"An overpriced understatement?"(Car Australia, May 1986)
Despite the fact that it wasn't released in Australia until 1986, the Piazza's shape was first shown to the world in mid-1979. It was at that year's Geneva Motor Show that Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design displayed the Ace of Clubs prototype. The car had been commissioned by Isuzu as a replacement for the gorgeous Bertone-styled 117 coupe, and the very positive reaction of show-goers encouraged Isuzu to put it into production as the Piazza.
The Piazza (known in the US as the Impulse) was exquisitely beautiful - especially in the context of Japanese cars of the time. When there was a generic move towards sharp-edged, aggressive wedges, the Piazza's compound, organic curves looked - and in fact proved to be - a decade or more advanced in styling. Changes for production to the shape Ace of Clubs were minor - compared with the original show car, the Piazza had a 35mm longer wheelbase and a slightly shorter nose.
Isuzu was a small company, and could not afford the time or money to create the rest of the new car from scratch. Consequently the Piazza was built on a lengthened rear-wheel-drive Gemini underbody, resulting in the engine being positioned well forward. The 59/41 unladen forward weight bias was far more akin to that of a front-wheel-drive car than a rear-wheel-drive with sporting aspirations. The front suspension comprised modified Gemini double wishbones (the pivot points were more widely spaced and the lower link was trailing instead of leading), while at the back the live axle was suspended with upper and lower links and a Panhard rod. Anti-roll bars were used at both ends and power-assisted rack and pinion steering was fitted.
When the Piazza was finally released in Australia in April, 1986, Holden's magazine advertisements extolled its virtues.
Under the heading 'Pure Adrenalin' the body text said:
"Holden Piazza. Even its Italian name quickens your pulse. So does the sheer look of it, designed by the master himself, Giorgetto Giugiaro. Seat yourself behind the wheel. Your system gets a big shot of adrenalin: beautiful reclining velour contoured seat for four (this is a real 2+2), adjustable steering wheel, glowing digital instruments, and power everything - brakes, steering, windows, door locks, mirrors.
"Start up Piazza's OHC fuel-injected intercooled turbo engine, press the accelerator, and in seconds you're at the highway limit, with your heart beating measurably faster. Highway bursts of power come easily with the aid of a computer-controlled wastegate that helps deliver 100% of the available power when you need it.
"Fully imported Piazza is going to be hard to get - another reason to see your Holden dealer quickly."
When the Piazza hit the new car showrooms the car's lineage was well known - and that included its Gemini antecedents. The rear-wheel-drive Gemini was no longer in production but the memories of that car were still quite positive. The Gemini - GM's first world car - had been built in Australia by Holden since 1975, and by the end of its production ten years later, it was very 'Australianised'. Local production had allowed much suspension tuning, giving the small car very good ride and handling. So the fact that this attractive new coupe was built on the same basic underpinnings as the humble Holden didn't seem cause for concern - the Gemini had been a sweet handler.
But it was the topic of handling that was by far the most contentious aspect of the Piazza - seldom has any car been so bitterly criticised as in this area.
"The rear axle suffers from atrocious bump steer, while the front crashes through even minor irregularities - and that's around town. On the open road the Piazza is very, very nervous - bumps of any sort encountered mid-corner result in a disconcerting corkscrewing motion which alternates between roll oversteer and chronic understeer," said a March 1987 review in Car Australia.
"The most frightening car that we have tested for a long time, the Holden Piazza can actually skip both back wheels off the ground under heavy braking," wrote Modern Motor in April, 1987. The same magazine in 1986 had remarked of the Piazza, "It ploughed wide on the slow stuff, lurched through the quick corners, and was generally a real handful to control."
The Piazza was also expensive - and its cost put it up against some very stiff competition. At $35,000 it was nearly $15,000 more than a Cordia Turbo and the same price as the acclaimed Mitsubishi Starion! Although the Starion's styling was by then becoming dated, the Mitsubishi handled well and in addition, had better performance than the Piazza.
Holden realised that they were in major trouble.
The price was rapidly dropped by 16 per cent, the car was fitted with stiffer rear dampers, and the brake bias was altered to prevent rear-wheel lock-up. However, the media reaction to these changes remained lukewarm. Even Peter Brock's HDT organization was given a car to play with, the result being a one-off Piazza wearing Bilstein dampers and featuring re-rated springs and anti-roll bars. It was said that this car handled quite well on smooth roads, but that the ride was extremely stiff, with a handling characteristic very biased towards oversteer.
In other respects the Piazza was applauded. The Isuzu 4ZC2-T 2-litre turbo and intercooled engine - although only a SOHC 8-valve design - developed 110kW at 5400 rpm, with a strong 225Nm of torque available at 3000 rpm. The IHI turbo boosted with little lag to its peak of 7 psi, giving a 0 -100 time of about nine seconds and allowing the car to cover the standing 400 metres in the high sixteens. The interior had a very hi-tech digital dash - also featuring more than 20 warning lights - with pod-type controls mounted high on each end of the instrument panel.
The cabin was light and airy, and the seats were comfortable with a wide range of adjustments. A single windscreen wiper with built-in washer was used, and central locking, power windows and cruise control were all fitted.
But the long gestation period of the Piazza had counted against it. Sporty cars of its size and performance were expected by the mid-1980s to have independent suspension all 'round, and to handle and stop well. By the time of the Australian release, even the 2-valves-per-cylinder engine was looking old. The very strong negative appraisal of the car's handling - and despite the universal media agreement, some owners were vociferous in their disagreement with the criticisms - cast a shadow over the car, one from which it never recovered.