Automakers are fast-tracking flexible architectures to underpin multiple models across different brands and segments to catch up with Volkswagen Group's modular platform development strategy.
Common platforms reduce costs and streamline new car development but bring risks as well as rewards, industry insiders say.
If an automaker creates too many cars off one platform, the resulting vehicles end up looking the same, said Nissan Global Chief Marketability Engineer Jerry Hardcastle.
"If you get obsessed about modularity, you lose design creativity," he told Automotive News Europe. "VW could not build a [Nissan] Juke."
But other executives say the benefits outweigh the risks.
"There are significant savings in material costs, engineering costs, installation, investment and validation," said Peter Mertens, Volvo's r&d chief. "If you have one architecture and don't have to do everything for each vehicle, you can save a lot."
VW Group plans to build more than 40 new vehicles across its volume brands on its front-wheel-drive modular transverse matrix (MQB) architecture. The first cars to use the MQB – the VW Golf, Audi A3, Skoda Octavia and Seat Leon – are already on sale.
"The modular toolkits not only bring us considerable economies of scale. We are also transferring our most important technologies and innovations to all brands and regions," VW Group CEO Martin Winterkorn told the company's annual meeting on April 12. "Instead of a large number of island solutions, there is a single technical system into which our concentrated expertise flows."
Morgan Stanley estimates that VW sold about 100,000 vehicles based on MQB last year, mainly Audi A3 models. The automaker will use MQB for about 40 percent, or nearly 5 million, of its vehicles by 2020, IHS Automotive and Bernstein Research estimate.
The platform will underpin cars from Polo-sized subcompacts to the mid-sized Passat. VW expects MQB will underpin 2 million of the cars it sells in 2014, rising to 4 million in 2016, according to a company presentation to investors on Jan. 30.
The next key MQB launch will be the Passat, which debuts in 2014.