Some automotive nameplates transcend boundaries, blur lines, and change perceptions. Others aren’t so lucky – especially those cars hapless enough to be unceremoniously bridled with the badges of a rival brand.
Collaborative efforts are a cost-effective way of lowering development costs and shoring up a car’s chance of success, particularly where low volumes or uncertain market forecasts might mean the alternative is no car at all.
Accounting departments of major automakers probably rub their hands in glee and make disconcerting purring noises at the idea, while true car fans gather torches and pitchforks, and congregate at factory entrances to voice their disapproval.
In an attempt to clarify the bedlam that is the automotive name game, we take a look at the myth, mystique and madness behind some of the cars we know so well, and some of their very obvious doppelgangers.
This week we’re taking a look at badge engineering.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of badge engineering, it’s a far-from-flattering term describing a car built by a particular brand which gets turned into a barely-changed model for another brand. Car companies will dress the practice up as a co-development or joint venture, but that’s rarely the case.
As early as the 1920s American powerhouse General Motors worked out consumers weren’t always interested in unique cars, which were expensive to develop – all they really wanted were different badges, grilles, and wheel covers.
GM hit its peak from the 1950s right up until the 2000s, turning out multiple shades of dross with few discernible differences under Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac badges – often sat side-by-side in showrooms, but no-one was supposed to know.
Ford and Chrysler tried it too. You can’t support individual models across Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, or Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge and Eagle brands by engineering ground-up solutions for each one after all, can you?
Australia’s love affair with badge engineering is a little different to most other markets, owing to a clever politician, Senator John Button, recommending the practice as a way of cutting costs and increasing profits for the local market during the early 1980s.
The idea was probably over-simplified. Instead of a certain number of unique models, each requiring its own expensive research and development, Australia’s remaining carmakers would be able to slash costs by buddying up with a rival and offering two products from a common base.
It’s the kind of wishful thinking only a politician could dream of. The so-called Button plan, officially called the Motor Industry Development Plan came into action by the mid 80s. Did it revolutionise the Australian automotive industry as intended? Well, no.
The initial pairing saw Holden and Nissan shake hands, and led to Nissan’s N12-generation Pulsar being churned out as the Holden Astra hatch. This fancy new nameplate for the lion brand ran alongside the Gemini sedan for a one-two small car punch.
What changed? Not much. You could swap every piece of sheet metal between the two if you wanted, and most of the interior parts too, though there were unique lights, wheel covers and of course alternate badging to prove the Astra wasn’t just a rehashed Pulsar.
After two generations and the addition of a sedan (RIP Gemini) the working relationship between the two brands even fostered a relationship that, until becoming a reality most would have thought impossible, culminated with Holden taking delivery of Nissan’s inline-six cylinder RB engine as the pride of the VL Commodore.
Just image that for a minute. With the exception of a handful of imported American V8s in the 60s and 70s Holden had built every engine for its large car range since the first 48-215 rolled down the production line in 1948.
All of a sudden the humble Commodore featured “world class” powertrains. Not just a big(ish) Aussie six either, but something really bloody fancy in the form of a turbocharged variant that threatened to obliterate Holden’s own V8 – at least until it was wound back enough to ensure the V8 kept flagship status.
Anyway, that’s not badge engineering, and Holden’s relationship with Nissan soon hit the skids, leaving arch nemesis, Ford, to play the rebound guy sweeping in to console a heartbroken Nissan and swipe the Pintara mid-size sedan as its own Corsair.
Rather than being a one way street, Nissan got its own bastard child with a Nissan ute, officially called “The Ute” taking pride of place in the least obvious, dark and hidden corner of Nissan showrooms.
Amongst the key detail changes of Nissan’s version of the XF Falcon ute were a unique badge with the word ‘Nissan’ stuck over where the blue oval would usually live, along with… Um, uuuuhhh… Hubcaps, very thorough.
Meanwhile if Ford and Nissan could make beautiful music together, Holden decided to pump up the jam with Nissan’s rival, Toyota.
The result was probably the best known Button cars of the whole shooting match: Holden Nova, Holden Apollo, and Toyota Lexcen. Using the Corolla, Camry and Commodore as their bases respectively.
In order to ensure the two were never confused Holden delved into Toyota’s bad of overseas bits mixing and matching headlights and front guards from various Corolla trim levels that may or may not have appeared here, with bumpers, grilles and tail lights stamped with an ‘Australia’s own’ design.
The love affair lasted so long two generations of each car surfaced and, by the time second-generation Apollo appeared, Holden’s much nicer face – derived from a more conventional headlight design based on the American Camry – meant Toyota had to stick with one styling theme the whole way through its model cycle, unlike America. That’s awkward.
Speaking of awkward, have you ever laid eyes on a Lexcen? With Australia trying its best to do good things in the America’s Cup sailing, Toyota named its creation after designer of the winged keel, Ben Lexcen. Err, what an honour.
The Lexcen itself spanned from VN to VS in Holden terms, and set itself apart with bulbous tail lights, bump strips in the wrong places and interesting defining details up front: orange indicators for VN, unique front guards for VP, and (shock/horror) Statesman front guards and park lights for VR and VS.
Even the fancy range-topping VN Lexcen VXi (VN being, possibly, the least offensive looking of the lot) debuted an alloy wheel design that later found its way onto Holden’s fancy VR Berlina. Don’t tell the Holden faithful Toyota had it first though. It can be our little secret.
Button lunacy aside, badge engineering has taken on plenty of other forms over the years.
Alongside Aussie-built cars, Ford Australia decide real outback folks needed a go-anywhere 4×4. Their answer was the Ford Maverick, built to tackle cars like the Toyota LandCruiser and Nissan Patrol. Because it was a Patrol – how convenient.
Peugeot and Citroen took a similar route when it came to their own tepid introduction to the world of SUVs. Although you wouldn’t guess it now, these two French automakers had such disdain for soft roaders a decade ago that they simply used someone else’s.
Peugeot touted the 4008 and larger 4007 (work that one out) as a new era for the brand, while Citroen claimed its C4 Aircross and C-Crosser maintained trademark styling for a new era. Both were dirty rotten lies, and the donor Mitsubishi ASX and previous-generation Outlander were fairly obvious as the genesis of PSA’s so-called new era.
They even turned to Mitsubishi for their electric offerings, the Peugeot iOn and Citroen C-Zero, slapping lions and chevrons on the melted jelly bean that was the i-MiEV for Europe.
Right now the world’s most obvious badge engineering exploit comes from Toyota, or should that be Subaru? Whether you’re team 86 or team BRZ it’s fairly obvious that these two affordable sports cars are really one and the same.
Subaru engine, check. Toyota and Lexus gearboxes, check. Bastardised Impreza chassis converted to rear-wheel drive, check. Oh, and a tonne of Subaru stampings on almost every piece of non-external sheet metal.
At least Toyota supplied its own direct fuel injection system. That was nice of them.
Vans and utes are also prime candidates for a bout of badge engineering. The Renault Trafic is no stranger to Australian roads, but overseas you can find the current one as an Opel Vivaro, Fiat Talento or Nissan NV300/Primastar. Nissan, meanwhile, provides the Navara as the basis of the Renault Alaskan and everyone’s favourite Mercedes-Benz product, the X-Class.
Those are far from the worst offenders though. Believe it or not, GM holds that title (don’t act so surprised).
Before it buried Saab, the General tried to revive it with an expanded range of products including a compact ‘wagon’ that saw the Subaru Impreza hatch turned unconvincingly into the Saabaru 9-2X with new bumpers and lights, two-tone interiors, but a most un-Saab ignition on the steering column.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? That’s nothing compared to the 9-7X. Once GM was done playing with Oldsmobile in 2004 it took the body-on-frame Bravada SUV and insulted Saab by turning it into the 9-7X.
Born from jets… Airbus Belugas, maybe. At least the clumsy-looking 9-7X got a proper Saab ignition between the front seats – and enjoyed 15 minutes of fame alongside Diane Lane in the 2008 blockbuster Untraceable. Anyone remember that? Anyone? Bueller?
Not satisfied with doing horrible things to Saab, GM turned the Opel Omega into the Cadillac Catera, but saved its best (worst) work for Holden. Monaro became Pontiac GTO, while Commodore became Pontiac G8 and Chevrolet SS.
Statesman and Caprice famously became the Chevrolet Caprice PPV, less famously the Buick Royaum, and perhaps most disappointingly the Daewoo L4X and Veritas.
Those were just the latter-day attempts. Long before they happened, Isuzu turned the HQ Statesman into its own Isuzu Statesman DeVille and Mazda dropped a 13B rotary engine into the HJ Premier to create the Roadpacer AP, a flagship for Japanese officials that was almost sales-proof at the time.
Crazy Japanese schemes don’t end there either. In the early 80s, Mitsubishi found the perfect workaround for quota limits of Japanese imports to the UK. By hawking Aussie-built Sigmas under the Lonsdale brand (named after the South Aussie suburb they were built in) Mitsubishi figured it could potentially double its Galant sales.
That didn’t happen and Lonsdale was gone just two years later, after failing to attract interest from buyers.
Another car allergic to buyer interest was Japan’s version of the Opel Zafira, the Subaru Traviq. More successfully the Proton Inspira – a Mitsubishi Lancer in all bar its front bar – chalked up decent sales helped along by tariff exemptions in its Malaysian home market.
Before Honda paved its own way in the fast-growing world of SUVs the company took the very careful approach of selecting specialist SUVs and carefully Honda-fying them though selective application of grilles and badges.
This led to the Land Rover Discovery somehow winding up as the Honda Crossroad, featuring none of the reliability or dynamic prowess Honda fought so hard to establish. American consumers also had the joy of walking into Honda showroom and driving out in an Isuzu-built Horizon.
The Horizon was really a Holden Jackaroo, which was actually a Subaru Bighorn, but that’s only after time as the Opel Monterey, or you could have yours as an Acura SLX, all of which started as the Isuzu Trooper. It seems the badge engineering department was particularly busy that week.
The practice continues to this day and is particularly prevalent in Japan, where a variety of kei cars have a twin from another brand – with Suzuki Altos wearing Mazda Carol badges, Daihatsu Hijet trucks and vans sold as the Toyota Pixis and Subaru Sambar, and the Mitsubishi eK doubling up as the Nissan Dayz amongst many, many others.
Outside of the realm of JDM toys Toyota’s US division sells the Mazda2 sedan as the Yaris sedan, though oddly the Yaris hatch is a genuine Toyota Yaris. Toyota then provides its Aygo compact in Europe as the basis for Peugeot 108s and Citroen C1s, now the Aygo is quite distinct compared to its French cousins, but there’s only a handful of panels to tell ol’ Pierre and Celine apart.
Japan loves Europe, at least you get that impression when you see a Fiat Sedici alongside its donor, the Suzuki SX4. Meanwhile Mexican buyers, the lucky buggers, get a version of the Mitsubishi Mirage sedan masquerading as the Dodge Attitude.
With so many cracking examples of the practice I haven’t even had time to mention everything Holden sells is just a quick and easy rebrand from elsewhere within GM, or that the original Fiat 124 was trotted out under brands like VAZ, Lada, Seat, Tofaş, Premier, Murat and Asia Motors to say nothing of the new 124 Spider arriving overnight (okay maybe a little longer) from Mazda in Japan.
Keep the fun going in the comments. What’s your pick of cars that have turned up to the party wearing the same outfit as someone else?
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