The cars we loved.
Isuzu is hardly known for their cars in America anymore. The last passenger car the company sold here was the Impulse (with a GM version re-badged as the Geo Storm). That was around 1992. Shortly before the company withdrew its impressive Stylus sedan with the intent of focusing on trucks.
While Isuzu has hardly produced 20 or so car models in its short history,a few of the ones that have made it to export markets have been the most interesting. The Pininifinari designed 117 Coupe and the original Impulse announced that the company was capable of more than just re-badging cars from GM.
Sometimes those cloned cars were more interesting than the originals that they were sourced from. At one time Isuzu sold variations the Chevy Chevette and Cavalier in Asian, South American and some European markets. Soon they would expand the model scope to include more sophisticated machinery like clones of the Subaru Legacy and a range of Honda cars like the Integra and Accord. Americans would have never seen these cars because they were sold mostly in Asian countries like Thailand where they were popular sellers.
Isuzu and Honda actually go way back to the early ’80s when the two reached an agreement for Isuzu to share its expertise in truck/SUV building with Honda in anticipation of a growing segment. Early versions of the Honda Passport were re-badged Rodeos built by Isuzu. They were sold in America up to 2002 (replaced by the more reliable Pilot).
By then the cars were no more than memories in the States. There were only a few places in the world were you could buy a new Isuzu badged car by 2002. Isuzu had focused on trucks and supplying engines for GM, Renault and Nissan. The Aska (Isuzu’s longest running nameplate) and Vertex were the lone car options and they were on their way out if not already gone. Technically these were the last new Isuzu cars sold anywhere.
For a long time Isuzu’s version of a compact car was the Vertex, a version of the Honda Integra SJ. Unlike the often over tuned and over molested Integra sedan in America, the Vertex looked more like the Civic sold just about everywhere. It’s engine options were similar to what was offered in America, except that there was no Si variant and the engines were smaller 1.6-liter fours across the board. A VTEC option existed offering 7 more hp than the SOHC version’s 120 hp.
Except for the front grille, little was done to distinguish the Vertex from the run of the mill Civic. Like Canada’s similar Acura EL or Isuzu’s other Civic clone the Gemini, the Vertex was marketed as slightly upscale vs. cars like Nissan’s Sunny or the Ford/Mazda Escort/323 pair. All of what made the Civic so popular was available in the Vertex as well. Slick shifting 5-speed manual:check, excellent ergonomics: check and the fun to drive factor. The Vertex was based on the still fun to drive 6th generation Civic.
The Civic is (or was) arguably the best small car in the world, so it made sense for Isuzu to ride that legacy. The company itself had a great reputation as a builder of small trucks, so the reputation as a great car builder (re seller) would be a bonus. The strategy worked, especially in Indonesia where the Vertex was often a top seller in its segment. Like the Honda Civic, changes within a given generation were minimal, keeping the Vertex looking pretty much the same during its run. The slow evolution styling of European cars had become commonplace and was still something new with Asian compacts. With the Vertex, it helped position the car on the higher end of the compact car spectrum (at least in places where a Honda Civic could almost pass for upmarket).
In a typical marketing practice in Asia, American celebrities are used to promote cars. Richard Gere might seem like an odd choice given that his films have little to do with cars or motoring. His image as an easy going casual, yet stylish star was made him the ideal spokesman to peddle a small economy car. It would have never happened in the States with a Civic, but Gere’s presence must have given Isuzu’s product some legitimacy as an upscale leaning compact.
In America Isuzu would almost need to start from scratch to build an image and reputation for itself. It’s also unlikely that they will be selling any cars here anytime soon. As one of Japan’s smaller car companies, it will need to maintain alliances with current partners by building what it does best – make truck and truck engines.
If the company ever decided to get back into the car business in America (or anywhere for that matter), it might start with its tried and true heritage of re-badging first. If by taking a competent car and making a more interesting clone of it like it did with the Gemini’s of the ’70s, Isuzu could find itself back in the car business in no time.