The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

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.

Photo credit Hugo90/aldenjewell/aldenjewell/Shutterstock

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Simca

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.

Photo credit Hugo90

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Opel

Some of the best and most well-remembered captive imports were Opels, which were sold in the U.S. through Buick dealerships from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s. Among them were the stylish lightweight sports car the Opel GT, the Kadett, and the Manta.

The Kadett wasn't the strongest car GM ever sold, and a scathing 1968 review of it in Car and Driver led GM to pull its ads from the magazine for months.

But Opel continued to find its way stateside pretty regularly. Towards the end of Saturn, most of their cars were re-badged Opels and Vauxhalls. Today still, a ton of Buicks sold in the U.S. are rebadged Opels, or are at least very similar to their European counterparts.

Photo credit granada_turnier

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Merkur XR4Ti

Wouldn't you like a European rear-wheel-drive, two-door hatchback with a turbo engine and a stick shift? That sounds like a recipe for greatness. But rather than sell this captive import in the U.S. as the Ford Sierra that it was, or as a Mercury at least, Ford had to get all fancy and rename it the "Merkur XR4Ti." No one knew how to pronounce it, and the old men at the Lincoln-Mercury dealers didn't know how to sell it.

But goofy marketing wasn't the Merkur's only problem. While it had very respectable handling and performance in its day, it was notoriously unreliable. These days the car is well known by faithful Jim Rome fans, as he likes to rag on the Merkur he owned once for being just a giant, exploding piece of crap.

Photo credit Grant.C

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Pontiac LeMans

If a car is named after one of the greatest races of all time, it had better be unquestionably badass. Dearly departed GM subsidiary Pontiac got away with naming some of their cars "Le Mans" in the 1960s because they were awesome muscle cars. In fact, the Tempest/Le Mans line is what gave birth to the original GTO, which is probably about as unquestionably badass as you can get.

But through the years, the Le Mans became downsized and malaise-d into a forgettable and unappealing piece of junk. The final nail for the Le Mans name came in 1987. This time, the Le Mans wasn't a muscle car, but a small, front-wheel-drive hatchback that was a captive import made by Daewoo.

Now, I know what you're wondering: Did 1980s GM think the we were all idiots? The answer to that, apparently, is yes. The little Korean hatch didn't fool anyone with its lofty name. If anyone out there is still driving a late 80s/early 90s captive import Le Mans, they must be atoning for some awful sin committed in a past life.

As we all know, GM wasn't done with captive import Daewoos, but at least they've gotten better than this.

Photo credit Bull-Doser

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Toyota Cavalier

The people of Japan have many wonderful things that we Americans are forced to do without, like the soiled panty vending machines, Godzilla attacks and a train system that makes ours look sad and pathetic. However, there is one thing we have that our Japanese friends do not: the Chevrolet Cavalier.

At least, that was the case in the mid-1990s, until Toyota and GM worked out a deal whereby the Japanese market would get the Cavalier, badged as a Toyota, perhaps in exchange for all the insanely reliable Corollas and Geo/Chevy Prizms they co-built for us Americans. I think you can tell which country got the better end of that deal.

Now, I know what you're wondering: Did Toyota think the people of Japan were all idiots? The answer to that, apparently, is yes. The Cavalier did not sell well in Japan at all, due in part to its abysmal build quality and high price.

Photo credit Hugo90

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Cadillac Catera

Ah, Catera. You were the "Caddy that zigs," whatever the hell that's supposed to mean. One of Cadillac's earliest attempts at building a 3 Series fighter (something they only pulled off recently), the rear-wheel-drive Catera was actually a re-badged Opel Omega.

Unfortunately, the Catera's unimpressive performance, poor reliability, staid styling and downright stupid ad campaigns made this Opel hookup something Cadillac probably regrets today.

Photo credit GM

The Sometimes Fail-Tacular History Of Captive Import Cars In America (And Other Places)

Pontiac GTO

I have gone on record before as saying that the Pontiac GTO made from 2004 to 2006 is one of the most underrated cars of all time. With a pair of V8 engines, a six-speed manual and glorious rear-wheel-drive, what's not to love here?

Unfortunately, Americans never really warmed up to the bland styling of this re-badged Holden Monaro from Australia. It looked nothing like the old-school GTO, and nostalgia is a big factor among the muscle car crowd. Though GM always said they only planned to sell it for a few years, I have a feeling that we would have seen more of it had it been a runaway hit. It's a shame, really. This is one of the best captive imports.

Photo credit Kent68