You never really know what ideas will be successful in the auto industry. In the early 1990s, for example, a guy at Subaru actually said the following: “I know! Let’s raise the Legacy an inch, change its name, and paint the bottom part gold!” When you really think about it, this sounds no stupider than “Why isn’t there a version of the GMC Envoy for people who transport grandfather clocks?”
Of course, marketing is a big reason for success. While Outback commercials featured Crocodile Dundee in the bush (I swear this is not a lesbian joke), Envoy XUV ads glamorized the world of tree logistics. It should be no surprise, then, that one automaker went into bankruptcy while the other became a wild success story that eventually resulted in the Baja.
But there’s one auto industry idea I think we can all agree is a bad one, even if they put sexy Australian guys are in the commercials: the two-door SUV.
For my entire life and many years before that, automakers have been trying to “break in” to what some misguided market research must tell them is the lucrative two-door SUV market. In nearly every case, this has resulted in failure, and at least one automaker’s overall departure from the US market. Let’s revisit some of the highlights.
The Success Story
In an article about failed two-door SUVs, it seems only fair to first mention the sole success story: the Jeep Wrangler. Even in the darkest days at Chrysler (which lasted from 1972 until the new Durango came out last week with those LED taillights, a move that will undoubtedly save the company), the Jeep Wrangler served as a lone bright spot.
Of course, the Wrangler is popular. But it’s also a success because of its high residuals, its wealthy buyer base and its following among young people. It’s a cult icon, and it’s just as good at cruising the beach as it is climbing mountains. But it didn’t build its reputation overnight – a fact other automakers have, on occasion, forgotten when trying to create rivals.
The Wrangler Pretenders
The Wrangler seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to copy. Create a two-door SUV. Make it look like the kind of thing they use to cart around the Gitmo detainees. You don’t even need to add a roof. And yet…
The biggest screw-up here is Suzuki. Not because of the Sidekick/Vitara, now a failed two-door SUV in its own right, but because of a mid-‘90s offshoot called the X-90 that had T-tops and a trunk. Launch cars were painted purple, which only ever worked on the Plymouth Prowler – and based on the Prowler’s eventual spiral into oblivion, it didn’t work very well then, either. Suzuki pulled the X-90 from production after only a year and a half.
Another soft top Wrangler wannabe was the original Kia Sportage, which came as a two-door even though you’ve never seen one, presumably because the owners are hiding in shame. We all know about the Isuzu Amigo, later renamed Rodeo Sport to inspire sales success like Taurus X moniker was to revive the Ford Freestyle. (The results were about as good.)
The original Toyota RAV4 was also offered as a two-door for reasons completely unknown to anyone, especially the buying public. And you could get a two-door Land Rover Freelander, though no one did. Strangely, this didn’t stop Land Rover from resurrecting the two-door body style for the Range Rover Evoque, which records a sale every time Land Rover employees switch company cars.
Of course, it hasn’t all been Wrangler wannabes. The two-door SUV world has also been graced by an astonishing number of midsize models, not one of which was even a minor sales success. Where to start?
Well, there’s the Isuzu Trooper, whose two-door variant looks so top-heavy that Consumer Reports probably would’ve rolled it just by getting inside. There’s the Chevy Blazer and of course the GMC Jimmy, which managed to make it to a second generation before fading into automotive oblivion. The Ford Explorer Sport actually reached a third generation, which must be solely due to orders from Progressive Auto Insurance.
Nissan also tried its hand at a two-door Pathfinder, while Toyota stuck us with a two-door 4Runner until 1992. Undoubtedly sales of this model were enough to scare Toyota into adding four doors to the FJ Cruiser, even though the only purpose of the rear doors is to annoy front-seat occupants who must open their door every time a rear passenger wants to get in or out.
You may think I’m done, but unfortunately everyone took a turn in this game. There was a two-door Jeep Cherokee. Failure. The Mazda Navajo was a two-door Ford Explorer rebadge that flopped. There was a two-door Mitsubishi Montero and a two-door Dodge version called the Raider. All failures. And nearly all lasted only one generation.
You’d think at some point, someone would’ve stepped in and reminded everyone that two-door SUVs make no sense. They cost the same as their four-door brethren and offer far less utility. But they just kept going and going, possibly as a tool for automakers to threaten dealers. “You build that new facility or else your lot will be full of two-door Explorers! And they won’t be white, so you can’t sell them to Progressive!”
One reason for the litany of failed two-door SUVs is because three models were actually quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the Wrangler, they, too, inspired pretenders.
The Dodge Ramcharger, Chevy K5 Blazer and Ford Bronco were apparently pretty cool back in the day thanks to V8 power and sheer enormity. Of course, they, too, eventually failed. But back then, they passed for cool the same way that the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser passed for luxury. It was a simpler time.
The problem is that because these big two-doors were so popular, other automakers simply decided to follow suit and make two-doors of their own. The thought process was this: no one had any idea what would work in the early ‘90s, so why not try everything? A similar theory led to Ross Perot’s popularity as a presidential candidate.
The Most Persistent
While the early ‘90s may have been a time of experimentation, one brand sticks out for its persistence: Isuzu. The Trooper. The Amigo. The second-generation Amigo. The Rodeo Sport. And, eventually, the very most offensive two-door SUV of all: the VehiCROSS.
Styled like a mash-up of the Amigo and a child’s drawing of a spaceship, the VehiCROSS (note the capitalization; this was apparently important) was a weird plastic thing based on the Isuzu Trooper. I don’t want to say many mean things here because the VehiCROSS actually has a large following on the Internet, and I’m worried they’ll show up at my house, which will scare the neighborhood children. So I’ll stick to niceties. For example: the turn signals do a wonderful job indicating direction. Probably.
Actually, the VehiCROSS wasn’t all bad. Under the hood was a 3.5-liter V6 that made 215 horsepower, which is a big number considering it’s almost a foot shorter than a 1-Series. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to make it successful. Eventually, Isuzu just left the US market altogether in search of a place where they appreciate the VehiCROSS. They’re still looking.
The Lesson We’ve Learned
The lesson here is simple: please stop building two-door SUVs. A few years ago, the segment looked dormant. But with the Evoque and upcoming Mini Paceman, things seem to be heating up again.
To drive home my point, I return to the champ. Last year, the Jeep Wrangler recorded just over 141,000 sales. Of those, about 56,000 were two-doors. The remaining 85,000 – that’s 60 percent for all you Ross MBAs busily building a business case for a two-door Chevrolet Equinox – were sold with four doors. In other words, the two-door SUV world is starting to lose its king. And even Crocodile Dundee won’t be able to bring it back.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.