No Love in the Morning (Part Two)

Isuzu’s passenger car business is long defunct. It is remembered mainly for two models, the Trooper SUV and Piazza Coupé.

1991 Isuzu Trooper Mk2 LWB (c) isuzumedia.co.uk

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.

1987 Isuzu Trooper Mk1 LWB (c) automobilemag.com

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.

1998 Isuzu Trooper Mk2 SWB (c) motoimg.com

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.

o0O0o

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.

1980 Isuzu Piazza. Image: automobile-spec.com

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.

1980 Isuzu Piazza (c) petrolblog.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

22 thoughts on “No Love in the Morning (Part Two)”

  1. There’s plenty of Isuzu love in the mornings around here, Daniel. If they’re not in their tractors, the farming community seem to adore their seemingly unbreakable pick ups. And there’s still a handful of Trooper’s of varying ages and conditions, too. It’s hard to tell if there’s rust there or what registration they are as they’re always mud splattered but as the name suggests, they just keep on going. I do like the sound of a Jackaroo, mind.

    To the Piazza, I didn’t know they came to the U.K. and certainly don’t recall ever seeing one. The wedge shape works for me. And the working title sounds even better, “ I drive an ace. An ace o’ clubs.” Sounds even better, as one would expect in Italian

    1. Good morning Andrew. Those of more tender years may not recognise the musical reference in the title to this piece. ‘No Love in the Morning’ was a brilliant 1979 song by the Captain and Tenille. It’s about the hollowness of one-night-stands. It seems to me that poor old Isuzu was looking for a long-term relationship but kept getting let down by her partners, hence my choice of title.

      Here’s the song:

  2. I always thought the Trooper was a decent, honest looking vehicle and seemed to sell quite well in its time. I still see the odd one around, so they must have been robustly built. The Piazza was a bit of an oddball (although not as mad as the Subaru XT which, according to my memory, was of a similar era), but, fundamentally a nice piece of design, with an interesting, almost Citroenesque dashboard. The wheelbase looks too short for the body, though, and in this way is suffers similarly to the much later Alfa Brera which we have discussed here often before.

    Nice article – a real memory jerker!

  3. The local hardware/builders providers delivered my (smokeless) coal on Saturday afternoon with their shiny white Isuzu Grafter. The cars are gone, but the name lives on.

  4. Good morning gentlemen.

    S.V., the closest I ever got to a Piazza was that an architect friend of my partner had one as a company car back in the 1980’s. He had a highly developed aesthetic sense and I imagine that is why it appealed to him, even if its good looks flattered to deceive,

    Mervyn, yes, Isuzu commercial vehicles are still going strong. Our local independent builders’ merchant also has one. Without bothering to investigate, I wonder if they’re more space-efficient than the obvious choice, a Transit pick-up, because of their ‘forward-control’ design?

  5. We bought a Mk 1 Trooper in 1990, a nine(?!) seater, 2.8 turbo-diesel. Wonderful family car with room for our three children plus friends on the sideways facing rear seats. Took us camping and caravaning around Ireland and Europe for six years without missing a beat. Apart from the rather lively ride when lightly laden it was a delight to drive. My first car with power steering and Japanese reliability, what had I been missing! We had a test drive of the new Discovery but the attitude of the Isuzu dealer was much more welcoming. Thank you Daniel for reminding us of these honest, uncomplicated workhorses.

  6. An Isuzu forward control truck appears in Robert Rauchenberg’s alternate artwork for Talking Heads – “Speaking in Tongues”

    1. Hi Gooddog. Only DTW’s wonderfully erudite commentariat would be able to make that connection. Chapeau!

    2. Thanks Daniel, It must have been Eóin’s “America is waiting” subheading on part 12 of his most excellent SM series that jogged my memory.

  7. The badge-engineered Ascender (a Chevrolet Trailblazer with a slightly different nose) is the only Isuzu passenger car that still survives on the roads in the US in any numbers, and I think that the Ascender’s reputation unfairly sullies the memories of the Trooper and Impulse/Piazza. The Trooper matched up well against the other Japanese SUVs of the late 1980s, but all of them struggled against the Ford Explorer (first on the market in 1990 as a model year 1991) that quickly dominated the ‘family SUV’ market.

    I have no doubt that the Impulse/Piazza would be a more respected collectors’ item, like other 1980s Japanese coupes, had any of the cars survived in the States. Giugaro’s design for the first-generation car is a clear evolution of his 1974 VW Scirocco, with the hood pushed downward for aerodynamics and the character line/tumblehome given a slight forward rake that conveys a better sense of motion. The second-generation car moved to a transverse-engine layout and had most of its production sold badged as the Geo Storm. However, the Isuzu-badged Impulse had distinct (and I think better) styling and was available with a 160hp turbo engine and all-wheel drive.

    I wonder how the AWD and turbo second-generation Impulse compares to the turbo-AWD Opel/Vauxhall Calibra? The Calibra Turbo had 200hp but was significantly larger and heavier – and it was never sold in the United States, just as the second-generation Piazza/Impulse did not make it to Europe or Australia.

    https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2019/10/02/forgotten-cars-of-the-90s-1990-1992-isuzu-impulse

    1. Hi Neil. That Isuzu must hold the World record for the largest number of letters in its rear-end badging. It reads:

      ISUZU IMPLUSE RS ALL WHEEL DRIVE / INTERCOOLED TURBO

      That’s 44 characters. Phew! Surely the record…unless a DTW reader knows different.

  8. Hi everybody! The Isuzu Trooper was built in Venezuela from 1982 to maybe 1990 or 91. It was called the Caribe 442 and not Isuzu Trooper. The only hint of it being an Isuzu was the red logo on the front grille, but since Isuzu was never sold in Venezuela, no one gave it much thought. The numbers 442 were marketing lore for “4×4 two door” as it originally came only in a two-door, long wheelbase body. It was powered by a four cylinder petrol engine modified to run on 83 octane petrol, which was cheaper back then. Believe it or not, there was a time when Venezuela was a normal country and fuel costs mattered, but that’s another story.

    I quite like the Caribe/Trooper I exterior design, which I find clean and delicate but without looking weak or unfit for off-road use. I thought for many years that it was a Giugiaro design, but I guess it was an in-house job. Later on, a short wheelbase model was added, together with a 4-door. The engine was also upgraded. Before the end of its run, the Caribe 442 was “fancyfied” further, with higher interior and exterior trim, four-wheel disk brakes, alloy wheels, and a third engine upgrade that made it quite reasonably pokey, but alas, not nearly enough to come close to the mighty 4.0 litre, 200hp Jeep Cherokee which was perhaps its closest competitor by size.

    A bit of trivia here: The factory that built the Caribe 442 built the Range Rover two-door V8 until an absurd 1981 government decree forbid the sale and manufacture of cars with more than 6 cylinders .

    Here is an early Caribe 442 commercial:

    1. Good morning Cesar! Thanks for sharing another aspect the Trooper story with us. It’s interesting that they went to the trouble of making a two-door variant of the LWB model:

      It is rather reminiscent of the original Range Rover, don’t you think?

  9. Hi Daniel, yes indeed. When it came out in Venezuela, some people thought the Caribe was somewhat related to the Range Rover, since it was made by the same vehicle assembly concern, and was a similar 4×4 off-roader. It looked kind of like a Range Rover too, I guess. To me the LWB two-door is the best looking of the Caribe/Trooper I versions because it avoids the stubbiness of the SWB while being cleaner and more airy than the 4-door version. Oh, that vast, airy greenhouse! What a contrast to today’s bunker-like car designs!

    By the way, the Range Rover (two-door only) was quite popular in Venezuela and I remember it being a common sight in the streets and highways. I loved it as a kid, especially the way its occupants sat so high in relation to the beltline. They looked like royalty being paraded around. The Range Rover was obviously a status symbol too, like elsewhere in the world. It was assembled from CKD kits imported from the UK, but including locally produced components. One of these days I’ll try to find out more about all that as I love that kind of automotive archaeology.

    1. Hi Matthew, and thanks for your comment. We discussed this point in the comments to Part One of this piece. The MU-X is a traditional body-on-frame diesel (only) powered vehicle derived from the D-Max pick-up truck, so I chose to regard it as a commercial vehicle rather than one designed primarily for private ownership and use. It’s a moot point, of course, but authorship has some privileges!

  10. I bought a 3.0TD new in 2000 (the only car I’ve ever bought new in 55 years!) to drive on the 2000 London to Peking Classic car rally as support crew. I drove all around China, south and south-east Asia in it until driving it back from Kathmandu to London in 2005. In 2010 I drove it via the mid-east and down through Africa to Cape Town, and then all round South Africa, by which time it had done 95,000 miles. It never let me down, never had to change the clutch, and only majorish repair was replacing broken rear springs in Nairobi. Fantastic car! I now have a 93 model which has done nearly 200,000 miles and still going strong. Can’t understand why they stopped making it.

    1. Hi David. What great story of endurance durability! Thanks for sharing. The Mitsubishi Shogun was, I think, better known and more popular in Europe, but the Trooper was even more bulletproof. It is a shame that Isuzu could never find a formula (or partner) to make their passenger car business viable in the long term.

  11. A very useful article, it apparently inspired many
    thoughts & recollections.

    The Giugiaro ‘Aces’ prototype must have been so shockingly
    distinctive at the time, that Isuzu’s decision to produce
    it in a 99% unchanged iteration (Piazza) was somewhat
    of a no-brainer. Still, with the slightly narrower trackwidths
    of the GM’s ‘T-car’ platform underneath (and quite possibly
    a tad-too-short a wheelbase, for what was a rather overhang-
    intensive design to start with, even at its prototype stage), the end result visually suffered a bit from some angles, delivering a mixed
    effect: from the side, and from above (also from the elevated front 3/4 view), it had an undeniably shocking, ‘supercar energy’ appearance – the on-street effect being almost worthy
    of a ’70s Lamborghini.

    Whereas its overall width (especially the curvature/tumblehome
    of the cabin/glasshouse), was somehow too out of touch with
    its longitudinal, decidedly wedgy & ’80s-spiky proportions.
    Also: the apologetically designed taillights spoke a different
    visual language to the rest of the car, itself a significant
    contributor to the ‘mixed feelings’ effect it tends to
    produce in the flesh.

    The above notwithstanding, to me the Piazza remains one of the most striking looking Hatchback/Coupe ‘hybrid designs,
    (a category that happens to be my personal favourite, styling wise).
    Wherever the Piazza appears, it has a tendency for everyone to stop in their tracks and vigorously enquire about it, which is another facet that contributes to its undeniable ‘Supercar’ aura.
    Even the driving experience (‘hairy’ best describes it…) has
    a bit of a Supercar-like white-knuckle quality – pity its dynamics were not even remotely competent as a sportscar, though – ‘Chevette Inside’. Only as a GT they are pretty convincing, with that torquey, leggy Turbo inline-four, and with the distinctly Citroen-esque interior, making every roadtrip a relaxed (in the dry, that is…)
    yet Sci-Fi flavoured experience – especially the nowadays very
    rare versions with the sublime looking wool upholstery).

    P.S. Daniel, if I recall correctly, the HBL Piazzas (Turbo)
    actually were available with A/C, at least on the continent (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy). Perhaps it was only
    the UK ones that had an A/C delete?

  12. This is the most comprehensive article on Isuzu cars I’ve found:

    https://www.motortrend.com/news/1991-isuzu-impulse-rs-review/

    The title is a bit misleading, as the article is quite long and general. According to the author, who seems to have known a few people in the industry, Isuzu’s car designers who left after the car division was wound up were involved in the WRX and Nissan GTR, and Peter Stevens had something to do with the McLaren F1.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.