General Motors’ Passport and Asüna, Total Brand Confusion (Part II)


We started our coverage of GM’s Eighties and Nineties branding adventures last week, with the short-lived experiment that was Passport. The dealership network was an amalgamation of GM-owned or influenced brands from Japan, Sweden, and in the case of the Passport Optima, South Korea. Passport lasted from 1987 through 1991 before GM changed directions. In addition to axing an unsuccessful sales channel, Geo and Saturn cars had arrived during Passport’s tenure and made things more complicated. Let’s learn some more about GM’s Canadian dealership networks.

Aside from the aforementioned Passport dealers that became Saturn-Isuzu-Saab outlets during 1991, there were two main GM distribution networks that spanned the far reaches of the nation from Downtown Canada to other places that probably included Regina and Vancouver. Grouped together were Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac as one distribution, and Pontiac, Buick, and GMC as the other. These two main networks were supported by the new Saturn-Isuzu-Saab setup that sought to capture more “import” buyer business (a concept with which GM was obsessed from 1984 through roughly 2003).

While Pontiac dealers were gifted the orphan formerly known as the Passport LeMans in 1992, Chevrolet dealers sold the various Suzuki products (like the Spectrum) GM badged with a bowtie in the middle of the Eighties. That trend continued in 1989 when by default the cars sold as Geos in the United States were marketed as Chevrolet in Canada.

Geo was not introduced to Canada until 1992, but the Geo-cum-Chevrolets were pretty popular when they arrived at the end of the decade. That didn’t make the folks at Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealers too happy since the only Geo available to them was the Tracker, badged as a GMC. Dealers petitioned GM to cut them in on the action, and that lead to the creation of a new brand: Asüna.

GM filed for its declaration of use in Canada on May 20th, 1990, even before the official termination of its Passport. The brand itself was officially founded on April 12th, 1992. Asüna provided much promise to the sales staff at Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealers, who desperately wanted some of the small product Geo offered.

Let us remind ourselves that the GM lineup consisted of four total vehicles in 1993: Metro, Prizm (second-gen), Storm, and Tracker. The Prizm was the only vehicle in its second generation guise, as the others were still in original Eighties format. It was from this basis that Asüna constructed its small lineup.

The most promising offering in the new brand’s lineup was the Asüna version of the Tracker, the Sunrunner. The Tracker was available at Chevrolet dealerships across Canada in 1989 in its standard guises (hardtop, convertible, and five-door). Tracker remained under its Chevrolet banner until 1992 when it was renamed Geo Tracker but curiously kept its gold bowtie logos. In fact, the Geo Tracker in Canada always wore a Chevrolet badge, through the end of its first-generation production in 1998.

GMC had their own version of the Tracker, badged as such from 1989. There were limited differences other than badging, but CL in Chevrolet speak became the SLE trim at GMC dealers. 1991 was the final year for the GMC Tracker, as, unlike the Chevrolet version that was renamed Geo, its transformation into the Asüna Sunrunner included new badging.

The Sunrunner was the first Asüna available when it arrived for 1992. Underneath it was the Suzuki Vitara, often called the Escudo in other markets. Geo’s most recognizable model, the Tracker’s first generation ran from 1989 to 1998, at which point it switched to the second generation that was sold from 1999 through 2004. The Tracker outlived GM’s interest in special Geo branding and existed for the second half of its life as a Chevrolet.

Serving as the only Asüna vehicle that nobody actually wanted was GM Canada’s favorite orphan, the LeMans. After a single year as a Pontiac in 1992, 1993 saw the LeMans facelifted and turned into the Asüna SE and GT. The only difference in the new version was a new front clip and very slightly revised taillamps. It arrived a year after the Sunrunner was on dealer lots. The facelifted LeMans was never sold in the United States, and its tenure at Asüna proved very short: 1993 was its only year. We discussed the history of the LeMans plenty in our last entry.

The third and final Asüna was the sportiest of the group, the Sunfire. Typically associated today with Pontiac, the Sunfire name was first applied to the Geo Storm to make it an Asüna. The Storm had been restricted from Canada, as the second-generation model was not imported as an Isuzu or a Geo in 1992. Asüna customers received the Sunfire only as a hatchback – the seldom-selected wagon version was off-limits.

The Sunfire and Storm were rebadges on the second generation of the Isuzu Impulse, or Piazza if you prefer. Though it was much more modern than its predecessor, the second generation lost a lot of its heart and soul. It was not designed by Giugiaro, it wasn’t rear-drive, and it didn’t last very long. Due to slow sales globally, Isuzu canceled the Impulse after just four model years. The Storm was not replaced in the Geo lineup, and it was the one and only time the brand had a sports compact on offer.

Though Geo sales continued in the US and Canada, Asüna was not so fortunate. The familiarity of the Canadian consumer with imported cars at Chevrolet dealers was too great for the good folks at the Pontiac dealer across the street to overcome. It didn’t help that the affordable and higher volume Metro and Prizm were not allowed to copy over to Asüna.

The only car to make it out of Asüna alive was the Sunrunner, which drove over to Pontiac showrooms in 1994. That year, GM allowed Pontiac dealers access to another Geo, the Metro. For Pontiac usage, Metro was rebranded and sold as the cheesy Firefly. The Pontiac Sunfire returned in 1995 as a redesigned J-body.

Unlike the Passport trademark that GM retained and renewed for some time, Asüna received much less attention. After its registration, it was never renewed. The Canadian government notified GM in February 2008 that the trademark was about to expire, but The General didn’t respond. Asüna was expunged from active status on September 18, 2008. Thus concludes the Passport and Asüna tale. Seven total years of brand experimentation that almost nobody remembers makes for perfect Abandoned History.

[Images: GM]

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