Seven intriguing car doppelgängers from the last decade

Different companies, shared kinship — Brenwin Naidu takes a closer look at the controversial practice of automotive platform sharing

06 April 2020 - 12:00
Yasuyuki Yoshinaga, president of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., front left, and Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., shake hands as they pose for a photograph with the Subaru BRZ, left, and Toyota 86 sports coupes during a line-off ceremony at Fuji Heavy's plant in Ota City, Gunma Prefecture, Japan, on Friday, March 16, 2012.
Yasuyuki Yoshinaga, president of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., front left, and Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., shake hands as they pose for a photograph with the Subaru BRZ, left, and Toyota 86 sports coupes during a line-off ceremony at Fuji Heavy's plant in Ota City, Gunma Prefecture, Japan, on Friday, March 16, 2012.
Image: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The practice of the automotive joint-venture is nothing new. It makes sense for manufacturers to collaborate. Synergies can be successful. But they can also flop. You will find examples of hits and misses with such partnerships in this neat listicle.

Today we are looking at seven badge-engineering efforts that appeared during the last decade: products whose conception was owed to a one-night stand between competitor brands.

Note the omission of related models from motoring conglomerates under which several brands are owned — the modularity of things on that scale would make great fodder for another piece on another day. The bulk of it might involve the mammoth Volkswagen Group, with its varied silos of marques and shared platforms. And the BMW Group with its Mini and Rolls-Royce divisions. How about the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi trio? Fiat Chrysler Automobiles? Groupe PSA? Consider this topic bookmarked.

Anyway, without further ado, here is an overview of seven vehicular duplicates for your enlightenment.

Mercedes-Benz X-Class and Nissan Navara

Oh yes, the so-called plush pickup that everybody loved to hate. Poor X-Class: its time on earth was short and filled with angst. But the backlash might have been justified.

Even though the underpinnings and structure of the Nissan Navara were by no means a poor starting point, Mercedes-Benz consumers were simply not going to buy into the notion that the firm had built a truly luxurious workhorse from those Japanese ingredients.

Adding a potent V6 derivative to the range helped the cause a bit. But there were just too many not-so-premium giveaways. Like the flimsy plastic key fob, identical to the one Juke owners have.

Toyota Supra and BMW Z4

A most controversial mash-up — but possibly the best example of a group project done right. Enthusiasts were up in arms when they heard that Aichi would be courting Munich for its revival of such a hallowed nameplate.

Granted, most of these naysayers only had visuals of the A80 piloted by Paul Walker in the first Fast & Furious film as a reference point. Go out and test the new, A90 example and tell me you are not impressed? Some even opine that it is a more rewarding steer than the Z4 upon which it is based.

Makes sense, given the additional rigidity a fixed ceiling brings to the basic recipe of rear-wheel drive, a boosted in-line six-cylinder and dimensions that unlock the “golden ratio” for perfect handling. Google that one.

Smart ForFour and Renault Twingo

This could be one of the best kept secrets in the SA compact car market.

Launched locally in 2016, the second-generation Smart ForFour remains an interesting pick — investigate how dramatically examples have depreciated, ostensibly because parent company Mercedes-Benz might have been a tad too ambitious with how they initially priced it.

While the Smart brand still has a presence in the country, catering to the maintenance requirements of owners, it has occupied a dormant status because you cannot buy new units of the tiny ForTwo or this ForFour sibling.

Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission: just like a classic Porsche 911! OK, that might be pushing it a bit. Bits of DNA hinting about its French connection are easy to spot, which was never sold here.

Fiat 124 Spider and Mazda MX-5

Italy and Japan have enjoyed harmonious relations since the 16th century and were allies in both world wars.

When Turin-based Fiat sought to revive its 124 Spider title, it turned to Hiroshima, eyeing the ND-generation of the legendary Mazda sports car as a donor. But since the MX-5 preceded its appearance in our market, we were wowed by its charms first and the bar had been set.

Lightweight, with a sprightly and tractable normally aspirated engine, it delivered on the “zoom” that made the first car such a hit. By comparison, the heavier, turbocharged Abarth-badged copycat launched here in 2017 felt strange and different. It was also considerably more expensive than its counterpart.

Fiat 500 and Ford Ka

The reincarnated Cinquecento seemed to become an overnight hit. Everybody wanted to indulge in the retro charm of the tiny city slicker.

And for good reasons. Undeniably stylish, affordably priced, reasonably well packaged for its size and surprisingly safe, the Fiat 500 became a true hit. Ford borrowed its underpinnings for the second-generation Ka, which was not sold in our market.

Though it did make a cameo in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

Fiat Fullback and Mitsubishi Triton

Does Fiat develop any of its own stuff? A third mention of the brand on our list has us thinking that it could be likened to the Michael Bublé of automakers.

Interestingly, Fiat scooped Mitsubishi with its very own product, launching before the Triton did on local shores. However, it never achieved the same sales figures as its Japanese associate, performing poorly in comparison.

Production ended in 2019. There is a surplus of stock and if you visit the Fiat South Africa website you will notice interesting specials being punted.

Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ

Technically, one could debate the presence of this tie-up featuring here. Since we vowed to focus on models produced under partnerships where the parent companies were independent of each other.

Toyota owns a stake in Subaru, after all. That said, it is a 20% stake — the majority is firmly in the hands of Subaru Corporation, formerly Fuji Heavy Industries, so we can let this slide. Speaking of slide, everybody loves the drift-readiness of the Toyota 86.

Its BRZ contemporary from Subaru (and Scion FR-S twin sold in the USA) were identical. Locally, only a handful of units with the Stars of Pleiades emblem were sold. There is a greater abundance of 86 examples to be found.

Future clones: The next-generation Ford Ranger and VW Amarok pick-ups will be built on shared architecture.
Future clones: The next-generation Ford Ranger and VW Amarok pick-ups will be built on shared architecture.
Image: Supplied

Bonus round: forthcoming attractions

Last year Ford and Volkswagen announced they would be collaborating on commercial vehicle, electrification and autonomous driving projects. We will see fruits of this in the next-generation Ranger and Amarok pickups, to be built on shared architecture.

And the latest version of the Isuzu D-Max, set to be built in SA in 2020, will share its foundation with the next iteration of the Mazda BT-50.


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