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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LOL, its a whole parallel universe, the Suzuki Nomade Sidekick etc was also rebadged as a Mazda in Japan Ive seen two in NZ, the Jcar Isuzu Aska also wore Holden Camira badging in New Zealand the only market to get it under that name the car on the Wiki page is my fathers, photo harvested from the cohort with permission, they emailed me, Ive seen a Subaru Big Horn never realised Subaru did it I thought some local was just playing a prank no doubt part of a bulk used car import purchase, it can be fun watching traffic here all day most of the obscure JDM rebadges turn up sooner or later.
Double LOL, I didn’t realize the first three were that obscure, having seen them regularly on the street 😛
DougD rarity is relative, Australia had a very limited range of cars. Tariffs and local assembly/content saw to that, paticularly noticeable to Kiwis emigrating.
Thanks Will, now I have a big headache! 🙂
Wow, so much confusion here. Although I was vaguely aware of some of the Honda/Isuzu tie-ups, the small Canadian Acura was a new one to me.
And great find on that Firefly convertible. I am amazed that so many of those are still on the road given their advanced age. I have been seeing a Geo Metro convertible (red, of course) zipping around my corner of the city in recent weeks.
What’s in a name?
To incompetent marketers in the global auto market – absolutely nothing.
Marketers believe in magic that turns an object into a desirable phenomena when given the perfect name and presentation. This is the kind of thinking we see here. There was no reason an auto brand needed to repeatedly rename models, unless the first name was considered filthy or immoral. How do we know this? Because once auto marketers believe that a name is perfect – they apply that name to a completely different car. For forty years the brand name “Corolla” has been applied to dozens of completely different vehicles. It is a completely made up word, like Camry or Schnizzelfitz Deluxette.
Yet in this case, the same vehicle is repeatedly renamed. What was accomplished by doing this? The reason these are obscure brand names is because the idea of repeatedly renaming the same damn car is illogical only in the real world. These obscure badges are flaming marketing failures, not vehicular failures.
These were perfectly fine cars. Too bad the marketers weren’t as competent as the engineers.
It’s easier (in the marketer’s minds) to change the name than it is to build value through effective messaging. In fact, keeping the name consistent actually *helps* with messaging, but try convincing a marketing person of that!
True, but I do have to laugh about the Asüna name.
First, let’s create a brand comprised of captive Asian imports… then let’s invent a completely made-up yet vaguely Japanese-sounding name… oh then we’ll just add a random umlaut to one of the letters… you know, umlauts always make a product seem sophisticated.
Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure if Asüna is any better or worse than Geo.
A: Do you know what all these vehicles are called by their owners?
Not to nitpick, but corolla is not a made-up word; it’s a botanical term meaning the petals of a flower. (Note how the spellchecker doesn’t balk if you type it lowercase? That’s why.) “Camry” is a corruption of the Japanese word “kanmuri” (冠), which means “crown.”
There was no reason an auto brand needed to repeatedly rename models, unless the first name was considered filthy or immoral.
Well, none of these cars represent a given brand renaming an existing product. The whole point of the exercise was to enable an existing product to be sold by a different brand.
This happens all the time in all manner of retail businesses. Go to the grocery store in the U.S. and you’ll see a variety of products sold under the store’s various house brands. Often, different house brands’ products come from the same “white label” suppliers, but Kroger, Safeway, etc., are going to put their own names on it. It can be kind of cynical, but it isn’t illogical or stupid.
Because it promotes the “importance” and career prospects of marketers to continually chop and change names and roll out big campaigns that “will change everything.” And for the quick-buck artists it’s a substitute for the difficult and expensive, more substantive activity of actually making better cars.
If GM put less energy and attention into their marketing and more into engineering they might not be a shadow of their former self.
I nearly bought that Metro/Firefly sedan in that exact green colour, as I really liked the design and styling but decided on a Tracker. That open top on the Tracker sold it to me.
Imagine showing up to a Subie meet full of WRXs and Forester XTs, or a Honda meet full of lowered Civics and Preludes, in a rebadged Trooper. “Yeah, it’s JDM, bro!”
Looking at this is probably how a complete non-car person views the car world in general. Just can’t keep the brands and names straight and wait, how is that an Isuzu, I thought that was a Subaru, etc.
Just when you think you were somewhat in the know about cars, brands, and joint ventures, here comes Will again with another of this series to show what a big world it really is. Thanks for this installment!
Asuna was definitely an oddball but the oddest GM one of that time period was Passport for sure. Yet another Canada only brand … it pre-dated Asuna and was introduced at the same time as Geo was in the US. They sold a badge engineered Opel Kadett E (ie Pontiac LeMans) as well as Saab and Isuzu (not re-badged). This is the only one I have seen semi-lately.
The Asunas are getting pretty rare these days. I still think the Tracker might be the most badge engineered vehicle. Wikipedia lists the following variants.
Mazda Proceed Levante
Wanli WLZ5020XLD (China)
Guangtong GTQ5020XLZ (China)
Also known as the Suzuki Vitara in Australia.
One more obscure rebadge, the Suzuki Swift was badged also as Subaru Justy for the European market but it wasn’t just a simple rebadge, it was only sold in 4wd version.
I saw one photo on this website from Slovaquia.
That is bizarre especially when Subaru already had a three cylinder AWD vehicle of the same relative size. Seems like a big rework for little pay off.
The picture of the Passport dealership is of this location in Whitby, Ontario, now operating as Motorcity Mitsubishi, but owned by the same family. As indicated in the text, it became Saturn-Saab-Isuzu and then a standalone Saturn dealer until the brand was discontinued.
At the right of the photo is their Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership which has been at this location since the 1960s.
JUst to add something to further muddy the waters Suzuki Escudo/Nomade Vitara etc also came as diesels and from 2000 onwards with the Peugeot HDI 1997cc engine.
A 3-cyl. Pontiac?
Mind officially blown.
Not so sure on 1991 being the last year for Passport dealers. I bought my first car (a 1992 Saturn SL1) in 1992 at my local Passport dealer. I still have the bill of sale as a keepsake.
A year or so later, it was renamed “Saturn Saab Isuzu” and later just “Saturn”, as described above.
During the search for my first car, I was actually looking at an Asuna Sunfire. I remember it being priced just barely higher than it’s Geo Storm counterpart. I think it was less than $100. For prestige, maybe???
There is a yellow Firefly convertible in my town. I see an elderly lady piloting it around every summer.
There are still a ton of the Civic-based Acuras around here. I think people saw them as a sort of halo car for those obsessed with Civics. I live in Civic/Corolla land, so this isn’t surprising.