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World's a platform for U.S. automakers
`Global cars' may look different, but underneath they're same

By Rick Popely
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 23, 2005

When Ford Motor Co. began developing a trio of midsize sedans that go on sale in the U.S. this fall, one of its first steps was to download detailed engineering data of the Mazda6 from Japan.

Accompanying the drawings from Mazda, which is controlled by Ford, was an edict from Ford's hierarchy to U.S. engineers: Don't change what you don't have to.

A result is that the midsize Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr look different than the Mazda6 but are the same car under the skin and could be built on the same assembly line.

Foreign auto manufacturers have long used this approach, building what the industry calls "global cars." There's the Toyota Camry, Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf, which sell in dozens of countries, often with different styling and model names.

Now, Ford and General Motors, facing their worst financial crises in years, are traveling the same route. Both have abandoned their approach of letting their huge North American operations run as largely independent units that design and build their own models.

"They don't have a choice," manufacturing expert Ron Harbour says.

The cost of creating new vehicles typically starts in the hundreds of millions and can run into billions. Spreading the cost across more models adds to the bottom line.

"They have to drive out any costs they can. They can't make cars different just for the sake of being different," said Harbour, president of Harbour Consulting in Troy, Mich., which publishes an annual study on automobile factory efficiency.

Ford is ahead of GM in the global car race but trails Toyota and Honda.

The Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle and Mercury Montego were derived from the design for the Volvo S60, S90 and XC90.

Phil Martens, head of Ford's North American product development, says Ford is sharing vehicle platforms wherever feasible.

"The reality is that in the marketplace today the companies that have the most success are the ones that use their global assets to the fullest extent possible," Martens said.

Ford won't say what it spent to develop its new midsize sedans, but Martens says that by using the Mazda6 platform and sharing major components such as engines, transmissions and suspension, Ford saved "around 50 percent, which is enormous."

"It means you leverage work that is already done," he said, adding that new models get to market sooner because the heavy lifting is done just once.

The idea of the world car is not something Detroit ever rejected outright.

In fact, the basic principle--building different cars off a single platform--is tried and true. Plenty of Fords, Lincolns and Mercurys, for example, are basically identical.

What kept Ford and GM from succeeding at building global cars before now was that the companies could afford to look at the U.S. market as different from the rest of the world.

Ford had visions of an international model when it launched the 1981 Escort in the U.S., even calling it a "world car" to be built here and in Europe.

But while U.S. Escorts looked like European models from which they were derived, they shared only the name and a handful of insignificant parts.

Martens says that happened in part because engineers and designers couldn't resist putting their own mark on the car.

"The lesson we have learned is that you have to have strict discipline on the [manufacturing] process and parts commonality," Martens said. "But that kind of discipline is un-American."

It achieved more economies with the 1995 Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, which were adapted from the European Ford Mondeo. Despite spending $6 billion on the program, the car didn't suit U.S. tastes.

Billed as midsize sedans, Americans found them cramped on the inside and priced too close to the roomier Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, which were designed for the U.S.

Having learned those lessons, Ford is again determined to build a true world car.

For example, when the Mazda6 was developed in Japan, the platform was designed to be stretched for the Fusion, Milan and Zephyr, which are three inches longer and two inches wider, without requiring major engineering changes. Versions of this car will be sold in all the markets in which Mazda does business, including Europe, Asia and Australia.

The 2007 Lincoln Aviator sport-utility vehicle also will come from the Mazda6.

GM's first global model is scheduled to debut around 2008, a midsize car that its European unit is developing. The new model will sell in at least eight versions, including the Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Saab 9-3 in the U.S.

Like the Mazda6 derivatives at Ford, it will be sold in all of the regions in which GM competes--North America, Europe, Asia/Pacific and South America/Asia/Middle East.

Jim Queen, GM's global engineering director, says the car will share many components worldwide and be the first that GM could build in any of its midsize car plants.

GM had that goal with its current midsize cars, but the North American versions were changed too much. The roof structure was among major body parts that changed without good reason.

"We were off by a millimeter here, a millimeter and a half there," Queen said. "So we walked away from this opportunity."

That won't happen this time, he adds, though the new cars' styling, interior features and driving characteristics will be tailored to their markets.

While engineers can tinker, new parts have to fit the same mounting points and be installed the same way as in other models from the same platform.

GM plans to use that philosophy globally and reduce its number of platforms from about 25 to half that in the next six or seven years and develop more models off each.

The situation at GM is markedly different from Toyota's, which Harbour Consulting ranks as the most efficient manufacturer. Ron Harbour says that is partly because it builds so many vehicles this way.

The Camry, for example, is the basis for the Avalon and Lexus ES300 sedans, Solara coupe and convertible, Sienna mini-van and Highlander and Lexus RX330 sport-utilities, all of which are built in North America.

Toyota sells nearly 2 million vehicles based on the Camry, including several models not offered in the U.S.

Though the models don't look the same, Harbour said, "They all go together in the same sequence, like a Lego set.

"They have the flexibility to move vehicles from plant to plant to utilize more of their capacity," Harbour said. "When you operate near 100 percent of capacity, you need fewer plants."

Toyota's six North American plants operated at 107 percent of capacity last year with overtime, according to Harbour's annual study.

Ford's ran at 86 percent of capacity and GM's at 85 percent. Productivity for both is expected to drop this year because they have cut production, mainly because of plunging sales of sport-utility vehicles.

Ford and GM have said they plan to shut North American plants to reduce capacity, but neither has said how many will close or when.

The Japanese became so adept at building global vehicles because they had to be. When they entered markets such as the U.S., they didn't sell in volumes that justified specific models for American buyers. So they adapted vehicles sold in Japan and elsewhere.

"They didn't have the luxury of letting new regions row their own boat," said Mike Robinet, vice president of forecasting firm CSM Worldwide.

That was not a worry for GM and Ford, No. 1 and No. 2 in North American sales. Both would produce more than 500,000 units per year of a particular design, such as the Taurus/Sable, midsize cars that shared many parts but were sold only in North America.

But as rivals gain market share in North America, GM and Ford can no longer bank on such volume.

"They have too many models that don't generate a profit," said analyst Catherine Madden of research firm Global Insight. "They have to find ways to spread [development] costs among a greater number of model lines."

- - -

One car or four?

Ford Motor Co. will introduce three new models for 2006, all based on the Mazda6 platform.

MAZDA6
MSRP HP WHEELBASE CABIN SPACE CURB WT.
(Inches) (Cubic feet) (Pounds)
$19,555 160 105.3 96.1 3,045
Length: 186.8" Height: 56.7" Width: 70.1"
FORD FUSION
MSRP HP WHEELBASE CABIN SPACE CURB WT.
(Inches) (Cubic feet) (Pounds)
$17,795 160 107.4 99 3,101
Length: 190.2" Height: 57.2" Width: 72.2"
MERCURY MILAN
MSRP HP WHEELBASE CABIN SPACE CURB WT.
(Inches) (Cubic feet) (Pounds)
$18,995 160 107.4 100 3,117
Length: 191.4" Height: 57.2" Width: 72.2"
LINCOLN ZEPHYR
MSRP HP WHEELBASE CABIN SPACE CURB WT.
(Inches) (Cubic feet) (Pounds)
$29,660 221 107.4 100 3,406
Length: 190.5" Height: 55.9" Width: 72.2"
Note: Specs are for 2006 base models with manual transmissions.
Source: The companies
Chicago Tribune/Adam Zoll and Phil Geib
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