There are hidden connections between many cars. The process of “platform sharing” has shaped the modern motor industry. But does it really benefit the consumer – or simply boost car company profits?
No car launch in 2011 is complete without a presentation on “brand values” – the corporate creed that supposedly sets one carmaker apart from another. Yet platform sharing means there are fewer real differences between new cars than ever.
Is the Volvo XC60 really a premium product if it’s based on the old Ford Focus? And how seriously can you take the “heritage” of the Rolls Royce Ghost when behind that iconic grille beats the heart of a BMW 7 Series?
The history of platform sharing
When engineers talk about a “platform” they mean a set of shared components that may include engines, transmissions, suspension, brakes, steering and electronics. These – mostly hidden – parts can be clothed in dramatically different body styles (the Fiat Grande Punto hatchback and Citroën Nemo MPV, for instance), but the basic platform remains the same.
Platform sharing was first introduced by US-based General Motors (GM) in 1960. By using the same components across such a wide range of products, GM benefited from increased economies of scale and saved millions of dollars in development costs.
In the UK, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) quickly followed suit with the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet – two compact saloons based on the Mini.
Aside from the risk of massive recalls like those experienced by Toyota, platform sharing has few pitfalls for carmakers. By the 1980s it had become common practice, and the consolidation of the car industry ever since, through takeovers and mergers, means shared platforms have now become the norm – even between rival brands.
Differentiation through fine tuning
Because most of the components in a shared platform are under the skin, many car buyers are none the wiser. Fortunately for those of us who test cars for a living, a shared platform doesn’t necessarily mean that two cars will feel the same to drive.
Most individual components can be “tuned” to suit a particular marque, so there’s no need to compromise those all-important brand values. For example, the Ford Fiesta has sharper steering than the Mazda2 and the Renault Modus offers a smoother ride than the Nissan Note.
Even engine tuning has become relatively simple: the Seat Leon Cupra needs nothing more than a remapped electronic control unit (ECU) to develop 40bhp more than its VW Golf GTI cousin. “Plug-in” electronic tuning means Mini can offer 120bhp, 175bhp and 211bhp versions of the same 1.6 petrol engine in its Cooper models, creating further savings in development and tooling costs.
Sharing platforms vs badge engineering
The proliferation of shared car platforms has muddied the waters between brands, offering buyers variations on a theme rather than entirely different products. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The huge costs involved in producing a modern car mean that marques such as Alfa Romeo and Skoda would probably have disappeared altogether had they remained independent. And sharing platforms allows for an ever-increasing number of niche models, from compact 4x4s to coupé-convertibles.
Finally, the ability to offer different bodywork and cabin materials, tune engines and alter chassis settings means that related cars still “feel” sufficiently different to offer buyers a genuine choice.
However, it is important to distinguish between platform sharing and the less sophisticated concept of “badge engineering”, where two manufacturers sell virtually identical versions of the same product.
Badge engineering has existed for decades – the first BMW of 1927 was rebadged Austin 7 – and still happens today. Luckily, more flexible factories and increased consumer awareness mean this rather cynical practice is increasingly rare, and the similarities between new cars are usually invisible to the casual observer.
As you’d expect, all this can make being a car journalist tricky. But I’m not complaining; platform sharing has made the motoring landscape more diverse and exciting than ever.