By on April 4, 2022

In the Eighties and Nineties, General Motors of Canada decided to try new distribution strategies for its imported cars. Like in the recent Dodge Colt series, General Motors had its own captive import cars and trucks that were manufactured by other brands. But because of dealership arrangements in Canada, GM took things a step further than Chrysler and established a separate distribution network for its imported wares. The efforts lead to the thrilling Passport and Asüna brands for the Canadian market. First up, Passport.

General Motors of Canada Limited applied for a trademark on the Passport name on June 2nd, 1987. The company’s full name was Passport International Automobiles, and it was introduced to an excited Canadian public that summer for the 1988 model year. Passport was a sort of precursor to a new brand south of the border that arrived in 1989 – Geo. Initially, Geo was not sold in Canada but we’ll talk more about that later.

The Passport lineup went a bit further than just some captive imports, however, and was even beyond the purposes of Geo: It sold an amalgamation of cars from across GM’s portfolio. Passport served as an outlet for whatever didn’t fit onto lots at the mainstream GM dealerships in Canada. There was exactly one vehicle that received Passport branding, and it was a doozy. Say hello to the Optima.

You’d know it south of the border as the Pontiac LeMans, while the rest of the world would call it various different names: 1.5i, Pointer, Runner, Racer, and later, the Cielo. The LeMans was on GM’s front-drive T-body, used generally for European offerings like the Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Astra. The Kadett E served as the basis for the LeMans. Long-lived, the T was underneath many reasonably priced cars from GM and remained in use until 2016. That year was the final one for the LeMans, as it finally went out of licensed production in China.

Though engineered by GM’s Opel arm, the LeMans and Optima for North American consumption were built in Incheon, South Korea. Unlike Optima, which was an unfamiliar name to consumers, Pontiac’s LeMans had a long history and the Korean hatchback was absolutely an affront to the badge. GM repeated this folly with the Corolla-Nova. The new Optima was available with three doors as a hatchback, four doors as a sedan, and as a five-door hatch.

And so the Optima became the one and only Passport vehicle available at the “Canada-wide Passport network” GM established, with dealers dotted across the nation (though concentrated in Downtown, Canada). It was transformed from a Daewoo to a Passport via a little Passport badge up front, and some Optima badges in the grille and at the rear. Of course, the Optima alone would not a dealership fill, so GM got a little wild with the vehicles it parked at Passport lots. The primary purpose (as there was no Geo yet) was actually the distribution of Isuzu passenger cars.

There was no Isuzu dealership network in Canada outside trucks, so the full Isuzu line appeared at Passport. The lineup was made up of the sporty i-Mark and Impulse, along with the Stylus hatchback, and SUVs in the form of the Rodeo and Trooper/II. The Pickup truck was there too. Retailed as Isuzu via your Passport dealer, none of the Isuzus had any exterior Passport badging.

A full lineup then, one Korean and several Japanese cars available at your local Passport dealer? No, not quite. Passport also distributed Saab models, given Saab had only the 900 and 9000 at the time. It’s almost hard to imagine walking into a dealership and being presented with an Isuzu Pickup next to a Saab 9000. But that was the case. Advertising seemed to focus on the Optima and Isuzu models, your author can’t find any that show Saabs.

In any event, the dealership chain’s sales were slow. There was little interest in the Optima. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data available, but it’s suggested that in 1988 there were just over 2,000 total Optimas and i-Marks sold, and 2,150 trucks and SUVs. 1989 was a bit better, with 5,087 total cars and 4,204 truck items.

There was more promising product coming too, as Saturn was about to come online. Saturns were to arrive at Passport dealers midway through the 1992 model year (Saturn’s Canadian debut), but it was not to be. In 1991 GM brought the hammer down and killed off the Passport name. Passport dealers were not closed down but were rebranded into simply named Saturn-Saab-Isuzu outlets. Perhaps GM thought customers would stop in more often if the name was more directly on the tin.

The change made the Optima an orphan as the only true Passport vehicle. So it was discontinued after 1991, and the LeMans appeared at Pontiac dealers in 1992. South of the border, the unloved Pontiac LeMans continued on sale through 1993. The LeMans would end up a single-year offering in Canada, as the little hatchback continued its identity crisis: The following year it was sold under another all-new and Canada-only GM brand called Asüna.

Created because of the interesting way GM Canada was arranged, Asüna picked up the pieces of Isuzu and shaved off some Geos to keep the dealership lines fed. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

An interesting aside: Although GM was definitely finished with the Passport trademark by 1991, it was renewed in August 2005 through August of 2020. GM Canada held the trademark through October of 2014 when it was inactivated because of non-use.

[Images: GM]

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26 Comments on “Abandoned History: General Motors’ Passport and Asüna, Total Brand Confusion (Part I)...”


  • avatar
    MitchConner

    Kind of an Island of Misfit Toys. Should’ve hired Yukon Cornelius as spokesman. Would’ve moved a lot of stuff around Christmas.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Here’s what it takes to (not) sell to Canadians?

    Properly equipped (with the turbo engine and “Lotus” suspension), the Impulse was legit.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      @FreedMike

      Not in an Alberta snowstorm. That dreck ends up in ditches – sometimes on purpose, I’d imagine. Isuzu Rodeo or Trooper FTW.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Well, yeah, performance cars aren’t ideal for snowstorms.

        • 0 avatar
          ToolGuy

          “performance cars aren’t ideal for snowstorms”

          I question the validity of this particular sweeping generalization (or was it hasty).

          А) Quattro with snow tires – any good in slick conditions? [Don’t ask me – I don’t spend money on VW products]

          Б) I am picturing in my small, plebeian mind a relatively heavy vehicle (perhaps produced in “California Republic”?) with motors at both ends and the ability to modulate torque to each wheel and wondering how it would manage with a good set of snow tires. But is it possible to have a “performance” vehicle which doesn’t burn petrol?

          • 0 avatar
            SilverCoupe

            My ’89 Supra Turbo with summer tires was impossible to drive in the snow, and sometimes difficult in merely wet conditions.

            The ’00 Audi TT Quattro I replaced it with, and the ’08 Audi A5 Quattro that followed, both with all-season tires, have been fine – and they would of course be even better if I got snows.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    ….can’t wait till you get to the curiously monickered “Asuna”……the early 90’s “Sunrunner” model (think Tracker/Sidekick} is now reaching serious collectible status…..

  • avatar
    377

    Interesting article, Corey! It was fun shopping at the Passport dealer because of the weird selection of cars. The Isuzu trucks sold reasonably well, and the Impulse was a very unique offering.

    One correction: Passport never carried Saab until they switched over to Saturn-Saab-Isuzu.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    ‘Designed by world-renowned Opel of Germany’

    At this point in time in Germany, Opels were considered boring and cheap cars beneath even Volkswagen. There was nothing ‘world-renowned’ about them.

    The Opel Kadett E was a cheap, throw-away car that began its path towards extinction in the mid- to late-1990s. These days you might see a sporty GSi 2-Door model at a car show, but that’s all.

  • avatar
    wolfwagen

    That dealership photo makes me yearn for an Isuzu Trooper II and pick up. Simple fairly rugged vehicles.

  • avatar
    statikboy

    I remember noticing Asünas collecting buggies at my grocery store job in 1991-98 and I realized at the time that they were rebadges of various other brands, but I have no recollection of Passport. That map shows that we had a dealership in East-Central Downtown South Suburbian Hicktown, BC. I imagine that it was the original outlet on the Saturn-Saab-Isuzu site. Must have been just before my autodar kicked in.

  • avatar
    statikboy

    Corey, thanks for picking up my suggestion. I’ve been wanting a read up on Asüna for a while.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Question: What about Honda? They used the Passport name twice…

    First on a North American re-badge of the Super Cub (late 70s-early 80s), and later on a re-badge of the Isuzu Rodeo (94-02, revived in 2019).

    How come they didn’t get bent about GM using the Passport name?

    • 0 avatar

      They can’t say much if they don’t own the trademark at the time. Gotta maintain and use your trademarks.

      • 0 avatar
        eggsalad

        “Although GM was definitely finished with the Passport trademark by 1991, it was renewed in August 2005 through August of 2020. GM Canada held the trademark through October of 2014 when it was inactivated because of non-use.”

        Oh, now I’ve learned that Honda did not sell the original Isuzu-based Passport in Canada and began selling the current model in ’19.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      Didn’t the Isuzu-produced Passport come about as part of deal to supply Honda with the small SUV it didn’t have in its lineup in exchange for a for a Isuzu-badged Honda for Isuzu? GM/Isuzu may have had approval to take over the Passport trademark as part of the deal.

  • avatar
    FAHRVERGNUGEN

    I do get the sense that some companies have an innate need or urgency to simply bleed off excess cash in business moves designed to fail, and epically at that.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    Yeah, it’s a weird short-lived story, Passport. You w
    onder who the genius at GM was who came up with the idea. They used to send up wunderkind from Detroit to run GM Canada as a sort of training ground for future fast-track execs, to give ’em danger snow pay as a bonus, and to get that certain “foreign” experience 250 miles away from HQ under their belts. Or send ’em off to Australia to run Holden if they liked surfing and beer. Or to Russelheim smog to “run” Opel.

    The whole Passport dealer saga of ’89 to ’92 was over so quickly, it hardly registered on your average car-buying person here. The Passport dealer at 3367 Kempt Road in Halifax (my hometown) mentioned in the big ad shown, wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall built into the side of a hill. Think they sold BMWs there before that. There was a bunch of little dealers flogging Porsche and Saab/Saturn and Volvo and Innocenti all in a row like a strip mall, and highly inconvenient to park at. Most people didn’t bother. The Mercedes dealer was in the middle of a slum, and sold Subaru as a sideline, not far from the Jag dealer which was the last remnant of British Leyland. All cleaned up now and with nothing to sell of course these days due to the worldwide french fry shortage. On top of the aforementioned hill is now a very large concrete bunker built by Audi, and Porsche has just built a mini-bunker below it. The Porsche address? Why, it’s that selfsame 3367 Kempt Road! I imagine they’ll be sprucing up the Volvo dealer at 3377 next. It needs it.

    Now what was the Honda Passport, you ask? It first arrived for ’93 and was a badge-engineered Isuzu Rodeo. How they must have roared with laughter in Ohio at “stealing” the Canadian trademark GM name for use in the USA! I’ve been so disinterested in trucks and SUVs, I cannot even remember if Honda sold the Passport under that name in Canada. Or at all.

    The Optima/Pontiac Luh Monz as realized by Daewoo as compared to the actual Kadett made by Opel in Germany was a rotten little piece of junk, and the original was no great shakes as it was. Car and Driver crucified the Le Mans. The Daewoo version couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding and merely cantered down the Mulsanne straight, wheezing mightily. The Optima name resurfaced as a Kia in 2000 of course, when Kia also made the Rio and other assorted junk, being only three years out of bankruptcy and 51% owned by Hyundai who had picked up the pieces, having outbid GM. Kias soon became Hyundais under the skin, which was a good thing.

    All the widdly assing around made me suspicious of Korean cars at the time and ever since. GM anted up and bought bankrupt Daewoo Motor Sales in 1999 instead, after that outfit had used college students in the US to sell cars and get a free trip to Korea. Remember that horse manure of a scam? By 2006, we had Daewoo rebranded as Chevrolet selling such sterling cars as the Epica and Aveo. At least GM Daewoo then buckled down and designed the first Chevy Cruze and sold it themselves as the Lacetti. GM of course made the Cruze in Lordstown, and kept Opel out of the project except for using Opel engines made god knows where. Good car though compared to the Cobalt, although the steering felt like those spring coil chest exercisers of yore — boingy.

    Automakers. You gotta love ’em. GM usually took the cake though. They had a big percentage of Fiat and sold it back to them for $2 billion in 2005 when Marchionne first appeared on the scene, then shoveled the money into a stake in Subaru a year later. No wonder Wagoner lost $70 billion in GM “blue-chip” stock value between 2000 and 2007, then fizzled the whole charade into bankruptcy.

    • 0 avatar
      statikboy

      “By 2006, we had Daewoo rebranded as Chevrolet selling such sterling cars as the Epica and Aveo.”

      The biggest travesty of that whole scenario was Suzuki rebadging the Aveo as a Swift(+). The earlier iterations of the Swift were great cars, built to a purpose. The Aveo was a perfect example of a bad compromise.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Asüna Matata.

  • avatar
    BunkerMan

    My first car was a 1992 Saturn SL1. It was purchased at Passport of Moncton, the local Saturn Saab Isuzu dealer.

    I still remember looking at the Saturn sitting next to a Saab and an Isuzu Trooper in the dealership. Even then it felt weird.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Another great series Corey. Looking forward to the history of the Lincoln Marks that you promised. After that what about a look at Canadian Pontiacs. I understand that they, Canadian Meteors and Beaumonts are now considered as coveted collectibles.

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