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Isuzu's Unholy Unions, Part 2: Honda

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author photo by Aaron Gold March 2017

In our last installment of Isuzu's Unholy Unions, we looked at at Isuzu's long, prolific and somewhat strange relationship with General Motors. But Isuzu would eventually leave GM for an even more unlikely partner: Honda.

It seems strange that independent-minded Honda would partner with anyone, but this was the early 1990s, the SUV craze was just getting up to full speed, and Honda was left out in the cold. (Their first SUV, the revolutionary CR-V, was still four years away.)

Isuzu, on the other hand, was doing great things. The Trooper had been one of the first four-door SUVs to really take off in the U.S. market, and the Rodeo was off to a rapid start. Isuzu was making a name for themselves as a builder of tough little trucks; this was back in the day when calling an SUV a "truck" was a good thing. (Thanks to the Trooper's chief rival, the Montero, the same thing was happening to Mitsubishi.)

And so it was decided that Isuzu would begin building the Rodeo as the Honda Passport, and the Trooper as the Acura SLX. On paper, this seemed like a totally good idea. In the real world, anyone who is familiar with these two companies' positions in the 1990s can see why it was doomed to fail.

Honda had become the darling of the American automobile buyer for one primary reason: Build quality. A GM product of the late 1980s was considered a construction masterpiece if it made it to 85,000 miles with more than 85 percent of its major sub-assemblies still attached and functioning -- but a Honda was considered a lemon if a plastic trim piece broke before the car hit 160,000.

Isuzu trucks can be described in many ways, but "built like a brick outhouse" is not one of them. With all due respect to the Hoosier State, the fact that the Passport was built in Indiana rather than Japan probably didn't help matters much. Passport quality was decent, but Isuzu quality wasn't Honda quality. And then there was the fact that the frame rusted to pieces with alarming rapidity.

The Acura SLX didn't fare much better. Consumer Reports gave it a "Not Recommended" rating because of its tendency to roll over on its roof as soon as the driver began to even remotely consider the concept of driving around a turn. Sales were slow.

The suffering was, of course, mutual: As part of the agreement, Isuzu decided it needed a presence in the dying minivan segment, so they began rebadging the first-generation Honda Odyssey as the Isuzu Oasis. This was the undersized van with forward-hinged doors on which even Kool Aid-drinking Honda devotees turned their back; no surprise that labeling it as an Isuzu absolutely nothing to increased demand. I have heard rumors that Isuzu did sell some Oasises, but I refuse to believe them.

One wonders if this whole unhappy partnership had Isuzu staffers longing for the glory days with GM. Nevertheless, the misery went on and on and on and on until 2002 when the plug was mercifully pulled. Honda was by then selling the wildly successful CR-V and was poised to launch the soon-to-be-wildly-successful Pilot. Isuzu, meanwhile, was warming up their partnership with GM, getting ready to sell the heavy body-on-frame Ascender just as the market was turning towards lightweight crossovers. (Ah, the joys of mis-read market research.) Honda went on to succeed. Isuzu went on to evaporate.

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Isuzu's Unholy Unions, Part 2: Honda - Autotrader