There hasn’t been a car sold in the U.S. wearing an Opel badge since the 1975 Manta, but that doesn’t mean Opel’s vehicles have been absent from American streets. When you think of the German brand, you probably think of the Opel GT sports car or the compact Kadett — but did you know Opels have been coming to the States disguised as various GM products over the years?
As you may have heard, GM sold the Opel brand to French auto conglomerate PSA Groupe last year after owning Opel since way back in the 1930s. Now PA is talking about re-entering the U.S. market, and they sound pretty serious about it. That means it’s entirely possible we’ll start seeing Opels branded as Opels pop up in the U.S. again sometime soon.
But what about the forgotten Opels? There are a few you can still buy brand-new today in the U.S. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly that the Euro brand has offered us recently, wearing different faces and different badges to better suit our American tastes.
The Cadillac Catera (1997-2001) was based on the Opel Omega, was built in Germany, was too expensive, and didn’t do the Cadillac brand any favors. Basically, it was the CTS before Cadillac got it right. It was marketed as "The Caddy that zigs," possibly referring to how you’ll be zigging to the service desk due to the car’s poor reliability. I think it was supposed to be a sport sedan, but it just wasn’t that sporty — and it certainly didn’t give BMW or Mercedes anything to worry about.
Remember the Saturn L-Series (2000-2005)? It was the one that wasn’t the Ion. It was Saturn’s attempt at a midsize car — and while it certainly had its own identity inside and out, it was actually based on the Opel Vectra. Not unlike the Catera — with which the L-Series saw some production overlap — this Saturn was plagued with quality issues, both mechanically and with its fit and finish. The Saab 9-3 and 9-5 were also based on the same platform, so you could actually buy an Opel Vectra in the U.S. from multiple different brands.
Don’t worry, Americanized Opels weren’t all bad. The Saturn Astra (2008-2009) was the final Saturn compact before the brand was killed. It was actually a pretty nice little car! Everyone who drives these things loves them. It was a little hatchback with gusto, and you could even get one with three doors and three pedals.
The Buick Verano compact, which was recently killed off with no replacement in the States, was also based on the Opel Astra — it’s just a generation newer. The Buick Verano is another hot little car in disguise — because, for some reason, you could get one with a turbo and a stick. That makes the Verano Turbo a certified sleeper.
The Buick Regal returned in 2008 as a copy-and-paste Americanized version of the Opel Insignia. Now in its sixth generation, the Regal is still heavily based on the Insignia, but with slightly revised styling to make it more Buick-like. I’ve always thought these were underrated cars, especially the GS version, which I believe is genuinely sporty in both appearance and performance. It was the first Buick available with a stick since the 1989 Skyhawk. These days, you don’t have a lot of options for front-wheel-drive sport sedans — and you could do a lot worse than a Regal GS.
Buick holds the distinction of having the most confusing halo car in the entire car industry. Yes, someone at GM thought it would be a good idea to take the egg-shaped Opel Cascada convertible and sell it in the States as a Buick. I’m sure it’s a fine, delightful little convertible, but … why? This one is probably the most direct copy of any Opel in the U.S., with badging being literally the only difference. They didn’t even bother to change the grille or the name.
Buick Encore/Chevy Trax
Another Buick? Is the entire Buick lineup Opel-derived these days? Not quite, but pretty darn close. The Encore was one of the first premium subcompact crossovers in the U.S. and an early entrant into a segment that’s currently exploding in popularity. Since its 2013 introduction, the Encore has quickly become Buick’s best-selling model. It’s based on the Opel Mokka, which is also the basis of the Chevy Trax. Your aunt who drives one probably has no idea it’s a German car built in South Korea sold under an American marque.
At their worst, badge-engineered Opels in the U.S. have been low-quality, unreliable junk — and at their best, they’ve been pretty nice cars that are, unfortunately, still somewhat forgettable. But if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you must have at least a little bit of interest in the brand. Are there any new Opels you’re hoping to see in the U.S.?