2008 Volvo C30
Time was, especially among car enthusiasts, this was the common question: “What's under the hood?” Time was.
2008 Chrysler 300
2008 Chevrolet TrailBlazer
Today, across an increasingly broad sweep of drivers – from enthusiasts to those for whom a vehicle is only a here-to-there appliance, a more proper question is this: “What's under your car?”
It’s a great question and a consumer-friendly one, because even as manufacturers cut the number of platforms on which they build their cars, it means that carmakers will be able to build many more choices, since each model does not demand a full and costly research and development program for its underpinnings. It is also a boon to an auto industry looking to become more efficient, more global, more flexible and scratching to save money on research, development and manufacturing.
The result is a global sharing of platforms, sometimes called architecture, within companies and between competitors. Alliances are being formed across both oceans to share platforms beneficial to all sides and today's shared platform is not yesterday's.
What is a platform?
Most people think of a platform as the basic pan of a car, but it's far more than that. When you talk platform or architecture today, you not only speak of the belly of the beast, but also a system that allows various engines, transmissions and suspension systems to be mounted, or tweaked, on different vehicles that are not recognizable as kin from the outside.
Most Americans who drive Ford Fusions
, for instance, don't realize that their cars' platforms were developed in Germany, by a Japanese company, Mazda, for a Sweden-based company aligned with one from Michigan, Volvo and Ford. They also don’t realize that the cars are built at a Ford plant in Hermosillo, Mexico or that the tollbooth lineup of the Mazda 3
, Volvo S40
, Volvo C30
, and the upcoming Ford Focus
- a string of very distinct cars - all share the same architectural DNA, Ford's C1 platform. The C1 is a compact class platform, adaptable for front or all-wheel-drive. It will underpin certain Ford, Volvo and Mazda products at least through 2011.
Ford, however, is certainly not alone. Nissan, for instance, is teaming with Chrysler to produce cars and trucks.
“We have been investing massively in global operations,” says Nissan's head of global marketing, Simon Sproule. “We are going to develop cars that can be sold anywhere.”
This has already led to an interesting pas de deux, between Nissan and Chrysler. The platform of the Nissan Versa
will sit beneath a Chrysler design for South America, according to Sproule. The Dodge Ram
pickup truck platform will anchor a Nissan redesign attempt to come up with a replacement for the Titan
, which did not sell well. Also, a platform being developed by Nissan will be shared with Chrysler to give the American company the small car platform it lacks.
What can we drive in the US?
In the US, for instance, we will likely end up with versions of small cars American companies have built in Europe, but are sold only there. That’s why American tourists abroad always come home asking, “Why can't we get that car here?”
While Japanese automakers Mazda
never gave up on the small cars they market in the USA – and sell in huge numbers at home – American companies relied heavily, and for too long, on SUV and pickup truck sales.
The Americans got left behind because their system was built on the economic architecture of a single factory cranking out a single product that would sell in the hundreds of thousands.
That’s changing rapidly though, with truck plants being shut down this summer and GM even considering selling its Hummer brand, once a halo car for the bold, the big, the brawny. Even the German Autobahn burners BMW
, with its Mini
models, and Mercedes-Benz
, with its Smart
cars, have vehicles to offer in this vortex of escalating gasoline prices.
Today, with niche after niche of automobile types – SUVs
, compact hatchbacks
, fuel-efficient hybrids - combined with much tougher global competition, some models are considered successful if as few as 30,000 are sold. That means factories cannot be devoted to the production of that single vehicle and they must be quickly adaptable to market change.
Enter the shared platform, which lets factories build multiple vehicles all on the same platform and sell more vehicles with better profit. For example, DaimlerChrysler can build the Chrysler 300
, Dodge Charger
and Dodge Magnum
in one factory and is adding production of the two-door Dodge Challenger
as well. Or General Motors can use the platform of its Saturn and European Opel models to produce a common run of vehicles.
As the volume of cars built on the same platform, “gets bigger, your costs go down,” says Mazda's Jeremy Barnes, head of product and corporate communications.
It's not that shared platforms are necessarily new. In fact, American companies used them in a couple of less than stellar instances.
First there was rebadging. This was simply building basically the same car and adding upscale accoutrements. Your Ford became your Mercury, became your Lincoln as you climbed the automotive food chain. Your Chevrolet became your Pontiac became your Cadillac. In SUVs, your Chevrolet TrailBlazer
was your Oldsmobile Bravada
, was your GMC Envoy
, was your Buick Rainier
, was your Saab 9-7X
But Americans, particularly in the late baby boom generation, not wanting to climb the same chain as their parents, caught on and looked abroad.
It was a great moneymaker for American manufacturers. First, it came cheap, using already extant platforms from popular pickup trucks. But it also came with, as we later learned, a hazard. By putting the “box” that was the high-riding SUV atop the floppy leaf springs of the pickups – built to haul heavy loads, not a couple commuting to work – there arose the chance of instability, rollover and death.
So the Americans adjusted by building SUVs on their own, safer, independent rear suspension platforms. And they sold. But then the gasoline crisis intruded, and American builders had no way to suddenly ramp up for what was suddenly in demand: a small, fuel efficient car.
Now they are forming alliances across both oceans to share platforms beneficial to all sides. And today's shared platform is not yesterday's. Further, even as the industry globalizes, safety and environmental standards are doing the same, making it easier to build cars sold globally and adjustments to changing consumer demands can be made far more quickly and efficiently.
“We're able to spin off from a global platform in 18 months without having to deep freeze our product,” says Nissan’s Sproule.
Mazda's Barnes points out that, “It’s not rebadging when you share architecture that can be adjusted for distinct vehicles over time.''
In fact, it's not rebadging. It's common sense that meets a global economy in which the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared, “The World is Flat.”
And even as his economic profile reveals a world in which the middle class, in particular, becomes more globally balanced (meaning a drop in living standards in the US middle class and a climb elsewhere) – and as the poor get poorer and the rich get richer – there is also a leveling out of the American middle class dream: American big steel as the ladder once climbed from Chevy to Buick to Pontiac.
Now we are saying, “We want our small cars, and we want them now!”