Pop quiz, hot shot. It’s 2029 and you’re walking down the street. An older gentleman is pulling the cover off a shiny, black, early 2000s muscle car in his driveway, and you spy an archaic logo with what looks like a waterfall on it. Do you stop and ask him about his slick ride? Or maybe you’re in the Lowe’s parking lot, and you spy a beat-up mid-size crossover with chunky styling and a little logo with three diamonds. Do you snap some pics? Well, if the answer to either of those is yes, you’re on the right website. Read on.
Mitsubishi gets it right but then gives up
In previous installments of this series looked at the other two Project America Mitsubishis, the Eclipse and Galant. Mitsubishi spent over $1 billion on developing the three cars, and over a decade later the brand’s US market share sits at a pathetic 0.5 per cent. The Endeavor was arguably even more of a disastrous failure for the perennially beleaguered Mitsubishi brand than the Eclipse and Galant, despite being an entrant in an extremely popular and growing segment, and actually beating other brands to market.
The 2004 Galant, at launch, was a solidly competitive entry in the mid-size segment, offering crisp handling, a powerful V6 and modern styling. Mitsubishi left it to wither on the vine, giving it no meaningful mechanical or interior updates, until mercifully killing it in 2012. The 2006 Eclipse offered striking styling at launch, looking more special than its FWD Japanese rivals despite lacking much athleticism for a sport coupe. Mitsubishi left it to wither on the vine, too, with no meaningful updates until it was axed in 2012. So, you can probably guess the story of the 2004 Endeavor.
Believe it or not, a Mitsubishi that didn’t have “Evo” in its name actually won a comparison test in the new millennium! The Endeavor bested the Nissan Murano, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot in a 2003 Edmunds Mid-Size SUV comparison test. The reviewers were surprised at such a strong showing overall, and noted the Endeavor was broadly competent over a number of areas and lacked any major flaws. Although it was outgunned by most of its rivals in horsepower rating, the Endeavor made up for its merely adequate 215hp with a solid 250 ft-lbs of torque, which gave it plenty of low-down grunt and a test-winning 0-60 time of 8 seconds. As Ferdinand Piech is quoted as saying, and I paraphrase here, you buy horsepower but you drive torque.
The Endeavor’s exterior styling was bold and unmistakeable, taking cues from the 1999 SSU concept; inside was a similar story, although perhaps not for the better. The Wall-E shaped center stack was unusual, with ice-blue lighting and typical 2000s satin metal finish; the fiddly looking switchgear was shared with the Galant. Edmunds also praised the Endeavor’s car-like ride, and generous room for passengers, but was dismayed by the lack of cargo space. Car & Driver ranked the Endeavor below the same rivals in a 2003 comparison test, albeit ahead of the Buick Rendezvous, but still praised the Endeavor. The magazine’s reviewers were only disappointed by the lack of cargo space, especially considering the Endeavor didn’t have a third row of seats; they also found snow traction somewhat lacking. They loved the Endeavor’s crisp handling, quick reflexes and low-end torque, and even called the crossover’s interior luxurious thanks to its use of soft-touch plastics and other high quality materials. Considering the praise heaped upon it, the fourth-place finish was a bit puzzling but regardless, the Endeavor could deliver the goods.
I feel obligated to defend Mitsubishi products despite my sheer disdain of the company’s business decisions. The Endeavor wasn’t quite at the top of the class, but it was up there. Unfortunately, when you leave a car to wither on the vine for almost a decade, it’s not going to be as competitive at the end and people remember the recent past a lot more vividly than the decent past. Years later, authors from media outlets that praised said car at launch are quick to rewrite history, declaring it was never competitive. It’s also sad when a company, for whatever reason, produces a car that’s unsuccessful and bland, and critics argue that it would succeed if it had more pizzazz. Then, the company releases a car with pizzazz that is still unsuccessful, and suddenly that pizzazz is the problem! The Endeavor failed for two reasons, and the same rings true for the Galant (the Eclipse is another story). First of all, and most obviously, Mitsubishi didn’t update the damn thing. It stuck around with the same 4-speed auto from 2003 until 2012 when all of its rivals were getting 6-speed autos. Rivals were offering newer transmissions that helped get better gas mileage, and at the same time were increasing in torque and horsepower. I have always liked the Endeavor’s styling because it dared to be different in a segment that is generally a complete snoozefest. However, the Endeavor only ever received a mild freshening, and the quirky interior was never really changed. The lack of a third-row would have been more expensive to rectify, but it’s not as though a third-row is a prerequisite for success in this segment: look at the success of the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.
The second reason it failed was simply because of the company from whence it came. Mitsubishi had been in major financial trouble since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, saddled with more than one trillion yen of debt. In 2000, DaimlerChrysler bought a controlling stake in Mitsubishi Motors Corporation. Daimler was the automotive industry equivalent of a wealthy benefactor who takes in troubled orphans and puts them to work in the salt mines. But even after the Germans exited the tie-up after refusing to help Mitsubishi out of its financial quagmire with truckloads of fresh Euros, MMC found financial assistance in Japan and returned to profitability in 2006. Did Mitsubishi splash any of this cash on its North American operations, such as more comprehensive mid-cycle enhancements and advertising for its Project America cars? No. Did it earmark money for replacements for those vehicles? No. Did it really make any effort to try and restore the residual values of its vehicles after the 0-0-0 debacle (no money down, zero per cent financing, no monthly payments in the first year) cost them millions when buyers defaulted on their shiny new cars? No. Now Mitsubishi North America is starved for product, and the few models they do sell are vastly outperformed by rivals, and not just in sales and average transaction price. You could write a book on this Japanese company’s Greek tragedy-esque history in North America.
There’s not much else to tell about the Endeavor’s story, other than its disastrous sales. Mitsubishi anticipated 80,000 annual units but its debut year saw just over 30k, and sales fell every year after that. There wasn’t even a 2009 Endeavor for the retail market, as Mitsubishi decided to retire it for one year and inexplicably sell only to fleets. Amazingly, that missing year of sales doesn’t even register much on the figures. That is how tragic the Endeavor’s sales have been. When the Subaru Tribeca outsells you, you know you’re in trouble. It is a sad story because in the early years, the Endeavor, like its Galant sibling, wasn’t average at best: it was average at worst. It just wasn’t excellent at best, and then the funding faucet was turned off. I will say this, though: residual values and spotty dealer network aside, I’d rather have bought an Endeavor in 2003 than most of its snoozy rivals. And with almost any other badge on the grille, this car would not have been the sales disaster it turned out to be.
Don’t shoot THIS messenger!
What did Mercury mean? Did a compact minivan best exemplify the virtues of the brand, or was it a sharply styled coupe? Was Mercury a brand for older people, or mothers and fathers who wanted a family car that was a little bit different? Ford didn’t seem to have an answer for these questions, so their mid-priced brand was somewhat of a blank slate for many years. That slate was traditionally filled with Fords that boasted full-length light bars or more chrome or a waterfall grille. However, sometimes Ford would bless their innocuous nonentity of a brand with a unique product. There was the Capri convertible of the early 1990s, for example, which had no equivalent Ford in North America. The late 1990s saw the Ford Probe successor, the Cougar, shipped over to the Mercury brand. Then came the Marauder in 2003, which despite its Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis origins, had no Ford equivalent. It was exciting and bold and utterly, utterly cool. It was also a flop.
Perhaps Ford never really envisioned a high-performance V8 rear-wheel-drive sedan as being any kind of volume seller. They had tread this path before with the LTD LX of the 1980s, which was a low-volume model. Still, the Marauder wasn’t successful enough to warrant more than two model years on sale and 11,052 units.
I’ve driven a rental-spec Crown Victoria, so I will give a standing ovation to Ford’s chassis engineers for turning that smooth but floaty, flexy sedan – the whole body of which shimmied when I drove over a pothole – into the Marauder, which critics described as firm, flat and controlled. Ford made extensive suspension modifications to the Panther platform for the performance Mercury, including a new frame with straight side rails as well as strengthened crossmembers. There were also new shocks, firmer bushing, rear air springs, as well as front springs from the Police Interceptor Crown Vic. All of this wouldn’t have been too exciting with the standard V8, so the 32-valve, DOHC 4.6 V8 from the Mach 1 Mustang and the Lincoln Aviator was dropped in, mated to a four-speed automatic; the 4.6 put out 302hp and 310 lb-ft in the Marauder. To make sure nobody mistook this for a Grand Marquis, the Marauder received new bumpers front and rear with fog lights. The car, in true 1996 Impala SS and Grand National style, was available at first only in black (maroon and silver arrived later). Headlights and taillights were smoked to just within DOT guidelines. The only chrome found on the exterior was on the badges, the 5-spoke, 18-inch wheels and a thin strip around the glasshouse. This baby looked MEAN!
Inside, there was a full complement of white-faced gauges. The column-shifter was dumped, replaced with a floor-mounted shifter and console, where you could find the voltmeter and oil-pressure gauges (there wasn’t enough room up top). The crass fake wood also went to the dumpster, replaced with satin metal trim. You could get the leather in any color you wanted, as long as it was black.
The Marauder was no Model T, but sadly it wasn’t quite as exciting as its convincing inside-and-out makeover would suggest. However, where it did shine was in being quite a disciplined and athletic full-size sedan. Critics praised the variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering as being direct and communicative. The ride was firm but not unbearably so; the engine and exhaust were sonorous. Unfortunately, the Marauder didn’t feel as quick off the line as it “should” have, and the transmission seemed to be geared for economy, shifting up as quickly as possible. Car & Driver’s test car did 0-60 in 7.5 seconds, but it was fresh from the factory. The quickest stock 0-60 time I’ve seen was 6.8 seconds, which is better – after all, muscle car owners care about 0-60 times – but still slower than the 240hp Impala SS 3.8 Supercharged. Sure, the Impala was front-wheel-drive and far less special in appearance, but it showed that the mid-size and full-size sedan segments were in the midst of a horsepower war. The similarly rapid Mitsubishi Galant and Nissan Altima were also hitting dealer lots, and they had impressive performance in a cheaper, more fuel-efficient package.
Perhaps the Marauder should have had a bit more in the way of grunt? Perhaps, a 335-hp Eaton supercharged version would have delivered more thrills. Hell, why not chop the top and remove two of the doors? The 2002 Marauder Convertible concept, which debuted at the Chicago Auto Show just before the sedan hit dealers, was certainly a tantalizing proposal. I doubt it would have produced much more in the way of sales to guarantee all the extra development work required, but damn would it have been a sight to see on the roads!
The Marauder stickered at $35k, or around $5k more than a Grand Marquis LSE. The latter may actually be the rarer car, as it was a fully optioned-up Grand Marquis with bucket seats, dual exhaust, handling package and the 235hp V8 (instead of the base 220hp). $5k more for a bit more torque and a lot more horsepower doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially given the sheer presence of the car. No, the Marauder wasn’t quite the lairy beast it looked like it could be, nor was it the fastest full-size sedan, but it really wasn’t like anything else.
Obscure Rebadges – Part 5
Chevrolet Captiva Sport
Meet the only Opel sold in the US with Chevrolet badges. While the Astra sedan, Insignia and Mokka made their way to American shores with Buick badges, the Captiva Sport (nee Opel Antara) failed to make it to your local Buick-GMC dealer. It very nearly could have, however, until a last-minute decision.
The Captiva Sport is the infamous Vue-ick, a planned way to avoid throwing out the competitive Saturn Vue out with the rest of the Saturn brand in the North American market by giving it to Buick with only detail changes. For whatever reason, after releasing only one teaser photo, the planned Buick crossover was cancelled. Those in the automotive press argued it was the negative reaction from them, as well as in the enthusiast community, to a clearly rebadged car being ported over from a dead GM brand to one that was undergoing a complete product renaissance, albeit one closely aligned with the European brand from whence the Vue came (the planned Saturn Aura replacement simply became the Buick Regal). So the Vue-ick was cancelled, and with it went both the existing mild-hybrid derivative as well as the two-mode hybrid option, which sadly never saw production nor use in the Equinox/Terrain. The Opel Antara wouldn’t stay down for long in the North American market, however. Chevrolet’s classy new Equinox and bold Terrain twin were selling up a storm, becoming one of GM’s most successful products in recent years with private buyers. The Antara/Vue was a solid product – perhaps a bit too solid, literally, with its 4000-pound curb weight – but with GM’s mass culling of brands during bankruptcy, it had nowhere to go. In a market craving crossovers, you can never really offer too many: look at Ford’s lineup. GM saw an opportunity to amortize the costs of Americanizing the Antara/Vue by tapping the high-volume fleet market. In 2012, the crossover was relaunched as the Chevrolet Captiva Sport – a moniker it also went under in South America – but was available only to fleets. By doing this, GM could protect residual values of its Equinox/Terrain crossovers without giving up the much easier fleet market.
The Captiva Sport’s standard powertrain is a 2.4 direct-injection four-cylinder, with 182hp and 172lb-ft, mated to a six-speed automatic. The Vue’s virtues remained intact, with pleasant handling characteristics, a quiet ride and available all-wheel-drive. The interior is a fairly pleasant place to be. It’s not as attractive inside as an Equinox, and the satin metal finish is very mid-2000s (I thought we had decided we want all our car interiors with smudge-y piano black trim now?), but it’s of decent quality. GM’s mid-2000s black-tie radio, which appeared in everything from Chevrolets to Saabs, takes pride of place in the middle of the dash. There is no fancy infotainment system here, or any touch screens or haptic feedback switchgear. If you want that business, pay the extra $10/day for a Ford Taurus Limited from the “Premium” category. It would appear for 2013, the V6 engine option was dropped, but that just means your Compact SUV rental will go more miles between gas stations on your interstate road trip.
This mid-size pickup truck, a thinly disguised Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, isn’t actually the most obscure rebadge of a mid-size GM truck. That honor would go to the delightfully named Cuckoo 4WD-C, manufactured in North Korea by Pyeonghwa Motors, the only company allowed to manufacture and sell cars in that country. They only produced a few hundred units of their entire model range last year, so the Cuckoo is as rare as, well, cuckoo bird’s teeth. The i-Series is less rare, but in the North American market it may as well be a Pyeonghwa Cuckoo 4WD-C.
Launched for the 2006 model year, the i-Series filled a gap in the Isuzu light truck lineup that formed when the Hombre pickup was axed in 2000. In previous articles in this series, we looked at the Axiom, VehiCROSS and Ascender, striking examples of the screwball nature of Isuzu’s light-truck lineup before their North American operations packed up in January 2009. By 2005, the brand was down to just the rebadged Ascender and i-Series in the North American market, selling through fewer than 300 dealers nationwide. As with the Ascender, the i-Series’ main point of differentiation from its GM counterpart was a toothy chrome grille. The i-270 had a 2.7 four and came only in rear-wheel-drive, extended-cab form; the i-350 had a 3.5 five and was crew-cab and all-wheel-drive only. The Colorado/Canyon’s problems were inherited, with a dismal interior and a lack of power; the 2.7 put out 175hp and 185 lb-ft, the 3.5 five 220hp and 225 lb-ft. Handling, however, was decent for a mid-size truck, and the transmissions, a 4-speed auto and a 5-speed manual, were adequate. 2007 brought more powerful engines, with a 2.9 four pumping out 185hp and 190 lb-ft and a 3.7 five with 242hp and 242 lb-ft. The warranty was still amazing as ever, with its 7 year/75,000 mile warranty term beating the equivalent Chevy’s 3 year/36,000 mile warranty. It was all for naught, though, if you didn’t live near one of Isuzu’s shrinking number of dealers. Few people were prepared to take the servicing and residual value risk, because the i-Series never topped 5,000 units annually during its three years on sale. And on that ignominious note, Isuzu withdrew from selling light-duty trucks on the North American market, although they had a hand in helping develop the upcoming and vastly superior 2014 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.
Have you ever seen an i-Series on the street? Rented a Captiva Sport? Would you have considered an Endeavor as your family vehicle, or a Marauder as your weekend toy? Share your thoughts.