Motoring: Why the latest Big Idea is not so big

The platform strategy can go wrong when cars designed for one purpose - family hatchbacks for instance - try to get ideas beyond their station in life

PLATFORMS WERE funny shoes worn in the Seventies and are the things you stand on while you wait for your train to be delayed. Now they're all the rage in the car industry.

"Platform strategies" mean more choice for the customer and cheaper cars for the manufacturer. On the face of it, they are thoroughly good things. But there is also an insidious side to this latest Big Idea from the car industry, especially if you're in the market for a "prestige" car.

A platform strategy enables a mass car maker to offer many different models using very few different sets of mechanical components. A single platform - suspension, engines, gearboxes and many other auxiliary bits - can sire such disparate vehicles as the Ford Ka, Ford Fiesta and Ford Puma.

Same car, different clothes, different character, different market segment. Ford wins and, because we punters get more choice, we win too. In the case of Ford, all three cars are roughly the same size and the same price, so there is minimal compromise in sharing parts.

Where the platform strategy can potentially go wrong is when cars designed for one purpose - a family hatchback, for instance - try to get ideas beyond their station in life. The new Audi TT sports car, one of the most drop-dead gorgeous cars of 1998 and the subject of huge waiting lists in most countries, is - underneath that voluptuous skin - a Volkswagen Golf. Of course this makes it cheaper for Audi to make. Yet others may argue that a premium-brand sports car should not be riding around on the mechanicals of a humble hatchback, never mind that there is a turbocharger installed to add a touch of spice.

There are myriad other examples. The Saab 9-3, which has one of the car world's most desirable badges on its nose and rump, shares the platform of the Vauxhall Vectra, one of Europe's most ordinary cars. It is the 9-3's major weakness. Saab, in the days before General Motors bought it, used to have bespoke mechanicals and were all the better for it. Most Saab owners, of course, have no idea about their cars' humble mechanical ancestry. But, for me, it's a bit like buying a valuable watch only to find that it shares its movement with a pounds 10 Casio. What's unseen is often as important as what's more obvious.

There are very few premium-brand cars that have the hearts of a thoroughbred, contrary to what their manufacturers like to pretend. The Audi A4 is a Volkswagen Passat in drag. It is a fine car, because the Volkswagen group is expert at borrowing and tuning mechanicals. But the Passat, which is cheaper, is also better. Ultimately the A4 is a pointless vehicle, a pretty marketing gimmick aimed at those keen on some badge one-upmanship. Current Rovers are Hondas with chrome grilles and lots of walnut inside. These superficialities cannot compensate for the lack of true mechanical class, no matter how much Rover might pretend otherwise.

One of the keys to BMW's success is that it remains a thoroughbred manufacturer. Its 3-series is not a jumped-up family hatchback, cleverly disguised as a sports saloon. It was designed, from the outset, to be the best possible car of its type. As such, it has rear-wheel drive, because that offers more feedback for the driver, and it offers a straight-six cylinder engine, because that is the optimal configuration for such a car.

Those who use front-wheel drive and four-cylinder motors (virtually all of BMW's rivals in the sports saloon sector) do so because they are following platform strategies. In other words, they are saving money by pooling parts.

This can, of course, also save you - the punter - money. And it's the reason why "prestige" Audis, Saabs, Alfas, Rovers and some Volvos are cheaper. But it's also the main reason why, generally, they are not as good.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea