Not all automakers make every sort of SUV—sometimes they buy them from other brands in order to fill a perceived gap in their lineup. The results can be, well, mixed. Here are ten rebadged SUVs you might have forgotten about…or might wish you had forgotten about. Sorry for reminding you.
Acura SLX (1996-1999)
When the SUV craze hit in the early 90s, neither Acura nor parent company Honda had anything to offer, so it established an unlikely partnership with Isuzu, which had already made a name for itself with the Trooper and Rodeo. It was the former that was plushed up a bit to become the Acura SLX, only Acura buyers didn’t bite—the SLX didn’t feel like an Acura and it wasn’t built like an Acura. Worse yet, Consumer Reports—the Honda owners’ bible—condemned it for its rollover tendencies. Acura dealers must have been mightily relieved when the home-grown MDX arrived for the 2000 model year. Not too long ago, Acura restomodded a 1997 SLX for Radwood.
Buick Rainier (2004-2007)
The Rainier was Buick’s version of the GMT360, a badge-engineered nightmare that plagued every General Motors division except Cadillac. Though it was best known in Chevy guise as the Trailblazer (not to be confused with the new one) and in GMC form as the Envoy, one could argue that Buick’s iteration was the most appropriate, as its 4,500-lb curb weight, fuel-sucking V-8 engine, and gooey-soft suspension gave it a spiritual resemblance to a 1970s-era LeSabre. This might have appealed to Buick’s, ahem, traditional buyer base, but most of them could barely climb into the Rainier for fear of falling and breaking a glass hip. Though the Chevrolet version sold strongly, the Ranier’s contribution to the corporate pot—just under 62,000 sales over four model years—looked, by GM standards, like a mere rounding error.
Chrysler Aspen (2007-2009)
It’s hard to imagine any automaker with a decent sense of survival looking to the Buick Rainier with admiration, but that seems to be the most charitable explanation for the Chrysler Aspen. Chrysler took the successful Dodge Durango, dipped it in chrome, stuck in a V-8, endowed it with a name last used on a car that was literally the worst thing Detroit ever made until the GM X-bodies came along to steal the title, raised the price, and waited for sales to roll in. Spoiler: didn’t happen. Spiking gas prices didn’t do the Aspen any favors, and after three years of notably non-spectacular sales and a last-minute abort of the hybrid version, Chrysler killed the Aspen altogether. Apparently, the company decided it had a better use for the Newark Assembly plant where the Aspen was built—specifically, closing it and handing it over to squatters.
Dodge Raider (1987-1989)
Chrysler imported its first “captive import” Mitsubishi, the Colt, in 1971, beginning a decades-long partnership that would yield some of Chrysler’s best powertrains and vehicles. One of the most interesting results of this partnership was the Dodge Raider, a rebadged two-door Mitsubishi Montero that Dodge sold side-by-side with its full-size Ramcharger. Sales were never particularly strong, and the Raider only lasted three years. One wonders how the Raider’s fortunes might have gone had Dodge decided to import the 4-door version instead. A decade and a half later, Mitsubishi used the name on its rebadge of the Dodge Dakota pickup.
Honda Passport (1994-2002)
As we mentioned above, Honda spent the early ’90s watching the growing SUV phase pass it by. The company forged an alliance with Isuzu, with the popular Rodeo masquerading as the Honda Passport. (In return, Isuzu got a rebadged version of the oddball first-generation Odyssey minivan, which it called Oasis.) The Rodeo was a decent SUV but not a very good Honda. Its build quality wasn’t up to sky-high Honda standards and post-1998 cars were subject to dangerous frame rust, in some cases so severe that Honda had to buy the cars back. Honda stuck with the rebadged Rodeo until the family-size Pilot was ready in 1992. Ironically—or perhaps fittingly—the Pilot is the basis for today’s new-generation Passport. Incidentally, back home in Japan, Honda sold a version of the Amigo, a two-door semi-convertible variant of the Rodeo, as the Honda Jazz.
Isuzu Ascender (2003-2008)
Just as Isuzu was busy making SUVs for other manufacturers, others made SUVs for Isuzu—notably the Ascender, a clone of the GMT360 that we castigated above in Rainier form. Isuzu got both short- and long-wheelbase versions, and the intriguing (but dead-end) 4.2-liter straight six as well as GM’s big 5.3-liter V-8. Alas, the Ascender was not a suitable replacement for the Trooper and sales were even more pitiful than the Rainier’s. True story: I once asked an Isuzuite how this SUV ended up with a name that sounded like “ass ender”. He told me (off the record, but I guess there’s no one to complain now) that Isuzu of Japan wanted to name the car “Ascension,” and it had to be explained why this name would not work in a predominantly Christian country.
Mazda Navajo (1991-1994)
Just as Chrysler had a fruitful partnership with Mitsubishi, Ford had a well-established relationship with Mazda, primarily to give Ford the small-car know-how it was obviously lacking. But Ford had truck expertise to beat the band, and in order to avoid missing out on the SUV revolution, Mazda began selling a rebadged version of the two-door Explorer Sport as the Navajo. It was good enough to win the 1991 Truck of the Year award from our colleagues at MotorTrend. The Navajo disappeared with the appearance of the second-gen Explorer, but in 2001 Mazda began rebadging Ford’s Edge as the Tribute. Mazda didn’t begin building its own SUVs until 2007, when it introduced the mid-size CX-7 and Ford-based CX-9.
Mercury Mountaineer (1997-2010)
By the late ’90s, Mercury was reduced to selling chrome-laden rebadged Fords aimed at a shrinking group of aging buyers who still remembered the brand’s glory days—often better than they remembered the names of their children or where they lived. The Mountaineer was little more than a rebadged Explorer with an upgraded interior. In its first year, there was an effort to differentiate the Mountaineer with a standard V-8 engine and full-time all-wheel-drive, but that didn’t last long, especially when it became clear that the Explorer was going to out-sell the Mountaineer by heroic margins. The Mountaineer died with the Mercury marque in late 2010. Mercury also rebadged Ford’s smaller Edge as the Mariner.
Saab 9-7X (2005-2009)
More GMT-360 misery! In one of the strangest side-effects of GM’s ownership of Saab, a version of the aforementioned Buick Rainier and Isuzu Ascender was also foisted on Saab as the 9-7X. Saab engineers went to great lengths to Saab-ize the GMT360—they reshaped the dashboard, moved the ignition key to the center console, and even fitted Saab-style air vents. More importantly, they updated the chassis to make the 9-7X the best-handling of these badge-engineered clones. Saab headlights and grille fit the nose rather well, and sales of the 9-7X were strong by Saab standards, even topping those of the 9-3 and 9-5 between 2006 and 2008. The 9-7X was discontinued after 2009 along with the rest of the GMT360s. By that time GM was in bankruptcy and the Saab brand was up for sale.
Suzuki XL-7 (2007-2009)
Suzuki was known for its capable small SUVs, including the Samurai, Tracker, and Grand Vitara, the third of which was stretched to become the first-generation XL-7 in 1999. Sales were slow and buyers showed little interest in an outdated body-on-frame seven-seater, so for the second-generation model, Suzuki worked with long-time partner General Motors. The result was a rather uninteresting clone of Chevrolet’s Equinox which shared no DNA with Suzuki’s rugged off-roaders. Pitiful sales led Suzuki to abandon the XL7, a sad end to a twenty-five-or-so-year legacy of great SUVs. Four years later, the brand gave up on selling cars in the United States altogether. Suzuki recently revived the XL7 nameplate (sans hyphen) for a seven-seat crossover sold in the Philippines and Thailand.