So it continues. The 2000s were a decade of dying domestic brands, rapidly expanding German lineups, transitioning Korean automakers and the occasional misstep by the indefatigable Japanese. I present to you a suite of cars ranging from a Swedish V8 truck to a full-size German hatchback. Obscure now, and Curbside Classic material in 15-20 years.
A visit from the Swedish Envoy
The basic idea of the 9-7X was sound: utilize a shared platform to economically bring a SUV to an underperforming brand that desperately needed one. But GM’s implementation – simply using an Oldsmobile Bravada body shell to bring a 6th GMT-360 derivative to market – was woefully misguided.
While Ford purchased Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin – four brands with great prestige that ended up requiring far too much investment – GM chose a quirky, niche automaker, Saab, to position in its stable as a quasi-luxury brand. Ford may not have made much money on Volvo, but their model strategy was coherent and the brand didn’t suffer. They invested in a full-line of cars and SUVs with a distinctive design language. In the 2000s, GM gave Saab a replacement 9-3 on its Epsilon platform – a decent near-luxury entry, if not a 3-Series rival – and starved the brand of anything else. The decrepit 9-5, riding on the GM2900 platform first launched in the 1980s, was forced to endure nips-and-tucks until a 2006 facelift gave it the automotive equivalent of a Jocelyn Wildsenstein face. Two new models arrived to bolster Saab’s tiny range: the Subaru-derived 9-2X, which I shall cover later, and the 9-7X.
For Saabophiles, the body-on-frame 9-7X must have felt like a sucker punch. However, a tiny base of hardcore fans isn’t enough to sustain a brand with grander aspirations. There was exciting new product coming, eventually, but in the meantime Saab’s product range had holes that needed to be filled. The 9-7X was clearly a GM truck, but this wasn’t an ordinary rebadge. The suspension was tuned to deliver more European ride and handling, with a lower ride height, standard rear air suspension and all-wheel-drive. The dash was modified to add Saab’s signature vents and cupholder, and the ignition was placed between the seats. A smart new fascia with Saab’s aircraft-style grille was added, and some other detail tweaks were made. The gutsy 4.2 Vortec I6 with Variable Valve Timing came standard and at first produced a healthy, Northstar-rivalling 275hp and 275 lb ft. If you wanted more power, you could move up to a 5.3 V8 (300hp, 330 lb ft), or from 2008, the Aero with the TrailBlazer SS’s 6.0 V8 (a roaring 390hp and 395 lb ft). However, all the 9-7X’s engines were stuck with four-speed autos.
9-7X sales figures are very difficult to track down, as I don’t believe GM actually broke down Saab sales figures. Considering that between 2005 and 2009, Saab was only selling roughly 17-30,000 units of its entire range, it’s safe to say the 9-7X wasn’t a sales success. Retailing at the $40k mark – considerably more than a TrailBlazer – this should come as no surprise, and also shows why used 9-7Xs appear to be very cheap. If you’re in the market for a used SUV, you could do a lot worse than a 9-7X. It was easily the best GMT-360, it was just a terrible new buy. In 15-20 years’ time, people will either wonder why a Swedish brand produced such an out-of-character vehicle, or they will scarcely remember the car or the defunct brand from whence it came.
A gallant effort that fell on its sword
Sometimes Japanese automakers don’t get it right first time around. The mid-size segment is arguably the most crucial passenger car segment and one of the most fiercely competitive. It’s important that automakers follow the right formula if they want to achieve sales success, but even if they do they still may not succeed. Witness Mazda, and its oscillation between Americanized and global 626s and Mazda6s over the years. Fortune favors the Big 3 Japanese sedans. Even if you get the package as close to the formula as possible – and the previous Mazda6 hit it dead on – you still won’t reach your goals. Much as that Americanized Mazda6 failed to surpass even its predecessor in sales, despite a much larger body and a gutsy V6, the 2004 Mitsubishi Galant saw its market share shrivel. And it shouldn’t have.
Flashback to 2003. The penultimate Galant is shifting 65k units, a sharp drop from the previous year’s 97k. Basically, its volume is at Mazda6 levels, and there are some parallels between the two: both are on the smallish side, sharply styled and handle well. Nissan had a similarly small mid-sizer that didn’t even have a V6, but for their third-generation Altima they decided to go big or go home. A class-leading 240hp 3.5 V6 and a big increase in dimensions, dwarfing even Nissan’s flagship Maxima, saw the Altima jump up the sales charts to over 200k a year. It was Mitsubishi’s turn to do the same. The 2004 Galant replaced both the outgoing Galant and the aging Diamante, and featured a brawny, 230-horsepower, 250 pound-feet 3.8 V6 shared with the Eclipse and Endeavor, and a mediocre 2.4 four with 170 horsepower (the later, sport-tuned Ralliart model had a 258hp V6). It was heavier, though, than the outgoing Galant and a good 300 pounds heavier than an Accord. The rear stabilizer bar was dropped, but it gained disc brakes all-round. The interior was much more modern, although the satin-look dash was polarizing and hard plastics prevailed. Outside, the car was sharply styled, with a dual-nostril grill, and clean, simple lines. Critics were impressed with its interior room, smooth ride and fun-to-drive handling.
So, Mitsubishi had replaced a sporty, smaller mid-sizer with a sedan that was sized right, priced right, handled better than a Camry and looked sharper than most mid-sizers without being over-the-top. Sounds like it could have really grabbed some more sales for Mitsubishi! Of course, we all know how the story ends. Here are the numbers, though: sales fell by over 20k units in its debut year. Each year until 2009, sales would fall around 10k units, before finally leveling off in the low teens. With that kind of volume, Mitsubishi must have felt disheartened. But for a cosmetic revision and a seemingly annual rejiggering of the trim levels, development effectively stopped. The Ralliart, the V6 engine and the five-speed auto were axed for 2010, leaving only the four-cylinder with its archaic four-speed. It’s at this point where the criticism of the Galant really gained credence. It was now behind the times, and the flaws it had at launch (heavy curb weight, interior quality) had only been exacerbated with age. The Galant limped on until 2012, when all three Project America Mitsubishis met the executioner.
It’s quite easy to knock the now defunct Galant, but the truth is it was a good car. Sadly, though, Mitsubishi’s scorched-earth product strategy left the Galant almost entirely untouched over its lengthy nine-year stint. In the early/mid-2000s, Mitsubishi released some decent, competitive product – Galant, Lancer, Eclipse, Endeavor– and they let it all wither on the vine. By the end of the Galant’s run, it was like a ghost, down to just two sad, outdated four-cylinder models, lingering on Mitsubishi’s website long after they left production.
An Embarassment of Niches
I’m frankly exhausted by the German automakers’ obsession with filling niches no one thought existed, padding out their lineups almost annually with another new niche product. The Mercedes CLS started this niche-seeking trend; it was drop-dead gorgeous and led to the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe and the Audi A7, so that’s not too shabby. BMW is determined to best the other Germans at filling nonexistent holes in its lineup, so after launching the hideous X6, it released the 5-Series GT in 2010. The 5 GT is effectively a 7-Series, chopped down but blown up; it rides the same wheelbase as the SWB 7-Series, but is three inches shorter overall and around three inches higher. It also has a rear hatch that opens either like a conventional hatch, or like the trunk of a sedan. The main problem with the 5 GT, though, comes from across the showroom. An X5 is very versatile, looks a lot better and costs $6k less. I don’t know what 5 GT sales figures are like – surprise, surprise, BMW doesn’t report them separately – but I have seen quite a few in Manhattan. Somebody is buying them, but I feel they would be a lot more ubiquitous if BMW had given them more graceful styling and a better price point.
The Mercedes R-Class completes our trifecta of utterly pointless niche vehicles, and thanks to its individual nomenclature, I have the sales figures to prove this was a bust. Furthermore, Mercedes acknowledges it wasn’t getting anywhere with it and has pulled it from the US market. According to Mercedes-Benz at its launch in 2005, the R was a “Sports Cruiser”: an interesting title for a 5000lb crossover. After a little while, Mercedes repositioned it as a “Family Tourer”. To cut through the nonsense, it was a seven-seat crossover based on the ML. Unlike the GL, though, which was actually the seven-seat edition of the ML, the R is lower to the ground and more curvaceously styled (and tows 5,000 pounds less). It was still a fairly long, two-box shape though, which led to some Mercedes minivan remarks. Unlike a minivan, though, the R-Class lacks practical sliding doors that really help touring families with ingress and egress.
The other comparison made by commenters was that the R-Class was similar to the Chrysler Pacifica, another product released during the time of DaimlerChrysler’s “merger of equals”. I never understood that comparison, as the Pacifica looked much more like a conventional crossover, was based on Chrysler’s FWD minivan platform, sold for thousands less and actually sold over 50,000 units annually in its first five years. 50,000 annual units are what Mercedes anticipated for the R-Class, but they were laughably misguided. Their best year was around 18,000 units, and otherwise they sat firmly in four-digit territory. 18,000 units, approximately, was what the GL did in its worst year. There were diesel and AMG R-Classes, but the very same variants were available in the ML and GL. The R-Class was just a big, confused wagon that Mercedes didn’t know how to market or sell; it offered nothing exceptional or unique; and was consistently outsold by its ML and GL siblings. For all the Germans’ sense of adventure diving into these niches, there is also a calculated pragmatism to their actions. Every niche model they release is heavily based on existing models, to keep costs down. If the styling is done well, then they receive handsome dividends as fashion-conscious luxury buyers flock to their new models. However, if the styling is ungainly or bland, they have to spend money telling people why their new idea is a good idea. The 5-Series GT and R-Class seem to spring from fairly smart ideas – a hatchback with a capacious interior for passengers and a lower-slung, luxury minivan – but sticking so close to their platform donors just leaves them compromised and underdone. It’s hard to convince someone of a good idea when you haven’t executed it correctly.
Volkswagen Passat W8
A gentleman’s Grand Prix GXP
Volkswagen’s beautiful but utterly misguided Phaeton wasn’t their only dazed adventure into luxury car territory. The Phaeton was a wonderfully designed barge featuring mechanicals shared with the Bentley Continental, competing at a price point far beyond Volkswagen’s usual territory. The 2002-04 Passat W8 perpetrated a different kind of folly: Volkswagen tried to make a 5-Series rival out of its by then six-year-old mid-size sedan, and retail it for $40k. Volkswagen shoehorned its 4.0 W8 engine – with 271hp and 275 lb ft of torque – into its mid-size Passat. Of course, you can’t simply drop in an eight-cylinder engine into a mid-size, front-wheel-drive sedan without some major changes, even if it is the compact size of the W8 engine (effectively two aluminum, narrow angle 2.0 V4s joined together). Volkswagen added its 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, to quell the torque steer. The two transmissions available were a 5-speed Tiptronic automatic, and a 6-speed manual. The W8 was also available in either sedan or wagon.
The $40k, 4.0 Passat was almost 4000lbs. That means the Passat was around 400lbs than a BMW 540i, and it felt it. However, the news wasn’t all bad with the Passat’s dynamics. Critics noted it had little torque steer thanks to the 4Motion system, although with 271hp it was less powerful than many rivals. The W8 was still smooth and punchy, though, and the car handled confidently. The Passat’s interior featured wood and leather, but too much resembled lesser Passats’ interiors. Although the quality and design was impressive in the $25k arena, it was much less appealing at $40k. Matt Stone of Car & Driver put it best in his long-term evaluation of the car when he said, “The Passat W8 is either an awfully expensive VW or a screaming bargain of an eight-cylinder sport sedan. Or both.” Volkswagen name and overall lack of luxury cachet aside, the W8 looked very much like Passats that retailed in the $20-30k range, with only a different exhaust, badging and alloys to visually indicate you had a much more unique ride. If someone is splashing $40k on a sport sedan, they generally want it to be visible. Buyers obviously agreed, with its second year of sales only totaling approximately 2,300 units. You will hit Curbside Classic gold if you find a W8 wagon with a stickshift.
Something great did come. And then it went.
A combination of low sales volume and the recent signing of the death warrant for Suzuki’s North American operations make their entire lineup fodder for this article. The Kizashi was probably the best passenger car Suzuki has ever sold, and the only mid-size sedan they developed. The name translates to “something great is coming”. According to Suzuki, the Kizashi was 100% Suzuki and shared nothing with GM’s Epsilon platform, despite the two companies’ previous ties. However, the smallish intermediate – sized between Jetta and Passat – was supposed to get GM’s 3.6 V6 as an up-level option. Instead, the Kizashi came only with a 2.4 four-cylinder with 185hp and 170 lb ft, and with your choice of six-speed manual or a CVT with paddle shifters. All-wheel-drive was optional with the CVT. Those sound like pretty uninspiring power figures, but critics found the Kizashi gutsy enough and were even impressed with the CVT. Handling was crisp and firm and the Kizashi was lauded as one of the more fun-to-drive and refined cars in its segment. The interior, too, was modern and high quality.
One fly in the ointment, though, was the Kizashi’s bland styling. The front was vaguely Volkswagen-like, and the rear had an unfortunate Bangle Butt. After three exciting Kizashi concepts at different auto shows – a dragged out, almost Camaro-esque preview tour – the final product resembled a somewhat melted-looking Jetta. Add to that: low brand recognition; a dwindling number of dealerships; and an entirely new nameplate for a company that had barely participated in this segment. These factors were enough to keep buyers away, and sales never cracked five digits. I don’t usually like to speculate on future product, but I don’t imagine the Kizashi will survive beyond this generation globally. Suzuki’s strength is usually in very small cars, and it does a solid trade in Japan. Elsewhere, they are a niche player; the lack of a diesel, too, means it won’t succeed in Europe. I give it to the end of this generation before it is discontinued as Suzuki “refocuses”. A shame, as this was their first individual effort at a mid-size sedan and they knocked it out of the park.