Meanwhile, Ford is moving in the opposite direction.
Ford is challenging the assumption that different world markets require unique design and engineering. As VW moves toward a potential diffusion of product architectures, Ford is consolidating its models into a one-world, one-architecture approach.
This spring Ford's U.S. dealers began receiving the redesigned compact Focus. Unlike the prior-generation car, it is the same Ford Focus that dealers in France, Germany, Belgium and England are selling, except for federal regulatory differences.
Ford made the same sweeping world consolidation last year on the subcompact Fiesta, and now intends to do the same with its worldwide compact SUV platform, which yields the Escape, and with its next-generation C/D-platform vehicles, which include the Ford Fusion and Edge crossover.
"Rather than have two teams of engineers in two engineering centers create two versions of the same model," reasons Ford's product spokesman Said Deep, "we're having one team create one version for all markets. If you get off a plane in Madrid, or you get off a plane in Beijing, you find the same car with the same parts."
Only a handful of parts, such as a front grille, might change on a model.
"If we can commonize our efforts, commonize our design, commonize our parts, you see the obvious savings from that," Deep says.
Automakers have wrestled for years with the way high-volume products are designed from market to market.
In the 1980s, before its portfolio expanded to luxury cars, SUVs, pickups and crossovers, upstart Honda Motor Co. confounded tradition by deriving most of its global product portfolio from a single vehicle platform. By contrast, General Motors has written and rewritten its platform playbook a number of times as it rode herd over new products, old products, multiple brands, foreign subsidiaries, new technologies and diverse world markets.
GM, too, now envisions a more consolidated plan to take its next-generation Chevrolet Malibu around the world. GM hopes to sell that model in 100 or more markets, up from fewer than 20 today.
Changes in the way vehicles are built have eroded the old idea of a platform, too.
"What is a platform anymore?" asks Chris Martin, American Honda Motor Co. spokesman. "It used to refer to a common frame and engine that allowed you to simplify manufacturing for several models. But we don't really build vehicles like that anymore.
"At Honda, our flexible manufacturing system lets us produce different sized vehicles on the same assembly line. We can make different bodies and use different engines, one behind the other," he says.
Honda's Accord sells in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, but not the same version. In Europe, the Accord is actually the model that sells in North America as the Acura TSX. And just to blur the lines further, U.S. Acura dealers also sell an Acura TSX, but it is nearly 10 inches shorter and rides on a different wheelbase, with different engine options than the U.S. Accord.
"We don't really talk about platforms anymore," Martin says.
Neither, apparently, will VW.
VW will rely on common components and vehicle modules built globally to maximize economies of scale. But the real push behind the new design approach is to create more freedom and flexibility in attacking markets, Boldea says.
Still, in the process, VW has created a new Passat that it believes is better suited to the U.S. market than the previous model from Europe.
It begs the question: After all its investment in plant and product in Chattanooga, why not export the larger, roomier, more powerful, less-expensive American Passat to consumers to Europe?
Mr. Passat shakes his head.
"No, no," he answers. "It's too large. European consumers think differently about these things."