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Gone without a Trace: These Are the Forgotten SUVs

By: · May 3, 2016

-The SUV would seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon, and for the most part it is. Although the genre can trace its roots back to the World War II Jeep, the vehicles didn’t really explode in popularity until the 1990s. Even with that relatively short history, however, there are a surprising number of models that have slipped under the waves and already have been largely forgotten. How many of these SUVs do you remember?-Lots of automakers take the lazy route when they want to get to market fast. When the SUV segment took off in the 1990s, Acura—with no truck from which to quickly develop a sport-ute of its own—licensed the second-generation Isuzu Trooper to create the SLX. The SLX featured such luxury trappings as heated leather seats, an oversize sunroof, and an unusual digital compass with an altimeter, barometer, and thermometer. Acura advertised the SLX like a Range Rover, with the grandiose suggestion that owners drive it “from an African safari all the way to the most exclusive restaurant.”-The nearly 2.5-ton SLX was dogged by a 3.2-liter V-6 that mustered only 190 horsepower, and a later upgrade to a 215-hp 3.5-liter V-6 didn’t help much. While shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive and a low-range transfer case made the SLX a credible off-roader, the soft suspension tune delivered lousy handling. Consumer Reports blacklisted the SLX for its first two model years after the almost-identical Isuzu Trooper nearly rolled in a lane-change test. Isuzu later sued Consumers Union for damages and lost in 2000, but by then the SLX was dead. (The Trooper bowed out two years later.) Acura had moved on, rolling out the MDX for 2001. Built off the Honda Odyssey platform, the MDX would become the brand’s bestselling model. —Clifford Atiyeh-We remain as puzzled today by the BMW X6 coupe/crossover’s purpose as we were when it first made its debut for 2008. Here is an SUV made to be less practical, more expensive than its X5 chassis donor, and utterly bizarre-looking. Yet it somehow emerged as a successful product despite being born into the U.S. economic recession and fuel-price spike. Lately, the X6 has spawned the smaller BMW X4 and drawn Mercedes-Benz into the game with the GLE and GLC “coupes.” And yet, back in 2009, Acura was actually the first manufacturer to follow BMW down the curious tall-coupe/SUV pathway with the ZDX. The X6 still roams among us, but where did the ZDX end up?-Acura tossed the ZDX back into whatever origami fever dream inspired it in the first place in 2013, after selling just under 5600 during a four-year production run. What doomed Acura’s weird ZDX that didn’t hit the equally strange BMW? The hardware certainly was up to par, with a 300-hp V-6, torque-vectoring “Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive,” and an agile chassis. And the styling? Well, it caught people’s attention. In our  2009 review, we found the ZDX to be “endearingly weird.” Maybe the ZDX needed more power, with a version akin to the X6 M, or maybe it was so out there that Acura’s typical buyers were left dumbstruck in dealerships. We almost feel for the Honda executives who green-lighted this one—they must still be losing sleep over the X6’s curious staying power. —Alexander Stoklosa-Created from the vastly more popular Dodge Durango, the Chrysler Aspen enjoyed a short, stealthy run from 2007 to 2009. The nameplate was conjured up to give Chrysler dealers a “luxury” SUV to pitch as an alternative to the Cadillac Escalade and the Lincoln Navigator, but it never got a foothold in the marketplace. Despite the Aspen retailing for thousands less than its competitors, the Escalade and Navigator crowd paid little attention, and savvy Mopar fans found it more prudent to simply drive a well-equipped and arguably more cohesively styled Durango than to go with the Aspen’s half-baked “elegant SUV” theme.-Curiously, about a year into the Aspen’s run, Chrysler decided to produce a run of Aspen (and Durango) hybrids. Using hybrid powertrain technology co-developed with General Motors, Daimler, and BMW, Chrysler relied on its Hemi V-8 for the internal-combustion portion of the program and a pair of electric motors for the electrical accompaniment. We drove a pair of the hybrids in 2008, but before we could strap our test gear to them, Chrysler announced the hybrid SUVs were going out of production. Just 800 units total were ever produced, making the Aspen hybrid an SUV most people never even knew about in the first place. —Andrew Wendler-Launched in the U.S. as a 1988 model, the Daihatsu Rocky arrived on our shores just as SUV mania was starting to ramp up. Unfortunately for the pint-size Rocky, American tastes leaned toward larger vehicles such as the four-door Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and Ford’s Explorer and, later, Expedition, while fun-in-the-sun types preferred the iconic Jeep Wrangler. That the name “Daihatsu Rocky” sounded more like one of those designer-breed lap dogs so popular with Hollywood celebs and Russian oligarchs probably didn’t help matters. (At least it didn't imply deception, like its sole stablemate, the “Charade.”)-The two-door Rocky was available in hardtop or softtop configuration. It relied on an inline-four and a five-speed manual for motivation; with 94 horsepower on tap, the Rocky’s 1.6-liter engine easily outmuscled the 66 ponies offered by the Suzuki Samurai, another two-door ute with a similar footprint and mission. Despite its heritage as one of Japan’s oldest automakers and a significant investment from Toyota, Daihatsu had a short-lived presence in the U.S. market. The brand disappeared in 1992 after a four-year run. For a clue as to why, we have this from C/D’s John Phillips, who reported that the Rocky was “one of the few cars apparently capable of simultaneously summoning dive, squat, yaw, understeer, oversteer, a trade deficit, acid reflux, impotence, and a military coup in Ecuador.” —Andrew Wendler-Conceived during a dark period of GM’s not-so-distant past—where, inside the company, it seemed that the excellence of the PowerPoint pitch was more valued than that of the resulting vehicle—the GMC Envoy XUV launched for the 2004 model year in an attempt to combine the best attributes of an SUV and a pickup. Based on the already ungainly long-wheelbase Envoy XL, the XUV added nearly 200 pounds of weight, much of it up high in its accordion retractable-roof mechanism that facilitated transport of tall items. This additional mass not only further taxed the 275-hp 4.2-liter inline-six or optional 290-hp 5.3-liter V-8, it significantly eroded what was left of the already sad dynamic characteristics of the Envoy XL. The XUV’s cargo hold was a rugged, pickup-truck-like plastic, with a center partition that sealed it off from the two rows of seats.-Bob Lutz, then GM's head of product development, said engineering the XUV created myriad issues including “sensor reliability, motor sequencing, lubrication, durability, water leaks, redesigns, and cost overruns.” Lutz had attempted to kill the program before it began, but GM’s PowerPoint types swayed him with sales promises of 90,000 per year. However, the XUV was forgotten before it was even gone, with a grand total of only 13,000 sold before it was dropped after just two years. It turns out there wasn’t a great unmet need to regularly haul grandfather clocks or pipe organs. —Dave VanderWerp-1995 Honda Passport EX-A second generation bowed in 1997; Honda took a pass on Isuzu’s odd-duck Amigo variant, sticking with the four-door. It also decided everyone should get the V-6, now rated at 205 horsepower. Honda finally generated its own SUV, the Pilot, for 2003, using the platform underpinning the Odyssey minivan and the Acura MDX. (Acura's SLX of the 1990s, another forgotten SUV on our list, was a rebadged Isuzu Trooper.) Try as it might to forget this episode, Honda got one final reminder in 2010 when NHTSA issued a recall covering both the Rodeo and the Passport. The frames were rusting. —Kevin A. Wilson-You might think a company that was one of the first to market with a full-size three-row SUV—a vehicle type that has proved to be wildly popular and immensely profitable—would be highly successful. The International Travelall was successful, for a time. Introduced in 1953 and based on International’s full-size pickup, the Travelall was similar in concept to the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban and came with two or, optionally, three bench seats. Four-wheel drive was optional starting in 1956 (a year ahead of the Suburban). Early Travelalls had two doors, but a passenger's-side rear door was added for 1958—making a total of three. The Travelall went to four doors with its 1961 redesign, more than a decade ahead of the Suburban. The vehicle underwent its final redesign in 1969. That version saw the Travelall adopt such features as wood-grain siding, a vinyl top, and button-tufted seats—the luxury cues of its day.-Unfortunately, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the resulting gasoline shortage struck a fatal blow to the Travelall with its single-digit fuel economy (available dual fuel tanks did little to ease the pain). Whereas the Suburban, backed by giant General Motors, would weather the fuel crisis, the Travelall did not. International Harvester dealers weren’t exactly on every corner, and the company was better known for big trucks and farm equipment—its other light-duty vehicles being its pickup truck and the smaller Scout SUV. The Travelall (and the pickup on which it was based) lived only through 1975. Although the Travelall could be considered the proto-Escalade, this pioneering SUV never lived to see the SUV boom.—Joe Lorio-It’s your bro, bro! Isuzu’s Amigo was launched for 1990 with a brilliant ad paying homage to Slinky’s memorable campaign from the 1970s. And that was basically this forgotten ute’s zenith. It’s a bit of a shame, too, as the cut-down Rodeo offered butch, short-wheelbase softtop looks. Think downsized Chevrolet K5 Blazer, minus the full al fresco driving experience. At launch, the Amigo offered a choice of 2.3-liter and 2.6-liter four-cylinders; it took a sales break between 1995 and 1997 and returned for 1998 offering either a 2.2-liter four or a 3.2-liter V-6 until it departed our showrooms after the 2000 model year.-Whereas its four-door sibling, the Rodeo, lent itself to Honda dealers, who sold it under the “Passport” name, the Amigo remained the sole province of your local Isuzu store. Later, it would be seen outside assorted Autozones with its softtop discolored and shredded by the elements, the checked sail-panel decal reminding you that the little rascal was still your friend. —Davey G. Johnson-2002-isuzu-axiom--The concept that inspired the Axiom (pictured above)  had been futuristic enough to earn a spot in the 2001 movie Spy Kids as Antonio Banderas’s vehicle of choice, but the production model that arrived in 2002 didn’t leave even that much of a legacy. Its trucklike driving dynamics and dismal fuel economy did little to convince Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot shoppers to defect to Isuzu, and, after two years of slow sales, the Axiom was discontinued. Just a few years later, in 2009, Isuzu’s light-duty truck and SUV business exited the U.S. market altogether. —Joseph Capparella-In an October 2001 article covering the changes in Isuzu’s lineup, we noted tersely, “The freakish VehiCROSS has been laid to rest.” With fewer than 5000 examples sold over the model’s U.S. run from 1999 to 2001, it’s hard to call the two-door space runabout ute any sort of success, although the low-cost ceramic dies that Isuzu used for the body stampings were only good for about that many impressions anyway. One has to think, however, that if the machines had flown off the lots like wasabi-pea hotcakes, Isuzu would’ve invested in more-robust stamping equipment. Regardless of the reasons for its short life, the VehiCROSS has become a bit of a cult machine in the ensuing 15 years.-Unlike modern crossovers, which marry ute-tough looks with pedestrian automobile underpinnings, the VehiCROSS carried its interstellar-mongoloid body atop a legit full-frame chassis borrowed from the Trooper. Its 3.5-liter V-6 also came from the Trooper; it made 215 horsepower and 230 lb-ft of torque, respectable numbers for the era. An Ironman edition was offered at launch, which regrettably paid no tribute to Tonys, whether Iommi or Stark. Instead, it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the triathlon that sold a zillion Timexes. On the West Coast, anyway, one might still spot one or two VehiCROSSes a year driven by odd-car zealots dedicated to an orphan brand’s strangest child. —Davey G. Johnson-Jeepster SUV Jeep-The Commando, however, was reborn in 1967, when Jeep was owned by Kaiser. The new body was a mild rework of the original two-door design, sitting atop proper Jeep 4x4 drivetrain bits aft of the CJ-5’s 75-hp Hurricane four-cylinder or, optionally, the 160-hp Dauntless V-6 that Kaiser bought from Buick. In addition to the phaeton, it was offered as a convertible (with door windows), a station wagon, or a pickup truck (pictured). All four models were the same up to the beltline, with transferable caps atop the body that defined the model. If you acquired more than one, you could swap among the body styles at whim. AMC acquired Jeep in 1970 and kept the Commando around through 1973, repowering it with AMC’s own inline-six engines in 232-cubic-inch and 258-cubic-inch displacements, rated at 100 and 110 horsepower. Then some genius tossed in an optional 150-hp 304-cubic-inch V-8. The big six and the V-8 offered a Hydra-Matic TH400 three-speed automatic. When wearing the “station wagon” hat and with the right off-road-worthy four-by-four powertrain, the final Commando was an SUV. Sort of. —Kevin A. Wilson-Kia’s mega-size KCD-II Mesa sport-utility concept made its debut at the 2005 Detroit auto show, during the peak of the big-SUV boom. But the production model that eventually followed that concept, the Kia Borrego, was decidedly out of sync with the times when it arrived three years later, in 2008, as a 2009 model. Gas prices were high, the recession had set in, and few people were looking to buy a thirsty three-row, trucklike SUV—least of all from Kia.-Beyond its questionable timing, the Borrego’s execution was also lacking. Yes, it was cheaper than contemporary competitors such as the Toyota 4Runner and the Nissan Pathfinder, but you paid the price with its harsh ride, lazy throttle response, and loosey-goosey structure. Rear-wheel drive and a 3.8-liter V-6 came standard, with four-wheel drive and the 4.6-liter V-8 from the Genesis luxury sedan available as options; neither combination provided strong performance or anything better than 18 mpg combined on the EPA test cycle. After sales came in sharply below Kia’s forecasts, the Borrego was dropped from the lineup during the 2010 model year.  —Joseph Capparella-When the two-door Land Rover Freelander SE3 made its debut in 2003, we wrapped up our initial review  with this takeaway: “The SE3 offers an open-air alternative to would-be Freelander owners along with the usual upscale trappings of a Land Rover. That ought to be enough, don’t you think?” It wasn’t enough, apparently. Maybe it was because nobody wanted to spend the time removing the rear roof section and sunroof panels at home, only to be caught without them in a sudden rainstorm. (There was no onboard storage for the removable roof bits, although a tentlike softtop could be brought along and erected in an emergency.) Or maybe it was because the Jeep Wrangler was cheaper and a better off-roader. Whatever the reason, the SE3 faded from public consciousness almost immediately after it was introduced.-2003-land-rover-freelander-Deserving of more than its short three-year run, the Aviator was one of those rare badge-engineering episodes that involved more engineering than badging. Ford’s Explorer had been riding the top of the SUV sales charts for more than a decade before Dearborn decided that, heck, if people were willing to drop $40,000 on a top-spec Explorer Eddie Bauer, maybe there was upside for a luxury version even beyond the chrome-buttered Mercury Mountaineer it was already selling.-Downsizing the exterior styling cues and interior decor from the profit-making machine that was the Navigator, Lincoln’s Explorer variant actually went much further than that and delivered a luxury driving experience. Out came the Explorer’s 239-hp V-8, and in went the 302-hp DOHC aluminum-block 4.6-liter V-8 shared with nothing less than the Mustang Mach I. An optional drivetrain upgrade gave Aviator buyers a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system with a viscous limited-slip center differential to distribute the torque with a 65 percent rear bias. Lincoln also got lighter but stronger cast-aluminum front lower control arms in place of the stamped-steel Explorer/Mountaineer units and different spring rates with better dampers. Lincoln’s  engineers also pitched the Explorer’s steering gear, ordered their own unit from ZF, and convinced the beancounters that their luxury-grade vehicle merited Michelin Pilot tires on 17-inch aluminum wheels. For less than  $50,000, it all added up to a much more refined and sophisticated machine, as our road test revealed. Nonetheless, the model was dropped after 2005. The idea of re-engineering an Explorer for Lincoln, however, would seem to still have merit. Here’s hoping that the re-engineering is at least as extensive next time.  —Kevin A. Wilson-Mazda Navajo, 1991-1994-Mazda Navajo, 1991-1994-Aimed at the heart of the domestic SUV market, the Mitsubishi Endeavor was the automaker’s first SUV designed specifically for the U.S. market. Unlike the imported SUVs Mitsubishi had been selling here for more than a decade, the Endeavor was an entirely domestic affair. It was designed in California and assembled at Mitsubishi’s facility in the Illinois town of Normal, although the completed vehicle’s styling was anything but. Built on a front-wheel-drive platform that would later underpin additional Mitsubishi products, the Endeavor arrived for 2003 packing a 215-hp V-6 and a four-speed automatic transmission.-Landing within two inches of the overall length and width of the Honda Pilot and even closer to the dimensions of the Ford Explorer, the Endeavor offered a uniquely styled alternative to both. But despite seemingly hitting all the marks required for success, Mitsubishi sold fewer than 33,000 Endeavors in its first model year. Five years later, sales had sunk below 6000 units. As we noted during a 2003 comparison test, the Endeavor was “a cool vehicle in many ways, but not a very good package.”  A mild refresh arrived for 2011, but Mitsubishi flew the white flag in defeat at the end of the model year. —Andrew Wendler-74 Plymouth Trail Duster-Plymouth Trail Duster, 1974–1981-By time the Pontiac Torrent—an urgently named doppelgänger for the Chevrolet Equinox—came along in 2005, Pontiac had already been badge-engineered into hopeless mediocrity, waiting only for the cool hand of President Obama’s “car czar,” Steven Rattner, to put it out of its misery. The onetime “excitement” division was suffering as consumers flocked to SUVs while an ocean of Grand Ams and G6s surrounded its own dealerships. The General had given Pontiac one SUV—the Aztek, which was memorable for all the wrong reasons—back in 2000, but the division clearly needed something more mainstream.-The answer, once again, was to slap a twin-port grille on a Chevrolet and kick it out the door posthaste. A minimally restyled Chevrolet Equinox, the Torrent came with a 185-hp 3.4-liter V-6 driving the front wheels or all four. An even more obscure GXP version arrived for 2008, with a 3.6-liter engine that bristled with 264 horsepower, along with a stiffer suspension and the inevitable front and rear styling tweaks. The Torrent may not have been the worst badge-engineered Pontiac, but it was one of the most forgettable. —Joe Lorio-If Suzuki X-90s cost 300 bucks—and they should cost 300 bucks—we know plenty of nerds who would own them as curios and wouldn’t feel terribly bad pushing them off a cliff once their curiosity was satisfied. Perhaps most memorable as Red Bull’s main promotional vehicle when the Austrian company launched its beverage in the States, the X-90 maintains a (small) following of loyal aficionados to this day. But for most people, it’s long forgotten.-As a two-seat, targa-topped four-wheel-drive vehicle from a manufacturer that no longer peddles its automotive wares in the United States, this thing has “cult vehicle” written all over it. It also has a mere 95 horsepower to move it down the road, courtesy of a 1.6-liter four-banger, and a wheelbase shorter than a first-generation Mazda Miata’s. Thankfully, its spirit lives on in other questionable open-topped SUVs, such as the recently departed Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet and the freshly introduced Range Rover Evoque convertible. Manufacturers want to build these things, but with U.S. sales of 8000 over three model years, it seems crazy that any manufacturer has bothered to follow in the little Suzuki’s footsteps. —Davey G. Johnson-When it comes to deeming a car “forgotten,” a short, unimpressive production run certainly helps. And being born to a now-departed brand doesn’t hurt, either. The second-generation Suzuki XL7 had both of those mind-erasing characteristics. (Yes, there was a first-gen version, a stretched Grand Vitara that had a hyphen in its name.) Sold during the 2007 through 2009 model years, the XL7 was one of many product tie-ups between General Motors and Suzuki. As such, it was based on the Theta platform of crossovers that also underpinned the original Chevrolet Equinox and another forgotten SUV, the Pontiac Torrent. The Suzuki version was set apart mostly by a heinous front-end treatment with headlights that appeared to be weeping and by a third-row seat; it was the only Theta so equipped.-Given its similarities to the popular Chevy Equinox, at least in terms of interior space and general performance, the XL7 had a better shot at success than the average Suzuki. And the automaker did manage to sell 22,000 of them during each of its first two model years. By the third year, however, it appears as though the supply of buyers willing to take a shot on a Suzuki crossover had dried up, and only 4355 found new homes before the XL7 was canceled. Three years after that, in 2012, the Suzuki brand itself pulled out of our market. By then, the automaker’s sales here had slid from their peak of 102,000 in 2007, the year the second-gen XL7 was introduced, to roughly 20,000.  —Alexander Stoklosa-With crossovers as popular as they are now, it’s hard to think back to the time when car-based SUVs were a novelty. The Toyota RAV4 was the first true compact crossover to make waves in the U.S. market, and its success inspired countless automakers to follow its lead. But while the four-door version of the RAV4 has endured through multiple generations and remains one of the bestselling examples of the breed, the stubby two-door hardtop and convertible versions didn’t catch on as convincingly.-The convertible, officially called the RAV4 Soft Top, was introduced in 1998 as part of the first-gen RAV’s mid-cycle refresh. It took inspiration from other 1990s folding-roof entries such as the Isuzu Amigo and the Suzuki Sidekick. With a fabric top that folded back from the B-pillar, it wasn’t a full open-top SUV like the Jeep Wrangler, but it still offered plenty of beachy fun. Its warm-weather appeal wasn’t enough to make for strong sales, and no one was shocked when Toyota chose not to bring back the droptop for the second-generation RAV4.—Joseph Capparella

                                          

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