The Internet has changed many things in the world of cars, but few more than the attitude of car makers towards their customers.
Twenty years ago all you needed was a big name, a load of dealers and a vast marketing budget to make some of the worst cars on sale also among the best selling. I can still remember driving the Mk IV Ford Escort and the frustration of knowing that however hard the press shouted about its manifest inadequacies, it would have next to no effect on its showroom performance. Nor did it: it was soon Britain’s favourite car.
Today such a travesty is inconceivable. Without leaving the warmth of their homes, prospects can now access more information about any given car than would ever have been possible walking into a newsagent and picking up all the car magazines it sold. The result is customers have now narrowed the number of dealers they’ll visit before deciding which car to buy down from seven to just two. And because they need to bone up on just a pair of cars while the salesman in the dealership is required to have knowledge of several dozen, it is often the case that the customer knows more about the car he or she wants to buy than the person selling it. As some manufacturers are now finding out to their considerable cost, you can still make crap cars, but you can’t sell them any more.
The problem is that good cars cost a lot more to design, engineer and build, and if you’re not careful you might find yourself selling excellent cars and still going bust. Volkswagen’s solution to this is to develop a global platform, a template used by all its volume brands and adapted to suit individual needs and take advantage of economies of scale.
Platform sharing is nothing new, but VW’s plan takes this principle and runs with it over the hills and far away. The new platform, known as MQB, has been designed to be almost infinitely versatile, particularly in the choice of available wheelbases, so that almost any car from a shopping hatchback up to an executive saloon can be based upon it. The only requirement that cannot be varied is that any car using it must have a transverse engine and gearbox driving at least, but not necessarily only, the front wheels.
In time this platform will come to form the basis of most Volkswagens, Audis, Skodas and SEATs, a one-size-fits-all, off-the-peg solution to car manufacturing.
So what is an MQB-equipped car like to drive? Well if the new Audi A3 (the first MQB car to go on sale) is any guide, it’s impressive.
Actually the A3 is a car I admired more than I liked – it’s as dull to drive as it is to look at – but that says everything about the choices Audi made in both the car’s styling and the set up of its suspension, none of which have anything to do with the platform. What is significant is that despite a load of extra feature content, the A3 is 80kg lighter than its predecessor. This has helped make the best-selling 2-litre TDI model I drove class-leading not just in acceleration and top speed, but economy and emissions too.
So it seems VW has set the bar high with a platform whose costs it will recoup by manufacturing in the millions and selling in a hundred different disguises. Whatever choices individual car marques choose to make about how best to exploit MQB for their purposes in the future, it is almost impossible to see how a bad car is going to result from it.
I suspect strongly it is a lead the other volume car manufacturers will have to follow or die.