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Do Cars From Orphan Brands Actually Sell for Less Money?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro September 2017

One of the "tricks" that car enthusiasts often tell people if they're looking for a good deal on a used car is that you can go to an "orphan" brand and buy the same car for less money. For instance: Don't bother with a 1990s Toyota Corolla. Instead, buy a 1990s Geo Prizm, which was the same exact car underneath, and you can have the same Toyota reliability for less money. Same deal with the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura, Nissan Frontier and Suzuki Equator, and on and on. The theory is: Fewer people know about the orphan model, so fewer people search for it -- and that drives prices down. But is it true?

To find out, I took to Autotrader and searched for vehicles with an "orphan" twin -- and checked out average asking prices. I started with that Fusion/Milan comparison: The average asking price for a 2006-2009 Fusion on Autotrader is $6,193, while the average asking price for a Milan from the same years is $6,199. In that case, it isn't true.

However, moving on to the Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu, which were twins from 2007 to 2009, it's a different story. The average asking price for a 2007-2009 Aura is $6,078; a 2007-2009 Malibu is $6,932. In that case, indeed, the Aura is cheaper -- and by a significant amount. The Suzuki Equator was a clone of the Nissan Frontier sold from 2009 to 2012, and the average asking price of an Equator on Autotrader is just over $14,237 -- cheaper than the Frontier's $16,440. Although this may be skewed by comparatively fewer Equators (27) versus Frontiers (896), the point still stands: In this case, the "orphan" car is indeed cheaper than the original.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough Geo Prizms on Autotrader to make this comparison -- but it stands to reason the same would hold true of the Chevy Prizm, which was a twin of the Toyota Corolla from 1998 to 2002. Indeed, the average asking price on Autotrader for a Chevy Prizm is $2,397, while the average 1998-2002 Corolla is $3,329 -- again, a large price gap for what is ultimately the same vehicle, just with a "better" name.

Does it hold true across the board? The Saturn Outlook was sold from 2007 to 2010 as a twin of the GMC Acadia; while the average Outlook was always a bit cheaper than the average Acadia, the gap has widened significantly on the used market: The average Outlook is just $8,200, while the average 2007-2010 Acadia is $11,130 -- an increase of more than 35 percent.

This seems to answer the question: Yes, orphan cars are cheaper than their non-orphan counterparts -- and you're better off buying an orphan, if you can find one. But why doesn't that seem to hold true for the Milan? My guess is it's because the Milan was more expensive than the average Fusion, and it was pitched as a "luxury" alternative -- meaning it initially held a price premium over its Ford stablemate. Over time, however, that premium has eroded, meaning this theory is true for the Milan, too.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Do Cars From Orphan Brands Actually Sell for Less Money? - Autotrader