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Whatever happened to Isuzu? One of Japan’s smallest automakers, the company brought us the Ascender SUV and the i-series midsize pickup truck line. What happened? When did the automaker leave? What has Isuzu been doing since exiting the U.S. market?

The story of Isuzu

The automaker that brought us trucks like Amigo, Hombre, and Rodeo, Isuzu had an almost three-decade run in the U.S. Isuzu had a reputation for affordable, dependable vehicles and sold 127,630 cars and trucks in 1986, its biggest year. If the automaker had sold that many vehicles in the U.S., they would have outsold Audi, Hummer, Infiniti, Land Rover, Porsche, Saab, and more.

20 years later in 2007, Isuzu only managed to sell 11,300 vehicles. That’s down from 103,937 sold in 1999.  Only 7,000 were passenger vehicles, according to Ward’s Automotive Reports, including 4,000 pickup trucks and 3,000 Ascender units.

Many don’t realize that Isuzu was a pioneer, putting forth SUVs for an American market at the perfect time. The Rodeo, a top-selling mid-size SUV import, sold 45,257 units in 1992 and 48,903 units in 1993. The brand showed perpetual growth throughout the ’90s. By the 2000s, however, competition from Japanese rivals with light-trucks in targeted segments slowed sales.

The Honda Passport, a version of the popular Rodeo, was built by Isuzu. It sold from 1994 to 2002 and was Honda’s first truck on the U.S. market.  Isuzu also built the SLX, a luxury SUV for Acura, from 1996 to 1999, modeling it after the Isuzu Trooper.

What happened to Isuzu in the American market?

So what happened? At the time Isuzu made the decision to withdraw from the U.S. Market in January 2009, their partner of many years, General Motors, was heading for bankruptcy. They’d decided to discontinue producing the Ascender SUV, which was based on Chevy’s Trailblazer, and its small pickup truck platform.

Until 2002, Isuzu shared an assembly plant in Indiana with Subaru. When the arrangement ended due to money problems, Isuzu’s business in America was dependent on GM vehicles that it rebadged.

Even before all that, Isuzu Motors experienced its own financial hardship by the late ’90s. They couldn’t make much of a profit in the U.S. because they weren’t able to secure any commercially viable vehicles to replace the ones they were losing from GM.

They weren’t the only foreign automakers who pulled out of the U.S. market in that time frame. In 2012, fellow Japanese automaker Suzuki pulled out of the United States. So did Daihatsu who produced the Charade subcompact and the small Rocky SUV from 1988 through 1992.

How is the company doing today?

Isuzu is still around and things are looking up for the company. In December 2019,  Swedish automaker Volvo announced it would sell its Japan-based UD Trucks to Isuzu Motors. The deal was worth $2.3 billion. It’s part of an alliance that will see the two automakers share advanced technology for electric and self-driving trucks. Their combined efforts can also help reduce development costs.

With the rise of electric vehicles, autonomous cars, and other emerging technology, such partnerships are becoming more common among automakers wishing to remain competitive.  

The merger will free up cash for Volvo since the Japanese truck market is competitive but not making a lot of money. It’s a good move for Volvo who competes with China’s Dongfeng Motor, Germany’s Daimler, and India’s Tata Motors. The deal between Isuzu and Volvo will be complete by the end of 2020.

The partnership will benefit Isuzu, a specialist in diesel engine technology, by giving it access to Volvo’s electric truck technology. This technology is already in use in distribution and sanitation trucks. Specializing in light to medium-sized trucks, the company takes on UD Trucks which offer more heavy-duty models along with some mid-duty pickups.