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1993 Geo Storm GSi Sport Coupe
Country of Origin: USA/Japan
Design Info: A front-wheel drive, two-door liftback coupe, the Geo Storm was mostly a second-generation Isuzu Piazza/Impulse, though with a sleeker, more 90s-American-style body than the (also available in America) Isuzu. Compared to the base model Storm, the GSi added a decklid spoiler, rear anti-sway bar, and closer-ratio transmission. Storms were also available in a more traditional hatchback form, but these “wagonback” Storms were less popular and were never available in the GSi spec.
Engine Info: Most Geo Storms (including early GSis) used the 1.6 liter Isuzu 4XE1, which made 95 hp (or 130 hp for the 16-valve, higher-compression GSi) Starting in 1992, the GSi was upgraded to the 1.8 liter 4XF1, making 140 hp.
Type: As a small, sporty fwd coupe, the (badge-engineered Isuzu) Storm GSi is competitive with domestic contemporaries like the Ford Probe (a badge-engineered Mazda) and Eagle Talon (a badge-engineered Mitsubishi), and more broadly with cars like the Honda CRX and even its GM-umbrella British cousin (which also used Isuzu parts and a similar engine) the Lotus Elan M100.
History: From the company that brought you badge-engineered Toyotas, badge-engineered Suzukis, and badge-engineered Isuzus, comes a…well, another badge-engineered Isuzu. The Geo Storm, based on the Isuzu Piazza (which was itself sold in the Americas as the Isuzu Impulse), was sold for a scant 4 years in the United States, Canada (as the Asüna Sunfire) and Japan (as the Isuzu PA Nero) before disappearing forever. But what happened, and where did it go wrong?
To give the Storm context, one should understand a bit about Geo, and to understand Geo, one should understand a bit about General Motors in the 1980s. GM had launched a full product line for the 1980 model year of front wheel drive compacts on the new X platform. Inspired by the successes of small foreign imports in the 70s (in part thanks to the fuel crisis), the X platform was the first major American-built line of economic front wheel drive cars, and was at first met with some success. Unfortunately, defects in the design led to recalls and a severe decline in GM’s reputation. While GM maintained some dominance in the automotive market into the mid-80s, this began to decline as the 90s approached.
GM managed some of its losses by diversifying into alternative industries, experimenting with innovative technologies, and expanding ownership in foreign companies. In 1986, the General purchased nearly 60% of Lotus, and by 1989 they had also purchased half of Saab. Well before that, however, GM had already owned a significant share in Isuzu, and had been selling Isuzu pickups as the Chevrolet LUV starting in 1972. In 1981, a collaboration between GM, Isuzu, Suzuki and Toyota created the S platform, used for the 5th generation Chevrolet Nova and its contemporary Toyota Corollas and Sprinters. Other badge-engineered GMs at this time included the Chevrolet Sprint (a Suzuki Cultus) and the Pontiac LeMans (a Daewoo-built Opel Kadett). These cars, while not disastrous, continued eroding the brand image for many buyers, as they often believed these somewhat lower quality, economic cars were built domestically alongside GM’s more premium products. This also meant that buyers primarily interested in foreign-made models wouldn’t consider these cars, despite the fact that in theory they were exactly what said buyers might be looking for.
In 1988, GM announced the end of the Nova and simultaneously a whole new line of economic cars (all captive imports). This new brand would be called Geo, its logo and name suggesting a worldwide collection of products, making it clear that these vehicles were drawn from abroad for the home market. Commercials featured the song “Getting to Know You” with an invitation to “Get to know Geo” and direct comparisons to the rise in popularity of Toyota and Honda in the Americas in the 70s and 80s respectively. The Toyota-based Prism would be built at a jointly constructed factory in California, and the Suzuki-based Metro and Tracker would be built at another jointly constructed factory in Canada. Only the Isuzu-based Spectrum and subsequent Storm were built in Japan.
The Geo Storm itself, based on the 2nd generation Isuzu Piazza (Impulse in the Americas), was marketed as an inexpensive sports car for younger buyers. The Piazza was designed by Shiro Nakamura, then head of design at Isuzu, and now perhaps known best for designing the Nissan GT-R. The GSi version, at release equipped with a 130 hp 16-valve four cylinder, was heralded by Geo as “the full blown Storm”, with improved performance tuning and a “Sport Suspension”, possibly with input from Lotus (who officially collaborated with the Impulse RS). Reviews were mostly positive, with journalists praising its acceleration and handling, Car and Driver’s testing showing it meeting (or possibly exceeding) the RX-7’s roadholding capability. Criticisms included greater than average body roll, limited passenger rear room and a noisy engine. Styling was something of a mixed bag, appealing to younger customers but being considered strange by older ones.
Where, then, did the Storm go wrong? Nowhere, really, except the circumstance of its birth: Geo and Isuzu. Geo never really got off the ground with consumers. Geo cars weren’t so cheap compared to their GM stablemates as to cause a flood of interest, and they weren’t significantly better in any particular way. Because Geos were typically sold at Chevrolet dealers, the idea of bringing in customers who weren’t interested in American cars never really made sense either. There were some Geo successes, and the Metro, Tracker, and Prizm would all live past the death of Geo itself – as Chevrolets – further invalidating the purpose behind Geo’s existence.
The Storm, however, died before that, and this was because of Isuzu. Specifically, a stagnation of the Japanese economy caused by a burst economic bubble, combined with other mitigating factors, led Isuzu to ending production of all passenger cars (though not trucks or SUVs, which would continue on for a time). Quite simply, the end of the Piazza/Impulse meant the end of the Storm, as even if GM had been interested in continuing it, production had never been established outside of Japan.
However, in a way the Storm lived on, at least for a time. In Canada, GM had started another ill-fated brand to sell badge-engineered cars called Asüna. The Storm was therefore sold in Canada as the Asüna Sunfire. Fans of Pontiac will recognize Sunfire as the name of a small, front-wheel drive car from Pontiac that began production in 1994, and lasted for eleven years. Of course, the Sunfire was actually a J-body, based on the domestic Cavalier, and had nothing mechanical in common with the Storm. The styling, however? Clearly an evolution of the Storm. In a small sense, then, the Storm might have been the most successful of the Geo cars, only the Tracker lasting longer in production (and then only in South America).
Why it’s cool/unique/significant: How many times can someone write “badge-engineered” in one small article? I hate those words now. General Motors has long been considered the king of badge-engineering by some. For years they would build a car and sell it across three or four or five or six brands with slightly different styles and names. Sometimes these models might cannibalize each others’ sales, but often enough GM was savvy enough to position these near-identical models in sub-segments such that they could capture completely different consumers.
The Geo experiment was not the most successful of these exercises, but the Storm sold far more than the Impulse. While there are no publicly available numbers for the production of the Storm, over 40,000 were still registered for road use as of 2010. In comparison, only about 13,000 Impulses were ever built. The Storm was a solid budget sports car, with excellent handling despite its issues with body roll, and should earn more points for its unique styling, which was a strong example of American design language arguably for the next 10-15 years.