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5 Domestic Cars You Didn't Know Were European

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author photo by Aaron Gold October 2016

Nowadays, global cooperation is the buzzword in America. Many of Ford's vehicles are designed largely in Europe, and several of General Motors' Opels come to the U.S. as Buicks. There was a time, however, when American automakers maintained separate designs for the U.S. and Europe, and we Americans always pined for those European cars -- but when we did get them, we usually didn't like them much. Here are five examples.

Mercury Cougar

Mercury Cougar (1999-2002)

The Cougar had everything that made European cars so appealing to Americans: cool sheet metal, a cutting-edge interior and great driving dynamics. Even the name was the same -- this car was sold in Europe as the Ford Cougar, Ford having wisely decided to drop the name Probe. Europeans loved it, but Americans said, "Meh." Although when one considers the age of Mercury's buyer base, it was more likely they said, "Feh!" Perhaps if the Cougar had been marketed in the U.S. as a Ford, its fortunes would have been more favorable.

Chevrolet Chevette

Chevrolet Chevette (1976-1987)

Although it was conceived in the United States, the Chevrolet Chevette was designed as a world car, with variants planned for several global markets. Before the Chevette made its U.S. debut, a version of it went on sale in Europe as the Opel Kadett, soon followed by a British version called Vauxhall Chevette. The rear-wheel-drive Chevy Chevette was dreadfully slow, terrible in the snow and had all the refinement of a clapped-out tractor. It was held up by many during its long run as proof that General Motors, unlike the Europeans, knew nothing about small cars. And yet, over in Europe, Opel's Chevette clone was a runaway success.

Ford Contour

Ford Contour (1994-2000)

The Contour was a near-identical copy of Ford's European family car, the Mondeo (itself a replacement for the Sierra, which was brought over here as the hot rod Merkur XR4ti). I was working in the U.K. right around the time of the Mondeo launch, and the press was amazed that the Mondeo was so good, mostly because the rest of Ford's lineup was uniformly terrible. The Contour wasn't exactly a failure in the United States, but its European-sized back seat was too small for American buyers. Sales were not as brisk as they should have been, and the Mercury version, called the Mystique, became commonly known as the Mercury Mistake. Today's Fusion is once again based on the Mondeo -- but this time, Ford designed the back seat for American buyers.

Pontiac LeMans

Pontiac LeMans (1988-1993)

I can't tell you how many people I knew referred to the '88-'93 LeMans as a horrible Korean car. If only they knew it was really a horrible German car! The LeMans was based on the Opel Kadett as sold in Europe from '84 to '91. Granted, Opels didn't exactly drive like BMWs -- and the car's complete disregard for assembly quality didn't do anything at all to help the LeKadett's prospects. Americans decided they were done with the LeMans by 1993, but the Kadett would return: The Saturn Astra was a rebadged copy of the Kadett's successor, the Opel Astra.

Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon

Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon (1977-1990)

When the L-body twins made their debut, they were something of a revelation -- passably competent front-wheel-drive hatchbacks from an American automaker. What Chrysler didn't let on is that they had help: The Omni and Horizon were designed largely by Simca, a French automaker in which Chrysler had a controlling interest. The car was marketed in Europe as the Talbot Horizon; Chrysler fitted Simca and Volkswagen engines (ironic, as the Omni/Horizon competed against the Rabbit), later replaced by Chrysler's own 2.2, and they swapped the Euro-spec torsion-bar suspension for MacPherson struts. By the time Highland Park was done with the Omni and Horizon, they shared few parts with their European cousins -- but they did go on to have a strong 14-year run.

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5 Domestic Cars You Didn't Know Were European - Autotrader