Eight star-crossed automotive collaborations
Developing new automobiles is an expensive undertaking, requiring an investment of millions (often billions) of dollars before a single model is sold. Perhaps this is why automakers occasionally collaborate on building new vehicles. More often than not, these unions look great on paper because the economies of scale yield greater profits. To accountants, it looks ideal. To product planners, it’s a no-brainer. In theory, sharing products between manufacturers means each one saves boatloads of cash. But it rarely works as planned, and success often proves elusive. In the end, the products are a result of political and financial compromise, rather than true inspiration. Here are eight such examples of the carnage left in the wake of collaborations that didn’t sell as planned.
The combination of Rover Group’s Saville Row ambience and a reliable Honda platform seemed like an inspired idea. Rover had already rebadged the Honda Ballade as the Triumph Acclaim, the Honda Concerto as the Rover 200, and the Honda Accord as the Rover 600. The U.S. got a Honda/Acura Legend rebadged as the Sterling 825 and 827. Built by the same indifferent workforce that propelled the British auto industry to extinction, and featuring a Rover Group electrical system, immediate quality issues resulted in low sales. Quality was so poor that buyers were enrolled in the Sterling Plus Motor Club, which offered hotel accommodations for stranded owners. By 1991, Sterling was offering $6,000 rebates to move the $26,500 sedan. Parent company Rover never recovered, and was bought by BMW from British Aerospace in 1994.
1987–93 Cadillac Allante
Badge engineering is the best-known automaker collaboration, but sometimes companies are contracted out for coachbuilding. One well-done example is when Porsche used Valmet in Finland to build some first-generation Boxsters. The Allante, however, is a bad example. Cadillac teamed up with Pininfarina for the first time since the early 1960s, when the companies jointly produced the 1959-60 Eldorado Brougham. This time, the partnership produced a Pininfarina-designed two-seater to compete with the Mercedes-Benz SL and restore some luster to Cadillac’s tarnished image. Originally named the Callisto, the name of the second largest moon of Jupiter, it used Cadillac’s underwhelming 170-horsepower HT 4100 V-8 and featured a manual-folding top that seemed out of place in a luxury vehicle. The car’s trans-Atlantic production, which used a special 747 to ferry cars overseas, didn’t make for a profitable venture, especially given the low demand for two-seat luxury roadsters. And as in 1960, it didn’t meet Cadillac’s targets for prestige or sales.
1987–94 Mitsubishi Precis
With the U.S. government imposing import restrictions on the number of cars Japanese automakers could export to the U.S., Mitsubishi found a loophole. Cars imported from Korea weren’t limited. So Mitsubishi started importing a badge-engineered version of the Hyundai Excel, a car known for its low price rather than exquisite build quality. The Excel was offered as a four-door sedan or two-door hatchback, though the Precis came only as a hatchback. Both cars were based on an old Mitsubishi Mirage design, powered by an 81-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and riddled with defects that led to numerous recall campaigns.
1988–93 Pontiac LeMans
This Korean-built version of the 1984 Opel Kadett already looked dated by the time of its debut in the U.S. four years later, and was blessed with interior quality that could best be described as bargain basement. And then there’s the name, one remembered by many from Pontiac’s ‘60s heyday. The new car suffered by comparison. Korean automaker Daewoo built the LeMans before entering bankruptcy. GM bought the company and today, it’s known as General Motors Korea. Nevertheless, GM didn’t learn, rebadging the Daewoo-built Chevrolet Aveo as the 2009 Pontiac G3. It fared even worse than the LeMans, disappearing along with the Pontiac brand the following year.
1989–91 Chrysler TC By Maserati
When it came to dressing up entrails into something costlier, Lee Iacocca had few peers. The executive who successfully passed off a gussied-up Ford Falcon as the sporty Mustang repeated the formula for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, the magic finally flopped with the Chrysler TC by Maserati. The collaboration, a result of Iacocca’s long friendship with Maserati boss Alejandro de Tomaso, had Maserati handle final assembly. But the Italian automaker’s reputation had taken a beating after their mass-market Biturbo suffered from a litany of quality control issues. What’s worse is the resemblance to the far less exotic Chrysler LeBaron, not to mention its K-Car platform. Not even Maserati cylinder heads could dress up the meager four-cylinder engine. Later TCs even used a – gasp – Mitsubishi V-6. With fewer than 7500 built, it’s now a rare piece of ‘80s nostalgia.
1991–94 Mazda Navajo
This badge-engineered version of the Ford Explorer never reached the Olympian sales heights of its Ford sibling, mainly because it only came with two doors, rather than four like the Explorer. While cosmetic differences were confined mainly to the grille and taillights, the Navajo’s looks were never as fetching. Mazda tried again with the Tribute, a badge-engineered Ford Escape. Despite its longer life, it too lived in the shadow of its more authentic Ford twin.
1996–2000 Toyota Cavalier
In 1993, when sales of Japanese cars were soaring, Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors agreed to sell the Chevrolet Cavalier in Japan under the Toyota brand. The Cavalier, built on GM’s J-Car platform, was available as a coupe, sedan or station wagon, and was powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The Toyota variant was built in Ohio, but sported changes that complied with Japanese regulations and were meant to appeal to Japanese consumers. Despite access to Toyota’s biggest retail network, a mere 36,216 examples were sold from October 1995 through March 2000, rather than 20,000 annually as GM had planned.
2009–14 Volkswagen Routan
Volkswagen teased U.S. buyers with the retro Microbus Concept in 2002 but, in a fit of bait and switch, eventually delivered the Routan, a modestly modified Chrysler Town & Country minivan. Volkswagen’s first U.S. van since the 2003 Eurovan shared much with its Chrysler siblings, including its 197-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. A misunderstood ad campaign starring Brooke Shields didn’t help matters. Sales were so anemic, the final model year found it being sold exclusively to fleets, an ignominious end to a respectably upscale minivan with a funny name.