Automotive competition is fierce, with manufacturers battling to capture consumers' fancies and achieve segment leadership, even if dominance is short lived. Billions of dollars are invested each year to create bold new models that hopefully will fuel consumer passions and drive showroom traffic. A single successful breakthrough model can give a brand a critical image boost and generate interest in its other models.
In this big-money game, automakers have become increasingly adroit at maximizing their investment through platform sharing, also known as using a common architecture. With either term, the concept is the same: Sharing components and design among different models means vehicles can be more rapidly produced and cost-effectively improved. Automakers benefit from platform sharing in many ways-and so do consumers.
Just a few years ago, rebadging was an industry-wide method used to fill dealer lots and offer more choices to buyers. With rebadging, one brand renames and markets a vehicle from another brand with only minor branding alterations or strategic sheetmetal differences. For example, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins are differentiated essentially by trim details, allowing both brands to cost-effectively come to market with an exhaustive choice of pickup variants, offering regular, extended, and crew cab models, each available in 2WD and 4WD.
Mazda also has used this approach, applying its own sheetmetal to the Ford Ranger, subtly adapting the truck to its own brand design values. On its own, Mazda would have struggled to make a business case for developing a stand-alone pickup model given its projected sales volume.
The most-overt recent examples would be within GM's midsize range, where the retired Oldsmobile Bravada became the Buick Rainier, and the GMC Envoy is sold also as an Isuzu Ascender. These products feature minimal differentiation, with no sheetmetal changes.
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.
The sharing of architecture can be applied in many different ways. Take the Hummer H2 from GM, for example: The H2 is derived from the GMT-800 platform, allowing Hummer engineers to tap into a broad array of existing components to adapt to their needs. The front end of the frame was spun off from the 2500 Series SUVs (3/4-ton Suburban and Yukon XL), while the rear portion was borrowed from the 1500 Series (Tahoe and Yukon) for its five-link suspension components. Although both the front and rear sections of the frame were modified so that the H2 would have improved approach and departure angles for traveling off road, the rest of the components were the same as the heavy-duty utilities', right down to dies and metals. In cases where new elements had to be developed, the previous work on developing the suspension geometry alone saved months in the process.
In another example, a few years back when Chevy saw an opening in the pickup truck market for a vehicle with increased cargo and passenger flexibility, it used common architecture to create the Avalanche. The company was able to bring the truck to market with a short lead time and thus remain a competitive, dynamic player. The Avalanche got its frame and suspension components from the Suburban, as well as its interior from the A- to C-pillar. The powertrains were common to many GMT-800 models, allowing the major pieces to come together quite efficiently. This permitted engineers to focus on how to distinguish the Avalanche, with its innovative midgate, bed storage bins, and protective body cladding. So while the new truck was born from shared components, the product itself remains unique in GM's lineup. And just as important, the Avalanche remains distinct in the marketplace even after a few production years.
In the case of Nissan's F-Alpha platform, it was developed initially for the full-size truck and SUV program: Titan, Armada, and Infiniti QX56. When the engineers sat down to lay out the platform, they considered everything from frame rail spacing, suspension geometry, and even wire harness routing to create a "clean" package that could be shared among other vehicles. For 2005, the
F-Alpha platform has been adapted to underpin the all-new Frontier pickup range and Pathfinder and Xterra sport/utes. The midsize F-Alpha uses frame rails the same width as those on the original, full-size iteration. Likewise, the crossmembers are in basically the same location, and the suspension geometry is similar, but with shorter control arms. The Titan may have a V-8, but the midsize vehicles' V-6 has virtually the same exhaust routing. The key differences between the full-size and midsize versions? The gauge of steel is not identical on the two iterations, because the midsize frame doesn't need to be as strong as the full-size one.
This upscaling, downsizing, and reconfiguring of platforms is accomplished via virtual reality. Before the advent of high-tech computers, automakers would typically spend about five years developing a vehicle, from raw design to production prototype. While the Titan took four years to develop, the Frontier was done in fewer than three. Because the F-Alpha platform was designed on computers, Nissan engineers could use the same basic layout for its midsize trucks, with modifications based on the lower gross vehicle weight, more compact body, and smaller drivetrain.
Bottom line, the main reason sharing common architectures has become such a critical part of today's vehicle development programs is that it saves money-lots of it. And the millions upon millions of dollars saved by automakers feeds into the bottom-line price of their vehicles. When a manufacturer offers an all-new, much-improved product with more power, interior space, and feature content than the model it replaces, yet holds the line on price, shared platforms may have been the key to performing this mechanical miracle.
All in the Family
Vehicles that share common architectures
Chevrolet TrailBlazer, TrailBlazer EXT
GMC Envoy, Envoy XL, Envoy XUV
Cadillac Escalade/Escalade ESV
Cadillac Escalade EXT
Chevrolet Silverado, HD, hybrid
GMC Sierra, HD, hybrid
GMC Yukon Denali, Yukon Denali XL
GMC Yukon, Yukon XL
Pontiac Montana SV6
Chrysler Town & Country
Volkswagen TouaregNissan Armada
Toyota Land Cruiser
Lexus LX 470
Lexus RX 330
Lexus GX 470