Have you ever noticed that the term "import car" doesn't get tossed around like it used to? In these days of Toyotas from California, Volkswagens from Tennessee and Chevrolets from Canada, it's becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between a "foreign" and a "domestic" car.
I'm not really a fan of making that distinction anymore. Car companies have become so globalized that it's much harder to say what's American, Asian or European these days, especially when you consider that they often share parts from the same places.
Things used to be much more clear cut — at least, they were until the captive import came along.
Even if you're not familiar with that term, you've seen a captive import on the road. Maybe you've even owned one. The Cadillac Catera, the most recent Pontiac GTO, or even the humble Chevrolet Aveo? All captive imports. When an American (in our case) automaker decides to bring a car they build and sell in a foreign market to the U.S., and it's sold through their dealer chains, that makes it a captive import. It's kind of a catch-all term — when you think about it, lots of different cars could fall under this category.
Captive imports can bear their original names (Opel GT), be re-badged for U.S. consumption in an existing lineup (Saturn Astra) or they can be sold under a completely new brand (Geo Prizm.)
In many early cases, captive imports were brought over because carmakers needed smaller, more fuel-efficient models but couldn't be bothered to make their own in America. Others have been sporty coupes and outright performance cars. But here's what they all have in common: Throughout their history, most captive imports have been failures.
Some have been abysmal disasters, and others have simply failed to find an audience despite being decent (or even excellent) overall. There are many reasons for this, including a general hesitation about imports and smaller cars, strange marketing and naming gimmicks, and designs and features that didn't suit American tastes. They've kind of gone down in history as the oddballs of the automotive world.
But we like oddballs here at Jalopnik, even if we'd pass on putting some of these cars in our garages.
The thing is, it could be argued that the captive import has finally gone mainstream. Look at the last group of Saturns or the current crop of Buicks, which primarily consisted of re-badged Opels.
On the other hand, you have Ford's One Ford plan, where the goal is to converge lineups as much as possible. More and more, carmakers will be selling the same vehicles in every country, rather than tailor their lineups to suit the needs of different markets. It makes much more sense to build them where you sell them, too; that way you get around pesky import taxes and exchange rate fluctuations.
We're showcasing just a few our favorite captive imports below. Tell us — what are yours? Do you have a memorable experience with a captive import? Vent away in the comments.
Simca was one of the more storied French car companies, but today it's largely forgotten after it was absorbed by PSA Peugeot-Citroen in the late 1970s. But before that, it was partially owned by Chrysler, who started bringing their small, quirky sedans over to the U.S. as captive imports in the 1950s.
By the mid-1960s, Chrysler owned all of Simca, as well as Rootes of Great Britain, forming Chrysler Europe. We would get Volkswagen-fighting cars like the Simca 1000 in the meantime.
Chrysler was also able to "take advantage" of their European alliance by selling the Plymouth Cricket here, which was actually a British Hillman Avenger. We once said it was possibly the worst car Chrysler ever sold, and that's really saying something.