Remember when you were in junior high and your mom stitched an alligator on the front pocket of your polo shirt so you’d fit in with the preppie kids in your class? You may also recall that absolutely no one in school was fooled into think you’d suddenly graduated from hand-me-down OshKosh B’gosh to high-end Lacoste. No? Was that just us? Ok, mom was trying, ok?
In the automotive world, vehicles that had the bad luck to wear someone else’s badge in a bid to cover their more humble roots more often than not found themselves abandoned on the market and left to fend for themselves, shivering and alone in the back row of some forgotten used car lot.
The world is a cruel place, especially when you pretend to be something you’re not. Check out what happened to these badge-engineered orphans.
1. Cadillac Cimarron
There are few badge-engineering stories sadder than that of the Cadillac Cimarron. In the early 80s GM realized that it had very little to offer in the entry-level luxury segment, which was being newly colonized by upstarts like BMW and more established players like Mercedes-Benz with plush, prestigious compacts.
The solution the auto giant’s product planners came up with turned out to be no solution at all. The Cadillac Cimarron was a barely-disguised Chevrolet Cavalier, a profoundly lackluster economy sedan built on the J-body platform that was in no way capable of besting any form of German engineering in a street fight. Introduced for 1982, the Cimarron and the Cavalier shared the same silhouette, remarkably similar interiors, and identical four-cylinder drivetrains (the smallest Cadillac motor since 1908), with only badging, leather, and a few additional comfort features thrown in to try to justify doubling the price tag compared to the Chevy.
New car buyers clued in quickly to what Cadillac was trying to, and even the addition of a V6 engine by 1985 couldn’t save the Cimarron from becoming one of GM’s most profound failures. Today, seeing one on the road is an event, as most have been recycled into soda cans.
2. Saab 9-7x
Flash-forward nearly 30 years and we come to another once-premium GM-owned auto brand in trouble. By the early 2000s Saab was in its death throes after years of neglect by its corporate parent, but GM thought that maybe a little cross-boardroom synergy would help right the ship, giving us vehicles like the Saabaru (the Subaru Impreza / Saab 9-2x mash-up) and the Saab 9-7x SUV.
Ignoring its rounded face, the Saab 9-7x was, from the A-pillar back, a Chevrolet Trailblazer. Or is that a GMC Envoy? Wait, don’t you mean a Buick Rainier? No, you must be talking about the Oldsmobile Bravada! Technically, each of these statements is true, as the aging GMT360 platform underpinned each of these sport-utilities with only minor changes made to each. It also gave Saab its first and last SUV, and with the Aero trim level answered the question of ‘when will we be able to buy a Saab-badged truck featuring an LS V8 under the hood?’ Not enough people cared about the expensive 9-7x to even come close to generating enough sales to save the company, and it lasted just four model years (2005-2009).
3. Acura EL/CSX
The Cimarron’s failure didn’t seem to phase Acura’s corporate brain trust when it decided to follow a similar path with EL/CSX sedan in the late 90s and dump it on the Canadian market. After seeing years of swelling Honda Civic sales, captive luxury division Acura decided it wanted in on that action and broke out its make-up case to draw the familiar ‘A’ badge on the grille of the more pedestrian sedan.
There were a few other changes, too, designed to separate the original Acura EL from the Honda Civic, including tucked front and rear bumper designs and a few interior tweaks, but park the two side-by-side and the biggest difference between them would be the pumped-up price tag. Acura would add a perfunctory horsepower bump over the Civic for the second-generation EL in 2001, and then rename the car the CSX for the 2006 model year (which came with a 15 horsepower boost from its Civic-sourced four-cylinder engine, along with a nicer interior and a better choice of luxury features). Maybe the reason Americans never got to sample the joys of paying premium prices for a gussied up Civic is because the CSX never breached three percent of its Honda sibling’s sales before it was axed in 2012.
4. Aston Martin Cygnet
Perhaps the most ethically indefensible badge-engineered car on this list is also the one that was born for the most logical reasons. Ten years into the new Millennium, Aston Martin, known for building some of the most beautiful performance cars in the history of motoring, was facing something of a regulatory crisis. The automaker’s low-volume, high horsepower fleet couldn’t meet European Union emissions regulations without the addition of a small, more frugal member – something Aston Martin had no desire to spend cash developing.
Enter Toyota and the Scion iQ. This tiny city car, a two-seater roughly the size of a Happy Meal box, featured a four-cylinder engine that produced just under 100 horsepower. As the result of a mysterious back-room deal, Toyota agreed to slap on a different grille, fill the car with leather, and sell the iQ as the Aston Martin Cygnet, with no other changes made to the car. Not a bad vehicle by any means, the iQ/Cygnet was nevertheless not exactly in sync with the British brand’s target audience, and while it helped the company squeak by EU penalties, only a handful of the projected 2,000 examples were ever sold.
5. Lincoln Blackwood
Could anything bring the massive sales success of the Ford F-150 to a screeching halt? It turns out that the answer to that question is yes – and all that was required was a Lincoln badge, questionable equipment choices, and a strange decision to make the truck as impractical as possible.
It’s no big deal these days to see pickups selling for well over the $50,000 mark, but back in the early 2000s this was still unexplored territory for the Big Three. Ford was uncertain as to how customers would respond to a super-plush F-150, so it tapped Lincoln to build the Blackwood. The Blackwood was a version of Ford’s full-size pickup that featured a new grille, a revamped interior, and few bizarre design decisions. These included making it impossible to order four-wheel drive, and creating a cargo bed featuring a permanent tonneau cover and a split rear tailgate that together made it difficult to, you know, do actual truck stuff. Lincoln also dropped the tiny 27 cubic feet of cargo space in the Blackwood to a hauling capacity of merely 1,200 lbs, which further reduced its appeal to truck fans.
The expensive Blackwood (nearly $70,000 in today’s dollars) would last a single model year before being nixed, with less than 4,000 being sold. Lincoln wouldn’t try to ape the success of its Navigator SUV in the pickup world again until the toned-down, even-more-badge-engineered Mark LT delivered three additional years of failure later on in the decade.
6. Pontiac LeMans
“LeMans” is a name steeped in history. It also happens to be the moniker affixed to one of the worst Pontiacs ever sold. Forget the 60s-era muscle machine, or the later big-bodied malaise cars – we’re talking about the Opel-Kadett-built-by-Daewoo-and-rebadged-by-Pontiac version of the LeMans.
In 1988 Pontiac didn’t really have any subcompacts hanging around, but it did have access to small cars built by GM’ South Korean satellite Daewoo – which had in turn lifted its designs from the General’s Opel operations in Europe in the kind of circle of automotive sadness so common in the 80s. When the LeMans appeared in showrooms, customers were baffled. Where was the past glory associated with the nameplate? Why was the car so small? Why didn’t it look anything like Pontiac? These questions, plus the completely unremarkable nature of the vehicle, would dog the slow-selling LeMans until it was put out of its misery after the 1993 model year.
Got a sad, little orphan we should add to this list, or better yet, do you have one of these cars and a plan for enjoying it?