Whose production line is it anyway?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
What you see is not always what you get - at least with cars. Increasingly motor makers are using badges of convenience to get into new markets, the upshot being that some Fords are actually Nissans or Mazdas or VWs; some Mazdas are actually Fords; many Rovers are Hondas; at least one Fiat is also a Peugeot; and most Citroens are actually Peugeots.

To make matters worse, car salesmen - as ever - are not doing their bit to help. A Ford salesman is unlikely to tell prospective Galaxy MPV customers that actually, sir, you are much better off to go straight to your local Seat dealer and ask for an Alhambra because, sir, it is exactly the same car which at your Seat dealer costs a good deal less. Have a nice day.

The Ford dealer won't say that. But we will. A similarly specified Alhambra is palpably better value than a Galaxy or a Volkswagen Sharan - all identical cars, all made at the same Portuguese factory. The only difference is the badge. And the price. And the warranty. The Seat and the Volkswagen have three-year guarantees, the Ford only 12 months - although you can extend that to three years (at a premium).

Why is the Seat cheaper? Simple: it has an inferior image. Many people just don't want to buy a car named after the bit of the vehicle that you sit on.

Ford is probably the master of badge engineering. Its good but daftly named Probe is actually an American-made Mazda coupe. The Maverick is a Portuguese-built Nissan. These joint ventures help reduce development costs, making it cheaper to enter new sectors.

Ford also helps other makers do the same thing. Its excellent new Fiesta is also sold as a Mazda 121 in Europe. This Mazda is built in Dagenham and is about as Japanese as a Petticoat Lane barrow boy. I wonder how many Mazda customers, ever so happy with their 323s or their 626s or their old 121s, are considering buying a 121 because they like the quality of Japanese cars?

Few Mazda salesmen, I suspect, will let slip about the current 121's Essex provenance. But they'll probably happily bleat about its three-year warranty, much to the embarrassment of Ford, who offer no such thing on its own (identical) car. But before prospective Fiesta customers rush down to their Mazda dealers, it's worth doing some homework. Prices and equipment levels vary from model to model; the choice is not clear-cut.

The Ford Maverick and identical Nissan Terrano are both as bad as each other - buy a Jeep Cherokee or a Toyota RAV4 instead. But if you're in the market, the Maverick is the better priced, even though the Terrano has the longer warranty. There is little difference in resale values. The trade know they're clones, even if many punters don't.

Badges of convenience get no more contrived than with Rover and Honda. The two makers, culturally, have nothing in common. Rover stood for big, comfortable, loafing saloons, the motoring equivalents of English gaberdine raincoats and tweed jackets. Hondas are little sporty saloons with buzzy engines and kick-your-butt suspensions. Yet their marriage of convenience (a marriage of necessity for Rover) sired Rovers which suddenly took on the characteristics of Honda.

That's about to end, now that BMW calls the shots at Rover, but not before a succession of unfortunate cars. The last of the line is the Rover 400, a Honda Civic five-door with more brightwork and wood. It also has superior suspension to the British-made Honda, thanks to some meaningful Rover tweaks. It is the better of the two clones to buy.

One class up, we find the Rover 600 and Honda Accord. These are not so much clones as non-identical twins. Rover did more to the 600 than merely send a thank you card to Tokyo and bring in the carpenters. The Rover looks better, and is better.

Just as Ford and Volkswagen collaborated to bring us the Galaxy (aka Sharan or Alhambra) - the best MPV on the market - so Peugeot and Fiat linked hands to develop the Peugeot 806 (aka Citroen Synergie and Fiat Ulysse).

It looks like a van, is based on a van, and is extraordinary only in being amazingly roomy and in bastardising the reputations of three of the most charismatic makers in Europe. Few makers have tried as hard as Fiat to rekindle that old-fashioned Latin styling verve. In the new Fiat Coupe and Fiat Bravo, they have succeeded magnificently. The Ulysse, by comparison, looks about as distinctive as a cupboard.

Equally, recent Peugeot hatches and saloons have looked great. The 806, by comparison, belongs in the commercial vehicle part of the Peugeot showroom. How can makers who are so passionate about good design serve up this? The upside is that the 806/Synergie/Ulysse drives quite well. If you're tempted, the best looking member of this uninspired trio is the 806, but the best value is the Fiat.

Car makers don't just clone new cars. Far Eastern makers copy old ones. Daewoo, which has made such a big splash in Britain (but has fared less well in most other Western markets), sells old Vauxhalls as new Nexias and new Esperos.

The Nexia is actually a 10-year-old Astra. It's new in manufacture if not in technology, and comes with a P-plate and all the normal Daewoo bells-and-whistles support package. But it still makes much more sense to pop along to your local Vauxhall dealer and go to the Network Q used- car section, and buy a nice second-hand Astra for many thousands less than Daewoo will sell you a new one.

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