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Keeping it in the family
The industry shift toward multiple uses of a common architecture is something customers are going to have to live with
Thursday, May 20, 2004

When people consider vehicles in the competitive sport-sedan segment, they often do not include the Jaguar X-Type with the BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and other worthy models.

To a large extent, this is because the X-Type's credentials are in doubt, as it's based on a less-expensive sedan Ford sells in Europe called the Mondeo, which was briefly sold in North America in the late 1990s as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.

Essentially, not enough people want to spend $40,000 to $50,000 on a car with such humble origins, even if it's now wearing an honoured brand.

Something of the same stigma is attached to the Audi A4, which shares many of its important mechanical bits with the Volkswagen Passat in North America and the Seat Toledo and Skoda Octavia in Europe, and the Lexus ES330, a sibling of the dowdy Toyota Camry.

The most famous, or infamous, example probably involved General Motors's use of the same platform in the 1980s to create four virtually indistinguishable cars bearing different brands -- the Buick Century, Chevrolet Celebrity, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and Pontiac 6000. It was a process that gave the term "badge engineering" a bad name.

Clearly, consumers are not that excited about all of products that come out of this trend of sharing platforms between brands.

As risky as using the same platforms and many of the same components is for the world's car companies, it's something that they -- and their customers -- are going to have to live with in the years to come.

For cost-cutting reasons, most of the auto manufacturers are moving toward multiple uses of a common platform, sometimes called architecture or chassis.

Ford, for example, will use an slightly enlarged version of the Mazda6 compact sedan as the basis for no less than 10 different models wearing Ford, Mercury and Lincoln badges.

The Detroit-based Chrysler Group arm of Germany's DaimlerChrysler has reorganized its product development process in a way that will rely more heavily on the multiple use of certain architectures.

When it comes to making several models from one common platform, says Gary Cowger, president of GM's North American operations, the "key is in architectures that are flexible enough to allow you to build truly distinctive products.''

Cowger says his company has done this as well as anyone with its Epsilon platform, which is under the direct control of Gene Stefanyshyn, a native of Red Lake, Ont.

Stefanyshyn is the vehicle-line executive responsible for creating the Epsilon architecture and overseeing its development into various GM models, including: the Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu Maxx; Saab 9-3; the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra and Signum; Pontiac G6; and a new mid-size sedan for Saturn.

The way Stefanyshyn sees it, a common architecture can be beneficial for buyers of all models involved, regardless of how much they pay for their new cars.

When you have to split the platform-development money over five different models, Stefanyshyn says, every platform suffers, even the most expensive.

"But when you develop a common architecture," he says, "then, you can spend more than you could on any single platform. This makes them all better, from the most expensive to the least expensive."

The company then takes the rest of its product-development funds and pours them into things that differentiate the brands, such as exterior design, interior fitments and running gear to give each model a different attitude.

Stefanyshyn says the proof is very much in the product pudding, pointing to differences in style and driving behaviour between the Vectra, 9-3 and Malibu. Even two vehicles that are unique in the same way (long wheelbase and short bodies) like the Opel Signum and Malibu Maxx, he says, are still considerably different in the way they ride and are equipped.

While the buyer of an individual model gets the benefit of a common architecture, Stefanyshyn says, the greatest beneficiaries are the ones who buy the least-expensive model. In Epsilon's case, the Malibu and Malibu Maxx.

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