By on January 8, 2019

Sporty styling, flip-up headlamps, and promises of performance. These three had it all in the mid-80s, but which one goes home with the Buy? Let’s find out.

Today’s trio came about from a discussion on the Isuzu Impluse Rare Rides post the other day. Commenter MRF 95 T-Bird is way into Eighties Japanese coupes, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Nissan 200SX

The 200SX appeared on this series once before, though in a slightly different guise. Nissan’s 200SX model (for the most part) was a North American marketing name for the company’s long-running Silvia coupe. The awkwardly styled second-generation model debuted in 1975, a decade after the introduction of the beautiful original Silvia. A very malaise third generation turned up for 1979, and muddled its way through to 1984 before being replaced by the fourth S12 version seen here. For the North American market, available engines included a base 2.0-liter or upmarket 1.8-liter turbo (hatchback only). 1986 was the last year for the turbo engine, as it was replaced by the VG30 from the 300ZX in 1987. Today’s selection is a turbo model, with 120 horsepower and a five-speed manual.

Toyota Celica

Debuting for the 1970 model year, the Celica shared its platform with the Japanese-market Carina sedan. Toyota aimed its new coupe right at Americans, intending to take on the Ford Mustang. A second-generation model appearing in 1978 grew larger and more American; the design was then handed off to Toyota’s California research location. With the second generation’s debut, consumers had a new coupe option, as the sportiest offering became the Celica Supra. Things changed again for the 1986 model year, as for the first time Celica became front-wheel drive. Rounded lines, more trims, and optional four-wheel drive accompanied this new, modern Celica. Today’s selection is the sportiest front-driver GT-S, with a 2.0-liter DOHC engine producing 135 horsepower. We won’t suffer the automatic today — it’ll be the five-speed manual.

Isuzu Impulse

The underdog of the trio, Isuzu’s rear-drive successor to its luxurious 117 coupe arrived in North America for 1983. Angular lines were penned in Italy, and the chassis underneath came from a Chevrolet Chevette. Isuzu saw fit to load up every Impulse it sent to North America, even though their 90-horsepower inline-four lacked power. Things got better in 1985 with the introduction of a turbocharged 2.0-liter. Unfortunately, the sportiest RS version is off-limits today, as it was not introduced until 1987. Don’t despair — today’s standard turbo produces a trio-topping 140 horsepower, sent through a five-speed manual.

Three coupes, one Buy. Make your selections!

[Images: Isuzu, Toyota, Nissan]

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52 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Japanese Coupe Action in 1986...”

  • avatar

    “and the chassis underneath came from a Chevrolet Citation”
    I’m pretty sure it was a Chevette – not a Citation.

  • avatar

    Buy – 200sx
    I had an 86 – my first new car – non-turbo – can’t find any nowadays. I would buy it and just look at it – for nostalgia sake.

    Drive – Impulse –
    loved the looks, would love to see and feel how it handles.

    Burn –
    Celica – I had an 89 – most uncomfortable car I ever owned. Burn it.

  • avatar

    This is tough. Probably burn the Isuzu. I love its design, but it wouldn’t be great to drive. Nissan drive I guess, but just meh. Buy Toyota I guess, all meh, not because I’d want to keep it, but because it would retain value and somebody else would pay good money for it.

  • avatar

    NONE of them!!!

    They may have been pretty cars. They WERE pretty mediocre.

    The real 4-cyl Japanese coupe action came from Honda (post 83 Prelude, new for 86 Integra, Civic Si, CRX), and the Corolla GT-S.

    The 240SX replacement in 89 was also a credible car.

    I’d pick the Prelude.

    • 0 avatar

      For the day they weren’t bad. 2500# and 140hp isn’t a whole lot different than a current gen Miata.

      Plus, one had a ‘vette chassis!

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, of all, I’d have went with the CRX Si. I’ve driven a first gen Si, it was fun, and I owned a non-Si, it was less fun but still a neat car. I’d love to have another CRX, first or second gen.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, Prelude would probably be a solid choice in 1987.

      My REAL answer: get one of the last Shelby Charger GLHS’s and hope I won the Mopar quality lottery. Those can pretty much outgun any FWD sporty coupe at that time and terrorize some contemporary V8’s.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, when I first saw the 200SX pic I thought it was an Accord. They’re nearly identical:×334.jpg

      And indeed, the Honda would be my pick. Not a fast car, but so well done. But since that’s not the game:

      Buy the Isuzu. Always liked these, would love to have one in the garage.
      Drive the Nissan, and pretend it’s an RWD Accord.
      Burn the Celica. I’m sure it’s not a bad car, but it seemed like everyone had one of these back in the day, and I’m just bored with them.

  • avatar

    None of the above. The hot ticket in this class was the 1986 Honda Prelude. I had friends that had all of these cars, and the Prelude was equal parts Porsche 944 and the future. I had a driveway full of German cars in the late ’80s, and a strong bias against Honda in particular based on a few two wheeled experiences. Driving a high mileage 1983 Prelude was a rude awakening. It was like a less compromised combination of everything I liked about my Audis, BMW, Porsche and VW combined with electric window and sunroof motors that seemed as if they’d work forever.

    The Celica was solid but not very exciting to drive. The 200SX was remarkably meh. A friend had the turbo, and it felt too frail to use. The Isuzu was a nicely dressed early ’70s econobox.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right about the Prelude, but then this wouldn’t have been much of a contest.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        You are probably right and it would have been better than these, however based on my memories you’d be absolutely kicking yourself when the 87 Prelude came out. The gen 3 ones were amazing cars and I think the pinnacle of the marque. Still look futuristic 30 years later and were “peak Honda” quality wise.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Wheel

      Yep – Prelude is the answer. It should have been here in place of the Isuzu. I think Corey purposely left it out since it did well in the 1994 BDB article back in May (not sure how I missed that one) & would probably do so again here. I had an 86 Prelude Si (ran to 199,000 miles), replaced with a 91 Prelude Si (ran to 195,000 miles), & then finally a 97 Prelude (ran to 175,000 miles), all picked up from my parents when they were done driving them. All were brilliant revelations over the GM vehicles that preceded them. Problems were few given the miles we put on them. All were running well when I was done with them – sold the first two to Honda dealer mechanics who had maintained them, the third went to my brother-in-law.

      Stuck with these three choices, I’ll go with:
      Buy: 200SX
      Drive: Celica
      Burn: Isuzu, because it’s an Isuzu.

  • avatar

    Buy the Isuzu. It kind of looks like a Lancia, it’s RWD, and I get to tell people in the future that I owned an Isuzu.

    Drive the 200SX. I’ve heard Nissans of this era were decent, so might as well see if it’s true.

    Burn the Celica. Front wheel drive *and* not a convertible. To the ash heap.

  • avatar
    John R

    Buy – 200SX
    Drive – Impulse; very curious
    Burn – Celica

  • avatar
    Funky D

    Burn ’em all! This is a reminder of all I hated about 80s cars.

  • avatar

    Based on my brief stint selling Nissans in the ’80s, I’d buy the 200SX. It was a no-s**t good car.

    Drive the Celica. It wasn’t exciting, but it had that ’80s Toyota quality.

    I lusted after the Isuzu until I drove it. Burn!!!!!

  • avatar

    Buy the Toyota and hold for resale.

    Drive the Isuzu by virtue of the highest HP.

    Burn the Nissan because the next generation would be better.

  • avatar

    Buy the Nissan
    Drive the Impulse
    Burn the Celica due to FWD

  • avatar

    Forgot the Mazda.

    1986 Mazda 626 GT turbo. My first car. It had oscillating vents and headlight washers.

    I also had a 1987 Prelude Si. That car was a go cart, but tiny.

    The Nissan is a turd, even the turbo, a friend had one.

  • avatar

    I would drive the Nissan – they were fun, fairly well balanced RWD cars that were also reliable and easy to work on. I believe they were also available with a very 80’s digital dash.

    Probably buy the Toyota, those lasted a long time in non-rust prone areas. I preferred the previous generation.

    The Impulse was fun (I never realized it was on the chevette platform) and it drove well. The one I spent time in may have been newer though, as it had the ‘handling by lotus’ badges. Of the three, it would be the one to burn.

    • 0 avatar

      Correct, it would’ve been a later one. The Lotus badges arrived for 1988, though I’m not actually sure the car was changed any to suddenly warrant those badges.

      • 0 avatar

        But the Lotus Elan M100 with Isuzu engine was then under development for release in 1989, and GM ran both Isuzu and Lotus. Easy tie-up.

        I remember the Lotus tuning at the time for the Impulse. It was your basic bushing, sway bar and shock upgrade. Remember, the Chevette was originally the 1966 Vauxhall Viva HB chassis. The UK Chevette didn’t have smog engines and hopped-up did very well in sedan car racing during the late ’70s. How to make it handle was common knowledge. The Lotus tune-up probably took a couple of phone calls to “specialists” for some part numbers, and that’s about it.

  • avatar

    Buy the Isuzu, most interesting of the three. I like its styling slightly more than the others, too.

    Drive the Nissan. Still RWD and I’m sure a decent drive.

    Burn the Celica. FWD, the Prelude would have been the obvious choice if one was to forsake RWD in their 1980s Japanese sporty coupe.

    Next version: Prelude/Probe/Beretta. I’m sure they’ll finish in that order. I’d have substituted the Celcia for the Corsica coupe, but it was used here.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I’d also burn them all for the Prelude, which was a real honey in this generation. But given the three here, I’d have to buy and drive the Toyota. My buddy has two of these (same generation) and they still run and drive great after 30 years in Chicago. The sound of a Toyota four-cylinder from this era idling is hypnotic, like a perfectly-tuned sewing machine.

  • avatar

    Buy the Isuzu – I usually root for the underdog and the Joe Isuzu ads were classic.
    Drive the Celica – The most reliable of the group.
    Burn the Nissan – Not that I have anything against it but I was never a big Nissan fan.

    I find it interesting that the silhouette and sight-lines between the Toyota and the Nissan are almost identical

  • avatar

    If we have to pick one of these though, buy and drive the Celica.

    The Izuzu was a Chevette.

    The Nissan had horrendous turbo lag.

    The Toyota was on a new platform that’s better than the other two despite being FWD. And the Toyota engine is 100 times better than the other two.

    I haven’t driven the Izuzu, but I have actually driven both the Nissan 200SX turbo and Celica GT-S and the Celica is just the better car.

  • avatar

    Needs more Prelude.

  • avatar

    Buy: Nissan. RWD dynamics, and possibly has some aftermarket support, if not nearly as much as the succeeding generation.

    Drive: Isuzu. Gutsiest engine and still a rear driver. Best looking out of these but keeping an orphan like this going is probably a nightmare.

    Burn: Celica…although VERY reluctant to burn ANY sporty coupe. These are a low point on the Celica timeline, fwd, kind of gawky looking and certainly the most plentiful of the 3.

  • avatar

    Burn ’em all.

    Except for the generous greenhouses and Japan Inc. quality, I hate all things ’80s and angular.

    And rectangular headlights.

  • avatar

    A big +1 on the Prelude!

    I owned an 86 Prelude Si (3-valve/cyl SOHC) that was pretty nice, and replaced it with an 88 Prelude 4ws (4-valve DOHC) that was terrific.

  • avatar
    Jessie Pinkman

    I would buy the Celica as an investment. Someone will always pay more for it. It is a Toyota. Too bad it wasn’t an AE86. That would trump everything. (I am sure there are not many Initial D fans on here)

    Drive the 240SX although would rather have an S15

    Burn the Isuzu. Styled in Italy with a GM chassis says everything.

  • avatar

    Look at all of that glass and the low beltline. The 200SX strongly reminds me of the ’86 Honda Accord hatchback I used to own.

    Anyways –

    Buy: Nissan – was a big fan of Nissan in those days
    Drive: Toyota – reliability
    Burn: Isuzu – meh

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Buy the Impulse. Then build a room for it like the Ferris Bueller Ferrari to bask in it’s 80’s glory.

    Do I have to burn the Celica??? I need to sell it on Bring A Trailer. Then I need to take that money, Buy and build an SR20DET to drop into the 200SX, which I would drive.

  • avatar

    Too bad GM couldn’t find it in itself to somehow use the Isuzu design as the second-generation Chevette.

    The Sprint/Firefly did serve as a decent replacement though.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    Burn ’em all. I drove an ’87 Mustang 5.0 back in those days and I wouldn’t even consider one of those three cars

  • avatar

    Buy: Impulse, it stands out from the other two (almost looking like a mini Delorean), and Chevette parts means cheap and plentiful replacement parts for years to come.

    Drive: Nissan 200SX, because it looks like one of the last RWD Celica/Supras, and its a Nissan so the hardware should be decent.

    Burn: This is hard since all three of these cars are a bit endangered, but I’d have to burn the FWD Celica. FWD Celicas are a bit like V6 Mustangs to me, they do the job but you’re always left wishing that you had the fancier model.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    These were fairly popular where I grew up. If you weren’t buying a loaded N-body Grand Am or your mullet was getting unkempt enough for a F-body one of these graced your driveway. As ubiquitous as today’s compact CUV’s. Since my original suggestion coincided with the 1985 Isuzu Impluse the picks have slightly changed.

    Buy: Celica- Its the first year of the FWD model. You can see it as a really good reliable Lancia Beta.
    Nicely packaged with great seats, even better on the GTS.

    Drive: 200SX-Before drifting Slivia’s became a thing.

    Burn: Impulse-great styling just lacking in power and refinement. Later Lotus tuned models are better.

    Honorable mention: Daytona/Laser Turbo FWD. A refined K car chassis plus optional T-tops.

  • avatar

    Drive Celica, Buy 200SX, BURN the Isuzu…… This is based on my experience with local (and JDM) vehicles here in NZ.

    I’m biased, my first car was a JDM Celica 2.0GT, which would outpower all of the example cats with a 150hp 3S-GE. That was a fun car, and I’ve always regretted selling it.

    The 200SX would make a great stable-mate for my Celica XX (JDM Celica Supra), such classic early 80’s wedginess. Of course the JDM RS-X with the 200hp FJ20ET would be the grade of choice, a few of them still floating around down here in NZ.

    I’ve never warmed to the Isuzu Piazza (as they were called down here). Objectively they’re not ugly or anything, they perhaps look a little narrow in proportion to their length, but they’re certainly not offensive. They were always a little niche here, and most of the ones in NZ had some sort of wheezy naturally aspirated engine, so were seen as a bit of a girls car.

    I’d also agree with some other commenters that the Honda Prelude would be a worthy addition here, if that were there instead of the Isuzu this would have been a much harder choice!

  • avatar

    Drive the Isuzu. Suspension by Lotus, enough said.

    Buy the Nissan because….um,it’s not the Celica.

    Burn the Celica. Maybe they were good cars but I had an ’88 Celica ST in college that was more trouble than Christine.

  • avatar

    Drive – The Nissan. Looks fun and 120hp wasn’t too bad back then.
    Burn – The Toyota… Just boring and I imagine it would have the driving feel of a kitchen appliance
    Buy – The Izuzu. I always liked these. Now that I know where the underpinnings came from I am a little discouraged though.

  • avatar

    I had an ’87 200SX with the 2.0L. It felt and sounded fast but wasn’t. I got beat by my younger brother’s ’88 civic and roasted by my friends in Jeep (YJ). What ever. There were a few “vellum venom” critiques I had with the car.
    1. I hated the look of the negative camber on the rear axle. It was a cool anecdote that the suspension in the back was the same as that of the 300Z (IIRC) but that was it.
    2. From the side I always thought it looked like the car was in the midst of a launch, i.e. more space between the tire and the fender at the front than the rear. I don’t know if I liked this or not.
    3. I didn’t like how the rear track width was/seemed-to-be so much narrower than the width of the body. This is kinda typical of the 80s but that doesn’t mean I disliked it any less.
    4. The stereo wasn’t a standard DIN size. I didn’t have the fabrication resources (errr… too lazy) to make/buy a filler plate for the replacement stereo I installed.
    I fantasized about turbo charging that 2.0L with junkyard parts from a 1.8L but that’s all it ever was, fantasy.

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