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Finding the wrong niche: Ten automotive answers to questions no one asked

Cars are pretty predictable. Even children can identify the silhouette of a sedan, minivan, or pickup truck. That’s because these categories, and other automotive species, satisfy the needs and wants of the vast majority of buyers.

The norm can be pretty boring, though, which is why every once in awhile car makers let down their hair and produce vehicles that defy categorization.

These cars can either combine the roles of traditional categories, or attempt to create new ones. There were no “pony cars” before the Ford Mustang, and even less Earth-shattering ideas like the Nissan Juke can carve out a profitable niche. However, there are many that are just too odd, or too compromised, to have any staying power.

Willys JeepsterWillys Jeepster: If you think the Grand Cherokee SRT8 was Jeep’s first attempt at a performance vehicle, you’re wrong. Jeep’s first parent, Willys Overland, tried to broaden the appeal of its World War II hero by packaging it in a sporty convertible body. The result was neither a rugged 4×4 or a sexy sports car, so it had limited appeal.

Chevy El CaminoUtes (Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero): Car-based pickup trucks were born in Australia, where these “utes” are still popular today. Beginning with the 1957 Ford Ranchero, The Blue Oval and the Bow Tie battled for car-truck dominance in the U.S., a fight that lasted over a decade. The El Camino and Ranchero are classics today, but they were made obsolete by increasingly civilized trucks and SUVs. There were plans to sell an El Camino-like vehicle based on the Pontiac G8, but that idea died with the “Excitement Division” in 2009.

Subaru BRATSubaru BRAT: Subaru’s all-wheel drive chassis seemed like a good foundation for a rugged small pickup. Then Subaru decided to nail a couple of plastic rear-facing jump seats to the bed. They meant certain death for passengers, and also ate up cargo space.

The name, which stood for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transport, didn’t help matters; no one wants a bratty car. Even a connection with President Ronald Reagan, who drove a BRAT around his California ranch, couldn’t help this trucklet’s reputation.

AMC EagleAMC Eagle: The Eagle was an idea that was ahead of its time. Essentially a jacked-up AMC Concord with tough-looking body cladding, it foreshadowed cars like the Subaru Outback, Audi Allroad, and Honda Crosstour. Unfortunately for AMC, in early 1980s, people were still buying traditional station wagons in droves, so a pseudo-SUV just didn’t make sense.

Dodge Dakota convertibleDodge Dakota convertible: The technological imperative is a myth. Dodge obviously had the capability to make a convertible truck, but did it need to? Apparently not, since virtually no one bought the Dakota convertible. The combination of utility vehicle and frivolous drop-top was just too strange for the average consumer.

Nissan Pulsar NXNissan Pulsar NX: The Pulsar was named after one of nature’s strangest phenomena, which was fitting, because it was a very strange vehicle. By rearranging a few panels, this little child of the ‘80s could be converted from a coupe to a hatchback or pickup. It also had a removable T-top roof.

Trying to fit all of those functions onto a compact, front-wheel drive platform meant the Pulsar NX was never very good at hauling things. That left a car with a bunch of pieces that its owner had to keep track of, like an adult Lego set.

Subaru BajaSubaru Baja: Subaru apparently didn’t learn its lesson with the BRAT. The Baja looked cool, especially in yellow with the optional spot lights. It just wasn’t very good as a car, or a pickup.

Eliminating the Outback’s cargo area meant the Baja had no interior storage space, but the resulting bed was too small for any real hauling. With a stock Outback chassis under the new body, the Baja couldn’t couldn’t compete with bigger trucks in towing, either. Sometimes simple ideas, like building a vehicle that is either a sedan or a truck, not both, are the best.

Chevy SSRChevrolet SSR: Some concept cars should remain concepts. The Chevy SSR (Super Sport Roadster) looked great on the show stage. Its retro design cues really made a statement, but they didn’t translate into anything buyers actually wanted in a production car.

Underneath the retro styling, the SSR was basically a convertible pickup truck, with the chassis from a Trailblazer and Chevy’s ubiquitous small block V8. It was much bigger and heavier than its name would suggest, yet only had two seats and a very small bed. Performance was mediocre, and utility was almost nonexistent.

That meant the SSR was better to look at than own. Thankfully, some people did buy them, giving everyone else a bit of eye candy to brighten their morning commutes.

Chevy AvalancheChevrolet Avalanche/Cadillac Escalade EXT: Car-based pickups never seem to work, but what about an SUV that converts into a pickup? General Motors’ twins featured a “Midgate” that allowed owners to remove the rear window and fold the rear seats to create a respectable bed.

These hybrids got off to a promising start. The Avalanche won Motor Trend Truck of the Year in 2002, and both models survived for two generations. However, in pickup mode, there was nothing prevent car thieves from entering the cabin, which probably unnerved more than one potential buyer. Most truck buyers preferred real pickups, like Chevy’s own Silverado, anyway.

Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet profile viewNissan Murano CrossCabriolet: The convertible Murano could have made sense, at least when it was just a drawing. Many people prefer crossovers to sedans and station wagons, so why not extend that trend to convertibles? The CrossCabriolet was supposed to offer the high driving position and all-wheel drive assuredness of a crossover, and the fun of a drop-top.

Unfortunately, that also meant it had the ungainly handling of an SUV, without any of the utility. This Murano only has two doors, and it’s not like anyone really wants to drive a convertible during the winter. Nissan continues to dazzle the world with innovative products like the Leaf and GT-R, but the Murano CrossCabriolet may have been too clever by half.

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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