BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

Meet the Franken-mobiles

  • Mazda MX-5 Miata

    “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” William Shakespeare observed in The Tempest. We may think things have changed since 1610, but facts suggest otherwise.

    The automotive industry has endured its share of misery in recent years, compelling manufacturers to slash their capacities – or, in the case of the deal ratified recently by Mazda and Fiat, to share them.

    The plan calls for Mazda to build zippy two-seat roadsters for itself and Alfa Romeo, the Fiat subsidiary, at its factory in Japan, despite the fact that the cars would be direct competitors. Strange bedfellows indeed.

    The Mazda-Alfa pairing is the latest in a tradition, at times ignominious, of competitors pooling their resources to reduce development and production costs. Such collaborations risk diluting the brand images of the partners, and can be rife with intrigues to rival anything on The Tudors. But when they work, it is to the benefit of the brands and the buyers. (Mazda North America)

  • Alfa Romeo Spider

    Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, marketed outside North America simply as the MX-5, has been a favoured carving tool on the world’s back roads since going on sale in 1989. For its part, Alfa Romeo captured hearts with its Spider in different iterations from its 1966 debut until its 1993 demise – hastened in part by the Miata’s arrival. Baby Boomers will eternally link the Spider with Dustin Hoffman’s desperate drive to the church in The Graduate.

    The cars, built at a Mazda plant in Japan, will wear distinct bodywork and the Alfa will carry an Italian engine. Why would competitors do this? Simply, companies benefit from a factory running at its capacity, something no contemporary roadster has been able to accomplish on its own. (Fiat Group)

  • Subaru BRZ

    A contemporary paragon of this kind of relationship is the Subaru BRZ. Co-developed with Toyota, the rear-drive sports coupe has its doppelganger in the US as the Scion FR-S.

    The coupes are virtually identical but for the badging and some inexpensive plastic parts. But since Subaru was cast adrift from its partnership with General Motors during that company’s bankruptcy, the Japanese automaker has been aligned with Toyota, which bought a stake in Subaru’s parent, Fuji Heavy Industries. Their collaboration consequently is to the benefit of both companies’ bottom lines. (Subaru of America)

  • Chrysler Crossfire

    For a decade, Chrysler functioned as a subsidiary of Daimler, the German parent of Mercedes-Benz. Daimler executives condoned the transformation of the Mercedes SLK sports coupe and roadster into the Chrysler Crossfire. The cars had distinctive bodywork, so there was no confusion between them, and Mercedes moved on to a newer version of the SLK to claim an advantage. (Chrysler Group)

  • Ford Probe

    Before its recent divestiture, Ford did not own Mazda outright, but it did hold a controlling interest in the Japanese brand. So when Ford built Mazda MX-6 sport coupes alongside its own Ford Probe coupe at its Flat Rock, Michigan, plant in the 1990s, it was a plan that made sense. The companies shared a Mazda chassis and powertrain, and each car received its own handsome bodywork. (Ford Motor)

  • Honda Passport

    On occasion, though, misery does arrange strange bedfellows. When philosophical intransigence at Honda left the company missing the sport-utility boom of the 1990s, Honda quite literally bought a piece of the action by purchasing and rebranding Isuzu Rodeos. The resulting Honda Passports bore little change other than the “H” glued to the grille. (American Honda)

  • Toyota Matrix

    Toyota and General Motors fight fiercely for global market-share leadership, but when Toyota wanted to start building cars in the US, the company decided to do so in partnership with an established company. The result was US-assembled Corollas for Toyota, and a Chevrolet-badged Nova (and also the short-lived Geo Prism). Later, GM dropped the sedans, and Toyota added compact station wagons to the plant, sold in the form of the indistinguishable Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe. (Toyota Motor Sales)

  • Volkswagen Routan

    Sometimes these deals resulted not from corporate relationships but personal ones. When former DaimlerChrysler executive Wolfgang Bernhard landed at Volkswagen, he used his old Chrysler connections to sell VW on the idea of rebranding Chrysler minivans for the US market. VW continues to sell the Routan, a reskinned version of the Chrysler Town & Country. (Volkswagen of America)

  • Chrysler TC by Maserati

    Arguably the most star-crossed collaboration of the bunch also stemmed from a personal relationship, when then-Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca bought a stake in Maserati, then owned by his friend Alejandro De Tomaso (he of Pantera fame).

    The Chrysler TC by Maserati did not look bad per se, but it did look awfully like Chrysler’s own LeBaron. And both cars were powered by variations of the same Chrysler-sourced, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. The Maserati, however, cost more than $30,000 – significantly more than the LeBaron. And surely, its removable hardtop leaked more than that of the homegrown LeBaron.

    As for the Tudors-like intrigues, Chrysler was later gobbled up by Daimler, and then in 2010 by Fiat, the parent of Maserati. Hoping for a more respectable, lucrative outcome, Chrysler will build a Maserati SUV derived from the Jeep Grand Cherokee at its plant in Detroit. It is built on a chassis design related to that of the Mercedes-Benz ML SUV, an artifact of Daimler’s previous ownership of Chrysler.

    Perhaps the bedfellows seem less strange after a couple decades of acquaintance. (Chrysler Group)