Curbside Classic: 1989 Isuzu Piazza Nero Viva XS – Fancy Another Slice?

I wrote one of these generation one Piazzas up last year, but I’m sure some of you will have room for another piece. Please, do go on, have one! It’s just a wafer-thin Isuzu. And just in case you didn’t fancy yet another white Japanese car (they do tend to be that colour a bit too often, unfortunately), this one happens to be a fancy dark green limited edition – and a make-believe import, too.

Given that we’ve already seen the Piazza (also called the Impulse in certain markets, such as the US) before in great detail – both in JDM and US market guise, might I add – we’re really all set as far as pure information about this model is concerned.

Just a quick reminder though: the Isuzu Piazza was devised by its maker as a replacement for the 117 Coupé and, like its gorgeous predecessor, was designed by Giugiaro. The 117’s 2-litre OHC 4-cyl. and a new 1.9 litre DOHC engine were part of the package, but the platform was pure GM T-Car. Sales debuted in mid-1981 at a pretty good clip; the car was a relative hit in its home market, but fared less well in foreign climes.

Isuzu made over 110,000 units by the time production was halted in 1991, over 60% of which were sold locally. So there was a market for these, at least in Japan. The Giugiaro name, coupled with the model’s cliché Italian name, were apparently enough to satisfy the Japanese clientele’s desire for something slightly exotic. The old-fashioned drivetrain reassured them about the car’s reliability, and the capable engines, churning out between 120 and 150hp, gave the Piazza plenty of performance. This was particularly true once the turbo, mounted on the 2-litre OHC mill, was introduced in 1984 on the XE and XS trims levels. In 1985, German specialist Irmscher were roped in to work their magic on the Piazza, followed in 1988 by Lotus, who tweaked the handling (by far the car’s weakest point).

But what of this “Nero” thing, you might ask. Well, it so happens that Isuzu’s tie-up with GM, back in the early ‘70s, had helped them grow and given them access to GM technology, but the marque remained something of a laggard, at least as far as their share of the car market was concerned. Even in Japan, most people thought that Isuzu built great buses and trucks, but that family cars were more the purview of Toyota, Nissan or Mitsubishi.

One problem was that Isuzu’s car range was quite limited. They never fielded a kei car – or anything below 1.3 litres, come to that. That’s well over half of the lower end of the JDM. And they never really tried to design a higher-end executive model to compete with the likes of the Toyota Crown or Nissan Cedric. In the end, they broadened their range through SUVs and pickups, but the JDM Isuzu car dealer network remained atrophied because the range had limited appeal, and vice-versa.

Isuzu could make more cars, but the biggest domestic bottleneck was the sales network. GM’s partial solution to this Catch-22, which was quite clever, was the Piazza Nero. These were higher-trim Piazzas, but crucially, they were not sold through the Isuzu dealers, but by Yanase – the number one Japanese car importer, and the outfit that happened to handle GM’s American-made wares in Japan. Yanase had a nationwide network as well, and one that could perfectly handle selling an additional brand. Even a Japanese-made one, provided it was easily distinguishable from the Isuzu network version. Hence “Nero” was added to “Piazza.” (Why “Nero,” you ask? Because “Caligula” was too hard to pronounce, probably. And “Attila” just didn’t sound right.)

This novel scheme started from the get-go – as the above brochure excerpt shows, the Piazza Nero was launched in parallel to the standard model in 1981, with those kooky fender mirrors. The mirrors were moved to the doors as soon as possible (mid-1983) on all Piazzas, but the Nero started to diverge from the regular-production ones after a while.

Case in point: our feature car does not have the Japanese market headlamps, as since 1988, the Neros wore US market-style quads. Consequently, it also has the Impulse’s hood, i.e. without the cutouts for the Piazza’s flip-up lights. It also proudly wears the yellow Yanase sticker on its tail – a definite plus for the highly class-conscious Japanese car owner: the same sticker adorned the rumps of Audis, Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes. Though other Isuzu models were also sold by Yanase, the importer was so renowned for its high-class foreign cars that it was enough for Isuzu to claim the Nero was infused with a “European spirit.”

The Neros were noted for their many limited editions, and that is what we have here today. Yanase did a special Piazza Nero sale shindig every year, and in November 1989, this is the car they sold. Well, this one and 99 others pretty much exactly like it – all the Viva XS Neros wore this “British Green Mica” colour. Twenty cars had the 5-speed manual and 80 received the 4-speed Aisin automatic. A special upholstery was also included, as was the XS trim’s 150hp turbo engine.

This was the penultimate limited edition Nero sold by Yanase. The very last one was a 50-car Irmscher edition in March 1990, but the end of the road was nigh. The Nero was nixed in the summer of 1990, one year prior to the Piazza at large. The rather brief (1991-94) next-generation Piazza and Geo Storm were also given the Nero treatment, but sales were minimal. It was an interesting attempt at solving Isuzu’s distribution network issues, but it seems Yanase never carried any domestic brand since that era. Perhaps Japan’s carmakers enacted another one of their famous gentlemen’s agreements, making sure that Yanase (and GM) would not meddle in their affairs again. Mere speculation on my part, but then “Piazzagate” does have a pleasingly conspiratorial ring to it.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1984 Isuzu Piazza – An Unmoving Encounter, by T87

In Motion Classic: 1988 Isuzu Impulse – A Thoroughbred That Stumbled Out Of The Gate, by Eric703

CC Capsule: 1988 Isuzu Impulse – Wait, What?, by Brendan Saur

Vintage Review: Isuzu Impulse Turbo, by Yohai71