If cars were horses, the Isuzu Impulse would have been a thoroughbred. With an Italian design, a Lotus suspension, and built by one of Japan’s oldest carmakers, the Impulse had a great deal in its favor. Yet the Impulse stumbled out of the gate. In terms of sales, it played only a bit part in the crowded sports coupe market – just about 10,000 US examples were sold annually between 1983 and 1989. Nevertheless, it was a highly influential car. This particular example was spotted driving along at 70 mph on a busy Interstate. Even from these glimpses, one can imagine what a splash this design made when new, and also how successful the Impulse could have been if it was just a little bit more polished when first introduced.
History will remember the Impulse for being one of the most groundbreaking designs of its day. Isuzu turned to Italy’s masterful Giorgetto Giugiaro in the late 1970s to design its new sports coupe. This was not a random choice for Isuzu, as Giugiaro had also designed the Impulse’s predecessor, the 117 coupe, a decade earlier. He was given virtually free reign; Isuzu’s only requirement being that the end product use GM’s T-car platform (Chevette/Kadett/I-Mark – GM owned a stake in Isuzu, hence the platform-sharing).
When Giugiaro’s concept (called the Ace of Clubs) emerged at the Geneva Auto Show in 1979, it was breathtaking. Although wedge-shaped like his Lotus Esprit, the Isuzu featured a rounded tail and corners, and numerous small, detailed refinements that collectively made the car the stunner that it was. It’s hard to overstate this car’s impact on worldwide car design. Features such as concealed rain gutters, flush glass, hidden seams, and doors that blend into the roof were nearly unheard-of when this car was designed. All of these features were pioneered by the Ace of Clubs, and subsequently became commonplace by 1990.
Show cars are often simply design exercises that merely pass on some hints of their original concept to a future production car. Amazingly, the eventual production Impulse was virtually unaltered from Giugiaro’s initial show car.
Innovations carried over to the interior as well, where Giugiaro created a novel concept for the instrument panel where most controls (even the turn signals) were mounted on two pods on either side of the steering wheel. The whole assembly moved with the tilt steering wheel. This feature, too, was carried into production.
Some markets first saw this car in 1981 (called Piazza in most of the world), but US sales began in 1983.
Isuzu dealers (often paired with GM franchises) needed some drama in those days, but though the Impulse brought many lookers, few became buyers. Why? For one, performance enthusiasts were disappointed that underneath the intense exterior was a traditional, and undistinguished car. The original Impulse had a buzzy 1.9 liter, 90 hp engine and an unsophisticated suspension with a live rear axle. An Impulse would wheeze under acceleration and roll heavily in corners – not the type of performance suggested by the exterior. Paradoxically, the car’s rear-drive format turned off many non-enthusiasts, as front-wheel drive was becoming increasingly popular. Add to that Isuzu’s small US dealer network, and the Impulse’s sales struggles are easily understood.
Isuzu improved performance by adding a turbocharged model for 1985, and then, along with a slight styling update, a major suspension enhancement for 1988. Lotus (another member of the GM family) was hired to rework the Impulse’s suspension, and did so in remarkable fashion, transforming the ancient T-car underpinnings into a thoroughly modern affair. Handling was markedly improved, and ride harshness reduced. To make the point known, 1988-89 Impulses wear 4 badges that say “Handling by Lotus.”
The Impulse also benefited from the world’s best advertising campaign. I’m lying. But no discussion of 1980s Isuzus would be complete without a mention of the company’s truth-impaired pitchman, Joe Isuzu, shown here making a characteristically truthful claim.
Joe may have exceeded 900 mph in his Impulse, but this one was about to get a nudge from an impatient Freightliner behind it. By 1988, the base Impulse’s horsepower was up to 110 from its 2.3-liter 4-cylinder SOHC engine – adequate but not exceptional power for a 3,000 lb. car. The turbo model added 30 more hp.
This particular Impulse came painted in Vivid Red – the only one of the ’88 Impulse’s eight colors that was available on either turbo or non-turbo models. Isuzu stressed the Impulse’s high level of standard equipment, and as such the only options on either model were an automatic transmission and floor mats.
Despite the performance and handling improvements, Impulse sales never picked up steam. By the time this car was produced, the Impulse had already been on the market for almost 5 years, and as other cars gained the design innovations pioneered by Isuzu, the Impulse itself faded into the background. 1989 was the last year for this generation of Impulse, and Isuzu’s US presence was fading as well. The company eventually pulled out of the US market in 2009.
Thirty years after its US introduction, it’s easy to overlook this car’s contribution to worldwide car design, since Impulses were never plentiful on the roads. But sales figures alone do not tell the Impulse’s story. This car that numerically left barely a ripple in most countries’ sales charts was one of the most important automotive designs in the last fifty years. If only it had benefited earlier from the engine and suspension improvements gained in its later years, it likely would have run a much better race.
Photographed near Morgantown, West Virginia in March, 2016.
CC Capsule: 1988 Isuzu Impulse – Wait, What? Brendan Saur