Fading into the Background with a Long-Lasting Impression
When I was in college, various English writing classes drilled the Margaret Atwood short story “Happy Endings” into my consciousness. It’s only three pages long and easy to find online, so I highly recommend you read it. But if you clicked on this article just to comment that this car would sooner be seen on an overgrown front lawn in a Craigslist ad than the Pebble Beach green, here’s what happens in the story: Different story lines with the same characters come to the same inevitable conclusion.
“John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
But, as Atwood concludes, “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try a how and a why.
Isuzu’s non-commercial vehicles operation has been dead for five years But the Japanese automaker bit the dust when it started exclusively selling rebadged GM trucks and SUVs under its own banner a few years earlier.
Isuzu has been around in Japan since 1916, and the nameplate quietly left the U.S. as a light-duty automaker in 2009 after just 28 years. There’s not much company lore, so I’m going to skip the beginning and the end to focus on 1968, when Isuzu introduced the 117 luxury sports coupe, and 1972, when General Motors took a 34-percent stake in Isuzu.
Isuzu had long been seen as a truck-builder, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the company branched out with car manufacturing and the Giugiaro-designed 117 for the Japanese market. While not particularly sophisticated, the early cars were hand-built with extensive use of aluminum, with a solid rear axle and engines architectures shared with small haulers, and were seen as a true rival to the contemporary Nissan Silvia, albeit the Isuzu used fuel injection. To gain some perspective on the Japanese market, think of both cars as the BMW 4 Series of their day, only much more exclusive and expensive. Neither was meant to be a large-scale seller; they were designed as innovation-driven flagships born of enterprising engineers.
Isuzu continued 117 production until 1981, when it still looked great but was in utter need of a replacement. Having driven a late-model 117 in Ohio for a week, shifting with my left hand and giving thumbs-up to passersby with my right, I can attest to the car’s ability to draw plenty of attention more than 30 years after the last one rolled off the line.
But, as General Motors absorbed more of Isuzu — and concurrently Britain’s Lotus — something funny happened. GM’s piggy bank met the Lotus’ rock star chassis engineering team and the curiosity of Isuzu’s engineers at a crucial intersection of time and economies of scope.
By the time Isuzu’s third-generation sports coupe rolled around in 1989, it was brought downmarket to compete against the likes of the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Toyota Celica. It was GM’s attempt to qualify a player into that market, tapping into the Japanese manufacturing philosophy that had for so long befuddled GM’s management. Designed as a world car and built in Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan, it was designated as an R-body in GM’s hierarchy, consolidating the Impulse onto a front-drive platform with the Isuzu Stylus and Geo Storm in the U.S. as a replacement for the Chevrolet Sprint.
Where you might think that GM, which by now owned half of Isuzu, would start cross-pollinating engineering with other brands such as the upstart Saturn, it didn’t. Instead, GM left Isuzu to independently develop a 95-hp, 1.6-liter SOHC four-cylinder for the Storm in addition to a DOHC version with 130 hp for the more powerful Geo and the base front-drive Isuzu Impulse XS. Isuzu engineers weren’t done tinkering, though. For 1991, Isuzu threw every last piece of know-how it had into the Impulse, turbocharging and intercooling the DOHC engine for 160 hp at 6600 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm, adding a viscous-coupling all-wheel-drive system with a 43:57 rear-biased torque split, new rear-suspension geometry unique to the all-wheel-drive model, ABS, and a trick Nishiboric passive rear-wheel steering system that would naturally change toe angle with suspension travel — no expensive sensors required.
Fine-tuning was handled by Lotus in exchange for being able to use Isuzu’s engine and five-speed manual transmission in the Elan roadster. The Isuzu Impulse RS also employed thicker anti-roll bars, softer springs, and firmer struts than what were found on normal Impulses. In the process, it gained more than 300 pounds, tipping the scales at a still relatively svelte 2738 pounds. But even at that, Isuzu was still weight conscious, opting to employ decals instead of badges and a not-so-subtle “ALL WHEEL DRIVE/INTERCOOLED TURBO” logo across the back just in case you ever needed a reminder.
Styling for the R-body platform was directed by Shiro Nakamura, who worked for GM and Isuzu for more than two decades before departing for Nissan in 1999. Nakamura took inspiration from GM’s classic 1960s and ’70s designs, adapting cues such as the wraparound rear window from the 1960 Chevrolet Impala sedan.
Working under GM design chief Chuck Jordan at the time and taking inspiration from Jordan, Bill Mitchell, and Harley Earl, Nakamura says of the Impulse, “You see this particular shape is quite elegant. At that time, I was influenced by that kind of direction. I was still young. I was in my late 30s. I was trying everything that our superhero designers were doing. Those guys impressed me a lot. I really appreciate working at GM at that time. At the same time, I have learned what not to do. I learned a lot at GM.”
Nakamura also told me that the front end was changed from his original, more flowing design to the sinister scowl of the production model. His years at GM would go on to further influence his design philosophy.
“I admire a lot of GM designers because, at the time, they had the most beautiful, authentic designs. They had a very good feeling of what design should be.”
After I took the key on a humid summer evening just outside of Detroit, I sank down into the car, widened the adjustable seat bolsters to properly fit my short, stocky frame, depressed the clutch, and cranked the key. With a deep rasp and snarling exhaust boom, the 1991 Isuzu Impulse RS awoke. I had to remind myself that most cars weren’t exactly crude in 1991, even by today’s standards. This one sounded like a menace when it rolled off the showroom floor.
Putting it into gear and getting going yielded more theater, with a mighty snort from the blowoff valve at every shift point. If that weren’t enough, the car did nothing to conceal its driveshaft whine or the various buzzes and burbles. Under normal driving, steering felt heavy and direct, as if it were unassisted. Gear throws through its five-speed were short and notchy, with short gearing allowing the engine to rev freely throughout its 7000-rpm range.
But letting it loose in more spirited driving introduced a whole ‘nother dimension. The steering was lightened up considerably to the ready-to-pounce feel we’ve come to associate with small Japanese cars. How you’d throw the car into a corner would indicate whether it’d oversteer or understeer, with the rear suspension sorting out all of the details. An excerpt from Motor Trend‘s September 1992 “Bang for the Buck” performance car comparison: “With its Lotus-tuned suspension and all-wheel drive, you can fling the Impulse with abandon around the racetrack. Toss it into a turn and, when it’s rotated enough, stand on the gas; it’ll straighten out and scoot down the next straight.”
Later in the review: “Though entertaining on the track, the Impulse was more than a challenge to drive in our slalom test, confounding and confusing the test driver with a weird combination of under- and oversteer.”
Says owner Adam Barrera, “It’s loud. It’s harsh. It’s a caricature of what we’ve grown to love about cars — everything that’s missing from cars today. You can feel everything. It’s gritty, but that’s why I love it.”
Old magazine comparisons shed plenty of light on what made the Impulse RS special. Never finishing above mid-pack — and often finishing near the bottom — the 1991 Isuzu Impulse RS was still an impressive machine for producing giant-killing numbers in its day in a field of excellent competition. Zero to 60? That other magazine that used to reside on Hogback Road in Michigan got as low as 7.0 seconds. Braking from 60 mph put it into supercar league: 116 feet versus 115 for the contemporary Toyota MR2 Turbo, 121 feet for a ’91 Lamborghini Diablo, and 122 feet for a similar vintage Chevrolet Corvette.
Lap times varied considerably depending on which driver and publication were testing it. Sometimes, the RS finished near the back of the pack; other times, it was quicker than the S13 Nissan 240SX, Honda Prelude Si, and Acura Integra GS-R. This wasn’t a car that could be picked up and driven at its limits with confidence in a matter of minutes; it was a tool that had to be studied, if not mastered, to get the best out of it.
“Building something for a niche audience is a good thing,” Barrera says. “This was back at a time when they didn’t build a car for everyone. Just because didn’t sell in big numbers doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful.”
Alas, all good things eventually have to come to an end. Though it shared so much with the mainstream Storm and Impulse models, just 800 were built for 1991 — 600 for the U.S. and 200 for Canada — and two more found their way to North America the year after. Of those, Barrera says 130 are still known to exist, not including the Isuzu Gemini sedan and Wagon Irmscher-R models that shared the same drivetrain and suspension in Japan.
The scarcity of the Impulse RS have earned it a cultlike following. “All kinds of people drive these cars,” Barrera says, noting he knows an older woman who owns one and hardly fits the Gran Turismo stereotype. “But they all have one thing in common: They all know what they’re driving.”
Barrera first saw an Impulse RS in 2009 and purchased his car in 2011. He has become fascinated with the orphaned cars and the friendships fostered between owners and enthusiasts to keep them running. He has a parts car that’s among the other 672 inoperable or scrapped Impulse RSs out there. Other people have resorted to sourcing parts from Geo Storms, reverse-engineering shocks using Toyota MR2 parts for replacements, or even going so far as to import Kia Elan parts from Korea.
It’s an inelegant solution to keeping such a car on the road without factory support, but Isuzu’s North American operations are now devoted solely to industrial vehicles, returning to the company’s roots. No one is quite sure why Isuzu’s car operations failed, whether politics at GM, the “Lost Decade” Japanese recession that wiped out most sports cars in the 1990s, or just “kuruma banare” — the Japanese term meaning “demotorization.” With such apathy towards new cars as younger shoppers moved towards less driving and more handheld technology, automakers were disincentivized to keep building low-volume niche performance cars. In Isuzu’s case, the engineering company took its resources from making innovative coupes that were intentionally limited to developing more profitable diesel engines for its commercial wares.
Isuzu would go on to build a few more provocative vehicles like the Vehicross and Axiom SUVs after shuttering car production in 1993. Shiro Nakamura left his long career at Isuzu to design a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sports car known as the Nissan GT-R, bringing as many members of his team with him as he could. One of Nakamura’s colleagues, Peter Stevens, would go on to borrow cues from the all-wheel-drive 1989 Isuzu 4200R concept sports car to adapt for a three-seater called the McLaren F1. Or at least that’s what Infiniti chief designer Simon Cox told me one time over a few rounds of bourbon. Isuzu’s engineering team left to develop a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sports car known as the Subaru Impreza WRX, launched in 1992. And Lotus purchased bits and pieces of the Isuzu Impulse RS for use in the Elan before selling the design to Kia in the mid-1990s.
That’s how it ended. But even though this seemingly obscure sports coupe left without much fanfare, its impact and the impact of the people who made it reached and continues to reach far beyond the car. As for the Isuzu Impulse RS’s owners, they know they’ve got something far more special than just another Craigslist throwaway, even though few others do.
Ask the man who owns one
Adam Barrera is the former social media manager of Chrysler‘s SRT and currently serves as an automotive industry analyst.
Why I like it: “Even after so many years after buying it, it’s still fulfilling to look at and satisfying to drive. It’s everything that we love about cars.”
Why it’s collectible: Underappreciated for what it was in the face of stiff competition, the Impulse RS introduced many new concepts to small sports coupes. It’s now incredibly rare to find one.
Maintaining: Many wear items are common with the Geo Storm, making regular maintenance possible most anywhere. Sourcing RS-specific replacement parts is a matter of joining the owner forum or acquiring a parts car. Even its Japanese cousins are rare, so importing spares isn’t always possible.
Beware: Isuzu provides little support for its defunct car operations. Rust can also be a serious issue in salt states.
Expect to pay: solid driver, $3500-$7500; tired runner, less than $2000.
Join the club: IsuzuWeb
Then: “A skilled driver in this car will be able to embarrass many drivers of better cars,” said one editor. Said another, “Unlike some other cars, which I liked away from the track but not on it, I don’t particularly like care for the Impulse on the highway, but I sure do love it on the track.” – “Bang for the Buck” comparison, Motor Trend, September 1992
Now: A little rough around the edges, sure, but like Bill Clinton’s presidency or wine, the Isuzu Impulse RS has gotten better with age and distance. Rare and technology-packed, this bargain-priced sports coupe is an autocross hero you’ll want to drive again and again.