This approach to manufacturing efficiency is sliding out of favor as brands strive to create distinctive identities in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Likewise, consumers are demanding more distinctive products that reflect their lifestyles and vehicle tastes. So when Cadillac wanted to add a pickup to its range a few years ago, the GM division didn't simply rebadge a Chevy Silverado, it created its own variation, the Escalade EXT, by utilizing corporate resources to accelerate development. This distinctive vehicle capitalized on the popularity of the brand's SUV and offered Cadillac buyers the styling, refinement, and luxury they demand in a unique package.

While rebadging still exists, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, and other automakers have taken development and production efficiency to a new level by using common architecture. A vehicle's architecture includes its frame, subframes, suspension, drivetrains, and specific mechanical details such as the way the brake lines are routed and how the exhaust system is laid out. Because these elements are invisible to consumers, they can be shared among different vehicles without the redundancy being noticed. The elements a driver forms a relationship with-styling, interior packaging, performance, handling-can then be tailored to suit a particular brand's character. It's similar to building tract houses. An architect designs a solid structural foundation upon which a builder, using only a few different floor plans and varying trimwork, lighting, and paint, can create an entire neighborhood.

GM's GMT-800 model is the blueprint for the company's full-size truck. This versatile architecture has spawned 63 variants of pickups and SUVs, including the Chevy Suburban and Silverado, the Cadillac Escalade, and the Hummer H2. The cost of developing the GMT-800 and adapting manufacturing plants to build it has been spread among all those vehicles, enabling GM to bring diverse vehicles to market quickly and cost effectively. Likewise, Nissan's F-Alpha platform has resulted in the Titan, Armada, Pathfinder, Frontier, Xterra, and Infiniti QX56. And Honda's light-truck platform is used by the Pilot, Odyssey, Ridgeline, and Acura MDX.

Due to the enormous R&D, engineered flexibility, and manufacturing commitment involved, developing an all-new platform is a long-term strategy for an automaker. The accelerated development time this allows for platform-based models shaves cost, however, with efficiencies realized all the way through manufacturing, thanks to common assembly lines, supplier contracts, and even parts. Technology that can be used across various platforms provides greater return on investment, enabling more resources spent on big-ticket items like powertrain engineering. This approach also allows problems to be discovered and resolved quickly, and it necessitates fewer costly, physical prototypes be constructed.