wheel drive coupe captured the markets attention.
The Impulse lost favor in the ever competitive small sporty coupe market. The small dealer network and smaller advertising budget probably did not help. At its best it was no more than a bit player in the grand scheem of mass market sales. Even as the press lauded it’s design and Lotus tuned suspension, buyers got more for their money with the new front wheel drive coupes that had become ever more competitive and represented a better overall value. Although it was replaced in 1989 with the second generation Impulse, the first generation continued in Japan until 1991 (where it was very popular). The second generation car would continue with its GM association with a shared platform with the GEO brand in America and Holden brand in Australia.