Out of one, many
By Royal Ford
Cars may look different, but shared underbody components produce savings for automakers, more choices for consumers
On one side of a highway is a line of distinct driving experiences: the Dodge Charger, the Chrysler 300, and the juiced-up 300C with a Hemi, followed by a Dodge Magnum wagon. Far back is a fast-approaching Dodge Challenger.
Different as they are, the cars in line with the Charger have shared LX platforms beneath their skins. Same, too, with the Volvos, whose so-called P1 platforms also share underpinnings with Ford and Mazda.
As big auto companies try to shrink to regain profitability, some manufacturers have realized that small can be good when it comes to expected sales for certain models. And that means many more choices for consumers.
Instead of trying to sell a single model by the hundreds of thousands to turn a profit, automakers realize they can make money off much smaller lots of different makes and models, as long as they're all plopped down on the same flexible rectangle.
The platform is basically the frame, suspension, rolling gear, and maybe even electronic controls that can be programmed, vehicle to vehicle, for performance, safety, and remote power features, among other tasks. Development costs are saved because their results are shared.
Atop these shared platforms can ride wildly different examples of fluid design. Not having to start from scratch with each model allows carmakers to spend money and be creative with what goes on top of these standardized platforms, offering consumers myriad choices among cars that otherwise might not have been made.
The 9-7X sport utility vehicle, for example, looks uniquely Saab. Yet beneath its skin lurks the same base platform as that of the GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, and Chevrolet TrailBlazer, all of which are in the General Motors family.
Consumers probably would not have had the chance to buy the 9-7X if Saab, facing sales of just 7,000, had to build it from scratch, said company spokesman Jan-Willem Vester. Yet Saab needed the car because its customers were defecting to buy other makers' SUVs. Shared platform to the rescue.
''The beauty is, you do not have to reinvent the wheel," Vester said. ''But it is distinct. It meets our brand promise."
Not long ago, carmakers would introduce, say, 30 new models in a given year, said Larry Keeley, president of Doblin Inc., a Chicago consultancy; now, three and four times that number come rolling onto launch stages at auto shows, even as total sales remain static.
The story continues
Source: The Boston Globe
By Royal Ford, Globe Staff
February 19, 2006