There was a time when Gymkhana-master Subaru was mentioned alongside Isuzu as one of the “second-tier” carmakers from Japan. While Subaru has certainly come a long way since, Isuzu decided to focus on its excellent pickup truck and commercial vehicle lines instead, at least following its outrageously cool (and odd) SUV, the VehiCross. However, back in 1990, the second-generation Impulse was still a compact coupe combining true Lotus handling with a base price of $11,999, ready to fight against the likes of the cheaper Honda Civic CRX and the V6-powered Ford Probe.
If you consider fellow Mitsubishi’s peak product to be the 1999 Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition, you’re unlikely to get excited about the 2022 Outlander’s standard third-row seating. Three decades ago, Isuzu also had a hard time coming up with a sporty yet affordable successor to the first-generation Impulse, which was available as a turbo hatchback at 140 horsepower, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro himself. General Motors owned a big chunk of both Isuzu and Lotus at the time, which is why the Impulse ended up sharing its platform with the mighty Geo Storm. However, what Storm drivers couldn’t get were Isuzu’s optional turbocharger and all-wheel-drive system, alongside the Lotus-tuned chassis featuring softer springs with stiffer dampers and larger sway bars. Sold only for three years, the Impulse is a rare specimen in North America.
In non-turbo form with the 1.6-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder, the Impulse produced a respectable 130 horsepower at 6,800 rpm. It also promised 26 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway, according to the EPA. As a cheap option both in terms of insurance and maintenance, the 1990 Impulse XS tested by MotorWeek came out to $13,954, including such luxuries as the $750 air-conditioning system. With a zero-to-60 time of 9.2 seconds and a quarter-mile run taking nearly 17, it was a 2+2 better suited for tight turns where other front-drive cars would have let you down.
With that handling box ticked by the folks at Lotus who, in exchange, used the Japanese 1.6-liter for its Elan sports car, Isuzu also threw in four-wheel disc brakes, a snappy five-speed gearbox and a driver-side airbag for safety. However, like probably quite a few potential U.S. customers, MotorWeek found the second-generation’s flip-up headlights and front-end styling awkward, claiming it felt like a reminiscent of the past decade.
Limited availability and strong competition including GM’s rather similar Geo Storm meant the 1990 Isuzu Impulse had no real chance of living up to its now-iconic predecessor. Thirty years on, how do you feel about Isuzu’s past proposition?