When Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche and his Renault-Nissan counterpart Carlos Ghosn spoke today in Frankfurt about how the Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti brands might share small car underpinnings, many people thought back to the hand-wringing years ago over whether Mercedes and Chrysler should share platforms. Mercedes’ reluctance to share them — or perhaps to be seen sharing platforms — with a mass-market player was frequently cited as one of the reasons the merger failed and Daimler dropped Chrysler in 2007.
The prospect of Mercedes sharing parts with Nissan is likely to arouse less controversy. Sitting next to Zetsche at a news conference at the Frankfurt motor show, Ghosn described a tentative plan to produce a small Infiniti car in 2014 on the Mercedes platform used in the B-Class model. Zetsche and Ghosn said it would save both companies money.
They seemed to view the risks as negligible. “The cross-shopping between Mercedes and Infiniti” – in other words, shoppers who look at both – “is peanuts,” Ghosn said.
Executives are much more relaxed about platform sharing. That’s partly because the industry has changed. It has grown tougher over the past decade, and automakers face daunting expenses for new technologies in coming years. Platforms, too, have changed. They’re not the rigid, skeletal-type structure that people imagine.
Increasingly, platforms are a collection of core components arranged in a certain layout to make it easy to assemble various vehicles efficiently in a factory. Individual components can be interchanged. Last month, Toyota Motor Corp. officials casually noted during the U.S. unveiling of the redesigned 2012 Camry sedan that the car doesn’t have an entirely new platform. Nor did its predecessor.
Automakers have moved to looser, more flexible platforms because they can produce a wider variety of cars that don’t all resemble each other, says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, Calif. In previous years, cars that shared platforms, such as the Ford Crown Victoria, the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Lincoln Town Car, looked very similar. That’s no longer the case, Peterson said, citing the Toyota Camry, the Venza and Lexus RX 350 SUV. That has helped put the controversy to rest.