Smart executives know how to recognize a competitor's good idea and when to make it their own. So give Ford Motor Co., and its European head of engineering, Joe Bakaj, credit for seeing the possibilities in rival Volkswagen Group's global platform strategy and adapting it for Ford, starting with the new Focus.
Ford's unibody front-wheel-drive architecture isn't a straight aping of Volkswagen's global MQB platform — which underlies almost all of Volkswagen Group's global fwd-based unibody sedans, hatchbacks and crossovers — but it's close enough to make it difficult to argue that Ford's was an original idea. And that's OK, because Volkswagen's experience has shown how such modular strategies can drive down development and production costs at a prodigious rate, while still keeping an automaker nimble enough to respond to changing consumer tastes.
Volkswagen's journey with MQB — along with the MEB platform that will underpin a coming global offering of full-electric vehicles and another global platform for rear-wheel-drive performance vehicles — wasn't for the faint of heart. It was expensive, with tens of billions of euros in upfront development costs, and years spent fine-tuning what VW calls the modular toolkit that enables designers in different parts of the world to cost-efficiently assemble a vehicle to fit their market.
But consider the results: VW can offer, for example, the redesigned 2019 Jetta for less money than it offered the last version, with far more standard technology. And it can easily entertain derivatives of its Atlas crossover, such as the two-row Cross Sport concept that will be built in 2019 and a unibody Tanoak pickup concept, all built alongside the Atlas in Chattanooga. Purchasing also benefits from the off-the-shelf nature of modular vehicle development, amplifying economies of scale for automaker and supplier.
Between political, demographic and technological shifts, a very uncertain future awaits the auto industry, one that could easily force automakers into a posture of conservatism and retreat.
We commend the bolder ones that are willing to take risks, even if it means rethinking the basic building blocks of automobiles, to clear a path for innovation.