(first posted 13/3/2013) This isn’t the kind of speculation one may find in the Future Classics column of Collectible Automobile. I am not arguing that any of these cars will become Barrett-Jackson trailer queens. Instead, I pose these as the cars us Curbside Classic car-nerds will be fussing over in 15-20 years’ time when we see one on the street. Not every Curbside Classic-er will like these cars now or like them in the future, but I am sure in 15-20 years’ time each of these will summon the kind of vigorous debate and historical analysis this site is known for. And I am sure this website will still be around then!
Now, this list does exclude one type of car: the top 20 best-seller. We have seen numerous articles on this site where an inconspicuous yet ubiquitous car like the 1995 Chevrolet Lumina has been chronicled. Of course, those kinds of plebian family sedans become exponentially more interesting to see as they fall off of the roads and enter the junkyards. However, this article would be three times as long if I included every uninteresting and currently still common car. To limit the scope, I elected to profile more obscure cars and only from 2000-2012. So, what will we be shocked, surprised, excited and/or pleased to see by the curbside in 15-20 years’ time?
When global platforms don’t work
The L-Series is an example of the inherent difficulties in bringing a European car over and selling it under an American brand. There are two major ways this strategy can fail. The first is a car could be brought over and changed very little, and the packaging and performance requirements of Americans aren’t met. An example of this would be the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique – criticized for lacking interior space – or the Cadillac Catera’s lack of power and reliability. The second possible failure is the car could be changed too much, and whatever advantages of bringing a European car over are lost under soft suspension tuning and cheaper interior materials. The Saturn L-Series is an example of the latter. The GM2900 platform it sat on was already old, and wasn’t even receiving critical acclaim in Europe by the time the Opel Vectra crossed the pond. GM could have saved the expense and chopped and reskinned a Malibu or Grand Am, but let’s not even get into the myriad missteps GM made in the 1990s.
Despite a neat wagon variant and reasonably sharp styling – oddly very different from the Vectra it was derived from – the L-Series only did half the volume of the similarly sized and priced Grand Am each year. Perhaps this was due to a smaller dealer network, or maybe the L’s smaller size and ugly, plasticky interior are to blame. It is interesting to note that even in 2002-03, after Oldsmobile’s demise was announced, the Oldsmobile Alero outsold the L-Series. Saturn took this as a sign and shelved the L-Series, replacing it with the Aura. Despite Opel-esque styling, the more premium Aura sensibly shared the LWB Epsilon platform with the Pontiac G6.
Crossing over too far
It seems like any company lately can put out a crossover and find success, no matter how ugly (X6, JX35) or impractical (FX, X6) or overpriced (X6 once more). Acura’s own MDX is up to generation 3, and has always been a sales success. It has always offered plenty of space, a strong V6 and a decent chassis. Acura decided to utilize those solid foundations and chase the very small niche of four-door crossovers with no luggage space and a sloping roofline that makes rear passengers uncomfortable. It failed. The moribund ZDX sat at the bottom of sales charts. Was the niche too small? Was the styling too polarizing? Did people go to the Acura dealership and realize they could get a vastly more versatile MDX for the same dough? Or, does Acura just lack the prestige to go diving into obscure niche markets? Whatever the reason for its failure, the ZDX is a rare sight now and will become even more of a curiosity in the future.
2005-09 Ford Five Hundred, Freestyle, Taurus X, Montego, Sable, Taurus
The Forgotten Fords
These are the kinds of cars I can see being absolutely forgotten about by most people. The initial Five Hundred, Freestyle and Montego never lit up the sales charts, most likely due to a combination of bland styling and an anemic powertrain. The comprehensive 2008 revision attempted to remedy both of those, but succeeded only partially. Despite bringing back better-known nameplates, the (now) Taurus, Sable and Taurus X never made much of an impact either and lasted only two model years. The Taurus X was replaced with the now-ubiquitous Explorer and the bolder Flex; the Taurus was given much cooler duds; and the Sable died for the last time, and was soon joined by its parent marque on the automotive scrapheap. These 2005-09 D3 Fords were unique, though, in offering a higher, SUV-like driving position and…. Umm… Well, they were pretty big, too. Otherwise, they offered a type of nondescript competence that will ensure they are forgotten by most. Except by us.
A Kia what?!
Remember that time Kia launched a vehicle on an all-new platform, in a segment it had never competed in, and then shelved it after only one model year? No? It was Kia’s only V8 vehicle, so far? Still nothing?
The Borrego is one of the more bizarre automotive footnotes in recent history. I have never seen one on the roads. It was pretty unusual for a company like Hyundai, who are growing rapidly and finding great success, to make such an unexpected misstep. The Borrego entered a crowded yet dwindling segment of mid-size, body-on-frame SUVs. Crossovers were taking off at this point, and high fuel prices and CAFE were conspiring to kill SUV demand. In just a few years, the segment would shrink from ten entrants to just a handful. Despite smart styling by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, and fairly keen pricing, buyers didn’t flock to the Borrego and Kia decided to axe it after only one model year (although it remained for two more in Canada and until now in the Middle East).
GM’s V8 W-Bodies
The Ultimate W-Bodies
In 2006, with the Epsilon platform underpinning GM’s volume mid-sizers and a LWB Epsilon taking over for the full-size models, it seems GM wanted its 1989-vintage W-Body to go out with a bang. There had been performance W-Bodies for some time, with the well-balanced Regal GS, Monte Carlo SS, Impala SS and Grand Prix GTP packing a decently gutsy supercharged Series II 3800 V6 with 240 horsepower and 280 lb ft of torque. Of course, the mid-size sedan horsepower wars had begun and Nissan’s Altima had 260hp from a naturally aspirated V6. The Grand Prix had been redesigned in 2004, but the Impala, Monte Carlo and Regal were looking very tired.
To coincide with the 2006 launch of a freshened Impala, Monte Carlo and the Regal replacement, the Lacrosse, GM gave their not-quite-full-size Ws the 5.3 V8 LS4 engine, with 303hp and 323 lb ft. Of course, GM was no stranger to shoehorning V8s into a FWD package and from some accounts they did a decent job combatting torque steer in the Grand Prix GXP. The GXP even boasted differing wheel widths (wider at the front) and paddle shifters for the tried-and-true 4-speed auto. The Impala and Monte Carlo SS received less favorable reviews, and Buick didn’t even launch its V8 variant, the LaCrosse Super, until 2008. By then the entire Monte Carlo range was shelved, and NASCAR fans cried a thousand tears (although the vastly more focused Camaro hit dealerships soon after and sold far more than the aged MC could dream of).
These new V8 models were far less balanced than the supercharged 3.8s they ostensibly replaced, with a significant chassis/power imbalance and nose-heavy handling. Buick even ditched the modern 3.6 High Feature V6 for 2009, so in the LaCrosse and Grand Prix lineups there was a yawning 100hp and 100 lb ft gap between 3.8 V6 and 5.3 V8 variants. Fuel economy wasn’t the best either, with each of the V8 Ws saddled with a four-speed auto.
I like to think of this era for GM as being their ballsiest, if not their best. Even if the idea was less than sound, they were willing to try it ($100k XLR-Vs; Solstice/Sky; Aztek). You certainly couldn’t get a V8 in an Accord or a Camry! The Impala SS boasted elegant styling, with interesting chrome wheels. The LaCrosse Super had subtle touches of aggression and a unique all-brown leather interior. The Grand Prix GXP built on its already muscular visage with nice wheels and red brake calipers. The only problem was Chrysler and Dodge had just launched far more conventional RWD V8 sedans. But if you were a GM man, these were the ultimate W-Bodies.
A razor-edge design for a company on the edge
If this article were about obscure COMPANIES of the 2000s, Isuzu would take the cake. In 15-20 years, most people will probably have forgotten Isuzu ever sold passenger cars or SUVs in the American market. We will be explaining to blank faces, “They even sold a sports car, and this actor named David Leisure played this Joe Isuzu character…” So, I present one of the more obscure vehicles from this obscure marque: the Axiom.
Sold for only three model years, the Axiom was ostensibly a replacement for the long-running and moderately successful Trooper. It was hardly a clean-sheet design, though, as underneath the sexy, sharp body was Isuzu’s aged Rodeo. The lone engine choice wasn’t new, either, and came from the Trooper. This 3.5 V6 was good for 230hp and 230 lb ft of torque. 2004 saw the addition of direct-injection, which improved fuel economy and upped the power to a respectable 250hp and 246 lb ft. Yearly sales, though, never cracked the 10,000 barrier. The writing was on the wall for Isuzu’s automotive operations in the US. The Rodeo Sport was axed in 2003, the Rodeo and Axiom after 2004 and all that remained were two rebadged GM products: the Ascender, a GMT-360 mid-size SUV; and the i-Series, a rebadged Chevy Colorado.
Like something out of Weekend at Bernie’s, though, Chinese company Great Wall blatantly copied the Axiom’s exterior sheetmetal for its Hover/X240 SUV and used this reanimated corpse to launch its worldwide brand expansion. Well, at least they picked a good-looking truck to rip off!
Obscure Rebadges: Part 1
Remember when Suzuki sold a Nissan pickup and a bunch of Daewoos? Or when Mitsubishi had a V8 Dodge pickup in the showrooms? How about when Mercury dusted off a full-size sedan nameplate for a rebadged Ford minivan, or when Chrysler dusted off a mid-sized Dodge nameplate for a rebadged Dodge SUV?
These rebadges were all employed as a cheap way to fill a hole in the lineup. Suzuki’s North American operations (RIP) had never fielded a pickup truck and had such a small dealer network, so I think they take the cake for most pointless rebadge of the 2000s with their Nissan Frontier-based Equator. If you want a mid-sized pickup, though, you can probably get a great deal on one now!
Mitsubishi’s Dodge Dakota clone, the Raider, made a little bit more sense. Chrysler and Mitsubishi had collaborated for years, and the Raider filled a gap in the lineup that had existed since the hilariously named Mighty Max bit the dust. It was also considerably cheaper than federalizing the decent L200/Triton pickup, thanks to the ridiculous Chicken Tax. Sold from 2005-09, it never cracked 10,000 units annually and for three of those model years didn’t even reach the 5,000 mark! This was despite coming with a choice of V6 or two different V8s.
Mercury’s Monterey pointlessly brought back a long dormant nameplate for a clone of the limp Freestar minivan, replacing the Nissan Quest-based Villager.
Chrysler’s luxed-up Dodge Durango dusted off the Aspen nameplate once used by Dodge. Despite the name’s connotations of wealth and adventure, it probably just reminded many people of rusty fenders. This tweener-size luxury SUV sold in small numbers from 2005-09, and was fairly unremarkable except for one model. The Aspen Hybrid (and its twin, the Durango Hybrid) was Chrysler’s application of the Two-Mode Hybrid system jointly developed with GM and BMW. Mated to a 5.7 Hemi V8, the Hybrid achieved 20/22 MPG city/highway, which was a big improvement over the non-hybrid’s 13/19. If only Chrysler’s bankruptcy hadn’t happened, and they hadn’t shelved a significant chunk of their lineup. The Aspen and Aspen Hybrid bit the dust for 2009, and only 400 Aspen and Durango Hybrids were built. If you see one on the road, it is quite a rare car. As for the Aspen itself, the market was shifting away from body-on-frame SUVs to more fuel-efficient and car-like crossovers.
Stay tuned for Part 2, and share your thoughts in the comments!