Volkswagen's cute New Beetle and Audi's edgy TT two-seat sport coupe don't seem to have much in common. And Buick's white-bread Regal would never get a second look from fans of Chevrolet's NASCAR-flavored Monte Carlo SS.
But each pair are automotive "twins," joined not just by a marketing slogan or corporate heritage but by the automotive DNA of engineering and shared parts. Twins are not uncommon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 472 words Type of Material: Correction
Platform sharing--An Aug. 28 article in Highway 1 on shared components in the auto industry incorrectly stated that Daimler-Chrysler's Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler units plan to share platforms, or automotive underpinnings. Chrysler Group spokesman Jan Zverina said the two brands will share some components but not entire platforms.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 11, 2002 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Business Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Platform sharing: Our Aug. 28 story on platform and component sharing by auto makers incorrectly stated that DaimlerChrysler plans to share platforms among its Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler products. The company will share components among its brands, but not entire platforms.
When Daryl Nishioka's beloved Acura Legend was stolen, the Huntington Beach man seriously thought of replacing it with a Honda Accord EX, twin to the more expensive 2002 Acura TL. He is such a fan of Honda's cars that his friends joke that Nishioka's red blood cells are H-shaped like the car maker's logo.
But he ended up going with the Acura for $30,500, or about $8,000 more than the Accord. "You get the snob appeal of an Acura, and it's a little quieter than the Accord and handles better," he said. "I got more car."
Those two cars were spun, though, from the same basic engineering. Known as platform sharing, it is a common tactic today as auto makers strive to keep a lid on development and production costs.
Savvy consumers can benefit by knowing which vehicles are twins--and which parts are shared. A buyer who wants but cannot afford the luxurious Audi A6 can get most of the same engineering and power train in its Volkswagen Passat V-6 twin.
The practice is straight out of a 70-year-old General Motors Corp. play book, said John Wolkonowicz of the Bulin Group, a Northville, Mich., consulting company that helps auto makers zero in on what consumers will want.
"General Motors in the '30s invented the whole concept," and others copied, he said.
For many of the Route 66 generation, going from a Chevrolet to a Pontiac--or Oldsmobile or Buick--was a rite of passage culminating in the ultimate symbol of success: a cushy Cadillac.
GM's four-wheeled steppingstones were often built on common platforms because, after all, "the future of the corporation and its earning power, we asserted, depended upon its ability to design and produce cars of maximum utility ... at minimum cost," former GM Chief Executive Alfred P. Sloan wrote in his autobiography. Sloan, one of the architects of platform sharing, died in 1966.
One result of his innovative thinking is the proliferation of makes and models available to consumers today, said Jim Hossack, a consultant with Tustin-based AutoPacific Inc., a global automotive market research firm.
Development costs used to dictate that no car could be successful in the U.S. market unless the auto maker could sell hundreds of thousands without having to make more than minimal changes from model year to model year.
Today, car makers routinely produce limited-run niche models from shared platform programs--Ford's resurrected Thunderbird roadster, for example, from the platform developed for the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type sedans--and count them successful, and profitable, if just 25,000 to 50,000 are sold.
The Japanese, especially, took careful notes.
Their astounding success in the auto market is built largely on the economies of using twins to spread development, engineering and manufacturing and parts costs across the broadest spectrum possible.
It all starts with the platform, which used to be a physical thing--the steel underbody of a car or truck--but more and more is defined as a set of engineering specifications that determine the optimum locations for a vehicle's basic pieces to ensure the best handling, ride, balance, safety and ease of production.
"The auto industry isn't in agreement about how to define a platform anymore," said Mike Michels, spokesman for Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., a company that has based a large and growing lineup of cars and trucks on relatively few platforms.
"We talk about platforms at Toyota in terms of the percentage of shared components. So it is not literally the steel underbody stamping but the aggregate of common parts that different vehicles might share."
Chrysler spokesman Jan Zverina said his company's engineers and designers stick to the original idea. "The platform can be considered to be the underbody structure of a vehicle," he said.
Platforms now are modular; they can be stretched or shortened, widened or narrowed to fit different designs. The advent of the so-called crossover or car-based sport utility vehicle, such as the Lexus RX300 from Toyota's luxury division, means that completely different kinds of vehicles can share a platform.
At Nissan, for example, the new 350Z sports car rides on a platform shared with the Infiniti G35 sedan and the forthcoming G35 coupe, M45 sedan and FX45 sport wagon.
Toyota's Camry also provides the underpinnings of the Lexus RX300 SUV and ES300 sedan and the Toyota Sienna minivan, Avalon sedan and Highlander SUV.
"You want to have fewer platforms. It takes hundreds of millions to develop a car line," said Gordon Wangers, president of AMCI, a Vista, Calif.-based auto product planning group.