Imported cars are nothing unusual. Long gone are the days when the only car options are domestically produced. Now, the open, global market allows for buyers to pick from many different cars. However, there are many people who insist on only buying domestic vehicles to support local brands. At least that’s what they think they’re doing. From time-to-time, domestic companies will sell a foreign car under its name. This phenomenon is known as a captive import.
There are several reasons why a company will do this. Sometimes, foreign car companies will want to sell a model in another country, but the brand believes that their unknown name will render the model unpopular. It's also possible that a large company that owns multiple brands worldwide would want to sell a particular model to new markets using established nameplates.
However, what creates the most captive imports are markets where domestic models reign supreme. In the past, the American automotive market was difficult for foreign brands to break into due to the prominence of the Big Three and import taxes. Japan, on the other hand, continues to be a market that's difficult for outside brands to enter. As a result, there are many familiar cars that are sold abroad wearing a different name tag. Likewise, there are well-known cars that you see every day that you may not have known were made very far away. Here are 20 captive imports you didn’t know about.
20 Toyota Cavalier
The USA isn’t the only country to see frequent captive imports. Japan has a market that’s famously difficult for foreign manufacturers to break into. Toyota makes the Corolla, one of the most reliable small cars on the market. During the late ‘90s, Chevrolet made a competitor, the Cavalier, which was one of the worst cheap cars available. However, Toyota and General Motors entered an agreement that involved the Corolla being sold in America as a Geo (although the Corolla was still available as a Toyota), while the Chevrolet Cavalier would be sold as a Toyota in Japan. Seems like Toyota got the short end of the stick with that deal. Attempting to generate sales for the Cavalier, Toyota’s marketing pushed the fact that it was an American car. However, its price and segment meant that the Cavalier couldn’t compete and was pulled from Japan after a few years.
19 Lancia Flavia
After being controlled by one European brand for a decade, Chrysler switched hands again and is now owned by Fiat. As Fiat is a small but much more global brand that Chrysler, several models from their various brands have been renamed and sold to different parts of the world. Surprisingly, the US has received a few of such captive imports, while Europe has seen several rebadged Mopars sold through Italian brands. Since Fiat doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Lancia brand, several Chrysler models were dumped into the lineup. However, it’s hard to see how calling a Chrysler 200 convertible a Lancia Flavia was meant to be an attractive option. While it was one of the few large convertible options on the European market, its feeble four-cylinder motor and hefty curb weight made it an unattractive option—that, and it was a Chrysler 200.
18 Toyota Voltz
Toyota and GM’s partnership didn’t end after the Cavalier mess. As a result, there were still a few GM-branded Toyotas around. One of the more well-known examples was the Pontiac Vibe, which was heavily based on the Toyota Matrix. However, this wasn’t really a captive import, as both the Vibe and the Matrix were produced in California. The Toyota Voltz, however, was a captive import.
The Voltz was a Japanese-market Pontiac Vibe. Basically, it was a Japanese version of an American car that was based on a Japanese design.
This was a particularly lazy captive import, as Toyota didn’t even bother to swap the Pontiac badge for a Toyota one, instead choosing to partially cover it up. Similar to the Cavalier, the Voltz didn’t appeal to the Japanese market and was pulled from production after a few years.
17 Geo Metro
Depending on who you are, you either see the Geo Metro as a tiny, economical car, or one of the worst vehicles in recent memory. Powered by a tiny three-cylinder motor, the Metro could get just over 40 MPG, a number that eluded many manufacturers until hybrids became popular. However, this car wasn’t a GM design but instead a small Suzuki. The Suzuki Cultus was a worldwide platform that was manufactured in many different locations, with the Metro variant being built in Canada. The Metro was one of the few examples of the model where it was sold in every body style, including a humorous convertible option. The second generation of the Metro, however, wasn't a simple rebadged Suzuki. While it was still based on the same platform, the new rounded design was all GM.
16 Lancia Thema
The Flavia wasn’t the only classic Lancia nameplate to be slapped onto an American Chrysler during the early years of Fiat Chrysler. Thankfully, not every model that went through this transformation was as dismal as the 200. Despite its many years on the European market, the Chrysler 300 was rebadged as the Lancia Thema for most of Europe in 2011.
The Thema was a once a front-wheel-drive sedan that could be optioned with a Ferrari V8 under the hood, so the new rear-wheel-drive Hemi-powered car wasn’t a bad follow-up vehicle.
However, the Chrysler 300 was never hugely popular in Europe, most likely due to its huge size and poor fuel economy, and no amount of Lancia badges would change that. After a few years on the market, the Thema was pulled from Europe, along with many other Chrysler models.
15 Fiat Freemont
While Lancia received a mixed bag of Chrysler cars, the few that are sold by the Fiat brand in Europe are pretty dreary vehicles. The worst of the bunch is undoubtedly the Fiat Freemont, known in the US as the "Dodge Journey." The Journey was one of the last awful cars to be shoved out of DaimlerChrysler before the companies separated. While Fiat did update the Journey, improving its terrible interior and offering it with considerably improved engines, it’s still a horribly outdated crossover in a market filled with better alternatives. However, its cheap price draws in customers, both American and Italian. In fact, the Freemont has proven to be quite popular in the countries. Perhaps, its popularity in Italy is due to the preference of domestic brands and the lack of cheap three-row crossovers from such brands.
14 Chevrolet Aveo
After the Chevy Metro was discontinued, GM needed another tiny, cheap, and economical car. However, the smallest car that Chevy was making at the time was the Cavalier, which was neither small nor economical enough to replace the old Metro. Luckily, GM had recently bought Daewoo after it had gone bankrupt, and it designed a car that fit the bill. Built as a replacement for the Daewoo Lanos, "Chevy Aveo" was one of the names used for this new Daewoo platform. Its original name was "Kalos," but this little car saw 12 different nameplates applied to its hatch. Built in South Korea, this car was a fairly early example of a global car, given its many different applications. It’s a shame that such a piece of junk was spread throughout the world.
13 Mercury Capri
In many ways, the Ford Capri was Europe’s Ford Mustang. With a sleek two-door, fastback design, the Capri was a fun, attractive car that was much better on gas than the comparatively thirsty Mustang. Given its appealing styling and decent fuel economy, Ford decided to bring the model stateside. However, Ford decided that it didn’t fit the Ford name in the US and instead sold it as a Mercury. Powered by a choice of four-cylinder motors and a pair of V6s, the Capri made for a fun-to-drive model in the ‘70s. Despite the new nameplate having to compete with Ford’s own Mustang, the Capri became the second-best-selling import in America. However, by the 1980s, the American Capri migrated over to the Fox-body platform, losing much of its identity.
12 Ford Courier
You would think that the last American company to need an imported pickup would be Ford. The Courier was a compact pickup available in the ‘70s, built by Mazda. This is where the Ford-Mazda partnership started out, eventually leading to many other co-developed models.
The Courier was an economical option for the 1970s, as it featured a small four-cylinder motor and a manual transmission.
The biggest reason for this pickup, and many other import pickups, to be branded as a domestic vehicle in the US was due to an American tariff known as the "chicken tax." This, to this day, the tax heavily increases the cost of imported commercial vehicles, which includes pickups. As a result, Mazda would build and export the chassis to the US, and Ford would put the Courier body on it, circumventing the tax.
11 Pontiac GTO
The 2000s saw the resurgence of American muscle. After the ‘90s saw dreadful Mustangs and poor-selling Camaros, it was likely that muscle cars would be dead soon after that. However, in the early 2000s, Ford announced a new retro-styled Mustang, and Chrysler started selling popular Hemi-powered sedans. After having discontinued the Camaro and the Firebird a few years earlier, General Motors didn’t have a proper response to the upcoming competition. However, they were able to use a new car from down under. The Australian Holden Monaro was a mid-size rear-wheel-drive coupe that had optional Corvette V8 power under the hood. After going through a mild redesign, making the V8 the base motor, and moving the steering wheel over to the correct side, the Monaro was turned into the critically acclaimed Pontiac GTO. Unfortunately, the GTO’s bland styling didn’t win over many customers despite its excellent driving style.
10 Plymouth Arrow
Chrysler and Mitsubishi are two brands that go way back. After many years of platform and powertrain sharing, the two brands still have some connections to this day, even if they’re not as closely affiliated as they once were. There were many different examples of Mitsubishis being dressed up as Mopars over the years, but one early example was the Plymouth Arrow.
Based on the Mitsubishi Lancer Celeste, the Arrow was a small, two-door compact available with a couple small four-cylinder motors.
Besides being a cheap daily driver, the Arrow also featured a performance variant. The Fire Arrow was powered by a larger, more powerful 2.6-liter four-cylinder that could be paired with a five-speed manual transmission. Not only was it a rear-wheel drive, but it also had one of the best power-to-weight ratios of the time, although, given the time, that’s not saying much.
9 Chevrolet LUV
Ford wasn’t the only company to sell a foreign truck as their own model. Starting out in life as an Isuzu Faster, the Chevrolet LUV, short for ‘light utility vehicle,’ was another answer to the small pickup market in the US. Not only did this serve as a larger and cheaper alternative to the El Camino, but it also was a response to the onslaught of small foreign branded pickups, such as the then-new Toyota and Datsun trucks.
Featuring a 72-horsepower four-cylinder, the LUV didn’t have the power of larger pickups but it was cheaper to run and was available with an automatic transmission, something that couldn’t be taken for granted at the time.
In 1979, the LUV’s new inclusion of a four-wheel-drive option earned it the ‘Truck of the Year’ award from Motor Trend.
8 Chevrolet Nova
When you hear the name "Chevy Nova," you likely picture a classic muscle car with big V8 power and macho looks. While that was true for a while, the Nova lost any performance options it could’ve had by the mid-‘70s. It was transformed into a cheap sedan with none of the sex appeal of the previous models. However, that would be far from the model’s worst fate. In the 1980s, GM and Toyota’s partnership saw the creation of this awful Corolla-based Nova. Available in either sedan or hatchback form, the front-wheel-drive Nova wasn't deserving of its name. Thankfully, Chevy spared us from an SS version of this terrible car. The nameplate never returned after this miserable vehicle ended production, which means that we either missed out on another new muscle car or were spared from another Malibu situation.
7 Nash Metropolitan
The Nash Metropolitan is a classic American car that was greatly different from its competitors at the time. From the 1950s onwards, the American car companies were building cars bigger and bigger every year. However, the Metropolitan was a surprisingly small car for a time when gas cost around a nickel a gallon. After doing some market research, Nash figured out that there was a market for such a small vehicle. However, while the design was American, the car wasn’t planned to be built in the US. With a more international appeal to this car, Nash planned on having it built in Europe by Austin. This car was sold as both a Nash and a Hudson in the US, but the builders of the car also sold it as an Austin Metropolitan as well. It is a bizarre case of captive imports.
Many of these captive imports are single cars that were badge engineered to fit into a foreign line up that they weren’t initially built to fit into. Ford decided to instead build an entire brand around the concept.
Merkur, besides having a confusing pronunciation, was entirely made up of Americanized European Ford models.
For whatever reason, Ford decided to not to sell these models under the existing Ford or Mercury brands. Merkur sold only two models: the XR4Ti (Ford Sierra) and the Scorpio. Both of these cars were modified to meet American standards, which included larger bumpers and reduced power. These two cars, however, proved to be unpopular, and the brand failed. Perhaps, if these cars had been sold under one of the normal Ford brands, they may have appealed to a larger audience.
5 Buick Cascada
Several modern Buicks are captive imports. This is likely due to how unpopular the real Buicks are on the American market. Most of these Buicks are rebadged European Opel cars, but there are so many of these cars, we’ll just discuss the Cascada. The Cascada, Spanish for "waterfall," is a compact convertible car based on an Opel of the same name. It’s the first Buick since the ‘90s to both have only two doors and be a convertible. With only a 200-horsepower turbocharged motor and a near-4,000-pound curb weight, it’s hardly the sportiest model in the lineup. Despite being European, it instead seems to follow the older Buick design language, as it’s more of a cruiser than anything. It’s also somewhat significant as it’s likely one of the only Polish produced cars sold in the US.
4 Dodge Sprinter
Usually, commercial vans aren’t really worth talking about. However, the Dodge Sprinter is an unusual example. Unlike many other vans on the market at the time, the Sprinter was a badge-engineered Mercedes van that offered a very different experience from the one offered by the usual commercial vans of the time. The standard American van was a huge lumbering beast that rode on a large pickup chassis and was powered by a burly V8. The Sprinter, on the other hand, was a narrow, comparatively efficient vehicle that was offered with a V6 motor at the largest. Selling it as a Dodge allowed Mercedes to sell their van to organizations that purchased only American branded vehicles. As Mercedes no longer owns Dodge, the model is available through both Mercedes and Freightliner these days, but both are still the same vehicle.
3 Dodge Challenger
Both today’s Dodge Challenger and the original model from the ‘70s are icons of American muscle that make their statements through huge V8s and massive burnouts. However, not every Challenger was made to the same standard.
In 1978, just four years after the original model was discontinued, Chrysler decided to put the Challenger badge onto the back of a four-cylinder Mitsubishi Galant Lambda.
While this car did have the benefit of rear-wheel drive, there was little else going for it. While the performance was fine for the time, it was slower than the older Plymouth Fire Arrow. It didn’t help that Chrysler insisted on calling the 106-horsepower 2.6-liter four-cylinder a ‘Hemi.’ However, it was still not as insulting as the later front-wheel-drive Chargers and Daytonas from the ‘80s.
2 Honda Crossroad
Japan’s market was reaching a bubble in the ‘90s, and some SUVs were becoming quite popular. With so many options available in other markets and Honda having no options of their own ready to meet this demand, they decided to invest in Land Rover and buy the rights to reproduce one of their models. The SUV they decided to go for was one of the best on the market: the Land Rover Discovery. Called the "Crossroad" in Japan, this Honda featured only a new grille to differentiate it from the original Land Rover. As it was just a Discovery underneath, this was Honda’s first and only production car fitted with a V8 motor. It was also likely Honda’s least reliable model in their history, given the Land Rover’s track record.
1 Opel GT
The Opel GT was a tiny sports car sold from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. It featured quirky styling and made up for its low power by weighing almost nothing. It even had unique flip-open headlights. This was also the one of the few Opel branded vehicles to be sold in the US. However, that didn’t make the car a captive import due to it retaining its original brand. What was a captive import was the 2007-2010 Opel GT. Based on the excellent Saturn Sky, this Opel GT made for a worthwhile follow-up to the original model. Unfortunately, unlike the Sky and Solstice, the GT lacked a high-performance, turbocharged motor. Regardless, this was an intriguing entry to the Opel lineup and fit into its name well for a captive import.