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Isuzu's Luv Long Lost

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Joe Isuzu is long gone; soon Isuzu vehicles will, too. Isuzu today announced that it will withdraw from the U.S. market in January 2009.

Present-day, no big loss. Currently the brand’s U.S. lineup is limited to a couple of pickups, the i-290 and i-370, a rebadged version of the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, and the Ascender, a rebadged version of the Chevrolet Trailblazer/GMC Envoy. And with a limited dealership network and a limited array of configurations there’s been no compelling reason to buy these trucks — which have been given more homely grilles and trim — versus their Chevy and GMC counterparts.

It continues a slow withdrawal that began back in 2002, when Isuzu backed out of a longstanding agreement to share a production facility in Lafayette, Indiana, with Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru. Toyota now takes advantage of the additional production space at the huge plant for additional Camry production, while Fuji still utilizes the rest of the plant to make several Subaru models there.

In recent years the brand’s sales had fallen to a small fraction of what they were in its heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s, when its trucks had gained a decent reputation for being economical and rugged, and its Trooper, which paired a then-generous helping of interior conveniences with off-road ruggedness was arguably ahead of the curve as families moved to replace their sedans and wagons with SUVs.

During that time, the brand became a household name because of the memorable ‘Joe Isuzu’ ad campaign, in which actor David Leisure played an exaggerating, deceptive caricature of a car salesman.

In 1988 the character was so well known that Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis commented that George H.W. Bush may be the Joe Isuzu of American politics.

The automaker’s products were first brought to the U.S. in the 1970s, when the Isuzu-produced Chevy Luv was imported through an agreement with GM. It was the beginning of a long relationship that had Isuzu supplying the U.S. market with products badged as Chevrolets and Geos well into the 1990s.

Even into the late 1990s, the brand itself was showing promise with its aggressively styled, rally-influenced VehiCROSS and the rakish and quirky Axiom — both models that have left their mark in the design evolution of this decade’s crossover SUVs. Despite slow sales, the Axiom was produced through the 2005 model year, when it was unceremoniously discontinued.

Then there were the cars, which many have forgotten. But some of them were quite good. The I-Mark and Stylus and their GM siblings, the Chevy and Geo Spectrum, were perfectly fine, frugal appliances. And the sporty, front-wheel-drive Impulse and nearly identical Geo Storm — especially the innovative coupe that was part wagon, part sports car — developed a minor cult following among Gen X in the 1990s.

I sure miss the wedge-shaped, Giugiaro-penned, rear-wheel drive, late-’80s Impulse I once owned — rorty turbo engine, ‘Handling by Lotus’ badging and all — but let's face it, Joe left that smoke-filled office a long time ago.
 
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