U.S. cars that flopped in Europe
Putting domestic badge on ill-conceived cars is sure way of killing sales
In March, General Motors unloaded its Germany-based Opel division onto France’s PSA Peugeot-Citroën. Announced ahead of the Geneva Auto Show, the deal served as a glum reminder that American companies have historically had a difficult time selling cars in Europe.
Much like the original Mini and the Citroën 2CV were completely out of tune with the needs of American motorists, American cars have typically been a round peg in a square hole on European roads. When was the last time you heard the low rumble of a Chevrolet Tahoe’s Ecotec V8 on the cobblestone-paved streets of Rome, Paris, or Vienna?
Ford is the exception to the rule. The Blue Oval gave its German and British divisions a tremendous amount of independence decades ago, so it was able to offer European buyers cars developed for the local market. Ford executives didn’t need to participate in automotive speed-dating to find a well-executed city car or a frugal-yet-powerful turbodiesel engine at the last minute.
Chrysler-owned brands and a majority of General Motors’ divisions struggled in Europe, so they turned to badge engineering. We’ve singled out five unlikely American cars that never crossed the pond to North America when new, and most likely never will.
After decades of getting eaten alive by the Germans on its home turf, Cadillac decided to turn the tables. In 2005, General Motors’ luxury brand introduced a sedan named BLS designed specifically to spearhead an offensive on the European market.
When viewed from either end, the BLS fell perfectly in line with Cadillac’s then-current design language. The middle section betrayed its true nationality, however. Built in Trollhättan, Sweden, the BLS was essentially an Americanized version of the second-generation Saab 9-3. Its proportions were hardly worthy of the wreath and crest emblem; it had the dash-to-axle ratio of a Cimarron.
Cadillac really was serious about beating BMW and Mercedes-Benz at their own game. The BLS choice of engines included a 1.9-litre turbodiesel — granted, it was borrowed from Fiat — and the lineup even included a station wagon model. Parachuted into one of the most cutthroat segments of the market, the “Caabillac” failed to win over buyers.
Chrysler 300C Touring
The Chrysler 300C Touring represented a bold attempt at luring 5 Series and E-Class owners into Chrysler’s European showrooms.
Previewed by a close-to-production concept introduced at the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show, the wagon was created by grafting a 300C front end onto the body of a Dodge Magnum, a model never sold through official channels on the other side of the pond. The surgery created one of the sexiest-looking and most practical Chrysler models in recent memory.
Buyers who wanted the full American car experience could order the 300C Touring with a 5.7-L Hemi V8 engine. For motorists worried about fuel and registration costs, Chrysler took advantage of its tie-up with Daimler at the time and offered the wagon with a 2.7-L turbodiesel V6 engine sourced from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.
The 300C Touring was built alongside the Euro-spec Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ) in Graz, Austria, by Magna-Steyr. It was a strong effort on Chrysler’s part, but it fell short of expectations and died without a successor.
After Chrysler’s marriage to Daimler failed, a romance with Italy-based Fiat opened up new opportunities to sell cars in Europe. Bigger models like the 300 and the Town & Country were fitted with a Lancia emblem and launched in Europe, though we’re not sure if anyone noticed.
The story was different in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Lancia’s reputation was so bad when it called it quits in those markets that executives decided they couldn’t relaunch the brand. Instead, right-hand drive variants of the Delta and the Ypsilon wore a Chrysler emblem. The brand’s presence on the British market goes back to the Rootes days, and its reputation is much better than Lancia’s — which is admittedly not saying a lot.
The plot failed because no one warmed up to the Ypsilon; it was too expensive, not as premium as Lancia claimed it was, and wholly uninspiring to drive. Chrysler pulled out of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Lancia is spending the last few years of its life in FCA’s palliative-care unit.
Chevrolet’s ties with South Korea-based Daewoo make it the worst offender when it comes to badge-engineering cars in Europe. Image be damned, in the mid-2000s, company executives were willing to put a bowtie emblem on anything that remotely resembled a car.
Launched in 1998, the original Matiz was a small, chintzy econobox that even the thrifty, city car-crazy Europeans weren’t willing to buy. It was a completely neutered form of transportation without a gram of appeal. Designers merely settled for creating a car people wouldn’t dislike.
In emerging nations, the numerous variations of the Matiz were popular because, to its credit, it was more comfortable than a motorcycle and it could seat four.
In Europe, the bowtie’s entry-level model was a flop. It disintegrated like aspirin in a glass of water, so the eye is rarely offended by a Matiz today.
Believe it or not, the Chevrolet Tacuma was designed by Pininfarina. Sold as the Rezzo in certain markets, it started life as a Daewoo people-mover aimed at the Renault Scenic and the Citroën Xsara Picasso. The Chevrolet-badged model was introduced after the Daewoo brand was phased out in a majority of export markets.
The only good part about the Tacuma was the bowtie emblem made it look decidedly less like a marine mammal than its Daewoo-branded sibling. The new-look grille didn’t make up for the awkward proportions, the haphazard build quality, or the underwhelming powertrains.
Many asked why Chevrolet failed in Europe. After taking a good look at cars like the Tacuma and the Matiz, the better question is how the bowtie’s European division lasted as long as it did.
The Chevrolet Matiz was an ugly, uninspiring econobox that had no appeal whatsoever — which is probably why hardly anyone in Europe bought one.