Obsolete Turbo Hatch: 1988 Isuzu Impulse

When I decided to break from my normal preference for vintage BMWs and buy an oddball 1988 Subaru XT6 two years ago, I briefly considered indulging my other oddball fantasy: a first-generation Isuzu Impulse Turbo, with the Lotus suspension package and sweet hidden headlights. Fortunately, upon realizing parts were even harder to find than the already impossible task of finding spares for an XT6, I abandoned plans to own an Impulse – but I still can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed driving it more than I ever did the now-departed XT6. This Impulse here on eBay is a total project, but these come up so rarely I’m sure someone is considering taking it on. 

Not only that, but it is the top-shelf model with the turbocharged and intercooled 2.0L four-cylinder and the suspension that’s been tuned and firmed up by the handling gurus at Lotus. The rest of the car, however, looks about as you’d expect for someone who gets halfway into a project and realizes there are no spares left, let alone whole parts cars. I managed to get lucky with my XT6 and found three junkyards within a two-hour drive that collectively had five XTs and XT6s in almost complete condition, which I raided for parts. In all of my years of junkyard diving, I have literally seen one – that’s one – Impulse, and it wasn’t anything but a late-model, naturally-aspirated example.

The interior is a mess, though the seller says he has the door panels stored somewhere. The Impulse was, in many ways, the rear-wheel drive twin to the XTs. It has those God-awful automatic seatbelts, the crazy headunit with a built-in equalizer, free-floating stalks on either side of the steering wheel with basic controls, and even turbocharged powerplants in the top-end models. The seller claims he “…never lost a race” when hustling his Impulse, but that an illness prevented him from finishing his project. There’s a photo in the gallery that shows some fairly serious rust issues but it’s difficult to pinpoint how bad it is – especially since the seller says it’s free of any major rot.

The 2.0L turbo didn’t kick out the jams in a big way, but it was still a decent performer for the era: 140 horsepower and 166 lb-ft. of torque, with a five-speed manual to put it on the ground. The seller claims the engine “runs fine” and has only 60,000 original miles on it; the Impulse has been in storage for the last 15 years. It’s clear that you’ll be picking up the pieces of someone’s unfinished project and finding any missing parts will require extensive treasure-hunting around the globe. After all, the Impulse was sold in Australia and Canada as well as the U.S., so you might have to do like I do with my HiAce project and make nice with a junkyard in Queensland. These are rare cars today but hard to justify the cost of restoring – would you save this one?


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  1. CanuckCarGuy

    Here in Canada I’ve never seen one first-hand, but remember seeing them in the auto magazines at the time and wishing they were available here. One of those cars I wanted to drive, as it sounded like a real good value.

  2. Bob C.

    Joe Isuzu out ran a speeding bullet in one of these.

    Like 1
  3. Superdessucke

    The rust in Pic #12 scares me.

    • Bill C

      It looks to me like Hurricane Sandy took it’s toll on this one and they just now found out. Really sad. I remember them when new. They were amazing.

  4. Jack M.

    One of Joe’s favorites!

  5. Mallthus

    Like most Japanese cars of the era, these sold best in California and the southwest, so if you’re looking for parts, start there.

    They were sold in many international markets (beyond the mentioned Australia and Canada), albeit badged as the Isuzu or Holden Piazza.

    There’s a great parts search resource with the Piazza Owners Group.

    Fixing this one won’t be cheap, but it’s also far from impossible.

    Like 1
    • JP

      On the other hand, why would you want to? Money would be much better spent on a much better car…

  6. Ben T. Spanner

    I worked with a guy who bought two of these. He didn’t know an Isuzu from and Oldsmobile. His friend sold them from an ex gas station Isuzu dealership. He had all of the extras including pin stripes, vin etching, poly gly coat, and undercoating.

    When they undercoated the first one, they for some reason, taped off the vent on the rear axle. The first long road trip heated the lube and blew out an axle seal. (Or so they said) It was towed back, and they sold him another, in a color he liked better. Same thing happened on the next trip. Another long tow.

    He always said he couldn’t tell when he was “Turboing”. Soon it was replaced with a new downsized Buick Riviera. I hate to think of the money he rolled over into each new purchase.

    • Michael

      I had a 85 turbo loaded as my first car in that i treated terribly and have to live was that everyday.

  7. Blueprint

    That would be an impulse buy. In Canada, very few Isuzus were sold, distributed through GM’s short-lived Passport dealerships. That’s where the captive imports were, some rebranded as Asunas. The mix came from Isuzu, Daewoo and Suzuki.

  8. Mike
  9. Miguel

    I test drove one of these when new in 1987.

    I couldn’t feel the turbo kick in so I figured it would not be wise to buy that car and pay the extra on the insurance for the turbo if I couldn’t feel it.

    I passed.

  10. BarnfindyCollins

    I once went skinny dipping with a girl and this was her dream car since her mother drove one.Guess I didn’t drive the right car. A few years later I found myself working at a dealership that carried Isuzu cars also. The shop kept about a dozen cars behind the fence for odd parts. This was about 91-93 and we just weren’t getting cars, not that it really mattered as the Geo Storm ; the twin vehicle was cooking our goose. A continuing recession, the Stylus getting lost, and better marketing by GM/ Geo perhaps caused Isuzu to withdraw into trucks . The US auto market is filled with broken dreams and it is cars like this that make us pause and think what could have been.

  11. Adam T45 Staff

    These are a seriously interesting car in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways they were really doomed due to lack of real interest and commitment in the product from GM. If you compare these with equivalent cars from other manufacturers of the same era, the styling has held up really well and they still look crisp.

    Here in Australia we didn’t benefit from the input by Lotus. Holden went its own way on suspension development and tuning. This resulted in a car that was evil handling and unsettled on anything but billiard table smooth roads. Holden re-tuned the suspension and it was a significant improvement. Having said that, Wheels magazine described it as the scariest car they’d ever driven (and that was after the suspension improvements!).

    The other big issue that we had here in Australia was the fit and finish of the interior. Our roads are renowned as some of the roughest on the planet. As a result the interior plastic tended to rattle and squeak in short order, and defied all attempts to fix this problem.

    My one piece of advice for anyone in the US who is considering buying this: If parts are in short supply, get onto dear Mr Google and search for Japanese parts importers in Australia. There are a surprising number of these here, and you should be able to source most parts via them.

  12. JP

    I had one of these back in the day – an ’89. Cool cars, but they suffered from weak main bearings, and the massive turbo output (haha) caused two engines to fail. Other than that they were pretty nice – good handling (although this was a heavy car for its size), reasonable power, nice leather interior, lots of bells and whistles for the time…

  13. Paul

    I bought a 1988 in later 1989. I liked the car. And thought it was fast until I drove my brothers Eagle Talon Turbo.

    It was a lot of fun the the back roads by Woodstock. Significantly less fun when I moved to Chicago.

    The control pods for HVAC, lights, signals, etc were great. The suspension was good, but pretty harsh once I moved to Minnesota. Drove after the Halloween blizzard of 91 in St Paul and did a 3 swing pendulum manouver on the highway, but saved it. Snows were a must on it.

    Ended up trading it in for a Mazda Navajo, much more practical for Minnesota.

    • Paul

      I meant to say, I bought new from the dealer.

      I wanted an I-Mark RS, but there were none to be had. I also looked at Dodge Shadow Turbos, but couldn’t stand the slimy Dodge dealers. That’s plural.

  14. SubGothius

    Huh, I wasn’t aware these late-first-gen models were available with the turbo. Only these ’88-on models had the Lotus tuned suspension with a completely different linkage arrangement for the rear live axle, so I’d be surprised if the Holden/non-US variants retained the old suspension during these model years; more likely any bad rap came from experience with the pre-’88 suspension, while all ’88-on models got the Lotus improvements for all markets.

  15. P Wentzell

    I had the previous incarnation Impulse, non turbo. I named the car “Implode”. I did buy it used and it did have some life left in it. Great driver, and plenty of standard equipment (reclining rear seats, anyone?). The one feature I miss to this day was the best tilt/telescopic wheel: you would set the steering wheel position to your liking, and, when exiting the car, just flip the lever on the lower left of the steering wheel and the whole wheel assembly would pivot UP. Entering the car, once seated, just pull the steering wheel down. That’s it. On this featured car, if you plan to restore it, good luck. Parts are one thing, and despite the age, to your insurance company, a turbo is a turbo.

  16. Brad

    Haven’t seen an Isuzu from this generation in a very long time. Don’t look to Canada for parts – they’re extremely scarce here now (at least in southern Ontario). A friend bought an Isuzu i-Mark brand new back in the day. Seemingly, it felt as though only a handful of them existed. I haven’t set eyes on an i-Mark in nearly 30 years, and no one ever mentions them.

  17. Geo164s

    The Impulse was a really nice example of Giugiaro design. Great looking car!

    • JP

      That and the Subaru SVX, both of which I’ve owned. Always loved Giugiaro’s stuff.

  18. Mich

    If you gave the talent, you should restore it. I’ve been looking for 1 to buy , but they’re no where. If you restore one, you’ll have a unique vehicle in your collection

  19. Jason F

    You really need to branch out from three junkyards to the internet for parts – ive never had issues finding parts for my XT.

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