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Face/Off! The Toyota, Suzuki, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Ford and other new cars hiding their true identities, why they exist and will we see them in Australia?

Sometimes, carmakers fill market gaps or dodge high-emissions fines by rebadging other brands' models, especially in Europe.

Badge-engineered cars. It’s been happening almost as long as the industry itself.

Some pull off the disguise so convincingly you’d never know their true identities, like John Travolta’s face-switcheroo with Nicolas Cage in 1997’s immensely silly/fun Face/Off.

Others, meanwhile, are about as convincing as donning a Groucho Marx nose and glasses or, worse still, just wearing a pair of specs like Superman’s Clark Kent or Diana Prince in Wonder Woman – though at least her hair was up too. Oh, the subterfuge.

Why do carmakers do it? Mainly to fill gaps in their ranges, or as a quick and easy way of lowering their carbon emissions average to help avoid heavy penalties in markets with far stricter pollution laws than Australia.

For whatever reason, what these vehicles have in common is that they are rebranded versions of models currently, about to or may someday be sold here (as well as one dropped years ago).

So, next time you’re sightseeing in some far-off land, don’t be too surprised if there’s something strongly familiar about certain foreign-branded cars you come across.

Toyota Urban Cruiser Taisor/Suzuki Fronx

For some time now, Suzuki has been supplying Toyota with a couple of models made in India by subsidiary Maruti, taking advantage of lower production costs to bolster the brand’s offerings at the lower-end of the market.

That includes the Glanza/Starlet hatchback, which is a rebadged Suzuki Baleno launched earlier this decade elsewhere.

For 2024, we’re expecting the Urban Cruiser Taisor, which sounds more like a shocking police weapon, but is actually the coming Suzuki Fronx small crossover, allegedly wearing a different nose cone and a few other minor trim changes – the extent of remaining unknown at the time of writing.

Will Australians be abuzz with Toyota Taisor fever? Unlikely, as many of these Maruti-based specials are deliberately de-specified to keep prices low, so miss the driver-assist tech essential for avoiding the dreaded ANCAP zero-star rating.

3/10 disguise level: Diana Prince

Ford Explorer/VW iD.4

The iD.4 will eventually lob in Australia sometime in 2024, but in the meantime, Ford in Europe has borrowed its advanced architecture and basic body structure to create the altogether totally electric Explorer EV.

As in, using the same badge as found on the completely-unrelated three-row large SUV the company builds in North America to compete against the Toyota Kluger. Were there no other names?

At least Ford’s creative energy was channelled elsewhere, particularly in differentiating the exterior and interior from the VW mother car, with very pleasing – and some even say more attractive – results. Look out, Tesla Model Y!

This is an example of Ford boosting its low-carbon credits in the EU as that part of the world hurtles towards full electrification next decade. And unlike the ID.4 original, Australia doesn’t figure in the Explorer EV’s plans. Pity.

10/10 disguise level: John Travolta

Mitsubishi EU ASX/Renault Captur

History will credit the 2010 ASX that is still with us largely unaltered today save for a more-shovelled out nose as a small SUV trailblazer, paving the way for subsequent rivals like the Mazda CX-3 and MG ZS.

But no matter how neatly styled and packaged it is, a 14-year-old crossover based on the long-gone CJ Lancer of 2007 won’t do for emissions-slashing Euro buyers, so in came the EU ASX last year.

Of course, even a cursory glance will reveal how little it’s changed from the donor Renault Captur, one of the most underrated light SUVs in Australia, catapulting this Mitsu to the forefront of its class.

Will we see the French ASX in Australia? Maybe. Watch this space.

2/10 disguise level: Clark Kent

Mazda2 Hybrid/Toyota Yaris

Just as the Euro ASX is a rebadged Renault Captur to help boost Mitsubishi’s emissions standards in Europe, that region’s Mazda2 Hybrid is a badge-engineered version of the fine and feisty fourth-gen Toyota Yaris launched globally in 2020.

It sells alongside the DJ Mazda2 petrol model we see in Australia, which is about to celebrate its 10th birthday.

But as our federal government seems oblivious to mandating a carbon-reducing strategy for our automotive industry, there’s no need for a Yaris Hybrid-by-another-name here.

1/10 disguise level: Clark Kent but without his thick glasses on

Mazda Bongo Brawny/Toyota HiAce (H200)

Remember the previous-shape Toyota HiAce, sold in Australia from the mid-2000s to 2019?

After the bluff boxiness of the current H300 short-bonnet series, some people might get misty-eyed for the old-fashioned, forward-control van engineering formula that has kept chiropractors in business for decades.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that the old H200 from 2004 is still available in Japan – and not only as a HiAce but also as the Mazda Bongo Brawny. Now, there’s a name from the ‘70s!

Mazda no longer makes its own commercial vehicles, despite doing a brisk trade here in them back in the ‘80s while supplying Ford with Couriers, Econovans and Traders, but it’s never not had a presence in this corner of the market in Japan. The shock is that today’s far-better H300 HiAce isn’t rebadged. Maybe it’s to keep prices down.

Let’s hope the 2024 Bongo Brawny never makes it Down Under.

0.5/10 disguise level: Diana Prince ditching her glasses for contact lenses

Suzuki Across/Toyota RAV4

Another EU-only exercise to keep the tax collectors away from Suzuki’s door.

This time we’re talking about a Toyota RAV4 plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), rebadged as a Suzuki Across, but with the added bonus of slimmer headlights and a rounded grille similar to those found on the Chinese-market Toyota Wildlander version.

See also: Suzuki Swace, a badge-engineered Toyota Corolla.

4/10 disguise level: John Travolta, but as his Pulp Fiction character

Dodge Hornet/Alfa Romeo Tonale

One of the world’s most striking small SUVs, the Alfa Romeo Tonale could sell on looks alone.

For North America, overlords Stellantis has decreed a Dodge version, but minus the Milanese model’s visual allure. This means that it has lost most of the Italian crossover’s daring nose and tail-light detailing, making the resulting Dodge Hornet appear like a watered-down version you might rent at a busy airport.

8.0/10 disguise level: Nicholas Cage, though later in life, compared to the Tonale’s Saturday Night Fever-era Travolta

Mitsuoka M55 Concept/Honda Civic

OK, not strictly a production car, but zany retro-classics specialists Mitsuoka – who also offer a RAV4 with a ‘70s chrome-laden Dodge-truck-style reverse-slant nose cone and matching tailgate for lucky Japanese consumers – is celebrating its 55th anniversary with the aptly-badged M55 Concept.

No, it is not a ‘60s Dodge Challenger or a ‘70s Mitsubishi Galant GTO, but a homage to both, seamlessly crafted on one of our favourite new cars today, the Honda Civic hatchback. Genius.

Please build (and export) this post-modern masterpiece, Mitsuoka.

20/10 disguise level: Superman (Christopher Reeve era)

Byron Mathioudakis
Contributing Journalist
Byron started his motoring journalism career when he joined John Mellor in 1997 before becoming a freelance motoring writer two years later. He wrote for several motoring publications and was ABC...
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