There's Good Reason to Follow Up This Impulse


We clung to this Isuzu Impulse longer than usual--about 1,000 miles and two weeks longer than usual--so the car would not be infected by our bad case of sport coupe blurs and burnout.

Face it. It's an orgy of rambunctious, three-door hatchbacks out there. It's also a million-vehicle market segment that contains more variables than independence for the Baltic States.

The Nissan 240SX is a crisp, handsome handler and the prettiest of the litter. Ford's Probe was born to be stylistically free of its Mazda MX-6 sibling yet both offer turbocharged horsepower. Mazda adds four-wheel-drive.

The Eagle Talon is the Mitsubishi Eclipse, which also is the Plymouth Laser, and identical triplets from two manufacturers must constitute a new high in consumer gullibility. Then there's the Acura Integra sport coupe being chased down by the Volkswagen Corrado, which wriggles for identity alongside the Toyota Celica with domestic competition from the Dodge Daytona and . . . .

And now Isuzu's Impulse XS--with the Geo Storm GSi marketed by Chevrolet as its domestic progeny--joins the confusion.

Both inherit the multivalve, four-cylinder, 130-horsepower engine from the British-built and incredibly snappy Lotus Elan. The Storm is chunkier and looks more the slugger from Detroit than the rounded, obviously Euro-styled Impulse.

There are no differences in performance, price and dimensions. Both cars peer down the road of life through half-shrouded headlights suggesting a fun yet heavy-lidded menace somewhere between Jack Nicholson and Garfield.

Then, with most things being equal, why buy Impulse over Geo Storm?

Because Isuzu's little screecher comes with discreet green badges on sides and rear that announce "Handling by Lotus."

This rearrangement of struts and shocks is the next best thing to moving up in price and class to a Nissan 300ZX. By strengthening chassis cross members and by grading the resilience of suspension bushings until changes in rear-wheel geometry during cornering actually assist the steering function, Isuzu via Lotus produces the superior handling usually associated with helmets and roll bars.

The ride is stiff, a little choppy and will transmit the brrrrrrmp even if you're the 97th car over a flat squirrel. But then one simply can't get outstanding handling without using one's derriere as a fifth shock absorber.

Power steering is firm, informative and certainly not over-assisted. A little rigidity in the wheel is another small cost of life in the quick and precise lane--except for those who wear a Size 9 shoe but enjoy slopping around in Size 12 sneakers.

The engine is no long-legged thing that purrs, but a high-revving chain saw. Gear ratios may be uncomfortably close for lazier drivers and the rasping fifth gear will find fingers fidgeting with the shift to make sure there isn't another cog hiding someplace.

The car is small, light, a little slow off the mark but very, very nimble when it comes to quiet roads full of twisty bits and fast exits. All of which clearly establishes the Impulse as the sportiest of today's sport coupes.

Unfortunately, there aren't too many Ventura and Sunset boulevardiers who fall into the category of advanced driver.

And to enjoy the Impulse is to keep it busy. To exercise its best performance range, and to run smoothly is to push the car firmly. That's best done alone. Or at least with someone who isn't always stepping on the brakes from the passenger side.

The truth of the car is this: Its comfort levels, ride and handling certainly won't detour commuters to van pools. But to appreciate the car thoroughly will require a driver who knows more about tuned suspensions than tuning the sound system.

Apart from those half-closed headlights there isn't too much that separates Impulse styling from others in the class. The subtle spoiler is common to Corrado and Laser. The air dam gives the same mako shark smirk to the Impulse as it does to the Eagle Talon.

Isuzu (maybe as a concession to its partnership with General Motors) has gone to vertical handles recessed behind the trailing edge of the doors. Untraditional, certainly. Inconvenient, definitely. And absolutely unnecessary.

The hatch back also needs rebalancing until it can be flipped more like a lid and humped less like a door. Until then, prepare for heavy opening and clumsy closing that doesn't always get everything latched the first time.

You'll notice the miss when the hatch floats open at the first stop light.

The interior is quite generic and that means kidney-hugging seats, a long and compartmentalized center console (bless the stylist who included a slot for Ray-Bans), an open pod for instruments and everything to do with seating and positioning is cozy and snug.

But nobody will like the turn indicator stalk.

It does not carry a knob and feels for all the world like a curved acrylic fingernail.

Talking of fingernails, expect to split and lose a few while attaching and releasing the seat belts. The belt housings are too short and buried too deeply beside the seats.

In balance, however, the price of the car is less than the best of the competition. The Impulse also offers four-wheel disc brakes as standard, a driver's side air bag as a $750 option and value as high as other sport coupes.

This is the second generation of Impulse and a vast improvement. That suggests a third generation will be a substantial advance on the second, with smoother performance creating a broader appeal and polishing a contender into a champion.

It's only a small step.

For as an incitement to action arising from a state of mind or some external stimulus, the car already lives up to the best definition of impulse.

1990 Isuzu Impulse XS

COST: Base $11,999. As tested $14,298 (options included driver's side air bag, cruise control, power windows, aluminum wheels.)

ENGINE: 16 valves, 4 cylinders, 1.6-liters, 130 horsepower.

TYPE: Front-wheel drive, two-door sport coupe with seating for two adults and two quiet children.

PERFORMANCE: 0-60 m.p.h. (as tested) 9.1 seconds. Top speed 120 m.p.h. Fuel economy (city-highway) 26 to 34 m.p.g.

CURB WEIGHT: 2,411 pounds.

THE GOOD: Flat, firm, race-track suspension by Lotus. Spirited performance for knowing handlers. Low price, high value.

THE BAD: Short gearing and buzzy, hyperactive engine. Buried, vertical door handles. Lack of rear-hatch counterbalance.

THE UGLY: Cheap and nasty turn-signal lever.

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