It's the same difference

When is a Ford not a Ford? Answer: when it's a Probe or a Maverick. Despite the blue oval badges on the cars and on the dealers selling them, and despite what the ads imply and the image conveys (Ford: sensible, reliable and ritzy in an Essex sort of way), this coup and offroader are not really Fords at all. They are Mazdas and Nissans respectively - Japanese cars rebadged by Britain's most successful car maker to cash in on its brand name.

The fact that they are also sales flops suggests either the great British punter is not as gullible as Ford thinks or, more likely, Ford was wise not to engineer cars like the Probe and the Maverick in the first place.

Car makers sharing componentry is not new, of course. It is happening more and more. Soon we will see Jaguars using Ford platforms, Rolls-Royce using BMW engines and Mercedes-Benz making a car for Swatch. But there is a difference between sharing some components, and selling rebadged versions of the same car. Sure: Austin, Riley and Morris cars, back in the Sixties, were much the same. If we go right back, Nissans used to be Austin Sevens and so, for that matter, were the first BMWS. New car manufacturers had to start somewhere, I suppose. What is different now is that we see big makers competing against each other using the same products.

Apart from the Ford Maverick (rebadged Nissan Terrane: an equally spectacular sales turkey in Britain) and Probe (a rebodied Mazda MX-6), we find the "new" 4x4 Vauxhall Monterey (actually an Isuzu Trooper which is far from new).

Rovers - all Rovers apart from the arthritic Mini and Rover 100 (ne Metro) - are not really Rovers at all. Next time Rover's booming profitability and international sales success make your patriotic heart beat faster, and some politician rabbits on about Britain's motor industry resurgence, remember that Rovers are simply rebodied (and, in some cases, re-engined) Hondas. And, in many cases, old-model Hondas at that.

Ladas used to be old Fiats (although most are not any more) and newcomers such as Daewoo and Proton are merely prettified Vauxhalls and Mitsubishis respectively, pensioned off by the donor makers. The equally forgettable Kia Pride is simply the last generation Mazda 121 with whitewall tyres. The Seat Marbella is an old-hat Fiat Panda, exceptional only because the Spaniards somehow manage to make a Panda even worse than the Italians.

The trend - same car, different name - is set to grow. Coming soon is Ford's new MPV people carrier, the Galaxy. The observant may notice that Volkswagen will launch its MPV at much the same time, and it looks much the same. No wonder: the Galaxy and the Volkswagen Sharan are the same car. Only the disguise has been changed to protect the guilty and fool the innocent.

In the autumn, Peugeot, Citron and Fiat will all launch their MPV challengers in Britain. Smell a rat? You're right.

They are all the same car, and a pretty dismal-looking thing it is, too. Quite how such individualistic manufacturers as Citron, Peugeot and Fiat, probably the boldest three names in European mass-produced car design, have the gall to launch cars which look identical to each other (badgework, grilles and lights not withstanding) and yet still talk openly about the increasingly important role of design and flair to differentiate the meek from the wild, is beyond me. This Franco-Italian joint venture MPV is the ultimate cynical motoring appliance - white goods on wheels.

How can a vehicle which must satisfy the diverse needs of Fiat (progressive design, sharp handling, raspy inspirational engines), Citron (peerless ride comfort, oddball styling, unrivalled seating suppleness) and Peugeot (masterful suspension control, toughness with just a twist of Gallic charm) be a trend-setter? It's a cobbled-up compromise.

One can see the benefit of these same-car-different-badge machines, of course. If they are jointly developed (as in the case of the Fiat/Peugeot/Citron MPV), they cut the individual maker's engineering bill. Or, if one maker sells another the car, the seller gets some of his development costs back, and the buyer gets a new model on the cheap.

The problem is that, like most things on the cheap, the result is often disappointing. As cars move beyond the appliance stage and become increasingly emotive purchases - bought because the purchaser likes the colour or the label or the style or the image, or because there is some genuine engineering novelty on offer - so there is real hope that cars can break off the conservative shackles which have hamstrung them over the past 30 years. Novel engineering and bold design are not just hopes: they are expectations.

The same-car-different-badge philosophy runs counter to the progressive strain starting to permeate the car industry. Fiat, Peugeot and Citron, in quiet moments, will all admit they are not particularly enamoured of their MPVs (after all: it is only part-Fiat, part-Peugeot and part- Citron). Their justification is simple: they allow the companies access to a market that, otherwise, they probably would not compete in. This enables them to put the bulk of their investment in more exciting and important cars, such as the latest Punto, 306 or Xantia.

This is plausible. But it is still not much of a reason why anybody should buy one.

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