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Impulse control with an Isuzu

A one-on-one encounter with a 1991 Isuzu Impulse XS Wagonback.
In the United States, the Isuzu brand was most associated with the delightfully swarmy spokesman, “Joe Isuzu,” but the Impulse XS was a serious mover.

In the United States, the Isuzu brand was most associated with the delightfully swarmy spokesman, “Joe Isuzu,” but the Impulse XS was a serious mover.

Members of a secret society of Isuzu fanatics were touring the East Coast and wanted me to meet them for dinner in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia. Sure, why not? I admit to having some trepidations. Would they sneer at my Lincoln Town Car? Would they treat me with suspicion? I was an outsider, after all.

No, not a bit of it. Isuzuphiles, while eccentric, are a friendly bunch. They willingly embrace other points of view and imbibe beer and eat Mexican food with strangers — even those who drive Lincolns. Among their number was well-known motoring journalist John Voelcker. After the last bits of gooey cheese and frijoles were lapped up, he proffered the keys to his 1991 Isuzu Impulse XS Wagonback.

After easing Voelcker’s Isuzu out of the parking lot, we were soon on undulating back roads. “You’re shifting too soon — you have to rev it up,” admonished Voelcker. The Isuzu’s fizzing, 1.6-liter twin-cam doesn’t reach its peak output of 130 bhp until it’s spinning at 6,800 rpm. In my defense, I was fresh from a 150-mile trip in a car whose loafing V-8 does its best work at half as many revs. It took an effort of will to flog the Isuzu as hard as Voelcker urged, but once I adjusted to the 16-valver’s masochistic nature, the driving was some of the most rewarding I’ve ever experienced.

The Isuzu Impulse XS came as a fastback or as this harder-to-find Wagonback. Note the “LOTUSWGN” license plate, which only begins to tell the story of what lies beneath the little Isuzu’s skin.

The Isuzu Impulse XS came as a fastback or as this harder-to-find Wagonback. Note the “LOTUSWGN” license plate, which only begins to tell the story of what lies beneath the little Isuzu’s skin.

The Impulse XS Wagonback’s steering deliciously weights up the harder you work it, and the chassis digs into the curves with verve; just add throttle and the car tightens its line. No front-wheel-drive vehicle has the right to be so communicative. I was driving at maybe 7/10ths its potential (it’s bad form to toss another man’s car into a ditch), yet a grin that would do the Cheshire Cat proud was slapped across my face. In the hands of a better (or gutsier) driver than I, an Impulse XS would do amazing things — those “handling by Lotus” badges are not mere advertising hype.

The only thing that mars the Impulse XS’s otherwise impeccable road manners is a less-than-rifle bolt-shift action and a clutch that doesn’t bite until high in its travel. This is mere carping, though, for the car is really very capable.

The Isuzu Impulse is a sibling to the Geo Storm, and while the Geo sold relatively well in the states, the Isuzu Impulse did not: less than 10,000 units. Possibly, in part, because the Impulse was more expensive. “It had much nicer interior trim and more features than the Storm, which GM ruthlessly de-contented to hit an entry-level price against Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas,” Voelcker notes.

The “handling by Lotus” badges on the front fenders aren’t just hype — this Isuzu can handle.

The “handling by Lotus” badges on the front fenders aren’t just hype — this Isuzu can handle.

Both the Impulse and Storm were offered in coupe and three-door wagon configurations. The Geo wagons were powered exclusively by a 95-hp engine, whereas the Isuzus came with the exotic 130-horse mill (which was available in the Geo Storm GSi coupe). The three-door body was neither fish nor fowl, being less practical than, say, a Saturn LS wagon, but only a bit roomier than the coupe upon which it was based. No doubt today’s marketeers would have a field day promoting Wagonbacks as accessibly priced “shooting brakes.”

Voelcker had rented a Geo Storm three-door in 1992 and found its unusual looks and touch of practicality to his liking. Before returning the black 1992 Storm to Hertz, Voelcker’s brother de-badged it, removed the Hertz license plate frame, then hit the wheel covers with black spray paint. “What kind of car is this?” the brothers Voelcker asked passers by. The most common reply was, “A, ermm, a SAAB?” If it was that confusing when new, imagine what the uninitiated might think today.

However, Voelcker recalls that it was “perfect for hauling (car meet) stuff and bombing around; the rear windows can be removed completely, so I started running open-air.”

And, recently, recalling his late father’s advice to “do the things you enjoy while you can still enjoy them,” Voelcker decided to seek out a classic car of more modern vintage than his heirloom Morris Minor Traveler. The Morris, for all its charms, is more of a Sunday driver, and with its 37-hp, 950cc engine, keeping up with modern traffic can cause one to rethink their relationship with God.

The Isuzu Impulse XS Wagonback interior is compact and typical of the early 1990s, and was better trimmed than GM’s similar Geo model.

The Isuzu Impulse XS Wagonback interior is compact and typical of the early 1990s, and was better trimmed than GM’s similar Geo model.

“I wanted a Malaise-Era car, something I could take on longer trips without worrying,” Voelcker explains.

And, as mature collectors age out of the hobby, Voelcker wanted a car that would help him connect with younger enthusiasts, and as such, a Wagonback would be the perfect ice-breaker. Although it might have the potential to confound onlookers.

The hard part was finding one. “Over a year, I looked at a couple of Storm wagons in the Northeast, both of them rusty,” Voelcker said. “I already had two rusty British cars, so I didn’t want to add a third project to that list.” Then Voelcker received a text from Scott Laprade, an Isuzuphile from Massachusetts. “I think I found your car,” Laprade said, with an ad link. “He’d found it scanning posts in a Honda tuner forum ... in Quebec! But the car he found was a far better prize than a Storm. It was the rarer Isuzu Impulse version.”

After a lot of detailed back and forth with the Canadian seller, Voelcker bought the car. He notes that importing a 25-year-old vehicle to the United States from Canada is easy, if you prepare ahead of time, and that there are four U.S./Canada border crossings in Maine, two of which are paved (use a paved one).

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Thanks to a little expert fettling by Voelcker’s friend Tom Rymes, the dark-blue Impulse was ready just in time for Radwood 2019.

“It was the Wagonback’s first outing, and my first Radwood,” Voelcker said. “I was just blown away at the great reactions. Despite constant drizzle and a muddy corner, we got a steady stream of fans and had a ton of photos taken.”

You might think Voelcker would be satisfied now that he’s acquired an Impulse XS Wagonback. After all, it’s rare, useful and absolutely intoxicating to drive. But, the grass, as they say, is always greener on the other side.

“There’s just one little problem,” Voelcker says. “Isuzu built a JDM-only version of the Wagonback fitted with the turbocharged DOHC engine, and all-wheel drive.” Too much of a good thing? Voelcker may have to find out.  

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