||This article possibly contains original research. (January 2009)|
Captive import is a marketing term and a strategy for an automobile part or entire vehicle that is foreign-built and sold under the name of an importer or by a domestic automaker through its own dealer distribution system.
The foreign car may be produced by a subsidiary of the same company, be a joint venture with another firm, or acquired under license from a completely separate entity. The brand name used may be that of the domestic company, the foreign builder, or an unrelated marque entirely (this is one type of badge engineering).
This arrangement is usually made to increase the competitiveness of the domestic brand by filling a perceived target market not currently served by its model lineup, that is either not practical or not economically feasible to fill from domestic production.
In the American market, captive imports "blurred national distinctions" because they have been designed and built elsewhere, but wear a domestic nameplate. The chief reason domestic automakers market captive imports is because "it is cheaper to import those cars than to produce them" in the United States.
The Nash-Healey two-seat sports car was produced for the U.S. market between 1951 and 1954. It combined a Nash Ambassador drivetrain with a European chassis and body and was a product of a partnership between Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and British automaker Donald Healey. After the first model year, the Nash-Healey was restyled and assembled by Pinin Farina in Italy.
The Nash Metropolitan, sold in the U.S. from 1954 to 1962, a captive import for Nash Motors (who designed it themselves, unlike most captive imports built by another company) produced by Austin in the UK specifically for sale in the U.S. By entering into a manufacturing arrangement, Nash would avoid the expense associated with tooling, body panels, and components. When this two-seater sub-compact car was launched, it was the first time an American-designed car had been only built in Europe, having never been built in the United States. Unlike typical European cars of the era, its look was "American" and it had a design resemblance to the large or "senior" U.S.-built Nashes. It became one of the few small cars to sell well during the most bulk-obsessed period of U.S. automotive history.
When Mercedes-Benz was seeking entry into the American market, the company signed a marketing agreement with Studebaker–Packard and briefly became a captive brand in their showrooms. Around the same time, Pontiac dealers briefly sold Vauxhalls.
Other experiments, such as GM's sale of Opel models like the Kadett through Buick dealers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, yielded ambivalent results; the Opels were generally well-regarded and sales were decent but never substantial. In the 1970s, when Buick decided to phase out its Opels and sell small Isuzus instead, the result was a handful of cars carrying a global brand, Buick Opel by Isuzu. Buick was not the first to rebadge Isuzus — Chevrolet did the same with their LUV pickup truck in 1972.
In the late 1980s, GM consolidated its various captive imports of the time (the Daewoo-built Pontiac LeMans notwithstanding) under the Geo brand, which was exclusively handled by Chevrolet dealers. The cars, built variously by Toyota (the Prizm), Isuzu (Spectrum, Storm) and Suzuki (Metro, Tracker) were generally well received, but the company decided to fold the line back into Chevrolet in 1998.
In 2004, GM began marketing the Chevrolet Aveo subcompact, a rebadged Daewoo Kalos (now a rebadged Daewoo Gentra) assembled in South Korea. In 2008, GM started marketing the Saturn Astra, which is a rebadged Opel Astra, assembled in Belgium. And, prior to the brand's phaseout, Pontiac also returned to the captive idea by selling Holden vehicles, first the Holden Monaro as the Pontiac GTO and then the Holden VE Commodore as the Pontiac G8. Pontiac dealers also briefly received a version of the Kalos/Gentra/Aveo, which was sold in Canada as the G3 Wave and in the U.S. as the G3.
In Europe, there have been relatively few cases of captive imports, and most have been unsuccessful. The Chevrolet Venture minivan was sold as the Opel/Vauxhall Sintra in the late-1990s, but was not only not to European tastes, but also gained a bad reputation due to poor results in safety tests. The practice has been revived by PSA Peugeot Citroën with the Peugeot 4007, Peugeot 4008, Citroën C-Crosser and Citroën C4 Aircrosser, which are rebadged versions of the Mitsubishi Outlander and Mitsubishi RVR.
In Brazil, the Australian-built Holden Commodore has been sold since 1998 as Chevrolet Omega, replacing the locally built car bearing the same name. Despite being well received by the press and public, sales are much worse than its locally-built counterpart, simply because of its high price. However, it is used very often as official government cars. Chevrolet also rebranded the Argentine-built Suzuki Vitara as the Chevrolet Tracker after Suzuki stopped selling cars in Brazil, but it never achieved the same selling numbers from the original car.
In Japan, where foreign car manufacturers have traditionally struggled to compete in the local market, even rebadging of U.S. models like the Chevrolet Cavalier as a Toyota have failed to improve sales.
In Australia, GM's Holden operation sold the 1975-84 Isuzu Bellett/Gemini, itself a license built version of the then current Opel Kadett, as the Holden Gemini. Interestingly the name was originally Holden-Isuzu Gemini but after the initial TX series the Isuzu cobranding was dropped. Perhaps the original idea was to foster the Japanese-ness of the model at a time when that might have been seen by customers as a positive, the Nissan's 610 Bluebird being marketed as the Datsun 180B being a big seller at the time. But given the Gemini was assembled in Australia at Acacia Ridge in Queensland and Holden was still the highest selling brand (and selling its other cars on their Australian-ness) it was probably more beneficial and clearer to use the Australian identity. The Chevrolet LUV produced by Isuzu was also sold from 1973 for a couple of years, the only official Chevrolet branded model available in Australia at the time (and since). Also, Ford sold the Taurus in Japan, Australia and Hong Kong in 1996, but discontinued it for 1999 because of poor success. In 1998, another successful American vehicle built by GM, the Chevrolet Suburban, was marketed in Australia as a rebadged Holden Suburban with intentions to launch the full-sized SUV in a country that was used to having small to mid-sized SUVs, but because it was a large SUV and given its wide body size it proved to be a failure and was discontinued in 2001.
Reasons for failure
Various reasons have been suggested as to why captive imports often fail. The question of exchange rates is clearly important, as a sudden shift can quickly raise prices to uncompetitive levels. Some models have been justly criticized for marginal quality, or being a bad match to the local driving environment. The commitment of domestic sales and service staffs to an unfamiliar vehicle has also often been questioned, particularly if the import is seen as reducing sales of other, more profitable vehicles in the lineup.
Others fail due to no fault of their own; the Sunbeam Tiger, for instance, an early 1960s example of the concept of an American Ford Windsor engine in a British (Sunbeam Alpine) body and chassis, enjoyed substantial success until Sunbeam became a captive import of Chrysler Corporation in North America. Chrysler could not be realistically expected to sell a car with a Ford engine, and Chrysler V8 engines all had the distributor positioned at the rear of the engine, unlike the front-mounted distributor of the Ford V8, making it impossible to fit the Chrysler engine into the Sunbeam engine bay without major and expensive revisions. Thus this niche of the automotive market was left to be filled with legendary success by the Ford engined Shelby Cobra.
There may be a deeper, structural issue at work, however. It could simply be that a domestic buyer is unlikely to want an import, and an import buyer is unlikely to enter a domestic showroom. A captive thus easily falls between two stools. This is probably why the practice of using a separate brand name, such as Merkur and General Motors' short-lived Geo, has ceased — the foreignness of the car is thus discreetly made less apparent.
Not every vehicle that appears to be a captive import really is. A vehicle which is foreign-designed or badged but assembled in the market where it is sold does not fall into this category. Such vehicles are frequently the result of joint venture or strategic alliance arrangements between automakers.
For example, the Renault Alliance, which was sold through American Motors (AMC) dealers in the 1980s, was actually assembled by AMC as part of the brief tie-up between the two companies. The 1985-1988 Chevrolet Nova and the later Geo Prizm, though it was a Toyota design and shared the Chevrolet showroom with many captives, was built domestically by the GM/Toyota NUMMI joint venture. The Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser, both sisters to the Mitsubishi Eclipse, were manufactured in the U.S. by Diamond-Star Motors, a Chrysler/ Mitsubishi Motors joint venture. Australia's Holden, although it often shares planning and hardware with the rest of GM's global empire such as Opel and Isuzu, has generally preferred to assemble its versions of such vehicles locally. Rover and Honda have co-produced models for the European market, as have Alfa Romeo and Nissan. None of these would be considered imports.
In the United States, a vehicle that is assembled in Canada or Mexico and is distributed domestically by a Big 3 automaker is not considered a captive import. This is due to the integration of manufacturing operations by the Big 3 in these countries due to the hospitable trade environment created by the North American Free Trade Agreement (and before NAFTA, the US-Canada Auto Pact), coupled with the proximity of these nations to the U.S. Also, vehicles made and marketed by European automakers that were eventually acquired by the Big 3 automakers, such as Land Rover, Volvo, and Saab, are generally not considered to be captive imports. The Opel vehicles sold in the 1960s and 1970s are exceptions to this rule because they were sold through the Buick distribution channel, while retaining the Opel brand name. Thus, they are captive imports.
Recent examples of captive imports in the U.S. have included the Cadillac Catera, a rebadged Opel Omega, the Chevrolet Aveo, built by GM Daewoo, and the Chrysler Crossfire — an American design which mostly uses Mercedes-Benz mechanicals but is actually built by Karmann in Germany. The most recent Pontiac GTO, which was built alongside the Australian Holden Monaro, also qualifies. The Saturn Astra is another example. It is a rebadged Opel Astra that is imported from Belgium. The successor for Pontiac's seventh generation Grand Prix, the Pontiac G8, is a modified Holden VE Commodore that is imported from Australia.
List of notable captive imports in the United States
|Nash Motors, American Motors, and Jeep-Eagle timeline of captive import cars, United States market, 1950s–1980s — next »|
List of notable captive imports in Japan
|Model||Year(s)||Country of assembly||Original model|
|Toyota Cavalier||1996–2006||United States||Chevrolet Cavalier|
|Honda Crossroad||1989-1994||United Kingdom||Land Rover Discovery|
List of notable captive imports in Europe
|Model||Year(s)||Country of assembly||Original model|
|Fiat Sedici||2005-Present||Japan||Suzuki SX4|
|Ford Cougar||1998-2002||United States||Mercury Cougar|
|Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute||2001-Present||United States/Japan|
|Opel GT||2006-2009||United States||Saturn Sky|
|Opel Sintra||1996-1999||United States||Chevrolet Venture/Oldsmobile Silhouette/Pontiac Montana|
|Rover CityRover||2003-2005||India||Tata Indica|
|Vauxhall Monaro||2001-2006||Australia||Holden Monaro|
|Vauxhall VXR8||2007-Present||Australia||HSV Clubsport/HSV GTS|
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