/ Motoring

Cookie cutter cars – are brands losing their identity?

It’s a time of austerity and we’re all affected, carmakers included. Maybe it’s no surprise there’s been an increase in cross-brand collaborations, with many cars launching that are almost identical under the skin.

This is also known as shared platforms, and while it may be financially beneficial for manufacturers and potentially for consumers too, I think it’s eroding the excitement around new car unveilings. Ultimately it’s making the badge more powerful than it’s ever been.

This week I’m in France covering the 2012 Paris Motor Show, bringing you details of the cars you’ll be able to buy in the next 12 months.

Spot the difference between VW Golf and Audi A3

One of those cars is the new VW Golf. But while a new Golf should be anticipated with distinct significance, I’m failing to get animated about the unveiling of this one in particular. Why? Because we’ve already seen it, driven it, and have even tested it in our lab!

How, you might ask? Well, under the surface, the latest generation of the Golf is the Audi A3 we’ve just put through our full test cycle. With Audi under the banner of the VW Group (also includes Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Porsche and Lamborghini) what’s been developed and rigorously tweaked to produce the latest A3 is now being utilised as the next phase of the Golf.

Strip away the famous VW badge and side-by-side the base of this new Golf could be easily mistaken for an A3 without its four-ring emblem. And the new Seat Leon, also being showcased for the first time at Paris, is the third point in this multi-brand triumvirate, using the same chassis and engine line-up (bar a few minor differences) as the Golf and A3.

It’s all part of a cost-saving exercise. If manufacturers share the monetary burden of new car development and manufacturing, it’s more financially viable to them and the savings made should (in theory) be passed on to you and me.

Shared-platform cars are rekindling badge power

It’s not the first time this has happened. In fact, historically, it can be back-dated decades. But more recently we’ve seen platform sharing growing in popularity. The Toyota Aygo, Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1 and more recently the VW Up, Seat Mii and Skoda CitiGo are examples of car trios that are essentially the same underpinnings glazed in slightly adapted headlight units and body sculpting.

If this results in a more affordable market for car buyers, it could be good for our wallets. But I’m starting to see cross-platform collaborations as a loss in identity, with brands slowly morphing into one soup of blandness. How can enthusiasts get excited about driving the latest Golf when they could slip into a Seat Leon for less money, and ultimately have the same experience?

What is more disconcerting is the power it puts in the hands of a badge alone. If all three of these cars are essentially the same underneath, the car buying decision will lie with which logo resonates with the buyer most. A money-conscious buyer will opt for the Leon; whereas a status-focussed buyer may go for the more desirable VW or Audi badge.

Take the Aygo, 107 and C1 for example. More buyers tend to opt for the Aygo because of the strong association Toyota has with reliability. But the fact is all three cars are built in the same factory, so dependability is purely embedded in the consumer psyche.

With more shared-platform cars do you think you’re being duped into paying more for a badge?


I’m not sure that there is anything new here. Decades ago, we had vehicles branded Austin or Morris, with little difference except from the badge. Motoring writers frequently point out the collaboration between manufacturers, and there seems little secret about the joint ventures and shared components.

It is time to start thinking about cars in a different way. Think about reliability, cost to purchase and – more important – cost over the time of ownership, warranty, fuel consumption, environmental impact including that of manufacture, safety, and whether it comes with a proper spare wheel. 🙂

It may damage the ego of car worshippers to learn that their Audi is rather similar to a Skoda or their Ford has major components used by Fiat but it’s great fun to let them know.

I hadn’t realised that our A3 came out of the same stable as Bentley, Porsche and Lamborghini. I feel better already.

The Aygo, C1 and 107 mentioned in the article, all built in the same factory but only one of these models that has a 5 year warranty it the Toyota Aygo. But Peugeot and Citroen aren’t offering this. The Toyota paint warranty is longer than the Peugeot and Citroen paint warranty.

Even though those 3 cars are platform shared, and look quite similar, there are enough differences if you look for them. Eg, the 107 has a big thick strip of black plastic (or chrome,depending on trim) across the front bumper, the front number plate is very far down, and the front badge looks too big. In my opinion, these 3 things really spoil the look of the 107. These aren’t on the Aygo or the 107, so they are better looking.

Something else to consider would be independent surveys, such as the JD Power Dealer Satisfaction Survey and others. Reliability would be extremely important, as would safety. So its always good to check the Ncap ratings. An example from Ncap is that the Ford Ka has 4 stars out of a possible 5 for crash tests – not good enough when Ford’s competitors have the full 5 stars for their rivals to the Ka.

If I was to buy a car that was built within a platform sharing agreement, I would buy the Aygo, rather than the C1/107, as I have been a satisfied Toyota customer for many years, so would be happy to buy from them again. The same goes for the dealers, as I have found them to be far better than others I have used in the past.

So it comes down to personal choice, if someone buys a platform shared car, they might just go back to a certain manufacturer who is selling it, simply out of what you might call customer loyalty or brand/dealer trust. Customers always return to where they get good customer service.

Ray Trench says:
28 September 2012

I have a Peugeot 107 (June 2011) and, accepting the limitations of the car, am very happy with it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I think the previous model (pre 2012 revision) is rather more masculine the the feminine looking Aygo. With regards to warranty; Toyota give a 5 year warranty which suggests that it is confident the car will not need work done on it – so if it is the same as the 107 I can feel confident that the cheaper price I paid for mine compared to the similar spec Aygo means I can be pretty sure that it will be as reliable as the Aygo and doubt if any work would come to more than the massive price difference. As for dealership, my Peugeot dealer, Simon Bailes, has been exemplory in every way and without doubt the best I have experienced (being used to Ford Main Dealers in the past).

par ailleurs says:
27 September 2012

Yes, w-change has got it right here. If I might sound a little condescending or even rude Rob please don’t take it personally, but you look very young. (I am at the age where doctors, policemen etc all look about 14)
When I started driving in the early 70s, cars were uniformly expensive to buy, ruinously expensive to run and were fit for scrap at the sort of mileage that would now be quite acceptable on a second hand model. To make matters worse I had to drive as part of my work and a high annual mileage too. The whole thing was a nightmare.
Now, thanks to the international nature of the motor industry and the financial gains to them from cross sourcing and research/development, motoring is transformed. I couldn’t care less that my Skoda is a Polo in drag. It is comfortable, fast, economical and utterly reliable.
Of course there’s a place for quirky older cars. It’s to run as a hobby. Other than that I’m delighted to be able to drive my modern bland identikit car.

As said this is nothing new. The Galaxy/Sharan was a joint project between Ford and VW and their built in the same factory in Hamburg the only real difference being the engines; and the length of warranty. The Seat people carrier, the name of which escapes me, is a Sharan assembled from kits.

Developing a new car is a long and expensive process so it makes sense for manufactures to collaborate over new designs and to use shared platforms.

par ailleurs says:
28 September 2012

Phil it probably hasn’t bothered you that much but it’s driven me crackers all day. It was the Seat Alhambra! It was widely regarded as the bargain of the three as it didn’t have a VW badge on the front but was otherwise every bit as good.

I’m sorry my laziness caused you so much grief. Yes it was the Alhambra.

TerryR says:
28 September 2012

About 30 years ago (is it really that long!) I worked at a UK company which built a Japanese van, some of which were badged as the Japanese brand, and sold by them, and the others under the UK brand.
I can remember that the Japanese firm put their own Inspectors on the line, and their standards were higher than the UK Inspectors.
I don’t know if this happens nowadays with other firms, but it might explain some differences.

Yes nothing new here. the VW group’s achievement is to produce three models (VW Up, Seat Mii and Skoda CitiGo) with uniformly silly names.
But wavechange is right, it’s time to start looking differently at cars. Why the obsession with brand new cars? Now I know that you can only have used cars if some people buy new ones but why should that be you or me? Used cars are a much better deal. And with warranties getting longer (eg Kia 7 years) a two or three year old car can be a great deal.
But there’s an important point here for Which? There are roughly three times as many used car sales than new, so why not pay more attention to used cars in your reports? And why not make more of the fact that a fast depreciating new car may well be an excellent buy used? The fact that it depreciates quickly does not necessarily mean that it’s a bad car.
So, is it time for Which? to start looking differently at cars?

Quite right, I ran a variety of hydraulic Citroens for 30 years and one of the reasons was that with catastrophic depreciation levels you got one hell of a lot of car for very little money, mind you it was only value for money if you did all your own servicing and repairs….. Which? should definitely pay more attention to used cars, with most 3 year old cars only worth about 45% of their new value, the fact that they are not as economical or cheap to tax as their latest versions is hardly relevant as the thousands of pounds you save will more than offset the slightly worse fuel consumption and higher VED rates. So come on Which let us know about long term reliability, which of your new Best Buys is still a best buy with 125,000 miles on the clock? All new cars should be reliable for the first 3 years 60,000 miles, but real build quality only really begins to show after 5 years or so and 100,000 plus miles.

I have been surprised at how poor my partner’s Merc E class from 2002 is, dealer serviced from new only just 100k on the clock and it is riddled with rust, breaks down with clockwork regularity and the last full service plus fixing the latest set of gremlins was an eyewatering £982, all that from a car that was around £35k new, A real surprise to me, my humble Focus is a year older another 50k on the clock and is scarily reliable, I think they were about £13k new so what do you get for that extra £22k, not much except the belief that a prestige make should be loads better than a mere Ford, but the reality 10 years down the road that all that extra money only bought a badge not a better car

Interesting, Toyotas, Citroens and Peugeots built in the same factory…. so why the difference in warranties? Does each manufacturer have its own team of quality inspectors as suggested used to happen by Terry R? As a life long Citroen man until recently the manufacturers who will gain most from this are the PSA group (Peugeot/Citroen) who would certainly benefit from some Japanese rigor in the quality control department. Unless of course Toyota are prepared to accept European standards of build quality and reliability……….

There is no reason why all cars coming out of a factory should have the same warranty. Providing a longer warranty is just one of the ways that car manufacturers can use to encourage people to buy their products. It is likely to cost the company more money than providing some extra gadgetry. It has been used as an incentive to help get people to buy cars made by the less well known manufacturers.

I used to think that Toyotas were reliable but a friend’s Yaris has had several oil leaks and other problems fixed by the Toyota garage during services. At least the work has been done free of charge. Toyota also had a big problem with accelerator problems with various models, involving a big recall. I think I would still choose a Toyota over a Peugot or a Citroen.

Actually I’m not sure this is at all a bad thing. It enables those who do their research to buy arguably better cars than their budget might otherwise allow. I’m quite happy to buy a Seat or Skoda knowing it’s a VW in “casual dress”.
Those “status focused” buyers, as the above describes them are indeed being duped into paying more for a badge, but this happens in many areas of life with many other products and I’m sure will continue.
In my view the smart money goes for the best value for money machine rather than the badge it’s wearing. but I accept there are plenty of buyers out there who won’t agree and who will argue build quality is better in Germany than in Spain. Well perhaps it is a little but not that much better. For the badge lovers I’d say it’s a case of it’s their money and their choice.

I disagree with Par Ailleurs. Ive driven a succession of 70s/80s cars for the last decade; most recently a 1981 Cavalier mk 1 which has got me to work every day for the last 3 years. It is a necessity but also my hobby and I look forward to driving it every morning.
I appreciate everyone perhaps lives busier lives now, but it seems to me that people have sacrificed the enjoyment of driving a car with character and individuality simply because they cannot be bothered to learn a few basic maintenance jobs themselves. (The equivalent of not learning to cook and eating microwave dinners all your life..?) Car manufacturers have now picked up on this and forbid you to touch practically anything under the bonnet other than the windscreen wash. Older cars were generally less reliable, but if you learn to take care of your car yourself, you can as I have, enjoy a car built 40 years ago every day without problem (and mine cost £500).
The meaningless differences between shared-platform models mentioned above highlight the fact that the manufacturers’ quest for profit has rid the industry of any desire to create beautiful (or at least individual) cars. They don’t want you to choose- they want their predictions to match actual sales. The 107 has a thin strip of plastic on the bumper which makes it look worse than the Aygo?? Come on! Buy a classic car mag and look at some real style.
Fight the power.

Although I cannot get excited by driving I can certainly vouch for DIY maintenance. Only one of the five cars I have owned in the past 35 years has ever failed to start, and that was due to a new battery that was faulty. I’ve done all my own maintenance except with new cars under warranty, and most of the repairs too. I find it very satisfying to be able to spot developing faults before they become a problem.