Special Report on Used Cars:Published July 15, 2013
An Isuzu Trooper passed by the other day. In the window was the face of a self-satisfied motorist seemingly happy to drive something rarefied, and not visibly anguished over where to get his aging truck repaired.
The Canadian market can be unkind to car manufacturers: the climate is harsh, the distances between dealers is often vast, and we consumers can be unforgiving. Isuzu joined a litany of auto brands that have folded their sales tents in Canada.
There are plenty of orphaned cars and trucks, that is to say, those without a branded dealer network to look after them, that live on in the used-vehicle market. Service exists in the aftermarket and parts will seemingly be available online forever.
For those who have the mettle for it, here are five recently orphaned models that come recommended.
2003-11 Saab 9-3
In redesigning its second-generation 9-3, GM-controlled Saab abandoned its beloved hatchback configuration and adopted GM’s front-drive Epsilon platform (shared with the Opel Vectra and Pontiac G6) to create a four-door sedan, two-door convertible, and, in 2006, the SportCombi wagon.
An Ecotec 2.0L turbo four-cylinder developed by Opel and Saab engineers churned out 210 hp, tied to a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Performance-oriented Aero models boasted a 250-hp 2.8 L turbo V6. Improved struts and control arms up front quelled torque steer, while a multilink suspension replaced the old twist-beam layout in back.
Saab offered all-wheel drive for the first time in 2008; it came packaged with a 280-hp version of the turbo V6, using an intelligent Haldex system to direct up to 90 per cent of the output to the rear wheels as needed. The AWD mechanicals spread to the 2.0T models, optionally, in 2009. Production was halted in 2011.
Saabs originated in Europe, so electrical issues — failed door locks, computers, alarms, ignition systems — are commonplace. Frequent brake service is often reported, along with faulty throttle bodies, window regulators, wiper mechanisms, fuel pumps, radiators, sunroofs, and the occasional air conditioner and automatic transmission, too. Painstakingly updated, a late-model 9-3 may age better than its predecessors.
2008-09 Pontiac G8
Australia’s Car of the Year, the Holden Commodore, earned a new badge and shipping to North America. It heralded the return of a rear-drive sedan to GM’s joy division some 22 years after the Bonneville and Parisienne were dropped by Pontiac dealers.
The G8’s ride was firm, but never punishing, thanks to its BMW-like MacPherson front strut layout and multilink rear suspension. The car was supremely balanced with 48.3 per cent of its weight over the rear wheels.
The base sedan came with a 256-hp, four-cam 3.6 L V6, while the high-performance GT featured a 361-hp, pushrod 6.0 L V8.
To save fuel, the V8 could deactivate four cylinders during steady-stated cruising. A five-speed automatic transmission was standard on the base model, while the GT earned a six-speed automatic.
The subsequent GXP model commandeered the Corvette’s 415-hp, 6.2L V8 with enough scat to attain highway velocity in 4.7 seconds. It also featured four-piston Brembo brakes, six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes, and a tauter suspension.
G8s are well-built sedans; however, owners have complained about noisy and quick-wearing front-end components, as well as short-lived tires. The car was similarly short-lived, the victim of GM’s drastic culling of its brands. The G8’s rear-drive platform lives on as the foundation for the Oshawa-built Chevrolet Camaro.
2006-10 Hummer H3
Engineers borrowed the body-on-frame architecture under the compact Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon pickups to craft Hummer’s first city-sized SUV, the H3. Unfortunately, Hummer design dictated a near vertical windshield and small windows, limiting visibility. The view out front was like peering through a mail slot.
The sole engine was the Colorado’s 220-hp, 3.5 L inline five-cylinder, the result of lopping one cylinder off of the 4.2 L straight six that powered the TrailBlazer. The five-banger was mated to an Aisin five-speed manual gearbox or GM’s venerable Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic.
The H3 could walk the walk with its standard full-time four-wheel drive, which split the torque 40-60 front to rear, and a 2.64 reduction gear. It enjoyed 23 cm. of ground clearance and could ford 60-cm-deep water without stalling. Standard gear included underside skidplates, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and traction/antiskid controls.
Responding to gripes about the H3’s anemic acceleration, the five-cylinder’s output jumped to 242 hp for 2007, thanks to a displacement increase to 3.7 litres. The top-dog Alpha model arrived for 2008, stuffed with a 300-hp 5.3L V8 borrowed from GM’s full-size pickups.
H3 fans believe their truck is superior to the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, thanks to its more comfortable furnishings, better ride and small turning radius. Reliability is lumpy; it’s probably a good idea to avoid the introductory 2006 models.
2008-09 Saturn Astra
Canadians discovered Opel’s third-generation Astra in Saturn stores in 2008, long after its 2004 European launch and near the end of its product cycle. The compact made use of GM’s front-drive Delta platform, whose independent suspension up front and torsion-bar rear suspension was designed to compete toe-link to toe-link with VW’s Golf.
As the Golf did, the Astra offered three- and five-door hatchbacks, although the Astra was about 12 cm. longer than the VW, which was put to good use inside, yielding a broad back seat with good space for three. Curiously, owners complained that markings on knobs and switches were indecipherable, the radio interface unintuitive and the cupholders out of human reach. Was the Astra reverse-engineered from UFOs?
Saturn offered only one powerplant: a DOHC, 1.8-L, four-cylinder with variable-valve timing, good for 138 hp and 125 lbs.-ft. of torque. It was tied to a five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. Unfortunately, the power was insufficient to move the car with any authority, although it redeemed itself in the twisties with good path control and communicative steering.
There are few reported problems with this Belgian-made Saturn; hiccups included erroneous warning lamps, some minor shift flare, a few truculent ignition locks and power windows, as well as a sorry collection of interior buzzes and rattles.
2003-11 Mercury Grand Marquis
The final generation of the St. Thomas-built Mercury Grand Marquis was unveiled in 2003, the very last of the body-on-frame dinosaurs. In addition to new headlights and a restyled cabin, Canada’s lone Mercury model benefited from extensive upgrades under its sagging body. The frame was hydroformed and fully boxed. Rack-and-pinion steering replaced the old recirculating-ball system, and the suspension and brakes were beefed up.
Under the hood was the SOHC version of Ford’s 4.6 L V8, making 239 hp and 282 lbs.-ft. of torque with dual exhaust, working through a four-speed automatic transmission. A troublesome plastic intake manifold notorious for leaking coolant was replaced with an aluminum front coolant crossover that corrected the condition. An engine knock sensor was added, along with a higher-capacity oil pan.
The high-performance Marauder, sold in 2003-04, used the double overhead-cam version of the 4.6-L V8, producing 302 hp and 318 lbs.-ft. of torque. It also featured the police interceptor’s limited slip differential, 3.55 rear-axle ratio and aluminum driveshaft.
The few reported reliability concerns included wonky air conditioners, bad radiator fans and wheel bearings, driveline vibration and a few transmission issues (in small numbers).
A throwback to another time, the Grand Marquis appealed to a certain demographic that viewed it as the automotive equivalent to comfort food.
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