Isuzu’s I-Mark RS Turbo had a checkered history and an international identity crisis

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Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the 1985–89 Isuzu I-Mark was one iteration of a global-platform vehicle wearing multiple hats across multiple continents. But unlike the “global” Ford Escort from 1980, the I-Mark wore different names depending on where you lived and what dealership you visited. Credit General Motors and its controlling interest in the Japanese automaker for this situation. Be it a U.S.-spec Isuzu I-Mark, Chevrolet/Geo Spectrum, the Canadian Pontiac Sunburst, or the internationally appealing Holden/Isuzu/Chevrolet Gemini, this honest subcompact was an affordable alternative to the Japanese mainstays, occupying a space that the South Koreans had yet to dominate.

Just like the original Hyundai Excel, these sheetmetal creases were penned by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, a designer of many beautiful machines who also deserves kudos for also crafting affordable cars. Sadly, this is where things got a little sideways: Isuzu initially designed the I-Mark (née Gemini) free of General Motor’s grasp, but it forgot to lock in the Italian design before the General’s R&D peeps made their revisions. While the end result still looks shockingly, aerodynamically Italian relative to the clumsier Chevy Chevette and Cavalier, the resulting changes were an insult of the highest order to Giugiaro. How dare they mess with perfection?

After a successful partnership creating the 1968 Isuzu 117 Coupé and the snazzy 1981 Isuzu Impulse (née Piazza), the legendary designer ended the relationship and only admitted his stewardship until a decade after the I-Mark ceased production. A shame, seeing as the I-Mark was a far more elegant design than the even cheaper Hyundai Excel, and it made commercials like the one above truly “fly” off the screen.

Luckily for all of us now, Motorweek tested the hottest of the bunch just a few years later, coming in strong with a statement of how Isuzu couldn’t move the metal like Honda or Toyota. Much like the Dodge Spirit R/T, the RS Turbo possesses upgrades that highlight the underlying strengths of all I-Marks: Seeking a halo vehicle is human nature, while coping with an automotive compromise that actually fits your budget is admirable. Beyond admirable, actually!

No matter. Period-appropriate monochrome paint, body cladding, RS Turbo/Handling By Lotus badging, and standard Recaro seats round out the modifications list. None of which means much, until you get a feel for the RS Turbo’s boosted 1.5-liter engine and row the gears in its five-speed manual. Those Recaros, by the way, are likely put to good use with the Lotus-fettled springy bits combined with turbo torque when exiting a corner. Sadly, the I-Mark had a solid rear axle, which likely gave the boffins in Britain a few sleepless nights. Or not: Changing spring rates, sway bar sizes, slapping on the Isuzu Impulse/Piazza’s green Lotus emblem, making phone calls to their favorite shock absorber vendor and calling it a day might not be that stressful. And it’s certainly a win-win situation … once the check from Isuzu clears.

Clearly the I-Mark RS Turbo wasn’t gonna set the hot-hatchback scene on fire. Most of the interior has a rather downtrodden feel relative to a VW GTI or a Honda Civic Si. And it’s still an Isuzu, a manufacturer known more for its full range of trucks and commercial vehicles. As if to prove the point, Motorweek also tested the Isuzu pickup on the same press junket. The I-Mark RS Turbo didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by its (more successful) big brother trucklet, nor shamefully shunned from its Italian father for most of its childhood.

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