Obscure Rebadges From Around The World: Part 8

Over seven instalments, I’ve featured almost three dozen different rebadged vehicles. Alas, I’ve only seen a grand total of two of these vehicles in the metal. On my recent trip to Vancouver, I spotted three more obscure rebadges. Though they’re not as obscure as a Ssangyong Kalista or a Mazda Roadpacer, they’re worthy inclusions in this series as are the other cars in this, Part 8 of Obscure Rebadges From Around The World.

Pontiac Firefly

With Canada’s vast expanses sometimes making a Chevrolet dealer prohibitively far from a Pontiac dealer for some buyers, dealers had even more sway than their American counterparts in getting additional product. Once Chevrolet got a rebadged version of the Suzuki Cultus/Swift, badged the Sprint, Pontiac dealers insisted they have their own version. Thus, the Firefly was hatched. It mirrored the Sprint lineup – 1.0 three-cylinder naturally-aspirated and turbocharged engines, three- and five-door hatchback body styles.

In 1989, a new generation of Firefly debuted. Like its Chevrolet, Geo and Suzuki-badged counterparts, it was now manufactured alongside the Suzuki Sidekick and its sidekicks at CAMI Automotive in Ingersoll, Ontario, a 50/50 joint venture between GM and Suzuki.

Japanese-built convertible and sedan variants were added to the Firefly line for 1990; the Firefly convertible lasted just two years. The entire line took a leave of absence for the 1992 and 1993 model years, re-emerging in 1994 but only in hatchback and sedan guises.

Canadians were treated to more powertrain options for their Suzuki clones. In addition to the 1.0 three-cylinder sold in US-market Geo Metros, there was a turbocharged version sold from 1989 until 1991 – the same engine offered in the old Chevrolet Sprint – plus a naturally-aspirated 1.3 four.

Like the Firefly, Canadian-market Chevrolet and Geo Sprints were also available in sedan form.

The Firefly continued on a rebadged version of the new, North American-exclusive ’95 Geo Metro. The two ranges mirrored each other: sedan or three-door hatch, 1.0 three-pot or 1.3 four. Both lines were discontinued at the turn of the century, the cute and clever Firefly name never to return.

Asüna Sunrunner

One sunny summer day in Vancouver, I spotted this Suzuki Sidekick/Escudo/Vitara in the distance. I knew that, because I was in Canada, it wasn’t necessarily going to wear Suzuki badges. Instead, it could have worn one of five (!) different GM nameplates.

Let’s unpack this. Geo and Saturn didn’t arrive up north until 1992 and GM Canada’s different dealership networks all wanted small cars to sell. This led to the introduction of the Passport dealership network/sub-brand, which existed from 1988 until 1991, and the Asüna brand sold from 1992 until 1993.

The dealer networks’ influence over GM meant the little Suzuki was offered at both Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Cadillac and Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealerships. As Geo didn’t arrive until 1992, the Suzuki was initially introduced in 1989 as the Chevrolet Tracker and GMC Tracker. Then in 1992, with the arrival of the Geo and Asüna brands, the two rebadges became the Geo Tracker and Asüna Sunrunner.

Asüna was different to Passport. The erstwhile sub-brand had only officially sold one Passport-branded vehicle – the Optima, a Pontiac LeMans clone – and existed predominantly as a dealership network selling Isuzu vehicles (it was replaced by Saturn-Saab-Isuzu dealers). Asüna, in comparison, was largely a clone of the Geo brand for Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealers.

The Passport Optima became the Asüna SE sedan and GT hatchback and, confusingly, was sold alongside the identical Pontiac LeMans. The Geo Storm’s counterpart was the Asüna Sunfire. The Pontiac Firefly actually disappeared during Asüna’s run and so the Geo Metro had no counterpart for 1992-93, buyers at these dealerships instead being directed to the SE/GT.

I hope nobody ever professed this Asüna experiment to make any sense because it certainly didn’t. Effectively, GM had dropped a model from Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealerships, swapped the name of another and cloned another. It wasn’t inherently illogical to offer the same products at two different dealer networks, considering how far a Chevy dealer might be from a GMC dealer. But for all this waste of marketing money, they’d only introduced one new product, the Sunfire, which overlapped to some degree with the Pontiac Sunbird anyway. Why not just badge them all as Pontiacs?

Asüna lasted just two years after which it was mercifully terminated. Instead of the Sunrunner becoming the GMC Tracker once again, it picked up its fifth nameplate: Pontiac Sunrunner. For the sake of everyone’s collective sanity, it actually kept that name until its discontinuation in 1998.

Acura EL

The Acura EL and Pontiac Firefly hatchback had a few things in common. Both, obviously, were Japanese designs but both were manufactured in Ontario. They were also both introduced in large part to satisfy dealers. In Canada, there were standalone Acura dealerships, unlike Infiniti and Lexus which were always partnered with the more proletariat brands in their corporate line-up. Though the Acura range opened with the Integra, the sedan was a slow-seller and Honda’s Canadian operations saw fit to replace it with a more conventional compact sedan, the 1997 Acura 1.6 EL.

Honda didn’t insult buyers’ intelligence, either. Unlike the Cadillac Cimarron, which had been priced almost twice as high as a top-line Chevrolet Cavalier sedan, the Acura 1.6 EL represented only a modest increase over the top-line Civic sedan. Unlike the Civic sedan, the Canada-only Acura used the Civic Si coupe’s 1.6 VTEC four. There were some modest chassis revisions, too, such as springs and shocks retuned for a plusher ride and a thicker front sway bar. Otherwise, the EL was more or less identical to the Civic but for small details like the lights and grille. In the Japanese market, this variation of the Civic sedan (Civic Ferio in Japan) was called the Domani and was sold through a different dealership network.

The 1.6 EL proved to be a hit and didn’t cannibalize sales of the Civic, regularly the best-selling car in Canada. The EL’s success resulted in a replacement based on the seventh-generation Civic, renamed 1.7 EL on account of a larger engine shared with the new Civic Si sedan. The restyled front end did a convincing job of fitting in with the rest of the Acura line-up although the rest was plainly a Civic sedan. For just $700 more than a Civic Si, the base 1.7 EL added four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, automatic climate control and an upgraded stereo.

The EL was replaced by the CSX in 2006, based on the eighth-generation Honda Civic. It used the exterior styling of the Civic used in Asia-Pacific markets, distinguished from North American Civics through the use of different headlights and taillights. Instead of using the Civic Si’s engine or the regular Civic’s 1.8, the CSX used the 2.0 VTEC four from the Acura RSX. A Type-S variant arrived for 2007 using the same powertrain as the Civic Si, a 2.0 VTEC four producing 197 hp and 139 ft-lbs and mated to a five-speed auto or a six-speed manual. The CSX Type-S also featured the same limited-slip differential and suspension tuning as the Civic Si sedan.

For 2009, the CSX was given a rather subtle version of Acura’s controversial Power Plenum grille. Otherwise, there were only detail changes for the rest of the CSX’s run. Despite being Acura Canada’s best-selling model, the CSX was discontinued in 2011. In 2013, however, the new ILX arrived in both the Canadian and US markets. Though no longer manufactured in Ontario, Acura’s entry-level sedan was finally more than just a rebadged Civic even if it was built on the same platform.

Isuzu Gemini

The 1990 Isuzu Piazza and Gemini (Impulse and Stylus, respectively) initially sold well, only for volumes to decline with the recession in Japan. Isuzu decided to abandon passenger car production and focus on commercial vehicles and SUVs, the Piazza and Gemini ending production in 1993. The automaker still wanted to keep a passenger car presence in the Japanese market and so they reached out to Honda. The fourth-generation Gemini, therefore, was simply a rebadged Honda Domani.

The Domani sedan spawned the European-market Civic hatchback and wagon but on the Japanese market it was a sedan-only affair. So, too, was the Isuzu Gemini. The Isuzu had an even more limited range than the JDM Domani, missing out on the Honda’s 1.8 and available only with the less powerful SOHC 1.5 and 1.6 four-cylinder engines. While handsome and a perfectly competent car, it was much more conservatively styled than the last “real” Gemini and lacked that car’s sporting variants. It was, however, available with Honda’s Real-Time Four Wheel Drive system.

A new generation of Gemini was launched in 1997 which, like the Acura EL, was based on the second-generation Domani. Again, there was a limited range consisting of 1.5 and 1.6 engines and a choice of FWD or AWD. This new Gemini was short-lived, Isuzu pulling the plug on the 26 year-old nameplate in 2000.

The year 2000 also saw the end of the Thai-market Isuzu Vertex. Unlike the JDM Gemini, which used the Domani as a base, the Vertex was a rebadged version of the slightly plusher Honda Integra SJ sold in Japanese Honda Verno dealerships.

Isuzu Aska

A few years before Isuzu formalized its partnership with Honda, they had a small problem. The J-Car Aska was getting long in the tooth and their commitment to passenger cars was wavering. Isuzu and GM remained close, the former providing GM with vehicles like the Trooper, but there’d no longer be any joint Isuzu-GM involvement on passenger cars as with the Aska. Indeed, GM’s North American, Australian and European divisions had all gone their separate ways for their Aska replacements. Isuzu put the nameplate on ice after 1988, resurrecting it in 1990 with a rebadged Subaru Legacy.

It wasn’t the first time Isuzu had rebadged a Subaru product, Isuzu having rebadged the Leone Van (a commercial version of the Leone/GL/DL wagon) as the Geminett II from 1988 until 1993.

Subaru naturally got something out of this deal. Like Honda and General Motors divisions like Holden and Opel, they received a rebadged version of the Isuzu Trooper. The Subaru Bighorn was such a thin rebadge, it even kept the Bighorn name used by Isuzu in the Japanese market. It lasted two generations.

Like the Geminett, the Legacy-based Aska was the lightest of rebadges. Unlike the first-generation Aska, which had been available with both turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, the second-generation Aska was only available with naturally-aspirated gasoline engines. There was a choice of 1.8 and 2.0 flat fours, both mated to either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual and available with either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. The Subaru’s turbocharged engines and wagon variant weren’t offered.

Isuzu and Subaru’s partnership agreement expired in 1993 and the Aska and Geminett were discontinued. Leftover stocks of the Aska lasted until 1994 upon which Isuzu’s mid-sizer was replaced with a new model based on the Honda Accord. Honda and Isuzu’s tie-up made a lot of sense as Isuzu specialized in SUVs and Honda in cars and this agreement would also result in North American rebadges like the Isuzu Oasis (Honda Odyssey), Acura SLX and Honda Horizon (Isuzu Trooper) and Honda Passport (Isuzu Rodeo).

The third-generation Aska had an even more limited line-up than before, available exclusively with Honda’s 2.0 four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic. As before, the Aska was available only in the Japanese market.

A fourth and final generation of Aska arrived in 1998. It was based on the new, two inch-narrower JDM Accord (not to be confused with the European and American Accords) and was available with both 1.8 and 2.0 fours and either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The smaller body allowed the JDM Accord and Aska to fit in the Japanese compact car tax bracket.

Though the Aska outlived the Gemini by two years, it was discontinued in 2002. This Honda Accord clone was Isuzu’s last passenger car offering.

Isuzu Geminett

Wait a minute, didn’t I just say above the Isuzu Geminett was a rebadged Subaru Leone? Yes, it was. Before that, however, it was a rebadged Suzuki Cultus/Swift. Yes, this article has come full circle.

Sold from 1986 until 1988, the Geminett was a “van” version of the Suzuki Cultus, available only with a 1.0 three-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission. These van versions of passenger cars typically kept their rear seating but were intended for commercial use.

The real mystery is how a compact wagon was a logical replacement to a subcompact hatchback.

What started out as an article about three rebadged vehicles spotted by the curbside in Canada became a compendium of convoluted rebadges. If you were counting, we’ve actually covered roughly a dozen in this article. Such is the world of rebadges!

Sunrunner, EL and Firefly photographed in Vancouver, BC and Metro sedan in Squamish, BC in June 2019.

Related Reading:

Passport to Badge Engineering Hell: GM Messes With Our Heads

COAL: 1998 Suzuki Sidekick (Vitara) – Fun In The Sun, Not So in the Winter

COAL Capsule: 1995 Suzuki Swift Cino – Temporary Wheels

Obscure Rebadges From Around The World: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7