GRAN TURISMO CAR REVIEWS

1968 Isuzu 117 Coupe

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yellow_isuzu117-profile.jpg

Spex

Host: GT4
Class: Mid-size Grand Tourer
Type: 2-door coupe

Country: Japan
Year: 1968

Price: $13,614

Construction: unit steel
Length: 168.50" // Width: 63.0" // Height: 52.0"
Wheelbase: 98.4"
Track: 52.2" [F] 51.6" [R]
Ground Clearance: 7.08"
Weight: 2,175 pounds
Wgt. Dist: 55/45
Steering: unassisted recirculating ball
Layout: front engine/rear-drive
Tires: 165HR/14
F. Suspension: wishbones, coils, shox, anti-roll bars
R. Suspension: live axle, leaf springs, shox
Brakes: disc/drum

Engine: 1.6 liter DOHC inline-4
Construction:
Aspiration: natural
Fuel System: EFi or 2 single-barrel carbs
Valves / Cyl: 2
Compression: 10.30:1
 
Final BHP: 118 @ 6,400 rpm
Fnl Torque: 105 @ 5,000 rpm
 
Credits per HP: $115.37
Pounds per HP: 18.43
Pounds per Trq: 20.71
Hp per Liter: 74.4

Idle Speed: 1,000 // Redline: 7,000 // RPM Limit: 7,500

Transmission: 4-speed manual
Differential: ?

0-60 mph: 11.033 seconds
0-100 mph: 30.416 seconds
0-150 mph: nil

400 M: 18.568 @ 80 mph
1 Kilom: 33.053 @ 103 mph

 
Test Track: no test

100-zero mph: 4.166 seconds
Top Gear RPM at 60 mph: 3,600

Top Speed at Redline
1st: 32 mph
2nd: 58 mph
3rd: 86 mph
4th: 124.34 @ 7,500 rpm (rpm limited)
 

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--------------------EXTERIOR / HISTORY-------------------

Wow, what is this? Looks like a cross between a Mazda RX-2 and a Jensen Healey. But it is neither. Isuzu once made a true GT?  I did not know that, Ed.

Looking back to Japan's entry into the world of sports cars is a little like looking at a newborn baby. They're both so cute, and have (had) so much to learn! I'm not really into babies that much, but everybody else seems to think they're so cute. MY opinion happens to be: the world is overpopulated. Whenever I see another addition to our species, all I can think is geez aren't there already enough of us? Does anybody else happen to notice...well, let's not get off-topic. :-/ So anyways, I substitute my lack of fondness for human infants by cooing over this find: the '68 Isuzu 117 Coupe.

Found only in GT4's Historic Lot, or more rarely in GT5's used car lot, this is a car most will certainly pass over after viewing its 108 BHP rating. Only those 1,000 Miles! junkies of us will get curious about the 117. I certainly did. But even as I was curious, I was also making assumptions that this car has no story to tell. Just another low-powered 2-door coupe that was probably made cheaply, and wasn't successful.

But look at its price. $13,614 in GT4. Hmm. Isn't that a bit higher than it seems a 108 horsepower vehicle from the Historic Lot with 44,000+ miles should be priced at? Why isn't it $4,000, like some old Civic? Why not $8,000, like the '81 Isuzu Piazza?

A clue can be discerned from looking at this baby's year of birth: 1968. Hmm, so this seems to be some sort of Japanese classic. I don't know if we ever got the 117 here in America, but if so, it certainly must be a rarity. And there's also another clue: the manufacturer of the 117 Coupe: Isuzu. Isuzu has always been much more of a truck-maker. They're much better known for their dependable line of vans, RVs, pickups, semi-cabs, and box loaders. The fact that they once delved into the world of the GT sports car market is a bit odd. Why weren't they as ultimately successful as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan? Why isn't Isuzu still producing sporty automobiles today?

But still, given all these clues (year of production, possible rarity, the car's maker, and its possible intention as a competitor to the Celica and Skyline), it seems the 117 could have been a mere response to the Japanese small-car market at the time. Isuzu could simply have been "rolling the dice" to see it they could have a bit of luck in this new world. What exactly happened?

Surprisingly, the 117 Coupe is a car with a story to tell. It was the first Japanese car with a dual-overhead cam engine, and the first to have D-jetronic electronic fuel-injection (Nissan was messing around with mechanical fuel-injection in their Skyline GTR from this time, rather than an electronic system). Fuel injection was important because it meant the fuel/air mixture going into the intake could be more accurately monitored. Isuzu's electronic fuel-injection didn't happen until 1970, which means the car in our game is supposed to be carbureted, but still, is it not interesting that Isuzu actually pioneered the use of this device after Bosch introduced it to the market, not Nissan or Toyota? The 117 was also one of the first Japanese vehicles (though not the first) designed at an Italian automobile shop: Giugiaro Italdesign.

As usual, Isuzu showcased their new car at a couple world-famous car shows (Geneva in 1966, Tokyo in 1968), to get the ball rolling. Early on, the 117 was completely hand-built (just 50 examples per month), just like real sports cars of the time, but Isuzu eventually started mass-producing them, perhaps as more yen (and more interest) started slipping thru their door. Speaking of yen, I found a website which quotes this car as sellling for 14,300 yen, which was about $1,720 back in 1968. Overall, there were 86,192 made, and the 117 Coupe remained in production for thirteen years. There were also other 117 body styles (sedans and wagons).

See, I didn't know any of this, did you? Gets us looking at the 117 Coupe in a whole new light. After learning about it, it's obvious Isuzu was really putting some energy into their new project. They weren't just attempting to make a sports car to augment their line of trucks; apparently Isuzu was serious. But eventually, they did give up. The car which followed the 117 (the Piazza, also found in GT4) was an ugly mess, a poor seller which didn't garner as much attention as the RX7s, Supras, and 280ZXes it competed against. It also had some design flaws, which Isuzu commisioned Lotus to try and fix. Isuzu eventually went back to focusing full attention on their day job: humble, dependable truck-making.

PD has the 117 Coupe weighing just 2,175 pounds...Mazda Miata country. This is apparently false. Various websites I've visited claim this car anywhere from 2,314 to 2,403 pounds. Oops. Wouldn't be the first time PD has screwed up. But its light weight in our game (not to mention its narrow width of just 63 inches) make the 117 coupe instantly nimbler than many other cars of its time. We can get it down to 1,750 at the least. Daihatsu Move country.

It's handsome. It's somewhat dimunitive. It's somewhat mousy, to be honest. Has a worried, quiet look about it. Is it ready for the wide world of Gran Turismo?

 

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-------------- ENGINE / DRIVETRAIN--------------

So I recently learned that Polyphony Digital got a lot of car soundbytes from American talk show host Jay Leno, who happens to have a zillion cars in his garages. I highly doubt he's got an Isuzu 117 Coupe, but it wouldn't surprise me if PD got the distinctive sound of the car in our game from Isuzu itself, since they're located in Japan and more than likely still have some of their earliest classics stored safely.

I only bring this up because the 117's 1.6 liter DOHC engine sounds unique in GT4. Those dual-cams can be heard, too, going zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzziiip, just like an electrical current. It's an exciting sound! It's not a deep, throaty V8 rumble, but it's got its own sort of mojo. We've got a decent 7,000 rpm redline, and peak power that shows up at 6,400, which means Isuzu had the right idea so far as power-delivery went. There's not alot of power, but at least we can get this engine's full potential on our side. There's also not alot of torque. Below 5,000 rpms in 3rd or 4th gear, there's just nothing. Often the car will bog down out of tighter corners where 2nd is too short. Not that any of this surprises. The 117 Coupe is like lots of other low-powered classics in this regard.

So no, it's not a barn burner, nor can this engine ever be accused of being fast at all. But that doesn't mean we can't employ some help. From the aftermarket are three NA kits and two turbos. At best, the 1.6 makes 219 bhp and 179.88 foot-pounds with a Stage 2 turbo, or 227 bhp and 189.00 foot-pounds with a Stage 3 NA kit. All of this is mated to a 4-speed transmission which can't handle anything over 124 mph, which means full-customizable gears are needed eventually if one wants to get any faster.   

Put all that aside for now, though. There's brighter things to discuss.

 

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-------------CHASSIS / HANDLING--------------


GT4
So the 117 isn't fiendish with power (or even available power), how does it handle? I thought I would do something a little different for this section, and imagined this car really being bought as a second-hand auto with 44,115.5 miles on its odometer. Its chassis is loose, its engine needs new oil + a tune-up, and its tires are old type bias plys, not necessarily bald, but also not new rubber. I have no idea if the 117 ran on bias plys or radials, so bear with me.

Driving on N1 tires
To start, I let "Bob" do a few laps at Nürburgring before I took the wheel. This way, there is something to compare against.

When driving on these crappy tires, the 117 Coupe is obviously at its worst behavior. It is a smallish GT (true), which helps so far as finessing into and out of corners goes, but there's lots of work needed to get the car doing what needs to be done. Understeer predominates, of course. This is GT4, after all. But with lots (and LOTS) of braking, the 117 Coupe does get thru most curves, corners, and kinks in a rather neutral fashion. But it must be driven slowly for this to happen. Mostly, tires are to blame for the understeer. The real-life car was equipped with 165/HR-14s, which means they were rather narrow. Not good. PD obviously modeled these tires, and proudly so.

The car has a solid rear axle, probably borrowed from one of Isuzu's small trucks of the late '60s. Theoretically, this could cause the rear to dance with 'axle-hop' under power and over bumps, although I have never noticed this effect so far like I have when driving some American or British pony / muscle / sports cars, even with power maxed-up. The 117 might certainly become ponycar-ish if there were even more power to play with.

Also not helping us is the 117's stock ground clearance of 7.08 inches (180 mm). This is extraordinarily high! Perhaps Japan had some crappy roads at the time, and needed their cars highish to compensate, but this is part of the reason the 117 has a habit of leaning, pitching, and swaying into turns. Granted, once I learned this car, I found I could use all this extraneous motion to get the 117 facing into a desireable cornering line, but doing so also risks the chance that those tires could suddenly lose it all. And then, it's helllooooo Mr. Understeer!!!

Driving on N2 tires
So let's dismount the dryrotted bias-plys for  some fresher, newer radials. Everything gets better. The car has a wider range of possibilities, although it is still no Lotus Elan. With these better tires, there is a better chance of being able to "tease" the 117 into other behaviours than just understeer and swaying/leaning. Granted, the car must still be driven syrupy-slow, and must be braked heavily, but with better tires it now grabs more forcefully into various turns. Its front also grabs with better grip, causing the rear to lightly dance with lift-off oversteer mid-corner. As it swings around, it's now possible to use the rear more forcefully while gassing out. The 117 starts to throttlesteer slightly (helpful during the 'Ring's longer, higher-speed curves), even getting too sideways at times!
 
But entry must still be carefully done, especially into high-speed areas like Flügplatz. Don't brake or steer enough? Understeer thanks us as it walks into our home, as if it got a proper invitation to the party. And it's our fault. :(

Driving with N3 tires
I always like to think of the difference between N2 and N3 tires as comparing all-season radials to warm-weather ones, so far as dry-pavement driving in GT4 is concerned. Grip gets raised, so the 117 Coupe now feels more and more confident. Unfortunately, understeer on-entry must still be avoided, but it's now possible (on these tires) to more-accurately predict how much understeer will show up on-exit, and then let it push anyways while keeping an acceptable line. In other words, the car understeers into turns if braking is insufficient; but while leaving these same turns, it's possible to start figuring how  much understeer will show up under power, and then let the car understeer anyways. If you do it right, you'll find yourself inches away from some grass, yet able enough to constantly avoid it.

That being said, the 117 Coupe starts to become a very predictable machine. Very fun. It's now possible to confidently slide around, too, although the car won't start to truely drift unless power is vastly raised.

Once power is raised, issues start to appear, even if the car is on Sport tires. A lot of the N-tire sliding goes away, so the main issue will usually be wheelspin that shows up as the car leans heavily, and that inside-rear tire loses traction. This can be totally cured with a 1-way differential. Install one of these, and you'll never ever have to worry about traction, even with full power.

I sort of flubbed the end of this review, and didn't actually drive the car around the 'Ring on Sport tires, but I did do a few FR Challenge races on Sports. But you can figure the rest out, right? Understeer still prevails, the car still heavily leans, yet grip does get better with Sports of any grade. 

GT5
Although I didn't take my little 'experiment' as far as I did in this game, I did drive a 117 Coupe on comfort medium and soft tires. This happened during the World Classic Car Cup, and I can safely say (as usual) there is a huge difference from GT4 to 5.

The 117's understeer is about half of what it was. That's the good news. Oversteer is now the overlord in this situation. I was bitching and complaining that the car in GT4 should have had more 'axle-hop'? Well, we still haven't got any of this, but overall the rear is now a lot more alive. It reminds me of a British lightweight car, perhaps a Spitfire, only it's taller and heavier.

Braking is horrid in this game, in this car, and coming down from high speed (at the end of the Mulsanne at Sarthe) led to a couple disasterous losses. Even though the car was not sliding, the amount of straight-line braking (I made sure to start early) needed to slow this car now seems to be doubled, when compared to GT4. I am sure even if ABS was turned on, we'd still be having some problems with braking. We can work with this, though.

One of the delights is that the 117 hasn't got such good high-speed stability, and it's also not so hot with low-speed stability, but its lower-speed action is always at least fun. The car's always reacting, diving, and rolling during turns. It's a nightmare for a n00b driver, but for someone more experienced; what a lot of fun. There isn't enough torque to spin this car (not with some discretion, at least) but we can still use body-sway and throttlesteer, sometimes throttle-oversteer, to get this car swinging and swaying through slower areas. Bouncing over curbs, and getting slightly sideways during off-camber shoulders. This car seems like it really enjoys cornering, even if it's not so spectacular at it.

But like I said earlier, the best part is the lack of understeer. The 117 does push a bit at times, but it's something which can easily be avoided, too. Understeer is as predictable as a bad reality TV show in this car, which is to say that it's something which the driver will start to intuit often before it happens. It's not such a constant annoyance as it was in GT4. And (just as in GT4), the rear's habit of getting too loose and/or smoking out of slower areas can still be easily cured with differential work.           

So, an acceptable effort overall by the likes of Isuzu. Who knows...if they had better sales, perhaps Isuzu would have been truely competing alongside the other Japanese giants we have today. But I think the automotive consumer world can only handle so much, don't you agree? We already have Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, and Subaru making sporty cars, and sometimes even they have trouble making sales with them.

Isuzu did the right thing by leaving their mark in the world of the GT, and letting it go at the right moment. But the 117 Coupe does deserve some respect, and has reason to be studied and remembered.  
 

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PROS-------------------------------------------

1). A nice price/not too expensive. Always a bargain.

2). Handsome Italian look that was actually designed by an Italian styling house, not merely an imitation shop from El Segundo. Ha ha. Just the right amount of chrome mixed in with several other touches, like those hood-mounted mirrors and dual tailpipes.

3). Light weight, although PD apparently goofed this lower than it should have been.

4). Well-thought power/redline area which makes shifting gears easy to command, and still make peak every time.

5). That zippy-sounding engine. Listen to those cams!

6). Acceptably manueverable, mostly due to its body shape and small dimensions. GT5's car has more sway & shimmy to it.

7). Several turbo and NA kits can be had.

8). Nice to drive a JDM auto from the '60s that isn't yet another Skyline.

9). Lots of events we can race this one under, some of them very high-paying.

CONS-------------------------------------------

1). Low-power, low torque. Acceleration of a mail truck.

2). Power upgrades don't lend much of a hand, since 230 bhp is all we can play with at tops in GT4. Best power (Stage 3 NA kit) costs a bundle, too.

3).  Some services such as port/polishing only add like 3 horses, after spending lots of credits. 

4). Swampy brakes.

5). 4-speed tranny has a low ceiling.

6). Narrow tires grant us plenty of frightening behaviors once we're really pushing this car during races. Mostly understeer in GT4, of course, but also some skittishness, traction-loss, and blown cornering lines. Let's add excessive oversteer to this for GT5. Extensive tuning will be needed to cure all this (not true of a first-gen Celica or Skyline GT-R, for instance).

7). High ride-height leads to lots of leaning. Even a sport or semi-racing suspension  won't lower the car enough for truely good track prowess, although they do help. 


Published: December 24, 2009
GT5 info: August 13, 2013
  

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