Isuzu’s passenger car business is long defunct. It is remembered mainly for two models, the Trooper SUV and Piazza Coupé.
The Isuzu Trooper(1) was a mid-sized SUV that was produced in two generations from 1981 to 2002. The first generation model was sold for a decade from 1981 and was a simple and utilitarian body-on-frame design that came in a short-wheelbase 2,300mm (91”) three-door and a long-wheelbase 2,650mm (104”) five-door version. There was also a short-lived soft-top derivative of the three-door.
Petrol and diesel engine options were available from launch and both were progressively increased in capacity and power output. Petrol in-line fours in 1.9, 2.3 and 2.6 litre capacities and a 2.8 litre V6 were offered, while diesel engines were 2.2 or 2.8 litre in-line fours, either normally aspirated or turbocharged. Manually selected rear or four-wheel-drive was provided through four or five-speed manual gearboxes and from 1988, a four-speed automatic transmission.
The Trooper was designed primarily to compete with the Series III Land-Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser. Mitsubishi would enter the fray with the Shogun(2) a year later.
Although the term Sport Utility Vehicle had been coined by Jeep in 1974 when the company launched the Jeep Cherokee SJ, none of these vehicles was aimed at the family or recreational market. Instead, they were intended primarily for heavy-duty commercial use, so their off-road ability and robustness was a much more important consideration than on-road comfort or refinement.
The Trooper’s original small-capacity diesel and petrol engines struggled with the vehicle’s 1.7 tonne weight and performance was pedestrian. Larger engine capacities and turbocharging on the diesel units improved performance gradually.
The only significant cosmetic alteration to the first generation Trooper was the adoption of rectangular headlamps in 1987. The Trooper was sold overseas in a number of different guises, including the Holden Jackaroo in Australia and New Zealand, the Chevrolet Trooper in Indonesia, and the Ssangyong Korando Family in South Korea and other Asian, South American and Scandinavian markets. The Korando Family outlived the Trooper and continued in production until 1996, latterly powered by Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz diesel engines.
The 1989 launch of the Land-Rover Discovery fundamentally shifted the benchmark against which the Trooper and its competitors would in future be measured. Here was a highly capable 4×4 vehicle that also had a pleasant and comfortable interior and much more refined on-road driving characteristics.
Isuzu’s response to this challenge arrived in 1991 in the form of a larger, more powerful and considerably more comfortably appointed second-generation Trooper. Wheelbases were extended by 29mm (1”) on the three-door and 111mm (4½”) on the five-door. Engines were a 3.2 litre 175bhp V6 petrol or a 3.0 litre 115bhp in-line four turbodiesel, coupled to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and manually selected rear or four-wheel-drive.
The new Trooper was, to these eyes at least, a rather handsome beast: square-cut, but with enough subtle panel curvature to stop it looking too utilitarian, unlike its predecessor. Again, there was a profusion of badge-engineered versions. In addition to the Holden Jackaroo, this time there was a JDM-only Honda version, the Horizon, a U.S. version, the Acura SLX, and a European market version sold as the Opel / Vauxhall Monterey. None of these badge-engineered versions was a strong seller and all were discontinued by the end of 1999.
Just like its predecessor, the second generation Trooper received engine and other mechanical upgrades and one significant facelift in 1998, when it was given a sloping front end and larger, more prominent grille.
In the mid-1990’s controversy surrounded the Trooper in the U.S. when the Consumers Union (CU) published a report claiming it was unusually susceptible to rollover when changing direction sharply. The report branded the Trooper as “not acceptable”. The CU lobbied the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to conduct tests. When the NHTSA found no cause for undue concern or need for a recall, Isuzu sued the CU, citing damage to its reputation and losses from declining sales of the Trooper. It could not, however, prove that the CU had acted recklessly in publishing the report or quantify the losses to the judge’s satisfaction, so the lawsuit failed. Isuzu claimed it lost almost $250m as a result of the controversy.
The Trooper continued in production until 2002 and was not replaced directly, except in the US by a GM-built SUV, the Ascender.
Isuzu’s other memorable model could not have been more different. In the late 1970’s, the company had ambitions to build a full-line passenger car offering to challenge its Japanese rivals. Requiring a halo model to lead the charge, and replace the pretty but outdated 1968 117 coupé, it commissioned Giorgetto Giugiaro to design a car based on the humble T-Car underpinnings from its Gemini model.
Giugiaro produced a prototype, the Asso di Fiori or Ace of Clubs, which was revealed at the 1979 Tokyo motor show to a rapturous reception. So delighted was Isuzu by this that the company immediately commissioned the car for production with minimal changes to the design. It was launched in September 1980 as the Piazza.
The wedge-shaped three-door coupé with partly concealed headlamps was a notably handsome and contemporary design. It had innovative features such as secondary controls grouped on pods either side of the steering wheel. The pods and instrument cluster moved with the steering wheel adjustment.
Engines at launch were both 2.0 litre petrol units with fuel injection, a SOHC unit producing 118bhp or a DOHC unit producing 133bhp. Power was delivered to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The power output was sufficient to overwhelm the rudimentary T-car suspension layout, with negative consequences for handling. This problem was exacerbated by the introduction of a turbocharged version of the SOHC engine in 1984, producing 177bhp. The DOHC unit was dropped at the same time.
The Piazza was launched in the US in 1983 as the Isuzu Impulse with a detuned version of the SOHC engine producing 90bhp. This was replaced by a US-only enlarged 2.3 litre version producing 110bhp.
The Piazza was launched in European markets in 1985 and came to the UK a year later, where sales were slow because of the high price and lack of brand recognition. The first importer quickly went out of business and its unsold stock was bought up and sold on cheaply by a London car dealership, Alan Day. A new importer was appointed in 1987, by which time Lotus had fettled the suspension and dampers to calm the unruly handling. The revised model was greatly improved, if still somewhat compromised by its rudimentary live-axle layout. The ‘Handling by Lotus’ cars also had trim and equipment upgrades, but lost air-conditioning to keep prices down.
The Piazza limped on until 1990, selling in inconsequential numbers before being quietly phased out. A replacement model never made it to Europe. Had it not been for its arresting Giugiaro design, the Piazza would hardly be remembered at all today.
(1) The Trooper was originally branded ‘Rodeo Bighorn’ in Japan, then just ‘Bighorn’.
(2) The Shogun was branded ‘Pajero’ in Japan and some other markets.