July 22, 2024


Where Innovation Lives

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

4 min read


In the Eighties and Nineties, General Motors of Canada decided to try new distribution strategies for its imported cars. Like in the recent Dodge Colt series, General Motors had its own captive import cars and trucks that were manufactured by other brands. But because of dealership arrangements in Canada, GM took things a step further than Chrysler and established a separate distribution network for its imported wares. The efforts lead to the thrilling Passport and Asüna brands for the Canadian market. First up, Passport.

General Motors of Canada Limited applied for a trademark on the Passport name on June 2nd, 1987. The company’s full name was Passport International Automobiles, and it was introduced to an excited Canadian public that summer for the 1988 model year. Passport was a sort of precursor to a new brand south of the border that arrived in 1989 – Geo. Initially, Geo was not sold in Canada but we’ll talk more about that later.

The Passport lineup went a bit further than just some captive imports, however, and was even beyond the purposes of Geo: It sold an amalgamation of cars from across GM’s portfolio. Passport served as an outlet for whatever didn’t fit onto lots at the mainstream GM dealerships in Canada. There was exactly one vehicle that received Passport branding, and it was a doozy. Say hello to the Optima.

You’d know it south of the border as the Pontiac LeMans, while the rest of the world would call it various different names: 1.5i, Pointer, Runner, Racer, and later, the Cielo. The LeMans was on GM’s front-drive T-body, used generally for European offerings like the Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Astra. The Kadett E served as the basis for the LeMans. Long-lived, the T was underneath many reasonably priced cars from GM and remained in use until 2016. That year was the final one for the LeMans, as it finally went out of licensed production in China.

Though engineered by GM’s Opel arm, the LeMans and Optima for North American consumption were built in Incheon, South Korea. Unlike Optima, which was an unfamiliar name to consumers, Pontiac’s LeMans had a long history and the Korean hatchback was absolutely an affront to the badge. GM repeated this folly with the Corolla-Nova. The new Optima was available with three doors as a hatchback, four doors as a sedan, and as a five-door hatch.

And so the Optima became the one and only Passport vehicle available at the “Canada-wide Passport network” GM established, with dealers dotted across the nation (though concentrated in Downtown, Canada). It was transformed from a Daewoo to a Passport via a little Passport badge up front, and some Optima badges in the grille and at the rear. Of course, the Optima alone would not a dealership fill, so GM got a little wild with the vehicles it parked at Passport lots. The primary purpose (as there was no Geo yet) was actually the distribution of Isuzu passenger cars.

There was no Isuzu dealership network in Canada outside trucks, so the full Isuzu line appeared at Passport. The lineup was made up of the sporty i-Mark and Impulse, along with the Stylus hatchback, and SUVs in the form of the Rodeo and Trooper/II. The Pickup truck was there too. Retailed as Isuzu via your Passport dealer, none of the Isuzus had any exterior Passport badging.

A full lineup then, one Korean and several Japanese cars available at your local Passport dealer? No, not quite. Passport also distributed Saab models, given Saab had only the 900 and 9000 at the time. It’s almost hard to imagine walking into a dealership and being presented with an Isuzu Pickup next to a Saab 9000. But that was the case. Advertising seemed to focus on the Optima and Isuzu models, your author can’t find any that show Saabs.

In any event, the dealership chain’s sales were slow. There was little interest in the Optima. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data available, but it’s suggested that in 1988 there were just over 2,000 total Optimas and i-Marks sold, and 2,150 trucks and SUVs. 1989 was a bit better, with 5,087 total cars and 4,204 truck items.

There was more promising product coming too, as Saturn was about to come online. Saturns were to arrive at Passport dealers midway through the 1992 model year (Saturn’s Canadian debut), but it was not to be. In 1991 GM brought the hammer down and killed off the Passport name. Passport dealers were not closed down but were rebranded into simply named Saturn-Saab-Isuzu outlets. Perhaps GM thought customers would stop in more often if the name was more directly on the tin.

The change made the Optima an orphan as the only true Passport vehicle. So it was discontinued after 1991, and the LeMans appeared at Pontiac dealers in 1992. South of the border, the unloved Pontiac LeMans continued on sale through 1993. The LeMans would end up a single-year offering in Canada, as the little hatchback continued its identity crisis: The following year it was sold under another all-new and Canada-only GM brand called Asüna.

Created because of the interesting way GM Canada was arranged, Asüna picked up the pieces of Isuzu and shaved off some Geos to keep the dealership lines fed. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

An interesting aside: Although GM was definitely finished with the Passport trademark by 1991, it was renewed in August 2005 through August of 2020. GM Canada held the trademark through October of 2014 when it was inactivated because of non-use.

[Images: GM]

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