While covering MotorWeek's test of the often forgotten 1990 Isuzu Impulse, I got into the details of how its Lotus-tuned suspension put it above its platform-sharing sibling, the Geo Storm, only to leave both the Wagonback and the Stylus sedan versions out of the equation for the sake of the coupe. Some of you got in touch regarding this injustice, only to share more unconditional love for Isuzu passenger cars that are so rare to see in North America nowadays.
One such comment came from our friend John Voelcker, who happens to be a happy owner of an Impulse XS Wagonback: "Deeply saddened that the author neglected to mention two related vehicles. One is the rare Impulse XS 'Wagonback' two-door wagon, which has all the DOHC + Lotus-tuning goodness, but a more usable cargo bay and one neat trick: totally removable rear side windows, meaning you can run open-air if you like. (These too were sold in decontented Geo Storm form, and are equally rare.) The other is the Isuzu Stylus sedan, which used the same running gear and underpinnings, but in a stylish and more practical four-door-with-trunk format. This one didn't have a Geo counterpart, since Chevy's sub-brand had the Corolla-based Prizm instead. The Stylus is about as rare as the Wagonback, and prized today."
Indeed it is, John. Before Isuzu decided to give up on passenger cars to focus on its bread and butter core business of making durable pickup trucks, the second-generation Impulse coupe spawned a two-door wagon and the four-door called Stylus. The Wagonback was a longroof shooting brake with a glass hatch and the innovative side windows mentioned above. For the 1992 model year, XS models got a 1.8-liter engine producing 140 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, ten more than from the previous 1.6 thanks to the longer-stroke of the 1992 DOHC engine.
Meanwhile, carrying a $2,800 premium over the XS, the Impulse RS was a 160-horsepower turbo monster with all-wheel drive. At that price level, it didn't find many takers in North America. However, the Lotus bits continued to put all Isuzus above GM's Geo Storms, and as Hemmings points out, Isuzu's vehicle development chief Damon Delorenzis wasn't shy to reveal the British-inspired changes:
"We set the suspension geometry to the specs Lotus recommended, changed the shock damping to a firmer setting, went with different stabilizer bar sizes and stiffer spring rates, and moved the trailing arm locations."
That goes as far as being a revised suspension geometry, all while Lotus kept using Isuzu's 1.6 and transmission in its front-drive Elan. General Motors sure knew how to shuffle its cards, although to give credit where credit's due, Isuzu came up with the Impulse family's Nishiboric passive steering on its own, which adjusted the rear toe by changing the rear wheel alignment based on the suspension loads.
While the Wagonback is a real Japanese oddball from the early '90s, the Stylus sedan is an equally tempting, yet a much more subtle proposition. Isuzu's lack of dealer network and the collapse of its home economy meant it couldn't get a real shot at competing against other affordable performance sedans from Japan, and as loyal Stylus fan Scott Laprade confirmed, that's a bummer for all enthusiasts out there.
"Just wanted to drop a note thanking you for the Isuzu car recognition posted today," Laprade told us via email. "They’re really underrated cars with performance-based aspirations and are actually a real joy to own and drive. I’ve always had at least one in my stable for the past 20 years."
"My current 1991 Isuzu Stylus has seen over 300k miles and I’ve spent considerable time and money keeping it in prime condition both mechanically and in appearance," added Laprade. "Only 13k examples sold over three years and very few with all available factory options installed (which mine has). Not many survived much past the early 2000s at which point they began to wear out around 220k miles. There’s a dedicated handful of enthusiasts that I am honored to be a part of who have carried the torch for years keeping the few remaining examples maintained and roadworthy."
Sometimes, such Isuzu car fans meet at events such as Radwood, probably to talk about how the wonders of the Japanese bubble economy, overnight parts from Japan, or how former Lotus chief engineer Roger Becker was so good at his job that his son Matt Becker also became the chief vehicle development guru of Lotus in due time, only to leave for Aston Martin in 2014.
As luck would have it, Matt Becker joined Lotus in 1988, just in time to see the team at Lotus Engineering make GM's Isuzus significantly better for a few thousand customers in America.