Lotus Tuned: 1988 Isuzu Impulse

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For years, I wanted an Isuzu Impulse. I was certain one would be in my garage. The clamshell hood, the loose affiliation with the classic VW Scirocco, handling by Lotus, available turbo power – yes, it had quite a few boxes checked. Then I chose to own another obscure 80s coupe known as a Subaru XT6, which I ended up hating with every fiber of my being. From that point forward, I only sought out vehicles that had some inherent quality that made them desirable, with sheer wonkiness no longer a consideration. That said, I still dig this survivor-grade Impulse listed here on craigslist for $2,500.

They are oddly beautiful cars, thanks to some help from a major Italian design firm. Even the way the gross bumpers of the 80s are tightly integrated into the bodylines make this car a standout from a design-standpoint, and on the engineering side, rear wheel drive and a heavy dose of influence from Lotus on the chassis components at least gave the Isuzu some good starting points for improving the driving experience. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it, but there’s 270,000 miles on this Impulse.

The interiors were a let-down compared to the outside, being very traditional 80s Japanese econobox inside. Thankfully, manual transmissions were frequently chosen by Impulse buyers, especially on the rare turbocharged models. This one is the next best thing, with a naturally-aspirated 2.3L powerplant but the aforementioned suspension tuning by Lotus. Despite the high miles, the carpeting still looks quite clean but I suspect the bucket seats have some needs given the covers draped over them.

Under the hood is particularly impressive when you consider how many times the odometer has gone ’round, and the long-term ownership this Impulse has enjoyed with its two caretakers indicates consistent, passionate maintenance. When you think of what the odds must be for two individuals to be absolutely committed to top-shelf maintenance of an oddball like the Impulse – well, let’s just say that’s one lucky Impulse. While I don’t miss hunting for NLA parts for a car no one has ever heard of, it’s good to know some people will still put up with the downside to owning an oddball that’s nearly extinct. Find another one!

Auctions Ending Soon


  1. Arthell64

    I also remember wanting one of these’s in the 80’s. The impulse seemed like it was a modern design at the time. The car still looks modern to me but it was probably a good thing I couldn’t afford one at the time.

    Like 1
  2. angliagt angliagtMember

    I saw one of these along the highway,on the way
    to Moss Motorfest in Petersburg,VA this last weekend.

    Like 1
  3. JP

    I had one back in the ’90s. Nice cars, although a little heavy for the powerplant, and mine was a turbo. The naturally aspirated ones were, to put it kindly, dogs. The interiors were actually pretty attractive compared with the other Japanese boxes of the time. I think finding parts these days might be a nightmare, though…

    Like 2
  4. h5mind

    I paid $2500 for an Impulse Turbo back in the late 90’s. Mine must have been abused by previous owners because it was neither fast, nor did it handle particularly well. It was so crappy, in fact, that I immediately tried to return it to the small lot who had sold it to me. Probably one of those cars which looks better to people who never owned one.

    Like 1
    • exartist

      IIRC it was built on the Chevette platform.

      Like 1
  5. RSwanson

    I worked on these when new. I wouldn’t touch this with your 10 ft pole. They had a habit of shutting off at random. Many were traded before long term ownership and sold As-Is at auction.

    Like 0
  6. Jason

    This beauty was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who penned many memorable cars in the 80s.

    Like 2
  7. Big Len

    Bought an ‘85.5 Turbo new. Learned to never buy a performance car from a company that has no history of building performance cars. But damn, it was beautiful in red with black Recaro seats and a dash out of a fighter jet. Much better to look at than own and drive it.

    Like 2
  8. Bruce

    I have know a few people that have owned them and had extremely good luck with them. The auto trans will not last much past 150K like most cars today but they are beautiful and comfortable to drive. If memory serves they were about as fast as a 944 turbo so if you had a slow one the turbo may have been toast. Most mechanical parts are easy but the Wiper Motor is a nightmare to source and or replace. The rare parts are frightfully expensive. They do not tend to rust badly in this area for a very few are still on the road.

    As for Big Len’s comment that is why they went to Lotus to fix problems and get the suspension up to speed. The one I drove was almost as fast as a 944 turbo and faster than a normal 944 so you may have had problems you were not aware of. What is really good is that they have real back seating. The design was originally meant for an Alfa Romeo, an Alfetta replacement. Alfa did not have the funds at the time and Isuzu did and loved it so it got built.

    This looks like a very good one.

    Like 1
    • JP

      But this one isn’t a turbo and as such will be horribly underpowered, so the 944 comparison isn’t really relevant. And it won’t just be the wiper motor that’s hard to source…

      Like 2
  9. g Wentzell

    I had a 1985 model, non Turbo, 5 speed. A blast to drive (and I can milk an engine and a 5 speed), with one of the best tilt/telescopic steering wheel functions on the market. It could seat two people well, four in a pinch. Oh, yes, parts. A single blade wiper you could not find at your local auto parts store (remember this is before the internet), and various other parts. Forget body panels. Even after a top end re-build at 170K miles (parts from Japan) the car developed a tendency to shut down. A bad CPU? No one could figure it out. I traded it for a nearly new 1993 Escort wagon (a five speed – and weirdly – same color as the “Implode”, inside and out, down to the red pinstriping). The Escort went 333K before being taken out by a deer. The Escort was driveable, but the insurance company totaled it.

    Like 1
  10. Ike Onick

    So this really would be an “impulse” buy?

    Like 0
  11. Paul T Root

    I bought my 88 turbo new in 89 in upstate New York. I wanted the Imark, but none were to be found. I really liked it. The only trouble I had in 4 years was paint peeling from the mirrors.

    With snows, it did fine. Without, well it was a handful.

    My favorite feature was the pods of the dash. Everything was a fingertip away.

    I thought the turbo was pretty good. Then I drove my brother’s Eagle Talon turbo.

    Like 1
  12. Ken

    A friend of mine had an Impulse in the 1980s she bought it new. I drove it a few times kind of liked it. I loved the look of it, She never had many problems with the car. She had the car for quite some time. Traded it in for a Saturn

    Like 0
  13. HANKIE

    I bought new in 88. Charleston SC, loved that car. No major issues, darn fun to drive. Didn’t really care for that vanilla color,but the drivers control pod was awesome and it was comfortable. Sold it in 95? made the buyer promise to contact me first if he was selling, never heard from him. I’d buy it back today in a heartbeat.

    Like 0

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