Rebadge Chaos: A Look Back
Today, we’re going to talk rebadges. I know what you’re thinking: a TTAC post about rebadges. Here comes an assault on General Motors. You can almost hear the GM PR department groaning, except for the recently departed Joel Ewanick, who doesn’t have time to groan because he’s too busy putting out a garage fire. But I’m going to leave GM out of this. Mostly. Instead, I’m going to focus on some of the more obscure rebadges from the last few decades. They were all badly conceived. Most were poorly executed. And none of them should’ve happened.
I have to start with my all-time favorite rebadge, which is the first-generation Honda Crossroad. I say the first generation because there’s a second-gen out there now and it looks like the love child of a Nissan Cube and a bulldog. But the first-gen instead resembled a Series I Land Rover Discovery, because it was a Series I Land Rover Discovery, just with the square Honda emblems quite literally placed in the Land Rover oval’s round pegs.
It would be cool to have go-anywhere Land Rover cachet with Honda reliability, right? Well, this was the exact opposite: Honda badging, which carries little cachet outside a reputation for reliability, and Land Rover construction, which is generally a good place to start a garage fire investigation. Unless you’re at Joel Ewanick’s house. The Crossroad went on sale in Japan and a few other unlucky countries in 1993 before being cancelled in 1998, presumably due to embarrassment.
But the Crossroad wasn’t the only embarrassing car to emerge from Honda’s alliance with Rover. You can still see rebadged Honda Civics driving around Europe as the Rover 400, though maybe only in Swindon. Honda also lent the Ballade and Concerto to Rover for the 200, while the Euro Accord became the 600. That meant during the 1990s, virtually every Rover driving (slowly) around Britain was actually a Honda underneath. Despite the quality this implied, sales remained confined to old-age pensioners who would’ve bought a car made of wood if it had a windshield, a motor, and came from Mother England. Hell, they actually do this: it’s called Morgan.
There’s still more from Honda. Most Americans are unaware that the Acura EL (and later, the CSX) is an upscale Honda Civic that’s been available in Canada since 1997. Naturally, the car is mediocre, though it included major changes from the Civic like different taillights and a larger center console. Nothing says luxury like a larger center console. I have a theory that Acura has been moderately successful with the car simply because Canadians are too polite to refuse it. And some are so polite they actually buy it, but only so Honda’s feelings aren’t hurt.
Of course, many of us know about some of Honda’s more widely publicized rebadge flops – but if you don’t, I suggest putting “Isuzu Oasis,” “Acura SLX,” and “Honda Passport” into Google Images. Sales were so poor, you certainly won’t find any on the road.
Speaking of Passport, we now must follow the lead set by every other rebadge article and introduce General Motors. But in a rare twist, I won’t mention the Cadillac Cimarron. Except just now. Instead, I’m calling out Passport International Automobiles.
Named like the kind of thing Malcolm Bricklin would’ve attempted to force on America, Passport was actually a GM brand in Canada. Passport dealers sold Saab and Isuzu, but also the Passport Optima – a rebadged Opel Kadett E, sold in the states as the Pontiac LeMans. Not the LeMans that underpinned the GTO, mind you, but the front-drive 1980s subcompact later sold in Southeast Asia as the Daewoo Heaven. Yes, the Heaven. I swear this is true.
As expected, Passport was a flop. Also as expected, GM learned from its mistake by trying the same thing again, except on a grander scale. It jettisoned Passport in favor of Asüna, complete with an umlaut, apparently in deference to GM’s favorite heavy metal bands. Or maybe it was a Häagen-Dazs-style attempt to sell the brand as an exotic European automaker – a plot that failed to convince even the most polite Canadians, who apparently have no qualms about hurting GM’s feelings.
Asüna died in 1995 along with all three of its products: another Kadett rebadge called the SE or GT depending on bodystyle; the Asüna Sunrunner, better known as the Geo Tracker or Suzuki Sidekick; and the Asüna Sunfire, which was not – as you may expect – a Pontiac Sunfire twin, but rather a rebadged Isuzu Impulse.
The Impulse also factors into our next bizarre rebadge story, which entangles Detroit, Seoul, and … Hethel. You see, in the midst of all this rebadging, GM somehow found the time to buy Lotus, then a fledgling British underdog untainted by Malaysians and Dany Bahar’s four-figure haircuts.
Deciding a little cost-cutting was in order, GM commissioned an all-new Elan, powered by the Impulse’s four-cylinder Isuzu motor. After the Elan’s run, which resulted in a record half the cars leaving Hethel in working order, Kia rebadged the car in South Korea as the Kia Elan. Aside from new badging and wheels, Kia’s only change was to add the words “Ultra Power” in capital letters on the engine block. Really. I can only assume the ensuing electrical problems and leaking roofs scarred Kia for life, as they haven’t returned to the sports car market since. (Cue angry e-mails from the Forte Koup forum.)
Probably inspired by Oliver North, Kia was buying rebadged sports cars from Lotus just as they were selling subcompact hatchbacks to Ford. Remember the Festiva and the Aspire? Both were rebadged Kia Prides. Ford took its Asian fetish well beyond Korea, snagging a huge interest in Mazda by the mid-1990s. The most (un)forgettable rebadge to come out of that kinship was the Mazda Navajo, a two-door Ford Explorer clone released at the height of demand for the four-door Ford Explorer.
Of course, you can’t discuss Japanese-American auto relations without a shout-out to the “mediocre mashup,” which is the only possible way of describing the union of Chrysler and Mitsubishi. Like a couple D students working together on a school project while sharing a bowl, virtually everything these two made was an instant failure. We’ll start with two products called Raider. The first was a 1980s Mitsubishi Montero sold as the Dodge Raider, which loudly announced its owners weren’t buying American with badging that read “Imported for Dodge.”
Payback came in the form of the Dodge Dakota-clone Mitsubishi Raider, which debuted for 2006. Taking its cue from the earlier Raider, or possibly the Oakland Raiders, the Mitsubishi version was also a failure. This was in spite of massive incentives Mitsubishi had on the truck, which included “zero percent forever” and “buy two, become the dealer principal.”
Aside from the DSM cars, the only thing Chryslerbishi got right was the Starion, a sports car that preceded the Mitsubishi 3000GT. But Chrysler even managed to screw that up thanks to a naming strategy that gave every one of its brands a turn. The Plymouth Conquest and Dodge Conquest were first, while the Chrysler Conquest later replaced both. I’d like to tell you this is the only nameplate ever sold by three brands, but Chrysler actually repeated its feat with the Neon, also sold with Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth badging.
So there you have it, folks: a little obscure rebadge history. Maybe you learned something, maybe you had a chuckle, maybe you’re Joel Ewanick and you want me dead. But no matter what, I’m sure the comments will be littered with tales of even more obscure rebadges. Bring ‘em on.
Doug DeMuro has owned an E63 AMG wagon, roadtripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute laptime 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.
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