What is the deal with Japanese motorists and idling? It’s like a national pastime here. I’ve seen it time and again. Sometimes, folks even recline their seat and take a snooze, read the paper, smoke or drink tea while listening to the radio. Some even work in their cars. Climate control (A/C in summer, heating in winter) and isolation from the world seem to be the main goal, which is understandable, but it made my approach to this relatively rare Isuzu coupé all the more difficult – and the interior out of bounds.
This idling obsession is well documented and some parking lots here have signs expressly forbidding it. Although the Japanese have a reputation for studiously following orders, this is one instruction they like to ignore. In the present case, on the street, idling is allowed and many parked cars, which in other countries would be void of occupants, are actually inhabited and running. Gasoline is not cheap here, but some people feel that their comfort is worth the extra financial and ecological costs. I’ve not noticed this behaviour in other Asian countries, either – it is a Nippon-specific foible.
It follows that when one is out CC hunting, one must be careful not to intrude on people’s personal space, of which cars are an extension. So I gave this Piazza a wide berth and snapped away, which did not seem to bother the owner inside. I don’t even know if he noticed me. I’ve often photographed an empty parked car – sometimes quite extensively – only to notice that someone was observing me doing it from a neighbouring idling car, so perhaps someone hidden behind the tinted glass of that Toyota Alphard across the street wondered why I was circling the Piazza.
But enough about the vicissitudes of automobile use in Japan in general and my paranoid CC hunting habits in particular. Let’s examine this model in more detail. Known internationally as the Isuzu Impulse (and in Australia as the Holden Piazza), the Isuzu Piazza debuted in mid-1981 to replace the 117 Coupé as Isuzu’s prestige model. It was designed by Giugiaro at Italdesign as one of his “ace” cars. The Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs) was first seen at the Geneva show in early 1979 and exhibited at the Tokyo show, as seen above, later that year.
The Asso di Fiori was admired as a great design for the ‘80s. Giugiaro certainly seemed very keen on it. A saloon version was even mooted, but Isuzu never pulled the trigger on that one. They didn’t go for Italdesign’s “padded cell” interior, either. Sound decisions. Other than that, the finished product did look remarkably similar to the Italdesign prototype. There was of course one noticeable difference: as they came out before Japanese law changed in 1983, early Piazzas had the goofy fender mirrors imposed on all domestic cars (imports were excepted), as can be seen on the 1981 factory photos below.
On most cars of the period, these don’t really bother me. In fact, I usually like them – or rather, I’ve grown accustomed to them. On the Piazza though, they really look out of place for some reason. Our feature car doesn’t have them, fortunately. It also sports the big “Piazza” script between the taillamps, so it’s probably a late 1983 or 1984 car. Judging from the ones I’ve seen for sale on Japanese websites, quite a few earlier ones have been retrofitted with door mirrors. They do look better that way.
The interior of these Isuzus is really something, like a Citroën CX on steroids. Wish I could have seen it for myself. With over 20 different dials, buttons, sliders and other controls on these column-mounted pods, one has to wonder how this stuff can still all function after over three decades of use. And repairing these things must be lots of fun, too. “OK, try the blue wire. No, the green one. No, the yellow one… AAAAARRGGGGHH!” But for all this cutting edge gadgetry and mono-wiper hipster chic, this little coupé had a standard issue longitudinal 4-cyl. engine sending power to a live rear axle.
The Piazza’s rather pedestrian underpinnings are straight out of GM’s T-car (a.k.a Chevrolet Chevette, Opel Kadett C, etc.), known in Japan as the Isuzu Gemini. The 2-litre engine (actually a 1949cc) was available either with one or two overhead cams, producing 150 and 135hp respectively. This 4-cyl. was already seen on the 117 Coupé and is directly descended from the Bellett’s original 1.5 litre mill, first seen in 1962. The Piazza was spared the Gemini’s tough-but-lethargic Diesel, despite a trial run of 117s so equipped in 1979-80. Transmission options included a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed Aisin automatic.
So the wild dash and the Giugiaro body were really just elaborate window dressing for what was a thoroughly conventional car. It seems Isuzu figured that this might be flagged by critics (which it certainly was), so they launched a 180hp turbo version in 1984 (still a 2-litre, albeit a slightly different one displacing 1994cc) and, thanks to the GM connection, got Lotus to improve the Piazza’s suspension in 1987. In parallel, Irmscher worked their magic on several special-edition cars for the JDM, which some Japanese enthusiasts claim to be the ultimate in Piazzadom, even better than the Lotus-tweaked cars.
The Piazza soldiered on until 1991 in Japan, after which Isuzu cars were all FWD or AWD. The second generation Piazza / Impulse took over, based on the Geo Storm / Asüna / Pontiac Sunfire (known in Japan as the Isuzu PA Nero, such was the pointlessly complex GM marque salad at that point in time), but only lived to MY 1994. The Japanese economy was in trouble by then and the rest of the world didn’t see the point in an Isuzu coupé any longer, it seems.
Isuzu made just under 115,000 Piazzas / Impulses in 11 years – respectable, but short of glorious. It didn’t sell that well in America or Europe and it positively bombed in Australia. The only place where it had any semblance of success was in its home country, though its more glamorous predecessor the 117 Coupé was (and remains) much more popular. It may not have been a great car dynamically, but for curbside idling, I’m sure it’s fine.
CC Capsule: 1988 Isuzu Impulse – Wait, What?, by Brendan Saur
Vintage Review: Isuzu Impulse Turbo, by Yohai71