Badge-engineering. Whether we like it or not, almost every automaker does it to some degree. Sometimes it’s to jointly develop a new technology. Other times, it’s a matter of expediency; one automaker wants to break into a new market and works with another that’s already there.
In recent years, we’ve seen the practice enter a renaissance, if that’s even possible. Because of badge-engineering, we’ve got the Scion FR-S/Subaru BR-Z, the Mazda Miata/Fiat 124 Spyder, and the Mazda2/Scion iA. But more often than not, the practice usually comes off as a cynical attempt to making a few extra bucks. And that’s exactly what we want to talk about today.
There are so many bad American badge-engineered cars – virtually every model sold by Mercury, Plymouth, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile in their sad, final years has a case – that we’ll try not to pick on Detroit too hard. Instead, we’ve taken a trip down memory lane to find some of the worst offenders from around the globe. We apologize in advance if this list brings back any bad memories.
1. Alfa Romeo Dauphine
When you think Alfa Romeo, you probably think sexy red convertibles with free-revving engines and great handling. What you probably don’t think of is this dour little Renault Dauphine clone. In France, the rear-engined 32 horsepower Dauphine was a popular and practical sedan. In Italy, it was built under license in an era when Alfa was struggling to stay afloat and needed something that would sell. It may not have been a terrible car, but it’s certainly no Alfa, and it’s one of the earliest examples of blatant brand engineering we could find. This car, possibly the last original survivor left, was sold by Bonhams in 2012. Final bid: $5,386.
2. Saab-Lancia 600
In the 1970s, Saab lent some of its engineering expertise to Lancia, resulting in the 1979-’82 front-wheel drive Delta. Designed by Giugiaro, the slab-sided Lancia went on to form the basis of the legendary Integrale rally cars, but in base-spec, it was the very definition of an econobox. As a token of appreciation, Lancia let Saab sell rebadged Deltas in Scandinavia as the Saab-Lancia 600, and it was a complete disaster. Its high price and indifferent build quality were shocking to consumers who were used to over-engineered Saabs and Volvos, and its cheap Italian steel rotted away after just a few northern winters. Only 6,419 Saab-Lancias were sold, and as of 2012, 12 were left on the road.
3. Cadillac Cimarron
In the early ’80s, BMW was making a name for itself with the success of its 3 Series, sparking America’s interest in sport sedans. Apparently, no one at Cadillac managed to get behind the wheel of one of them, because its response, the Cimarron, was the right size and the wrong everything else. Unlike the Bimmer’s rear-wheel drive layout, great handling, and responsive inline-four, the Cimarron was a clone of the front-wheel drive J-Body Chevy Cavalier and was rushed into production in 1982. But even the most loyal Cadillac owners weren’t gullible enough to see past the Cimarron’s econobox roots, and the car floundered through six interminable model years. In the decades since, Cimarron has become shorthand for the Detroit’s worst impulses.
4. Yugo GV
The Yugo wasn’t just badge-engineered, it was a badge-engineered piece of badge-engineering. Launched in the U.S. as a 1987 model, the car was based on the Serbian Zastava Koral, which itself was a variant the Fiat 127, a car that dated back to 1971. By 1992, the Yugo had left the U.S., but it had already become infamous for its terrible build quality, glacially slow acceleration, and shocking lack of safety features. Astonishingly, production lasted in Europe until 2008.
5. Lexus ES250
In 1989, Toyota had done the impossible: It released the Lexus LS400, a flagship that could actually take on the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 Series, and Jaguar XJ, both on paper, and in the sales department. For Lexus’s second act? The ’89-’91 EX250, a gawky rebadged Toyota Camry with an overstuffed leather interior marketed as a sport sedan. It was by no means a bad car, but compared to the LS, the ES was way too close to a Toyota to be a legitimate BMW-fighter. Lexus replaced the 250 with the ES300 in ’92, which became a massive success for the brand, and all but erased the memory of Lexus’s little-remembered sophomore effort.
6. Kia Elan
In 1990, Lotus’s recently revived Elan roadster was a pretty big disappointment, especially compared to competitors like the cheaper Miata. With its poor build quality, Isuzu-sourced inline-four and front-wheel drive setup, it was considered a sales flop and was phased out after 1995. But Lotus was in dire financial straits (a position it seems to be in more often than not), and when production ended, it sold off the car’s tooling then-unknown automaker Kia, which began marketing the car as the Kia Elan, where it soldiered on in Asia and Europe until 1999.
7. Mercury Villager
Even though it hung on until 2011, the once-proud Mercury brand was stuck peddling rebadged Fords as early as the 1980s. Perhaps the oddest model to come from Mercury in its final decades was the Villager, a minivan developed in a joint partnership with Nissan, and better known as the Quest (seen here). The Villager never quite caught on with the larger Dodge Caravan/Chevy Astro/Ford Windstar crowd, and after parting ways with Nissan after 1999, the Villager disappeared from the market altogether in 2002. Oddly enough, no other models emerged from the Ford-Nissan partnership.
8. Chevy Aveo
In the late ’80s/early ’90s, both Ford and GM were reaching out to developing South Korean automakers for their penalty box models, with GM going to Daewoo for its Pontiac LeMans, and Ford to Kia for its Aspire. But Chevy should’ve known better by 2002, when it introduced its version of the Daewoo Kalos as the Aveo. Amazingly, after this awful little thing was phased out in 2011, its design was sold under license, and it’s still manufactured in developing markets around the world. GM’s Korean branch spearheaded the development of the Aveo’s replacement, the 2012-present Sonic, which stands in stark contrast to its predecessor and only reinforces the fact that the Aveo was one of the worst cars of the 21st century.
9. Aston Martin Cygnet
It’s 2011. What would you do if you ran a car company with a lineup of V8 and V12-powered cars, and you were desperate to comply with the 2012 European Union emissions standards? If you were Aston Martin, you’d buy up some Toyota/Scion iQs, slap a grille on them and call them Cygnets. Despite its familiar front end and luxurious leather interior, the car was a Toyota in everything other than its name. And while Top Gear called the top-trim iQ too expensive at 13,300 euros (around $19,000), a Cygnet would set you back a cool 30,000 euros ($43,000). Despite Aston’s rosy prediction that it would sell 4,000 of them a year, production ended in 2013 with just 300 cars sold.
10. Mazda Tribute
It may be difficult to remember now, but Mazda was still firmly under Ford’s thumb just a decade ago. As a result, they sold vehicles like the Tribute, which was heavily based on the first-generation Ford Escape. To be fair, Mazda had a major role in developing the SUV’s platform, but the Tribute was loaded with materials from the Ford parts bin, and its woeful build quality and acres of cheap plastics would be considered laughable by today’s standards. Mazda thankfully abandoned the Tribute after 2006 to develop its own line of SUVs; we think it made the right decision.