That cute Italian sports car you spotted in the traffic may not be as European as it seems. Or the hatch from the intriguing new brand might not be as new as it appears.
Car makers are hopping into bed with each other more than ever, making it hard for consumers to tell whether their car is unique, or a twin-under-the-skin with another brand.
In what's called platform sharing, Mazda's BT-50 and Ford's Ranger have the same underpinnings. As do the Infiniti Q30 and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Fiat's Abarth 124 convertible was built in Hiroshima — by Mazda — while Audi's A4 shares an engine and other components with the humble Volkswagen Passat.
"The basic idea is to spread the huge development costs of a new vehicle over as many cars as possible."
It's not the latest wheeze, either. Ford and Mazda did it in the 1980s with the Laser and 323; Holden and Toyota reached a new low when Commodores were rebadged as Lexcens and Camrys became Apollos.
They were clumsy efforts, where the two cars were identical twins with only the badges changed or a minor bumper redesign.
Today's twins are harder to spot. Fiat's Abarth shares its platform with the Mazda MX-5 but every panel on the Abarth is different. It also has a different engine, different brakes, unique seats and more.
The Q30 and the Mercedes-Benz share telltale signs — the buttons and switches in the Infiniti are from Mercedes-Benz. The same applies to Tesla, which uses Benz switches, controls — and even cupholders.
The basic idea is to spread the huge development costs of a new vehicle over as many cars as possible. The shared ethos is on the items customers can't see or feel, such as the airconditioning, while each brand focuses on the unique elements of styling and driving characteristics.
"Sometimes though, it doesn't matter. If the formula is right and the pricing is competitive, people will vote for their preferred brand."
The cars can still look, feel and even sound very different to drive. Take the Ranger/BT-50 pick-up battle. Ford outsold Mazda by three to one last month despite charging up to $7000 more for what is essentially the same vehicle, albeit with some minor feature and technology updates.
Why? Because the Ford looks tougher and the company has a reputation for building tough vehicles (remember the Territory and Falcon ute?) and it rides marginally better, loaded or unloaded.
Sometimes though, it doesn't matter. If the formula is right and the pricing is competitive, people will vote for their preferred brand.
Subaru and Toyota respectively built the BRZ and 86 coupes in a joint venture — and continuing strong sales of both models globally compared to the average sports car shows customers aren't overly concerned about shared chassis and engines, nor about cars with fundamental similarities in looks and features.
Subaru Australia spokesman David Rowley believes brand preference plays a role in the BRZ/86 decision, given their joint genesis.
"They're obviously very close cars and the consumers know it. Part of deciding which to buy, I think, comes down to the cachet of the brand," Rowley says. "The overriding feedback we get is the cars are just good value and take you back to the days when it was fun to drive,"
For the Renault-Nissan alliance, the abiding philosophy is that bigger is better, as evidenced by Renault formally taking a controlling stake in Mitsubishi last week.
New chairman-elect Carlos Ghosn (already chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan) cites common vehicle platforms and technology sharing as core ways to revitalise the Japanese brand.
Carsguide believes that's likely to mean the long-term demise of the ASX, Outlander and Triton platforms (though probably not the names) in favour of vehicles sharing the Qashqai, X-Trail and Navara platforms respectively.
Right now the Renault-Nissan group uses the same modular platform to build the Nissan X-Trail, Renault Koleos, Nissan Qashqai and Renault Megane.
"Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy says adapting another manufacturer's platform can assist companies wanting quick access to a segment."
Nissan Australia spokesman Peter Fadeyev says sharing components cuts development costs and lowers retail prices, which helps with the competitiveness and popularity of all the models involved.
He's hoping the same dynamic works with the Daimler tie-in. The just-launched Infiniti Q30 and QX30 share the Mercedes-Benz small car chassis and engines. Benz in turn is developing a prestige pick-up based on the Navara — and Renault is throwing its hat in the ring with a Navara-based one-tonner.
Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy says adapting another manufacturer's platform can assist companies wanting quick access to a segment.
"There are advantages for both parties but when (the pick-up) goes on sale it will be a Mercedes-Benz engineered and designed vehicle based on a donor chassis. We're dealing with a different customer segment to Nissan and the car has to meet the expectations people have of our vehicles."
VW Group was the modular platform pioneer, extending the concept to modular engine ranges for multiple brands. The savings on development costs were bolstered by production line efficiencies, while each brand had fewer unique parts, reducing the inventories and overheads.
Shared platforms now underpin Skoda, Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini vehicles.
The strategy was so smart, other companies followed suit.
Fiat-Chrysler saved money and gained engineering clout by not having to independently develop platforms. The Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade have common structures; so too the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Jeep Cherokee.
Toyota and BMW are co-developing a new sports car to replace the German brand's and Toyota's Supra.
The Hyundai group also benefits from platform sharing. Its Hyundai and Kia brands look markedly different but share underpinnings, as in the Tucson and Sportage SUVs.
Production line partners
No one does diversification better than the VW Group. Here are 22 vehicles built on its most common platforms.
Skoda Yeti, Rapid, Fabia, Octavia, Superb, VW Golf, Tiguan, Audi A3, Q3, TT, VW Passat.
Audi A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, Q5, Q7, Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Porsche Macan, VW Touareg.
Before platform sharing there was badge swapping. Australians weren't keen on buying a fairly distinctive car with another marque's brand glued on the grille. The badge-engineering was part of a Federal Government plan in the 1980s and '90s to reduce import tariffs and improve the competitiveness of locally made cars by rationalising the range. It failed. Customers couldn't see the point in buying, for example, a Nissan Pulsar with a Holden Astra badge. Holden later teamed with Toyota to produce the Nova and Apollo, based on the Corolla and Camry respectively. Toyota sold the Lexcen, a renamed Commodore.
Ford was a pioneer in economies of scale with companies it had invested in. Most of them failed but ironically the discipline and upgraded factories helped many Ford surrogates to survive. The US juggernaut bought a 25 per cent stake in Mazda and used the 323 platform to develop the Laser. It was a success here largely because the Ford was seen as "locally built" against the imported Mazda. Investments in Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo weren't as profitable. Ford revitalised the British brand but lost billions before selling to Tata in 2008 — not before producing Jag's unloved X-Type, a mildly madeover Mondeo. Its short-lived Volvo marriage gave Ford access to the five-cylinder engine used in the previous generation Focus RS. It led also to one of the original shared platforms, the C1 in 2003, used under the Focus, Mazda3 and Volvo's S40 and S50 sedans and C40 hatch.
This article originally appeared on CarsGuide.