Road tests:Isuzu Piazza turbo

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More dash, less cash
The new Piazza Turbo, they call it optimistically. In fact, little of it is new save a hoop spoiler on its elevated rump, but Isuzu (UK)’s only sports-car has certainly matured into a more rounded performer, with a little outside help.

Isuzu deserves credit for leaving the attractive though ageing shape of the Piazza alone and concentrating on the car’s dynamic weaknesses, instead of dressing it up with fibreglass decorations and simply adding more power. Isuzu, of course, is part of the General Motors empire, which gives it access to the development skills of that other GM acquisition, Lotus Cars. Hence the small green badges saying “handling by Lotus”.

Engineers from the Hethel company undertake many development projects for other manufacturers, but these are normally a trade secret between client and contractor. The Piazza, on the other hand, displays an almost unseemly eagerness to stress its family links, with the Lotus name appearing on both flanks, across the back, and, in case your passenger is unobservant, on the dash dead ahead of them as well. To be fair, these insignia do convey a real message: this car has noticeable and worthwhile improvements over the “handling by Isuzu” version we tested three years ago. That proved to be rapid, raw and tail-happy; it was a lot of fun around empty lanes, slightly wearing at high cruising speeds, and a bit of a handful in slippery conditions in town as the power of the turbo engine exceeded the liveaxle traction.

At that time it was very well-equipped by comparison with other contenders in the coupe market, but it failed to attract enough buyers and the importing agency folded, leaving new and unused Piazzas on the market at absurdly low prices. Now the marque (which also comprises the Trooper, a range of comfortable four-wheel drive vehicles) is handled by Isuzu (UK) Ltd, a subsidiary of the International Motors group which also imports Subaru and Hyundai.

Isuzu (UK) plainly feels that the original price of £11,950 was far too high for the market to accept, since the price of a manual Piazza is currently £1000 less, at £10,998, than it was three years ago on the can’s introduction, which must depress those who bought at that time. Since then a three-speed auto with mechanical overdrive has been added to the range, at the unusually high premium of an extra £1000.

The package looks much better value now as prices of other coupes have overtaken it: Toyota’s Celica and Mazda’s RX7 are both in a different market at over £15,000 and £16,000 respectively, while the Nissan Sylvia 200ZX, once £2400 cheaper than the Piazza, is now dearer by the same amount, with a new model imminent. The VW Scirocco, at £11,891, looks rather bleak inside and boasts only 112 bhp, though it is as fast as the Piazza 0-60 mph. Volvo and Honda both offer three-door sports-estates at just over £12,000, but the potential Piazza buyer is likely to be looking for something more like a sports-car, at least visually.

Such a customer will be more impressed by the 148 bhp turbocharged and inter-cooled engine than the luggage capacity, which is high-silled and shallow, and by powersteering and cruise control, both of which are standard along with electric windows, power locks, electric mirrors, rear wash-wipe and rear seat-belts.

Although the Piazza is sold with lesser engines in other markets, this turbo 2-litre is the only specification offered in Britain, and the engine is unaltered in the latest version. A single belt-driven camshaft actuates two valves per cylinder in the aluminium head, while the turbocharger inhales air cooled by a large inter-cooler ahead of the radiator. Ignition control is all-electronic, but not state of the art as it lacks a knock-control circuit and runs a lowish 7.9:1 cr.

Nevertheless, its characteristics are biased the right way, with the important torque reading swelling rapidly low down to reach 166 lb ft at a mere 3000 rpm. It is not especially smooth, and takes on a thrashy note at the top end, so it is just as well that it produces the goods further down the scale. Our test car intermittently suffered a serious hesitation when picking up from idle which on several white-knuckle occasions left it gasping for breath in the middle of major junctions — a known problem of hot and bothered turbos which some manufacturers seem destined to leave unsolved as the turbo trend tails away.

With 150 bhp available, Piazza’s 8.5 sec to reach 60 mph lags behind in comparison to the small hatches such as Golf, Peugeot and Daihatsu’s blistering GTti Turbo (8.0 sec from 99 snarling bhp). This is the result of a heavy body and widely-spaced gearing, but the car certainly does not feel slow: the turbo is just audible as the car surgcs forward with no real lag to complain about on the way to a top speed of over 120 mph.

Flush glazing and careful door seal detailing keep the wind noise down to a level which, once better than average, is still up to standard, and Isuzu’s engineers have modified engine mounts, fuel pump, and certain body panels to reduce the transmission of mechanical noise. But the source of much of it, the engine, sounds as coarse as before. Interior changes comprise new seats, a leather-covered steering wheel and a new tilting steering column.

A toned-down interior makes the Piazza more suitable for British buyers, the bright blue fur being removed in favour of a conservative grey check. Isuzu’s unusual instrument binnacle remains, with two adjustable pods carrying a host of switches of every variety. This is not very successful; the sliders are tiny, and several controls are hidden behind the steering wheel, while the movement of the pods is limited to swivelling in and out rather than moving back from the wheel.

A short thick cone of switch-rings, totalling five separate functions, on the nearside pod looks after the wash-wipe, and includes an “auto” facility shared, I believe, only with top BMWs. This slows the wipe action when the car comes to a halt, which is handy, but the switch is so complex that it is difficult to select a simple wipe in a hurry. A mirror-image switch on the right covers the lighting. Speed and revs are easy to read off the big round dials, but other figures are presented in a series of slots across the panel which are not very legible.

One special feature is worth mentioning here: the heated rear window is automatically cancelled whenever the ignition is turned off. This action, trivial for the hrw, would be a real boon if applied to rear fog lights. Countless drivers appear to collect their cars from the showroom with the fog-lamp switch on and to leave it on forevermore, dazzling following cars as soon as the dipped headlamps are turned on. If these people are too lazy or too careless to notice, then they need the help of this simple circuit. A latching relay turns the lamps on and off when the driver requires, but if he parks with the switch on, the relay disconnects. If it is still foggy when he comes back to the car he simply presses the button as normal. Simple, foolproof, and long overdue.

With all the small switches including the heating controls clustered on the two pods, the rest of the fascia looks very tidy. A central clock and a useful shallow tray surmount the Panasonic radio-cassette, which is ergonomically better than the average Japanese car hi-fi . On each side of the recessed handbrake is a lever, one to release the boot, one to open the filler-flap, an Oriental habit which every manufacturer should copy.

Helping to keep the fascia uncluttered, the doors boast a handful of fittings; window rockers, lock switches, electric mirror adjustment, plus a cigar lighter and ashtray on each side. Behind, the rear occupants sit in well-upholstered, almost bucket seats, and have useful side-panels alongside, where they can store magazines to distract them from thinking about the shortage of height and the lack of under-knee support. Actual legroom, though, is better than average for this class of coupe. Both rear seat-backs are adjustable for rake, and fold down separately, to leave a somewhat lumpy cargo space. With the seats up, there is modest room for a suitcase, but it will have to lie flat. Although the rear ventilation is a weak point both in effectiveness and ease of use. The tiny sliders are hidden away behind the left hand, the outlets are obscured by the control pods, and the system suffers the common drawback of not providing fresh air and heat simultaneously. De-misting, too, is poor.

Criticism of the original Piazza’s chassis centred not on the double-wishbone front suspension which performs competently, but on the rather crude rear end, whose snatchy traction sent the car skipping into opposite lock slides whenever the gutsy engine was opened up. Lotus’ engineers worked to a very tight brief restricted to easily-altered factors; the live axle with its paired trailing links, Panhard rod and coil springs could not be changed in layout.

What they did was to lower the car’s ride-height by 10mm, alter the geometry of the links to stop the axle tramping, stiffen both springing and anti-roll bar, and specify new Armstrong dampers on all four corners. Tyres, too, came under scrutiny, before the Goodyears were selected. What they have achieved is not radical; the Piazza is still broadly the same cheerful, energetic unsophisticate, but it has learned some social polish. It can still be caught out with big bumps in a corner, but less often; it takes more throttle now to force the rear tyres to let go of the road, but you know when it is about to happen, and it tends to be a momentary slither without getting far out of line.

In fact, driving the Piazza brought back memories of the Sunbeam Lotus, an exhilarating little machine in its day, which, funnily enough, was about when the first Piazza saw the light as the Ace of Clubs show-car.

Cancelling out some of this waywardness has allowed the car’s basic understeer to establish itself over more of the cornering envelope than before, giving the predictability it needed to cope with low-traction conditions as well as with dry roads. It performs best on smooth, sweeping bends where the busy ride is least noticeable and gear-changes can be relaxed, for the gritty long-travel movement can easily heat the synchromesh, even, on the test car at least, between fourth and fifth. Tight lanes packed with surprises will put a strain on the mechanism.

Final drive is a low 3.9:1, so although fourth is direct and fifth a 0.775 overgear, top translates to only 21.9 mph/1000 rpm. This makes third the most useful gear in a rather wide spread, with top treading an uncomfortable line at 75 mph between off-boost disinterest and full turbo punch.

Larger discs (all solid) are fitted to the braking system, giving it greater reserves rather than noticeably improving it, and there are new alloy wheels.

Despite the drop in ride-height, and therefore suspension travel, the Piazza seems a little gentler on its occupants than before— presumably it hits the bumpstops less often because of the stiffer rear springs, while the rnonotube dampers have a calming effect on the still sharp ride. It is not unpleasant; it feels “sporty”, though today’s more sophisticated fully-independent layouts can outperform it in both grip and comfort.

Speed-sensitive power-assistance is fed to the rack and pinion system, so the amount of effort left to the biceps is about right, but the gearing is rather low. It does not provide a satisfying feel, even though this was one of the areas Lotus worked on; the weight seems to change abruptly through a corner as though the wheels are heavily offset. A large heavy wheel and a degree of deadness prevent the driver getting much idea of how stressed the 14in 195/60 Goodyears are over differing surfaces.

All these changes are welcome, but the Piazza does not shine in any particular area. It is unusual, which may or may not be an asset; it is fast and well-equipped, but it hangs on to its rivals’ coat-tails through eagerness more than ability. However, as the sub-£11,000 price bracket is vacated by other coupes, the Piazza not only becomes a much better buy than formerly, but may also be finding a gap to itself. GC