Marvel At Nissan’s Weird Rebadges Of The Great Recession

Nissan Rebadge Rebadges Topshot

In North America, it’s well-understood that if you’ve walked into a Nissan showroom anytime after 2003 or so, you’d see cars that are all made by Nissan. The Titan came from America, the Versa came from Mexico, and the Cube came from Mars, but they all rolled out of Nissan factories. However, things were a little bit different in Japan, where Nissan started rebadging cars left, right, and center. These are Nissan’s weird rebadges of the modern age, and they all look quite delightful.

Nissan Moco
Photo credit: Nissan

The story starts in 2001 with the Suzuki MR wagon, a kei car which is neither mid-engined nor rear-wheel-drive, but is technically a wagon. So what does MR mean? Take a guess. Nope, it actually stands for Magical Relax, which is a bit like saying a car’s a driveable laxative. Anyway, Nissan had an OEM agreement with Suzuki to sell the MR Wagon as the Moco, which worked out quite successfully.

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Photo credit: Nissan

Fast-forward to 2005, and Nissan was looking to repeat a similar feat with the popular Mitsubishi eK. Nissan changed the front bumper and the badges, and called it the Otti. It helped bolster Nissan’s kei car lineup enough to take some big steps in pulling other Mitsubishi and Suzuki models into the Nissan fold.

Nissan Clipper Rio And Pino Rebadges
Photo credit: Nissan

In 2007, Nissan rebadged the Mitsubishi Town Box and Suzuki Alto as the Clipper Rio and Pino, respectively. The former is a strange-looking microvan with Range Rover-esque headlamps designed for the tight streets of Japan with really just a grille separating it from its Mitsubishi counterpart, while the latter is a kei-class hatchback with a different front bumper and new wheel trims compared to its Suzuki twin. With these two practical additions, Nissan’s robust kei car lineup of rebadges was almost complete.

Nissan Kix
Photo credit: Nissan

What’s a roster of kei cars without something fun? While the Japanese economic bubble burst of the 1990s virtually rid showrooms of loafer-sized sports cars, a whole segment of small off-roaders continued to enjoy popularity. Amidst the Suzuki Jimnys and Daihatsu Terios Kids sat the Mitsubishi Pajero Mini, a boxy crossover designed for light work off the beaten path. It was the perfect vehicle for Nissan to rebadge as the Kix (no relation to the Kicks) with just a new grille and some new badges.

Nissan Pixo Rebadges Rebadge
Photo credit: Nissan

Finally, Nissan took the 2009 global, India-built version of the Suzuki Alto and gave it a much more substantial facelift than any of the previously-mentioned rebadged cars. New bumpers, headlights, and a new hood all contributed to an entirely new look for a car called the Pixo. If that name rings a bell, you may have seen it on Top Gear when Clarkson and Hammond bought big second-hand GT cars for the Pixo’s asking price of £6,995. Oh yes, this was a cheap car for Europe, a bit of an anomaly in this string of typically Japan-only models.

What do all of these rebadges have in common apart from all being small and cheap? They were launched right around the time of the Great Recession. While it’s unlikely that Nissan foresaw the recession, it was a very smart move for Nissan to sell cheap cars during the last great financial crisis, as little kei cars for Japan and cheap city cars for Europe were vehicles people could afford if they absolutely needed a new car. In addition, it costs heaps of money to develop a new car, so if customers are happy with a Nissan badge on a Mitsubishi or a Suzuki, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a brand new model.

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Photo credit: Nissan

Believe it or not, Nissan tried this strategy with a more expensive car as the economy recovered. Remember the second-generation Mazda 5? It received a bit of a do-over with Nagare door swoosh deletion to become the Nissan Lafesta Highway Star. In addition to a new front bumper without a lovable, doofy grin, four entirely new door skins and the tooling to stamp them out had to be made, which must’ve cost an absolute fortune. The one pictured above is the Lafesta Highway Star G Supremo which is just the best trim level name ever applied to a small van in the history of humankind. Sorry Peugeot Bipper Tepee 1.3 HDI FAP, second place for you.

To this day, Nissan still rebadges other models to fill its kei car lineup. The Nissan Dayz and Nissan Roox are rebadged versions of the Mitsubishi eK and eK Space, respectively. While these two models make a little more sense now considering how Nissan owns a controlling stake in Mitsubishi, it’s a great reminder of how rebadging makes the kei car world go round.

All photos courtesy of Nissan

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32 Responses

  1. I rented a Nissan Dayz in Japan back in 2019. It had some weird eco-throttle or something, the engine response never matched the throttle input.

    It was absolutely maddening taking it up the roads near Mount Adatara, no cruise control and you couldn’t keep a consistent speed on up nor downhill.

    The Suzuki Wagon R we rented later near Mt Fuji was like a sports car by comparison. Traditional auto and a throttle that actually did what you asked!

  2. I’m waiting for Nissan to rebadge a car from another manufacturer which is already just a rebadged Nissan, only to realize after the fact what they did. Someone at Nissan in the early aughts: “Hey, let’s rebadge this Mercury mini-van and sell it as our own!”

    1. The best/laziest Nissan badge engineering was the Australian market Nissan The Ute. Yes, not just “Ute” but “The Ute” – An Australian Ford Falcon ute with Nissan badges slapped onto it, circa 1990 or so.

      In return Ford got the Nissan Bluebird/Pintara/Sentra U12 model to rebadge and sell as a Ford Corsair.

      1. Toyota’s pickup was just “Pickup” for a long time, and a badge engineered version of it was the VW Taro.

        Same thing with Isuzu and its international variants.

        1. Some really bad badge engineering went on in Australia around that time, Holden Commodore sold as Toyota Lexcen, Toyota Camry and Corolla sold as Holden Apollo and Nova, Nissan Patrol as Ford Maverick, etc.

          What a time to be alive!

          1. It was all due to the Button Plan. It was crummy, but not as bad as France’s Pons Plan of the late forties, which led to the end of Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Grégoire, etc etc. I wonder which circle of automotive hell is inhabited by Messieurs Button and Pons and who else is there with them (and don’t say Nader).

  3. “Anyway, Nissan had an OEM agreement with Suzuki to sell the MR Wagon as the Moco, which worked out quite successfully.”

    Moco means booger in (Mexican) Spanish

      1. It does mean mucus literally, but “Moco de Gorila” is like saying “Gorilla Snot.” It’s not a literal description, but a euphemistic exaggeration; perfect for a brand that doesn’t take itself to seriously.

      2. It does mean mucus, but Moco de Gorila is like saying “Gorilla Snot.” It’s not a literal description, but a euphemistic exaggeration; perfect for a brand that doesn’t take itself to seriously.

        1. Oh yeah, I totally get it. You hit the nail on the head. I have to explain to people there are different dialects and for example, in Spain there are multiple languages, not just Castilian (what most of us know as Spanish).

  4. We could add to that list the Platina (Renault Clio 2 sedan) and Aprio (Dacia Logan 1) both sold in Mexico, and the last Terrano which was a Dacia/Renault Duster that they sold mostly in Russia and India until recently. They also badge-engineer all their vans in Europe, the funnier name being the Kubistar (first-gen Renault Kangoo) and the Dacia Logan pick-up is still sold as the Nissan NP200 in South Africa (and is quite popular).

  5. This is a lot like Mazda’s lineup. To save money the Carol Kei car is a rebadged Suzuki Alto and its companion the Scrum Kei truck is a Suzuki Carry, even the peak bubble era Autozam AZ-1 gullwing was originally a Suzuki project and a small number were actually rebadged as Suzuki. At the larger end the recent generations of Bongo van are Toyotas and Mazda’s largest truck, the Titan is a rebadged Isuzu Elf (Isuzu NPR in the US).

  6. I went to meet someone in a strip mall restaurant once. they said the sign was hard to spot so just look for the rub and tug called Magical Relax and couple doors down.

  7. For unusual rebadges, I think the Toyota-PSA partnership in Europe warrants its own article, with the Aygo hatchback and the Proace vans having French underpinnings but wearing Toyota badges.

    Which is a bit weird given Toyota already have a massive range of interesting small hatchbacks and vans in the Japanese market that they don’t export, but maybe there’s something about EU regulations or tariffs in there – it’s be interesting to learn more about these European quirks!

    1. I thought of the Aygo/C1/108 too. Although I think they were more of a joint venture (Quest-Villager style) using some Toyota engines. I think it was more just to share development of something more appealing to the local EU market, maybe.

      At the same time, you could also buy a rebodied 2nd-gen Mitsubishi Outlander in PSA showrooms as the 4007 and C-Crosser; then that was followed by the Outlander Sport showing up at PSA as the 4008 and C4 Aircross. All 3 makes offered a PSA/non-Mitsu diesel at some point, so it was a bit more of an ‘exchange’ in that sense and not just a pure rebadge.

      Vans are one of the most heavily rebadged models around the EU market, makes sense since it’s a fleet segment and just more about having something on offer. I think a van lineup from some brands could have had models from even 3 different manufacturers at one point.

  8. I was hoping the 5 -> Lafesta was going to be mentioned. The first Lafesta was all-Nissan, and Nissan made their own small minivan at the same time (Serena, I think longer but narrower) which in turn Suzuki sold a version of, the Landy, so not sure if Nissan just wanted to have an entry while planning to exit/consolidate that market, or what.

    It works out for both makes, the smaller makes like Suzuki or Mitsui that specialize more in the small car space get more production and reach they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, and sometimes rebadge a model from the other manufacturer in turn, like the Serena-Landy above or like Honda-Isuzu in the 90s. Though I wonder if Toyota actually did sell more Mazda-based Yaris’ than Mazda would have in their own showrooms, in the U.S.

  9. That Lafesta Highway Star G Supremo is a good-lookin’ van. I always loved the Mazda5 but the grin was just too much. It was fine on 3 and the MX-5 but the 5 pushed it too far in my book.

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