When Volkswagen’s Audi brand lifts the veil on the latest incarnation of its A3 premium compact car at the Geneva motor show this week, there will be far more at stake than is customary even for the (re)launch of a popular vehicle.

With the A3, VW is firing the starting pistol on a grand experiment to boost the use of common components and design parameters across a wide range of segments and brands.

Known as the Modular Transverse Matrix, abbreviated in German to MQB, this vehicle platform will be replicated in dozens of VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat models over the coming years.

By using common building blocks to construct high-volume cars such as the A3, VW Golf and VW Polo, the German carmaker aims to slash vehicle production costs by 20 per cent and manufacturing time by 30 per cent.

Platform sharing is not new. Carmakers, led by the likes of Toyota, have long used common platforms to cut the cost of mass-producing advanced vehicles.

But in the past, these platforms rigidly prescribed the dimensions of basic structural elements such as the floorpan and suspension. In contrast, modular construction allows far greater variation, say its proponents.

Modularisation requires that only a few elements and proportions remain constant. For VW, these include the distance between the accelerator pedal and front axle and the engine mounting position.

“As we’re using modularity across multiple brands we had to come up with something that gives us maximum freedom to really design in an individual way,” Achim Badstübner, head of exterior design at Audi, says.

VW is simultaneously conducting an overhaul of its production facilities so that it will be possible to produce different MQB models, with different wheelbase dimensions, on the same assembly line.

Hubert Waltl, head of production and logistics for VW passenger cars, described this standardisation of production tools and systems as a “revolution” in an interview this year with Automobilwoche, the German magazine.

Carmakers are attracted to modular construction because it reduces complexity, lets them to more easily customise vehicles for different regions and can allow for better technology and safety systems at lower cost in cheaper vehicles. The A3, for example, will have a multimedia touchpad previously found in the luxury A8 saloon.

But greater commonality is also a financial imperative for carmakers as they push ever deeper into emerging markets and struggle to cope with the technological upheaval caused by the move to electric vehicles.

This in turn means that more vehicles are set to be built on fewer platforms even as the diversity of models produced on each platform increases.

Analysts at the Frost & Sullivan consultancy last year estimated that by 2020, the 12 largest carmakers would cut the number of platforms from 223 in 2010 to 154, with the top 10 platforms accounting for more than 33m vehicles, or almost double 2010’s figure.

General Motors last year said that by 2018, it planned to roughly halve the number of vehicle platforms to 14. “More of our components will be common, and more of our vehicles will be on global architectures,” Dan Akerson, GM chief executive, said.

In the future, VW will rely primarily on four platforms, with most of its cars built on just two frames – the MQB for small front-wheel-drive cars and the MLB for larger cars.

Mercedes-Benz’s future strategy is built around just three platforms: one for small cars, such as the new A-Class and B-Class, another for saloons and a third for sports cars.

However, as competition becomes fiercer and consumers more demanding, smaller-volume carmakers will be forced to collaborate to achieve the necessary economies of scale.

Evalueserve, a research firm, says the multi-faceted partnership agreed in 2010 between Daimler and Renault-Nissan “will serve as an example for carmakers looking to harness platform and procurement synergies without full operational integration”.

For carmakers, the greatest risk is that a flaw in common architecture or processes necessitates the recall of millions of vehicles produced on a single platform, as Toyota discovered to its cost in 2009-10.

Moreover, carmakers must also ensure that vehicles remain sufficiently differentiated so that buyers do not feel short-changed if a high-end vehicle shares many components with a cheaper car.

Modularisation is also a challenge for suppliers, which must achieve sufficient scale and follow carmakers into emerging markets, or risk losing business.

Indeed, not everyone is convinced carmaking is on the verge of a technological and financial leap forward. Max Warburton at Bernstein Research says modularisation is “simply a relatively new word for a very old, very obvious goal [of achieving] standardisation and commonality between different models”.

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