We pick up where we left off last week, looking at the cars sold from 2000-2012 that us Curbside Classic denizens will be fussing over in 15-20 years’ time when we see them on the street. Some of these are cars whose manufacturers had lofty aspirations for, but were met only by failure in a competitive market; others, lazy revisions and rebadges that will be forgotten in the passage of time by most people. But not by us.
Rebadges Part 2
“But CHEVROLET got a sub-compact!”
With GM at one point selling eight brands in the US market, there were bound to be a fair few rebadges. GM’s 2005 Crossover Sport Vans were an attempt to freshen up the aging U-Body minivans, improve their crash test scores and maybe even poach some SUV sales. The recipe was simple: take one minivan, add a big snout at the front, and market it as some kind of minivan/SUV hybrid. The U-Bodies received a vastly nicer interior, some more powerful engine choices and higher frontal crash-test ratings. With Oldsmobile being shuttered, the decision was made to supplement Chevy and Pontiac offerings with a Saturn and a Buick variant. Each would receive the 3.5 and 3.9 “High Value” V6 engines and available all-wheel-drive.
However, little was done to differentiate the new Chevrolet Uplander, Buick Terraza, Saturn Relay and Pontiac Montana SV6. Basically, there were only detail differences. Interiors differed in their use of fake wood, with pale (Saturn), dark (Buick and Chevrolet), and no wood (Chevrolet; Pontiac had aluminum). Outside, the Pontiac and Saturn had some vaguely athletic cladding; the Chevy was monochromatic and dumpier; and the Buick had lots of gaudy chrome.
The Montana SV6 survived only a year and was dumped due to slow sales, although successfully lived on right until 2009 in Canada. The Buick and Saturn were axed in 2007 in favor of vastly more successful Lambda platform crossovers, and the Uplander followed that route in 2009. Interesting bit of trivia to tell strangers at parties: the Relay was the slowest-selling CSV, despite the Terraza costing more.
GM also gave Pontiac a Cobalt coupe and an Aveo hatch, and called them G5 and G3. The latter was a one-year wonder, but don’t think finding 1 of 6237 will net you a future collector’s item. These were probably the laziest rebadges in history, but sold adequately in Canada.
Finally, I present the GMT-360 mid-size SUVs, the most heavily proliferated GM platform after the J-Car. Initially launched as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada, GM soon realized they could wring a little bit more out of the platform. Gas prices hadn’t shot up yet, mid-size SUVs were selling well, and dealers were clamoring for product. Thus, the Buick Rainier, Isuzu Ascender and Saab 9-7X joined the fray. I’ll cover the 9-7X in more detail, but the other two had fairly simple stories. Isuzu was axing most of their model range, so GM gave them the Ascender to sell.
Possibly the flimsiest rebadge of the GMT-360s, the Ascender was simply a GMC Envoy with a toothy grille and different tail lights. More investment was hardly necessary: sales never cracked five figures. The Rainier used the Oldsmobile Bravada body shell and interior, with a new front fascia and Buick’s QuietTuning. Utterly forgettable, the Rainier was consistently outsold by its cheaper and more unique sibling, the Rendezvous. It generally sold as many units as the Terraza, and the Enclave crossover replaced all three in one fell swoop in 2008.
If the L-Series was a questionable Americanization of a European product, then the 2008 Saturn Astra was the opposite. I challenge you to find a single review of the Saturn Astra where the author does not criticize the pictograms on the various dash buttons and deride the lack of words on the switchgear. That, in essence, is the Saturn Astra: a straight import with very little changed. Sadly, it was even less successful than the L-Series.
the Opel/Saturn Astra’s handsome interior (photo courtesy Sven Mildner)
Blame the timing. GM was about to enter bankruptcy proceedings, and consumer confidence was fairly low. The Astra also represented another page in a new chapter for Saturn, and buyers were adjusting to a very different brand. Saturn may have started out a brand of friendly compacts with friendly dealers, but after years of neglect it needed new product. GM decided that with Oldsmobile out of the picture, Saturn could assume the mantle of quasi-upscale import fighter. That kind of brand repositioning takes a while, and even then can be unsuccessful: case in point, Oldsmobile. The Astra, starting at $16k, was a European hatchback complete with little dash buttons with bizarre pictures on them.
the much-maligned ION
Consider what the Saturn lineup looked like just a year before. The wretched ION compact was breathing its last breathe, and retailing for a much cheaper $12k. It needed to be that cheap. Despite riding the same platform as the Astra – GM’s Delta platform, shared with the average Cobalt/G5 – it was a car marked with flaws. Introduced in 2003, the Ion was soundly panned for its low-rent interior, an feel-less electric power steering set-up, center-mounted gauges, and its CVT auto. It was a case of GM spending a lot of money to differentiate the Ion from its platform mates – smart, in theory – but choosing all the wrong things to differentiate, right down to a truly bizarre, two-spoke steering wheel. Changes were quickly rushed – the CVT was dumped for an old-fashioned 4-speed, the steering tuned and wheel replaced, the sedan facelifted – but it was still subpar. And so, the Astra was rushed to market, the accelerated timetable to ensure the Astra nameplate was established in the US market. The timetable also prohibited any major changes.
the best “old” Saturn had to offer, the sporty ION Red Line
GM was quickly casting off the “old” Saturn. By the time the Astra launched, the Saturn lineup had radically changed: the ION and L-Series were history; the Relay van was replaced by the incredibly handsome Outlook crossover; the new mid-size Aura had taken home the North American Car of the Year trophy; and there was a new, Opel-derived Vue, available in a hybrid. It was far and away the best lineup Saturn had ever had, and probably one of the best lineups in GM history. A new ad campaign was even launched highlighting how much the company had changed, with various people exclaiming, “That’s a Saturn?!”
“New Saturn”, represented by the Outlook
As I said earlier, though, it was some rotten timing, and it probably explains why Astra sales never amounted to much. The Astra survived almost two model years before being axed; the Saturn brand was closed soon after, but not before a deal was almost reached for the brand and dealer network to be bought by Roger Penske. That would have been interesting, as the product range would have had to be changed all over again!
photo by M93
The Astra was a fundamentally good compact. The exterior and interior were crisply upscale, and the 3-door was a real looker. The dash may not have been the most ergonomic, but it looked sharp. Handling was confident and sporty, although the standard 1.8 four wasn’t the quickest lump. Overall, the Astra was a quantum leap over the ION, right down to the confident steering and the solid thunk of the doors.
It was a real shame Saturn died right as it got things right, but if you want to buy a handsome European Opel in the US, you still can. Buick’s Encore, Verano and Regal are all Opels, and they are all fantastic cars. Fortunately for that brand renaissance, it seems to actually be working.
Anyone remember this?
GM sure seemed to have a habit of filling its acquired brand’s North American lineups with cars from other brands. GM only ever owned 20% of Suzuki, but that didn’t stop them from bolstering the little Japanese company’s admittedly small lineup with Daewoos.
The Daewoo brand had a brief cameo in the American market, but after GM assumed control of the Korean company, the Daewoo name would never again appear. Instead, their cars were placed into other brands. The Kalos became the Chevrolet Aveo, and the Lacetti and Magnus became the Suzuki Forenza/Reno and the Suzuki Verona. Daewoos were generally sharply styled, thanks to Italian design houses Giugario and Pininfarina. Unfortunately, the cars themselves were adequate at best.
The mid-size Verona was certainly no sales success, coming from a niche brand with a small dealer network. Suzuki had never offered a mid-size sedan, either, and advertising was minimal. The kinds of people who did buy Veronas were probably people trading in Esteems and Aerios for something bigger. In addition to a sharp Giugario exterior, the interior had a smart two-tone theme and looked vaguely upscale. The Verona was well-priced, with even the loaded model coming in under $20k at launch. The car’s most unique attribute, though, was its engine: a transverse mounted 2.5 inline six.
Inline sixes tend to be smoother than more common V6s, and Suzuki touted the engine’s co-development with Porsche. Critics found the engine smooth, but otherwise the Verona’s performance was sorely lacking. This small displacement I6 – an even smaller 2.0 was available in its successor – was very low on power. 155 horsepower was all that was on its tap, with a meager 177 lb ft of torque. Consider this: the 2.3 used in the smaller, Suzuki-designed Aerio had the same amount of horsepower and only 20 fewer lb ft of torque. The Accord-sized Verona also had no available four-cylinder to make up for the mediocre fuel economy achieved by the I6, which was mated only to a four-speed auto. With a 0-60 of over 10 seconds, the Verona was outperformed by many of its four cylinder rivals due to its transmission, underpowered engine and 3446lb weight. The I6 at least sounded nice, though.
Other than a unique engine choice, the Verona only competed on price. It had worse fuel economy and power than many rivals and sloppy handling to boot. Quality had improved over its Daewoo Leganza predecessor – Suzuki claimed to have implemented a stricter quality process for Daewoos with their nameplate attached – but it wasn’t enough. Most people didn’t know the Verona existed, and after three model years, it was shelved.
2003-04 Infiniti M45
Stealth Bomber but a Sales Bomb
I find the Japanese car market absolutely crazy. The multiple dealer networks, the glut of cars offered by companies in every segment, the seemingly identical cars. I do appreciate the choice, however. And I wish sometimes Japanese companies brought over some of their unique offerings as a niche product (eg, the RWD Toyota Mark X). The Infiniti M45 was a case of Infiniti being able to tap into a vast Japanese market model range. Derived from the Nissan Cedric and Gloria, two basically identical JDM sedans, the M45 allowed for a gap to be bridged expediently.
the M45’s engine donor, the Q45
1990s Infiniti had somewhat of a confused model range, with a unique Q being buttressed with bland platform sharing jobs (QX4, I30) and JDM and European Nissans (G20, M30). As the 1990s trudged on, the Q45 lost power and style and the [proto-Lexus ES] I30 became the volume Infiniti. The 2000s, though, would see the launch of a car that would come to define the Infiniti brand: the G. Although it was a JDM Nissan Skyline, the G was perfectly suited to the American market and hit the BMW 3-Series head on with excellent rear-wheel-drive handling, a gutsy V6 and a sharp coupe variant. A new Q came for 2002, more stylish than its predecessor and returning to the nameplate a powerful 4.5 V8. All that was missing from the Infiniti sedan line-up was a something to slot in the $20,000 chasm between G and Q. That’s why this article is brought to you by the letter M.
Engineers quickly found a way to slot big brother Q’s V8 into the Cedric/Gloria’s engine bay, and the marketing guys priced the M lower than the German competition and right up against the Lincoln LS. JDM luxury sedans tend to have quite a cushy ride, but Infiniti tuned the ride and handling to fit its newfound performance image. The V8 helped nicely, especially as the M was a good 110 pounds lighter than the Q, and 0-60 was a rapid 5.7 seconds. This 4.5 unit put out a competitive 340 horsepower and 333 lb-ft of torque, outperforming the LS 3.9 V8 quite nicely (252hp and 261 lb ft; later, 280/286) while achieving similar gas mileage, a firm ride and capable (if not 5-Series toppling) handling. Inside, the dashboard was very similar to the more expensive Q, and outside, the body was conservatively handsome. The rear quarters were a bit cramped, owing to the limitations of the Cedric/Gloria body, but overall the M45 was a convincing mid-size sports sedan entry.
It didn’t sell. Only 7,855 of this shape of M were sold in the US market between 2002 and 2004. The Lincoln LS outsold it. Even the stodgy Acura RL outsold it. Maybe marketing and advertising were lacking investment, but it wasn’t until the new-shape M arrived in 2005, with an available V6, that the M finally received some five-digit annual sales figures. This makes the erstwhile M45 quite a find on the streets, and a decent used-car buy. Handsome styling, a powerful V8 and Nissan’s reputation for quality and reliability make this arguably more appealing than the frumpy RL and Lexus GS, or the potentially flaky Lincoln LS.
It came from outer space!
I learned something about the VehiCROSS while researching this article that I believe can change how one views this vehicle. I’d always presumed it was an Aztek-style failure, an example of a car with styling too bold for its own good (and with a similarly stupid name!). I had no idea that Isuzu had intentionally engineered this quirky SUV as a limited edition model.
It seems almost ridiculous, no? The cost of federalizing a car for the American market would surely be too high for a car intended to sell only a few thousand units, I thought. Not to mention, it was an entirely new nameplate, which comes with it marketing and advertising costs. Maybe, though, the VehiCROSS’s launch was more sensible than one would think. After all, when a car looks this bold – very little of the exterior was changed from the 1993 concept car – the car is really its own billboard.
photo courtesy Flickr user dave_7
The truck was designed as a technology showcase for Isuzu, and off-road it meant business. Underneath the curvy, be-cladded exterior sat a racing-style, high-endurance extruded aluminum shock absorber with attached expansion chamber, and Borg-Warner’s cutting-edge Torque-on-Demand 4WD system. Economies of scale were aided by basing the truck on the two-door Trooper and using its 215-horsepower, 230 lb-ft 3.5 V6. Your $28k netted you a very capable off-roader, but also a truck that critics agreed was quite firm and sporty on bitumen as well. Leather Recaros spruced up the conservative Rodeo-derived cockpit.
After the cheaper ceramic dies used for the body were no longer usable, the VehiCROSS was cancelled. If you find one of the 4,153 sold in the US between 1999-2001, carefully consider buying one. You’ll have a truck that was not only capable off-road, but outperformed most other contemporary SUVs on road, and you’ll also have one of the most distinctive SUVs ever made.