(first posted 8/5/2014)
Part one and part two of this series merely scratched the surface of the world of badge engineering. In this week’s installment, we look at: a phantom brand; an exclusive brand best left in the past; and the advantages of being part of a big corporate family (much like a real family, its hand-me-downs!).
In the same decade when General Motors was shuttering decades-old brands like Oldsmobile and Pontiac, they actually started up a brand that is still running today. The Alpheon brand features one model – a rebadged Buick LaCrosse – and sells in only one market, South Korea.
If that alone seems mystifying to you, check out the Alpheon Korea website. They have yet to receive the revised 2014 LaCrosse, first of all, and the only available engines appear to be the unloved 3.0 V6 and the 2.4 eAssist. Flicking to the history section reveals the history of the Alpheon brand… except it’s an extremely incomplete history of the Buick brand. Unfortunately because of the use of images, I couldn’t translate the text. Apparently Buick only had three significant events before the Alpheon’s launch: the launch of the Riviera in 1963 (this is accompanied by a picture of a boat tail Riv on big, chromed, aftermarket wheels); the launch of the first-generation LaCrosse in 2005; and the launch of the second-generation LaCrosse.
Right. I couldn’t see any text references to Buick, but I think that brings a bigger question to the table: why not just introduce Buick to the Korean market? Was it a rejection by Korean management of anything loved by the Chinese? Why not bring Opel to the Korean market? If they so desperately needed an upscale brand, they could have badged the LaCrosse with the German lightning bolt and maybe brought over the Insignia, too.
The Alpheon experiment hasn’t been a huge success, and it is being outsold on the Korean market by the Hyundai Genesis, Grandeur/Azera and Kia K7/Cadenza. In the first seven months of 2014, the Alpheon shifted 4,398 units against 9,231 K7s, 10,977 Genesis sedans and a mighty 53,480 Grandeurs, even being outsold by the imported BMW 520d. Industry observers surmise the slow sales of the Alpheon may be due to the mediocre fuel efficiency of the 3.0 V6; yet another criticism of an engine that’s almost been completely disappeared by the powers that be, due to a lack of torque but also a lack of a major efficiency advantage over the broadly competent 3.6 V6.
Perhaps GM Korea should have followed GM China’s lead and put in GM’s ubiquitous 2.0 turbo four as was done with the Chinese Cadillac SLS. Any plans for an expansion of the Alpheon brand appear to be on ice, as GM renews its focus on the expansion of the Cadillac brand into the market.
Corporate synergies can be exciting. I never would have expected, even just a few years ago, to see a combined Fiat-Alfa Romeo-Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership. I never would have expected the bulk of the European Lancia lineup to consist of rebadged Chryslers.
Corporate synergies, though, can also be a little weird. When I first heard Fiat would rebadge the Dodge Journey as a Fiat for the European market, I thought it was a clever move. The Journey is a competent vehicle and not too gargantuan for the European market. But I never would have expected FCA to bring the Fiat Freemont to Australia, to sell in dealerships directly alongside the Journey, the lone Dodge remaining in that market, and the rest of the Fiat lineup that consists only of small hatchbacks.
It seems to be another example of how completely saturated the Aussie market is, and yet how local management seems to exercise a lot of sway in what makes it here if there is right-hand-drive availability (see: Hyundai’s lineup, which features both the European and American model lineups; Honda’s European Civic hatch being sold alongside the Thai-built sedan).
To help excise some confusion, the Freemont and Journey target different sections of the market. The Journey is Pentastar V6-only, and available only in SXT and ritzy R/T spec and only with seven seats. The Freemont, however, employs four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, with an optional third-row. The Journey is priced from a competitive $AUD32,000–for comparison’s sake, that is how much a base 2014 Cherokee 2.4 costs–but the Freemont undercuts it by a cool $5,000, making it one of the cheapest seven-seaters on the market.
For a driveaway price less than the MSRP of a base Camry, you can drive away in a base Freemont with alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, rear parking sensors, and uConnect with the smaller 4.3 inch touchscreen. That’s a lot of kit and a lot of space, and even adding the third row brings it to about lineball with the Camry’s MSRP.
Unfortunately, the powertrain lineup is imperfect. The four-cylinder is the same one used in the US-market Journey, with only 168hp and 160 ft-lbs, albeit mated to a six-speed automatic instead of the outdated four-speed unit used in price-leader US Journeys. The diesel, a Fiat Multijet unit, has the same horsepower figure but a sturdier 258 ft-lbs of torque. However, in the Australian market, it is available only in mid-range Urban (the other trims are base and flagship Lounge) and only with a six-speed manual. Manual transmissions are often the ideal transmission for extracting power from a diesel or a low-powered engine, but they are not popular in what Australians call “people movers”. A six-speed automatic is available, however, in other markets.
The powertrain lineup doesn’t seem to be impeding sales, though. The Freemont was solidly mid-pack in European sales last year (18,825 units), being bested by popular crossovers like the smaller Ford Kuga (Escape), Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sportage – not to mention the Nissan Qashqai, which seems more intent on dominating the European continent than Vladimir Putin – but solidly ahead of the Opel Antara, Chevrolet Captiva and Subaru XV and Forester. 1 in 5 Fiats in Australia are now Freemonts, with approximately 1000 Freemonts sold last year; the more expensive Journey is still out-selling it.
Still, the reorganization of dealers and distribution under the unified Fiat Chrysler Automobiles banner now means Fiats and Alfa Romeos are getting a lot more visibility, sitting alongside the hot, hot, hot Jeep brand’s vehicles. Australians reading this don’t need to be reminded how much advertising time Jeep now enjoys here with their “I bought a Jeep” TV commercials, and the Grand Cherokee is now out-selling the Toyota Prado mid-size SUV, the perennial segment leader. Cars like the Freemont can only benefit from sharing a dealership spotlight.
The Freemont may be cheap but the real bargain is the Dodge Journey, at least in the Australian market where fuel prices are lower than Europe (albeit higher than the US). The 3.6 Pentastar V6 really helps the Journey scoot, and makes the Freemont look like a slug in comparison. If you can do without the big alloys and the leather trim, you can get a Journey SXT for the same price as a Freemont Lounge. Or do what my sister did and buy an R/T Journey. The Journey doesn’t get a lot of love but it has always been a solid sales performer, especially in Canada and Australia, and is quite well-sized and competent dynamically.
Reduce, reuse, recycle, we are taught. Volkswagen is no exception, and they have done an exceptionally capable job of proliferating platforms over multiple different brands and models. Sometimes, though, different sheet metal and other major distinctions aren’t employed. The first Skoda Superb was simply a stretched B5 Volkswagen Passat. Seat got an even better deal, with the B7 generation Audi A4 becoming its flagship sedan after a little nip and tuck.
Perhaps due to SEAT being the only mainstream Spanish automaker and also its somewhat sporty positioning (their tagline for a while was auto emoción), it is sometimes referred to as a Spanish Alfa Romeo, but in all fairness it’s never had that brand’s quasi-upmarket positioning. Underneath, SEATs are about as Latin as a Bier Fest… or a Skoda. The Spanish brand started off selling Fiat derivatives, but in 1986 Volkswagen become a majority shareholder. With the death of the Fiat Panda-based Seat Marbella in 1998, the SEAT passenger car lineup wholly consisted of vehicles riding on VW platforms.
While the similarly-priced Skoda division went for a very understated and sometimes frumpy aesthetic for its cars, late 1990s and early 2000s SEATS wore pleasingly curvaceous styling that sometimes resembled contemporary Alfa Romeos. A challenging design language penned by Walter da’Silva marked the latter part of the 2000s, with varying results (see: the pretty Leon II, but ungainly Altea and Toledo), before the arrival of the Exeo in 2008. The Exeo was not only the most prestigious flagship model the Spanish brand had ever had, it also marked a new and more conservative design era for the brand.
Available in sedan or wagon, the Exeo differed from its donor vehicle only in front and rear fasciae. A new front fascia was necessitated by changed pedestrian safety standards, so the higher hood clashed somewhat with the body. Interestingly, the very handsome interior was carried over from the A4 cabriolet and not the sedan. In the UK market at least, the Exeo was priced a good £6000 ($USD10,000) below the new generation Audi A4.
The engine lineup was much more straightforward than its prestigious cousin, with a 2.0 turbodiesel in three different states of tune and a 2.0 TSI gas engine. SEAT did some suspension tuning to attempt to improve the mediocre ride/handling of the A4, and critics agreed it was an improvement but still behind the Ford Mondeo dynamically; a Sport trim level offered an even sportier suspension tune, at the expense of a smooth ride and without really transforming the car’s dynamics. The Exeo was also front-wheel-drive only, and initially only came with a six-speed manual (a CVT came later).
The Exeo was priced against other mainstream D-segment rivals like the Ford Mondeo and Opel Insignia, but both of those were quite a bit larger overall and with more spacious accommodations. A smaller 1.6 gas engine (102hp, 109 ft-lbs) was added in 2009 as a price-leader, as well as a 1.8 TSI engine. A 2012 facelift brought daylight running lights that made the Exeo look the most Audi-like since it was actually an Audi. Sales were steady but unexceptional, outselling cars like the Subaru Legacy, Honda Accord and Kia Optima, but falling well short of mid-size juggernauts like the Passat, Mondeo and Insignia.
The Exeo was cancelled for 2012, with the position of Seat flagship being assumed by a dowdy, conservative, new C-segment Toledo based on the Skoda Rapid (itself a stretched VW Polo). Thus ended the Exeo experiment, an interesting case study in trickle-down luxury. One wonders when an automaker will try to recycle luxury goods again, as it seems like a pretty cost-effective idea.
Between 1973 and 1989, Bitter Cars produced the SC and CD. Bitter mounted beautiful and bespoke bodies atop full-size European Opels. The SC sat on the Opel Diplomat’s platform, and the CD on the Opel Senator; the former had a 327 Chevy V8, the latter a choice of two Opel inline sixes. Both were gorgeous inside and out, with the CD bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Ferrari 400 and being exported in very limited numbers to the US. The CD even came in a choice of coupe, sedan and convertible variants, with an optional all-wheel-drive system in the coupe. In 1986, though, CD production was ended and the Bitter brand sat dormant.
In 2007, Erich Bitter’s car company made a comeback. GM mechanicals were still used but this time around most of the sheet metal of the donor vehicle, the WM Holden Caprice, was retained for the new Bitter Vero. Differences were limited to a different front fascia, unique suspension settings and other minor tweaks. The 6.0 V8, also used in the Pontiac G8 GT, remained the same, with 350hp and 381 ft-lbs.
The Vero was a stark contrast to those gorgeous Bitters of the 70s and 80s, as it was only markedly different in appearance from a front, head-on view. Perhaps it was the absence of the Caprice and its stablemates in the European market that lead Bitter to ask an eye-watering $170,000 (or around 120,000 euros) for this dolled up Holden.
The modified interior was nice and you were unlikely to see many Bitters on the roads, but the asking price was well over double that of a Caprice. Not to mention, the Vero didn’t even receive the 6.2 LS3 V8 used in the Caprice’s HSV variant, the Grange, and the wheels were gauche and very aftermarket in appearance. And the less said about the mismatched front fascia, the better.
In 2008, Bitter unveiled a Vero Sport, based on the short-wheelbase Holden Commodore. The same treatment was applied: revised front fascia, but mostly detail changes otherwise, coupled with an enormous price increase. The Vero and Vero Sport sold undoubtedly sold in minute numbers, and Erich Bitter moved onto the Opel Insignia for 2012.
It’s not as though he’s picking bad cars for his company–the Zeta platform in particular is dynamically impressive–but the idea of charging tens of thousands of dollars more for such minute changes is insulting. Rich Europeans need not bother spending that dough for this shallow exclusivity: cross the channel and buy a Vauxhall VXR8 (HSV GTS) instead for almost half the price, £54,999, and enjoy substantial improvements that HSV has made to the Commodore. 576hp and 545 ft-lbs, chaps?
That’s it for this week’s Obscure Rebadges From Around The World. Stay tuned for future installments, where I’ll cover rebadges like the one that caused a riot, the one that failed to save a hundred year-old brand, and the one that brought the last Chinese Emperor’s favorite brand to the masses.