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Automotive ADD

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I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on the outside looking in as the industry has consolidated, wondering how all this mess was going to come together. Consolidation is one thing. Having the engineering resources, cash flow, and management consistency necessary to coordinate the process of renewing the multitude of vehicles now joined together is tremendous, especially in an industry known for attention deficit disorder; an almost pathological need to change the plans of any predecessor dumb enough to have created “a plan.”

VW was the early favorite among industry insiders, its strategy producing a bewildering array of vehicles from a surprisingly low number of platforms. Then the lines blurred. In Europe, Skoda Octavias and VW Passats consist of many of the same parts, but have wildly divergent prices. VW Golf wagons sit next to their Bora (Jetta) sisters, with little to distinguish them other than the price and front fascia. Phaetons compete with Audis…and so on. New CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder is trying to make sense of former CEO Ferdinand Piech’s master plan, and resuscitate the formerly hot main brand, VW.

Nissan and Renault have done well by staying out of each other’s way. And Nissan will continue to do well in Asia and North America, Renault in Europe. They will clash where they sell side-by-side, and North America may feel pressured to use a common platform too small for the market if costs ever get out of line.

GM got engaged to a majority of the world’s single automakers as though it was passing out roses on ABC’s The Batchelor. Saab, Subaru, Isuzu, Fiat, Daewoo… Common platforms are now starting to make their way across this automotive United Nations, and there are troubling signs. Subaru Imprezas and Chevy TrailBlazers sold as Saabs. Daewoos sold as Chevys in a reprise of the bad old Geo days. GMC’s Envoy rebadged as an Isuzu. Fiat in near-freefall on the verge of Alfa’s relaunch in the U.S. This conglomeration will be fascinating to watch, especially when it comes time to redesign one or more platform. The tradeoffs will probably spawn its own line of consultants and business books.

After tentative first steps, DaimlerChrysler has created something of a workable strategy that, unfortunately, diminishes Chrysler’s contribution while vastly increasing its models and individuality. This could be the model for others to follow. However, it will begin to get fun when the Germans occupying the Big Office of their respective satellite car companies start jockeying for the chairman’s chair back in Stuttgart. Faced with the prospect of coordinating this monster while making their own mark, it remains to be seen if it will change for the better.

I feel odd saying anything, having poked an inquisitive finger in Ford’s direction numerous times. But the changes in direction coming from the putative number two car maker recently is stunning. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the company’s very future depends on how many variants it can pull off Mazda’s 6 platform. And the Lincoln versions (a small sport sedan and SUV) boggle the mind. Apparently no one in Dearborn has read James A. Ward’s The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company, much less Thomas Bonsall’s Disaster In Dearborn. Of course, if I was a Hollywood producer, this one item could spawn a blockbuster movie. I call it: X-Type 2: Attack of the Clones.

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