Doug Drives: Is Old-School Rebadging Dead?

doug drives is old school rebadging dead

So I got up behind a Dodge Grand Caravan the other day and I started thinking about my youth. This is because, in my youth, the Dodge Grand Caravan was an acceptable vehicle to drive, and not something you were stuck with when Enterprise ran out of full-size sedans.

There are two reasons for this: 1. Back in the day, the Dodge Caravan didn’t really have any competitors, so we didn’t really know that there were better options out there. Honda had the hinged-door Odyssey. Toyota had the weird-ass Previa. It was a mess; more importantly, 2. There were so many different versions of the Dodge Caravan that you were pretty much stuck buying a Dodge Caravan even if you actively avoided buying a Dodge Caravan.

The funny thing is that back then they all looked identical. Sure, there were some color changes here and some wheel updates there, but they were the same van. Even as a young child, this was clear to me. And it should’ve been clear to their drivers because there was a Chrysler Pentastar on the steering wheel no matter which one you had. These cars were so obviously rebadged clones of one another that they couldn’t be bothered to even change the horn pad to include every manufacturer’s logo. This was the really, really disappointing era of rebadging automobiles. (Also, Plymouth had no discernible logo at any time in my life. They never bothered to think one up.)

You don’t see this crap anymore. In fact, even though I’m young myself, I chuckle when I hear people my age or younger talking about “rebadges.” I heard the other day, for instance, that the Lexus ES is a “rebadged” Toyota Avalon. This is laughable. It’s like saying that central air conditioning is a rebadged ceiling fan.

Yes, the Avalon and the ES ride on the same platform and they share mechanicals. But my God, are these two cars not rebadged. Rebadging was when General Motors had four midsize sedans in the 1980s and literally slapped different badges on each one, while simultaneously changing things like the wheel covers and the shape of the head rests. The Avalon and ES are so different that even a small child could point them out in a parking lot. “That’s grandma’s car!” he would say.

In modern times, automakers don’t really do the rebadge thing anymore because they’ve discovered that most people are just too smart for it. Back in the 1990s, when there was no Internet, you kind of had to know your stuff to know that rebadging was going on. If you were a loyal Mercury guy and you went down to the Mercury dealer to get the latest thing, you weren’t necessarily aware that the Villager was just a Nissan Quest with different wheels. You probably thought Mercury was on to something with this cool new van.

But now, there’s no hiding a blatant rebadge, so automakers have generally stopped trying it. The only real exception I can think of is the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S, which are so pathetically rebadged that they even share the same wheels. Even during GM’s darkest rebadge days, even when the Taurus and the Sable shared everything but tail lights, even when the Dodge Spirit and the Plymouth Acclaim could only be distinguished by a glance at their rusting trunk lid, they always changed the wheels.

The funny thing about the BRZ and FR-S is — despite the fact that this is the most blatant, pathetic, disappointing, laughable automotive rebadge since the Mercury Tracer — everyone swears these two cars are different. Have you noticed this? Seriously. Ask a BRZ guy and he will swear up and down that the FR-S is worse. Ask an FR-S guy and he will pause his video game to swear up and down that the BRZ is worse. At the same time, the rest of us go around completely unsure which is which, afraid to offend people, sort of like anyone who enters a modern college campus.

But the BRZ and FR-S are outliers; unusual cars cut from an unusual cloth. The reality of today’s world is that the majority of “old school” rebadges are completely, totally, finished. Certain rebadge-heavy brands — like Mercury, Plymouth, and Pontiac — are gone. Model lineups have been re-tooled so they don’t all have the same products. And when an automaker does share platforms, they do it in a way that the vast majority of car shoppers are totally unaware of.

Well, there is one other exception, actually: the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Chrysler Town & Country. Not that it really matters when you’re picking it up from Enterprise.

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  • Pacificpom2 Pacificpom2 on Dec 23, 2015

    Dodge Journey/Fiat Freemont, but only in Australia. Fiat's in Europe, Dodge in the rest of the world until you come to Oz. Then its a mix of Dodge and Fiat at the same dealership. Want 4 cylinders? See the Fiat side of the shop. Want diesel? See the fiat side of the shop, anything else is Dodge. The other thing that has come out of badge engineering is the same lousy customer service centres for both brands.

  • Bachewy Bachewy on Dec 23, 2015

    Hey, we had one of those weird-ass Previas and put 180k miles on it - and it was still running great! They were sure much better than the truck-based Ford Aerostars and Windstars rusting on the lots. Don't even get me started on the terrible build quality of GM and Dodge/Chrysler vans of the same time.

  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • FreedMike It's not that consumers wouldn't want this tech in theory - I think they would. Honestly, the idea of a car that can take over the truly tedious driving stuff that drives me bonkers - like sitting in traffic - appeals to me. But there's no way I'd put my property and my life in the hands of tech that's clearly not ready for prime time, and neither would the majority of other drivers. If they want this tech to sell, they need to get it right.
  • TitaniumZ Of course they are starting to "sour" on the idea. That's what happens when cars start to drive better than people. Humanpilots mostly suck and make bad decisions.
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