CC Capsule: 1989 Isuzu Gemini (JT190) ZZ Handling By Lotus – Japan’s Cortina, Minus The Charisma

It’s funny how certain cars just fail to register. I’m sure I must have seen at least a few of these when new, either as Chevrolet /Geo Spectrums or as Isuzu I-Marks, back when I lived in the US, but they must have made a great job of blending into the background. Mind you, most of them weren’t branded with the “Handling by Lotus” badge, were they?

I guess a few of these also made it to Europe too (as the Isuzu Gemini), but I genuinely do not recall having seen this car before. The distinctive shape of the turn signals would have made this 1987-90 generation easier to remember than the pre-facelift cars (1985-87), which look extremely generic, in an ‘80s econobox sort of way. The overall design, facelift notwithstanding, remains underwhelming; the four-door saloon looks particularly clunky. The hatchback looks a bit like a Mk2 Golf, so it’s more palatable.

Apparently, Giugiaro designed these, originally. But then Isuzu / GM made some changes behind his back, so he Alan Smitheed the whole affair. Not sure who designed the 1987 facelift, but it definitely added a smidgen of personality to an otherwise dull package.

According to previous CC posts on this car (under the Holden, Isuzu and Geo marques anyway), praise was rather on the faint side as to the Gemini’s dynamic qualities, both chassis- and engine-wise. Well, I guess if a car’s handling is going to be sloppy, might as well have a gutless engine to go with it. But as Lotus were then part of the GM family, the good people from Hethel were roped in to polish this turd, leading to the Gemini ZZ Handling by Lotus (its official name in Japan) being launched in March 1988. Twenty-five years after the humble Ford Cortina, Lotus were at it on the even humbler Isuzu Gemini.

The JT190 Gemini’s suspension was comprehensively Lotusified, but that was not the end of it. BBS wheels were fitted as standard and under the hood, thankfully, the sedate 1.5 was replaced by a lively 1588cc DOHC 16-valve engine, also revisited by Lotus. In Japan, this little number would spin the front wheels with 140hp – about twice the power of the standard engine.

Interestingly, that wasn’t the only performance consultancy that Isuzu had arranged for their beleaguered berlina. Vowelly-challenged German tuning expert Irmscher also made several versions (example above), which started coming out in 1987.

That’s a lot of souped-up specials for such a modest model, but I guess Isuzu were desperate to inject some excitement into this thing. It was, after all, the first car they had designed from the ground up since the 117 / Florian.

They certainly pulled out all the stops for the interior design. It’s a little difficult to tell from the angle I took the photo, but the array of switches on the side of the instrument cluster / pod is pretty wild. Reminds me of certain Citroëns.

I guess a factory photo would do better to illustrate this particular point. Plus, check out that special leather-covered steering wheel. The Lotus touch is a light touch.

Despite the shiny black paint with gold pinstripe, the Lotus badge, the BBS wheels and all that, it still looks like a K-car that got rear-ended by a Mack truck. Giugiaro said he later regretted distancing himself from his creation. Maybe he just had a moment of clarity and realized what a poor job he’d done on this Isuzu.

Which is a shame, as some of the other designs Giugiaro did for the marque were excellent. Even the greatest of the greats have their off days. Can’t blame Lotus for being part of the same conglomerate as Isuzu, but I’m sure they were content to beta-test the engine / transmission combo they were about to use on their car. So if nothing else, at least this Gemini helped in creating the Lotus Elan M100, the only front-drive car the British marque ever made.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1988 Isuzu I-Mark: Just Another Household Appliance, by JPC

Curbside Classic: 1985-87 Holden RB Gemini/1985-89 Chevrolet Spectrum/Isuzu I-Mark – The Stars Didn’t Align, by William Stopford

Curbside Capsule: 1985-87 Holden Gemini SL/E – Missing The I-Mark, by William Stopford

COAL: 1986 Isuzu I-Mark – That’s No Lie!, by Jim Klein

CC Outtake: 1989 Geo Spectrum – The Blue Band of the Spectrum, by PN