By on April 12, 2022

We started our coverage of GM’s Eighties and Nineties branding adventures last week, with the short-lived experiment that was Passport. The dealership network was an amalgamation of GM-owned or influenced brands from Japan, Sweden, and in the case of the Passport Optima, South Korea. Passport lasted from 1987 through 1991 before GM changed directions. In addition to axing an unsuccessful sales channel, Geo and Saturn cars had arrived during Passport’s tenure and made things more complicated. Let’s learn some more about GM’s Canadian dealership networks.

Aside from the aforementioned Passport dealers that became Saturn-Isuzu-Saab outlets during 1991, there were two main GM distribution networks that spanned the far reaches of the nation from Downtown Canada to other places that probably included Regina and Vancouver. Grouped together were Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac as one distribution, and Pontiac, Buick, and GMC as the other. These two main networks were supported by the new Saturn-Isuzu-Saab setup that sought to capture more “import” buyer business (a concept with which GM was obsessed from 1984 through roughly 2003).

While Pontiac dealers were gifted the orphan formerly known as the Passport LeMans in 1992, Chevrolet dealers sold the various Suzuki products (like the Spectrum) GM badged with a bowtie in the middle of the Eighties. That trend continued in 1989 when by default the cars sold as Geos in the United States were marketed as Chevrolet in Canada.

Geo was not introduced to Canada until 1992, but the Geo-cum-Chevrolets were pretty popular when they arrived at the end of the decade. That didn’t make the folks at Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealers too happy since the only Geo available to them was the Tracker, badged as a GMC. Dealers petitioned GM to cut them in on the action, and that lead to the creation of a new brand: Asüna.

GM filed for its declaration of use in Canada on May 20th, 1990, even before the official termination of its Passport. The brand itself was officially founded on April 12th, 1992. Asüna provided much promise to the sales staff at Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealers, who desperately wanted some of the small product Geo offered.

Let us remind ourselves that the GM lineup consisted of four total vehicles in 1993: Metro, Prizm (second-gen), Storm, and Tracker. The Prizm was the only vehicle in its second generation guise, as the others were still in original Eighties format. It was from this basis that Asüna constructed its small lineup.

The most promising offering in the new brand’s lineup was the Asüna version of the Tracker, the Sunrunner. The Tracker was available at Chevrolet dealerships across Canada in 1989 in its standard guises (hardtop, convertible, and five-door). Tracker remained under its Chevrolet banner until 1992 when it was renamed Geo Tracker but curiously kept its gold bowtie logos. In fact, the Geo Tracker in Canada always wore a Chevrolet badge, through the end of its first-generation production in 1998.

GMC had their own version of the Tracker, badged as such from 1989. There were limited differences other than badging, but CL in Chevrolet speak became the SLE trim at GMC dealers. 1991 was the final year for the GMC Tracker, as, unlike the Chevrolet version that was renamed Geo, its transformation into the Asüna Sunrunner included new badging.

The Sunrunner was the first Asüna available when it arrived for 1992. Underneath it was the Suzuki Vitara, often called the Escudo in other markets. Geo’s most recognizable model, the Tracker’s first generation ran from 1989 to 1998, at which point it switched to the second generation that was sold from 1999 through 2004. The Tracker outlived GM’s interest in special Geo branding and existed for the second half of its life as a Chevrolet.

Serving as the only Asüna vehicle that nobody actually wanted was GM Canada’s favorite orphan, the LeMans. After a single year as a Pontiac in 1992, 1993 saw the LeMans facelifted and turned into the Asüna SE and GT. The only difference in the new version was a new front clip and very slightly revised taillamps. It arrived a year after the Sunrunner was on dealer lots. The facelifted LeMans was sold in the US for a single model year, and its tenure at Asüna proved very short as well: 1993 was its only year. We discussed the history of the LeMans plenty in our last entry.

The third and final Asüna was the sportiest of the group, the Sunfire. Typically associated today with Pontiac, the Sunfire name was first applied to the Geo Storm to make it an Asüna. The Storm had been restricted from Canada, as the second-generation model was not imported as an Isuzu or a Geo in 1992. Asüna customers received the Sunfire only as a hatchback – the seldom-selected wagon version was off-limits.

The Sunfire and Storm were rebadges on the second generation of the Isuzu Impulse, or Piazza if you prefer. Though it was much more modern than its predecessor, the second generation lost a lot of its heart and soul. It was not designed by Giugiaro, it wasn’t rear-drive, and it didn’t last very long. Due to slow sales globally, Isuzu canceled the Impulse after just four model years. The Storm was not replaced in the Geo lineup, and it was the one and only time the brand had a sports compact on offer.

Though Geo sales continued in the US and Canada, Asüna was not so fortunate. The familiarity of the Canadian consumer with imported cars at Chevrolet dealers was too great for the good folks at the Pontiac dealer across the street to overcome. It didn’t help that the affordable and higher volume Metro and Prizm were not allowed to copy over to Asüna.

The only car to make it out of Asüna alive was the Sunrunner, which drove over to Pontiac showrooms in 1994. That year, GM allowed Pontiac dealers access to another Geo, the Metro. For Pontiac usage, Metro was rebranded and sold as the cheesy Firefly. The Pontiac Sunfire returned in 1995 as a redesigned J-body.

Unlike the Passport trademark that GM retained and renewed for some time, Asüna received much less attention. After its registration, it was never renewed. The Canadian government notified GM in February 2008 that the trademark was about to expire, but The General didn’t respond. Asüna was expunged from active status on September 18, 2008. Thus concludes the Passport and Asüna tale. Seven total years of brand experimentation that almost nobody remembers makes for perfect Abandoned History.

[Images: GM]

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


  • avatar
    sgeffe

    That Sunfire looks more like a first-generation I-Mark/Piazza in the front than the actual Impulse did!

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    the only domestic vehicle i would have bought would have been a tracker, but toys are us was only paying me 5.90/hr after 3 years :(. proud teamster for 31 yrs now

  • avatar

    I had no idea what is going on in 90s in Canada. It sounds crazy. Wasted money. I knew about Geo and Saturn though. I honestly believed that Saturn was a different kind of company some new start up like Tesla. Then there were Acura, Infiniti. I had no idea what those were – ads were confusing. I thought they were some new US companies like Saturn.

  • avatar
    Garak

    Sounds like too many managers pushing their own agendas.

  • avatar
    Syke

    I remember the Pontiac Firefly well. At the time my live-in girlfriend and I were doing numerous trips over the border to do French and Indian War reenactment, and she was driving a Geo Metro. At one point, we looking into picking up all the cosmetic pieces to turn her Metro into a Firefly. Just for the grins. Seeing we never did, I can only assume the cost was more than we were willing to put out.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I tend to look back on 90s cars with nostalgia, but the reality is most of the decade’s cars were closer to these miserable little $#!+boxes. What wretched machines.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      “What wretched machines.”

      This comment also applies to the vast majority of manned rotary-wing aircraft. (Introduced to the USA by a Russian, of course.)

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igor_Sikorsky

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I never enjoyed flying in helicopters, but when I’ve needed a ride in one, I was really glad it was available. I suppose the same applies to these cars.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    You know a car ad is REALLY stretching for features when “adjustable headrests” is listed as a standard feature.
    Also standard: windshield, door handles, and a driver’s seat. Everything else is optional.

    • 0 avatar

      Tires: “do you really want all FOUR?”

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        I’ll save $35 for a 13″ tire. Give me three full sized and mount the spare.

        This reminds me so much of when Trebek did the Concentration game show back in the 1980s. They had the staircase of cars and while they did have a mid-level Jeep or Oldsmobile every once in a while, most of them, well, you had to try really hard to clap and cheer for a base Hyundai Excel that Johnny Gilbert announced cost $4995. Comes complete with standard features, vinyl seats, manual windows, AM radio, paint protection package, and California emissions. [I must keep clapping while I try to look excited…please not the Excel!!!]

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          I can remember watching people trying to play for one of the specific cars, and more often than not, failing!

          And Alex would always pronounce “LeMans” like “hands” or “man’s,” not “bonds!” Damned schwas anyway! (When Mitsubishi had their version of the Hyundai Excel named the Precis, Alex would pronounce it “pray-see,” and I think it was “pre-sis.”)

          • 0 avatar
            theflyersfan

            @sgeffe – Canadian accent! (I kid, I kid! I love Canada and once again PEI is calling my name!)

            That was such a play at home game. Who didn’t play that game as a kid? But, man, you drew the gutter ball of choices when the staircase had a Yugo, Excel, maybe a very basic Escort, or a 323 with no frills. I remember through the hazy past that sometimes they threw a Cimarron up there for something special (I guess.) Oh well…I guess I’ll play for the Calais.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    @Flyersfan is correct. Check the options and ‘standard safety features’ and compare them to what is standard in even the least expensive vehicles today. Unfortunately all those upgrades have also come at a cost to consumers.

    Why did GM just not use the Acadian and Beaumont names? Names that were fairly well known in Canada and had been sold by Pontiac/Buick/GMC dealers here. Would that not have been less expensive and easier to market?

    Yes, at least in Ontario nearly every GM dealer was either Chev/Olds/Cadillac or Pontiac/Buick/GMC. There were very few ‘stand alone, one brand dealerships. The only one that I can think of in the GTA being Giles Chevrolet in Stouffville. Open from 1959 to 2016 it was also an Oldsmobile dealer until that brand became defunct.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I worked at a Pontiac dealers in the 80s, most of that stuff was absolute crap. There were two decent cars though, the rebadged Suzuki-sourced hatch with a turbo, and the Suzuki-sourced compact 4×4. They were cheap-and-cheerful, surprisingly durable and thrashable. The kind of cars people gleefully drive the absolute hell out of and can’t break, although they tended to simply rust/deteriorate away all by themselves.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The whole reason Pontiac dealers in Canada could complain about the cars Chevrolet could sell and they couldn’t, goes back to the 1950s, if not before. It had to do with dealer franchising law somehow. Whatever the Chev-Olds dealer had, why the Buick/Pontiac boys had to have it as well.

    And note, Chevys were called Chevs in Canada, courtesy of thse big neon signs that said CHEV/OLDS/CHEV TRUCKS. Not to be confused with BUICK/PONTIAC/GMC. Ahem.

    Ford and Chrysler were similarly affected by the franchising horse manure.

    Take the Ford Falcon of 1960 as just one example. Mercury dealers got the same car called the Frontenac. Somehow, though, the Mercury Comet of 1961 never got a Ford equivalent. But Chrysler Valiants and Dodge Darts were all Valiants here, and we never got the goggle-eyed look of the compact US Dart from 1962 on, following the spacehip ’61 ugger Dart full size early LSD fantasy.

    Take any Dodge dealer in the ’50s who flogged Dodge pickups. The Plymouth dealer had the Fart and Go, Fargo. Rode in a ’71 Slant six fart’n go in 1985. She was, ‘ow you say? Used up and trundled around at Spring wheat planting time, the body flanks visibly wobbling with a ton and a half of fertilizer aboard, and the rear springs shaped in an inverted U.

    GM imported Vauxhall cars from England starting in the ’50s. So Chevy dealers got the exact same car called the Envoy. Later, the Vega became the Astre at the Pontiac dealer. Same useless crap. Acadian was a Chevy II, the Beaumont a Malibu.

    Books have been written on this nonsense. It’s even more complicated than these few snippets. Mercurys were too expensive compared to regular Fords, so Ford Canada made Meteors for Mercury dealers that were actually Fords. And the occasional devil-may-care rural doctor bought a real Mercury to demonstrate his financial prowess. No damn cheapo Meteor for him!

    Crazy. And why was the 318 Mopar engine a 313 in Canada? The bore was 3.87 inches instead of 3.91. Uh, yuh. Nutso. That 313 was what ended up in British Bristol cars. Made in Canada, you say? How gauche.

    The franchise laws also explains why Canadian Pontiacs were smaller than US Pontiacs and had Chevrolet running gear during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s after the Pontiac sidevalve six was dropped in ’53 for the 235 Chevy Stovebolt six, when that engine itself finally got full oil pressure lubrication. Before that she was a dipper wth a bucket on the conrods to sling oil around. Not long after that, to justify the extra fifty to a hundred bucks a Pontiac cost over a Chev in Canada, the stretched 235 emerged as the 261 school bus/5-ton truck engine and got plopped into Canadian Pontiac engine bays. Been in enough of them as a kid, three on the tree and smooth in a car, a raucous bellower in a schoolbus. No 389 Pontiacs in Canada until the GTO was finally imported in the late ’60s for a couple of years. Don’t think we missed much — the Chevy 283/327348/409/350/396/427 had Pontiac’s measure anyway. But Chevy’s knock-kneed narrow-track suspension look on a fake and smaller “full-size” Pontiac kinda brought you up short. US tourist Pontiac Catalinas and Bonnevilles were giants with wide tracks compared to our Pontiacs. All changed with the new ’77 B-bodies.

    Passport screwed up the balance between Chevrolet and Pontiac dealers here. No way it was going to last if dealers had any say. And now I cannot even remember which dealers finally sold Saturn – who gives a damn anyway, I say. How long did it take GM to screw up Saturn? About a decade.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Very well written. Thanks. If I can add to the above. Canadian Pontiacs were basically Chevs with shortened/narrowed Pontiac bodies, chrome/bright work and instrument panels and often ‘enhanced’ upholstery. Due to this they were less expensive in Canada than in the USA and sold in much higher relative/proportional numbers. Full sized Pontiacs often being no lower than the 3rd highest selling vehicles in Canada. The 3rd generation (1965-70) being particularly popular. For at least a dozen years after, you could find these, most often in a unique dark purple/maroon colour in school and factory parking lots. In Canada the full sized Pontiacs were labelled as Strato Chief, Laurentian and Parisienne. For a few years there was also a Grand Parisienne. Full sized (B- body?) RWD Parisiennes were exported from Canada to the USA circa 1980-86. Also in the 1950’s and 60’s Canadian Pontiacs were exported to a number of other countries including Australia and South Africa.

  • avatar
    NECarGuy

    The face-lifted 1993 LeMans was sold in the United States as both a sedan and hatch. I personally owned a green hatch just like the one in the picture and lived in Iowa. It as a basic car, but was solid and got around well. Had a 4-speed manual, no AC and the cursed electric seatbelts so popular at that time.

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