Go global or stay home.
That's the rallying cry for the auto industry, especially the Detroit Three - Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. No longer can they afford to develop and produce high-volume vehicles specific to North America. The exception might be full-size pickup trucks and SUVs based on the same platform, because they sell in massive volumes, keeping unit development costs within reach. Another factor is that profit per unit in this class is among the highest in the industry.
But development and production costs are more critical for smaller, less expensive vehicles. Here every dollar saved can be used to keep prices down in the face of competition from throughout the world. While there are some "global" platforms in use today we are on the cusp of a whole new movement, a new generation of these universal platforms.
The first of these arrive this summer from Ford and Mazda in the form of the 2011 Ford Fiesta and Mazda2. These subcompacts place both companies in a new segment, below the Focus and Mazda3 size and price-wise, but will do so without saddling consumers with the lack of refinement associated with small, inexpensive cars. The duo share a common platform despite Ford having recently sold the majority of its stake in Mazda. Development of the two vehicles took place in parallel and they will be built in different plants around the world, using different engines and transmissions.
Ford is leading the pack in this effort to utilize global development to control costs. The Fiesta will be followed by a new-generation Focus. But this one, instead of being a one-off unique to North America, will be a carbon copy of one currently on offer in Europe.
The same platform will also be used for a new-to-North America multi-purpose vehicle, the C-Max. The first-generation C-Max was sold in Europe based on an earlier version of the C-1 platform that also underpinned the European Focus, Mazda5 and various Volvos. Ford has at least 10 "top hats" - as it refers to the different bodies perched on the updated C-1 platform - in development for various global markets.
Industry insiders say this is the first truly global Ford architecture, one that can be built at any Ford passenger car plant in the world, using different bodies.
The economies of scale brought by producing millions of units off a single platform, brings serious savings in development and production costs from design and engineering to purchasing. Ford will thus join Volkswagen and Renault/Nissan, which have made an art of spinning unique vehicles off common platforms. Ford is expected to get two million units a year off the C-1 platform, almost half of them being the Focus, which will be produced simultaneously in Europe (Spain, France, Germany and Russia), North America (Michigan), China and South America.
Unlike previous supposedly "global" vehicles, which were modified enough to suit local markets that they required different tools and stampings, the new C-1 will be uniform. This means that engines and transmissions can be developed globally as well. A set of brand-new transmissions has already been completed and a range of gasoline, diesel and hybrid powertrains will be used in different markets. Other savings come from the ability to use common electrical architectures and components. This will allow the company to offer features that were previously unheard of in such a small vehicle - everything from ABS and electronic stability control to navigation and upscale entertainment systems.
All this also places pressure on suppliers to become global as well. Industry analysts say that by 2014 two-thirds of the vehicles built by Ford and GM will be on global platforms, up from 10 per cent today. Chrysler, trailing at present, will join the move thanks to its new Italian parent, and Fiat's continued search for another partner so it can take advantage of the resultant economies of scale.
Grant Thornton International, a consulting firm, predicts the next five years "will see some of the most profound changes in the North American auto industry since the post-World War II shakeout that established GM, Ford and Chrysler as dominant players."