Market pressures can make car companies do weird things. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were more than a few automakers who took a look at their showrooms and came to the chilling realization that they didn’t have any full-frame 4×4 sport-utility vehicles to offer the hordes of buyers they imagined were craving these family-friendly trucks. A mad scramble ensued whereupon we imagine execs in boardroom A. called up their counterparts in boardroom B. and made several of those tense, behind-the-scenes horse trades that seem to inevitably result in bizarre badge-engineered solutions to problems that weren’t really problems to begin with.
1. Honda Crossroad
What happens when a Big Car Company owns a stake in a Small Car Company? Strange twists of fate like the Honda Crossroad. Anyone with a pair of eyes can clearly see that this tall-roof SUV is actually a Land Rover Discovery, plucked from the smoldering ashes of the Rover group in the early ’90s in a bid to bolster a line-up that was decidedly light on trucks of any kind.
Honda had had a hand in Rover’s engineering department since 1979 when it first bought into the company (then known as British Leyland), and indeed the British brand’s transfusion of Japanese know-how helped to keep it on its feet over the ensuing decade. The Crossroad was remarkably free of Honda influence, however, with only the badges and center caps proclaiming its adopted brand (and modified headlights making a weak attempt at stylistic differentiation). The SUV was sold in Japan under Honda’s ‘Verno’ network of dealerships, a prestige-oriented division which also handled sporty luminaries such as the S2000 and the NSX.
Currently legal for import in the United States (the Crossroad was offered from 1993 to 1995), very few of these least-reliable Hondas exist anywhere, as almost everyone in Japan saw through the pantomime Discovery. Still, Honda’s appetite for SUVs-at-any-cost had been fully whetted, and would manifest once again before the decade was up.
2. Honda Passport
Isuzu has spent much of its existence as the fertile hunting ground for car companies seeking a quick-and-easy platform share or badge-swap, and when Honda came knocking in the early 90s with a laundry list of truck-specific needs, Isuzu was only too happy to oblige. With the Crossroad sliding into obscurity in its home market, Honda was anxious to see if the U.S. was more interested in buying a 4×4 with an H on the grille, and so it snagged the Isuzu MU – better known in America as the Rodeo – and hoped for the best.
At the very least, the Rodeo was a firm foundation on which to build a clientele for Honda SUVs, but it was more than a little weird for customers to walk into a Honda store and see a barely-disguised Isuzu on display – especially since the Rodeo had already been on sale for three years on this side of the Pacific (with a two-door version called the Amigo beating it to the punch by 12 months). Four and six-cylinder versions were offered at first, but when the second generation model rolled around later in the decade a more powerful V6 became standard. The Passport is definitely a decent 4×4 rig, but watch out for later models which suffered from frame rust bad enough to require a government-mandated recall.
Largely forgotten, the Honda Passport bought its corporate masters enough time to bring out the compact, car-based CR-V, which would catch on almost immediately and become a huge profit center for the brand, followed shortly thereafter by the larger Honda Pilot. The company would never again venture into the world of body-on-frame SUVs.
3. Acura SLX / Subaru Bighorn
Remember when we mentioned Honda was treating Isuzu’s truck family like a buffet? Anxious to give its nascent Acura luxury brand a sport-utility quick-fix, Honda quickly made a play for the…Trooper? That’s right – this rugged, yet pedestrian people mover was pressed into service as the Acura SLX from 1995 to 1999.
Aside from a proclivity to roll over at high speeds – and what 90s sport-utility can’t be painted with that same, damning brush? – the Trooper was a great off-road rig. As premium transportation, it was a bit of a different story, and while Acura beat the luxury truck rush by a fair margin it was never able to capitalize on the V6-powered SLX, sunsetting it for the much more popular, and again car-based MDX in the early 2000s.
The weird footnote to this story? Subaru also got in on turning the Trooper into something else, calling it the Bighorn and selling it exclusively in Japan where almost no one was interested – or maybe they couldn’t tell it apart from the Honda Horizon, which was what the Acura SLX was known as at home.
4. Peugeot P4
Let’s cross another ocean for a second (don’t worry, we’ll be back to Japan soon enough) to talk about what happens when the French military, in need of replacements for their aging fleet of 10,000 Jeeps, can’t convince any of the three major automakers within its borders to build an SUV. Spoiler alert: they go to Germany. Sort of.
It took not one, not two, but three half-hearted attempts at badge-engineering before French officials were presented with a 4×4 they were comfortable sending off to war. Citroen offered a Volkswagen Iltis with a home-baked engine, Renault tried to stuff one of their own power plants into a Fiat, but the eventual winner was Peugeot, which decided to repurpose the popular Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen as the P4.
The G-Wagen is interesting in that it’s built not by the Silver Star but by Steyr-Daimler-Puch (now Magna Steyr) in Austria. Still, this wasn’t enough for Peugeot, which decided to replace the rough and rugged SUV’s engine, transmission, and electrical gear with its own. It also elected to paint and weld the truck’s body, and assemble the vehicles at their own plants. France still employs the Peugeot P4 in its armed forces, and there was even a brief flirtation with a civilian version that died after a short production run following the surprising discovery that no one was lining up to buy an underpowered G-Wagen.
5. Dodge Raider
Surprise, surprise, we’re back in Japan again, only this time it’s by way of Detroit with the Dodge Raider. Despite its current SUV-heavy line-up, at the end of the 1980s Dodge really only had the aging Ramcharger to offer anyone seeking a 4×4 that wasn’t also a pickup truck. Enter Mitsubishi, a company that Chrysler had a long history of collaborating with in building passenger cars, and which happened to have a whole bunch of Pajero (known as the Montero in the U.S.) sport-utility vehicles apparently just sitting around gathering dust.
For a brief three year period, you could snag a pint-sized, two-door Pajero/Montero at a Dodge dealership as the Raider (with either a four-cylinder engine, or, eventually, a V6). Hyundai also rebadged the Pajero/Montero/Raider as the Galloper, but it was never sold outside of the Asian market.
As the Peugeot P4 demonstrated, not all military trucks deserve civilian versions, but it was a lesson that was ignored time and again in the SUV world – most notably by Iveco, an Italian industrial concern that was producing a vehicle called the 40 PM 10. A company calling itself Rayton-Fissore figured out that they could tackle Land Rover head-on in the luxury SUV space while still offering world class off-roading capability by keeping the Iveco’s running gear – including axles and suspension – in place. They hired Tom Tjaarda (he of De Tomaso Pantera / Fiat 124 Spider / etc, etc fame) as their designer and were off to the races.
This video has embedding disabled, but click here to see this fine machine – LAFORZA!
The end result was named the Magnum 4×4 in Europe, where it was sold with a turbodiesel engine, and the Laforza in the U.S., where it cribbed a 5.0 Ford V8. Debuting in America in 1988 and inexplicably staying on the market until 2003, you’ve probably never seen a Laforza – or if you have, immediately forgot about it once it turned the corner. Later models received the option of a supercharged version of either the Ford mill or a 6.0-liter Chevrolet V8, but it wasn’t enough to interest anyone in the truck’s bland styling and complex roots.
Got an odd truck we left off? Let us know about it in the comments.