Rebadging… it’s one of the necessary evils of the automotive industry nowadays.
There’s a whole bunch of reasons why automakers rebadge another automaker’s car and sell it as their own: to appeal to investors by padding their sales figures, to break into a corner of the market they weren’t in before with minimal investment, or maybe as a simple profit-sharing agreement.
Sometimes, it works out quite well, and many rebadged cars make no excuses for their origins. The Honda Passport was a clone of the Isuzu Rodeo. Everyone knew that, and it was okay. The Volkswagen Routan is just a Chrysler minivan, but it gets away with it because it looks better and has a better-quality interior. The Saab 9-2X was a Subaru Impreza wagon that offered a better warranty and GMAC financing.
However, other manufacturers were a bit more tight-lipped about their mutt cars. Here are 5 cars that we got here in the US that were masquerading as something completely different than what they actually were.
1) Kia Sephia – The rise of the South Korean auto industry is already one of the great success stories of the 21st century. But when Kia entered the US market in 1993, they had to be much more careful. Rather than just showing up with an in-house model and blindly assuming it would sell (like Daihatsu), Kia tapped Mazda on the shoulder and said “Hey, since you guys are already doing pretty well with the Protegé, think you could give us a hand?” Mazda agreed, and the first Kia to set tread on American soil was actually just a Mazda Protegé that looked different enough where most consumers were none the wiser… and hey, look where it got them.
2) Saab 9000 – Okay, in this case, I’m using the term ‘rebadge’ pretty loosely here. The Saab 9000 wasn’t so much a rebadge as a joint venture, but the fact is, underneath, there’s little difference between a Saab 9000, and several cars under the Fiat corporate umbrella: the Alfa Romeo 164, which was also sold here, and the Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, which weren’t. Look closely enough and you can see the similarities, especially in the doors. Also, the fact that the 9000 lacked Saab quirks like the center-console mounted ignition switch is good evidence that Saab wasn’t entirely in control of its development. However, Saab’s engineers were mental about build quality, so though the 9000 was the sturdiest of the four, it was also the least profitable.
3) Volvo S40 – You think I’m going to talk about all the Ford Focus and Mazda 3 parts that interchange on the Volvo S40, don’t you? Aha! The first-generation S40, developed before Ford’s 1998 purchase of Volvo, actually shares a platform with the Mitsubishi Carisma. When I talked about the Volvo 480 hatchback, I mentioned Volvo buying out Dutch automaker DAF and their NedCar factory in The Netherlands. In the 1990s, Volvo actually shared floor space with Mitsubishi in the NedCar factory, and they decided to collaborate on the S40 and Carisma, which most closely coincides with our Lancer model here. In fact, search around the Internet long enough and you may find people who have swapped Mitsubishi Evolution engines into their Volvo S40s.
4) BMW Isetta – It’s hard to imagine that one of the most prestigious and well-known automakers in the world was ever in dire straits, but in the early 1950s, BMW was in trouble. WWII had only ended a few years ago, and simple, economic transportation was in favor while the world economy recovered. So an agreement of mutual benefit arose between BMW and Italian automaker Iso. BMW would buy the design of the Isetta ‘bubble car’ from Iso, and power it with their own single-cylinder engines from their motorcycle division, which was actually more successful than their car division at the time. The agreement proved to be only a shot in the arm for Iso, which ultimately didn’t survive, but the Isetta saved BMW. Isettas are now considered classics which can fetch up to 50 times the original $1,000 sticker price.
5) Yugo – That’s right, the worst car of all time according to pretty much everybody was nothing more than a Fiat 127 hatchback built in socialist Yugoslavia and imported into the US by former Orlando resident Malcolm Bricklin, the same man who formed Subaru of America. The dirt-cheap MSRP of just $3990 back in the 1980s would attract economy-minded buyers, according to Bricklin, and he was right: Yugo sold over 140,000 cars in the US from 1985 to 1991. But the reputation for appalling build quality quickly spread, and without Bricklin’s guidance (he wisely bought his way out of Yugo in 1988) Yugo of America filed for bankruptcy in 1991. Virtually all the cars have been turned into washing machines by now, and all Yugo is now is a punch line to a few cheesy jokes.
Check out my other article on rebadged cars: 5 rebadged cars you never knew existed
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