The Dark Art of Parts Sharing

Moment of Zenlea

For automakers, sharing components is a bit like engaging in unsafe sex. Everyone knows it can produce unwanted and long lasting consequences, and yet most everyone does it anyway. Automakers, being businesses, have a primal urge to make more money. Saving money on parts that are going to be similar anyway sounds sensible—natural, even. After all, who’s really going to care if, say, Chrysler and Maserati share navigation systems?
Car reviewers care, of course. We are the ultimate prudes when it comes to parts sharing. We pass through so many vehicles that commonalities most people miss—or at least choose to ignore—become bothersome to us. And as enthusiasts, we loathe the watering down of the distinct sensory experiences that make certain cars special. Maseratis that have Chrysler navigation systems may be better at directing you to a destination, but they feel less like Maseratis.

Yet the notion that automakers should abstain from sharing parts, especially in an era when car development is becoming more costly and complicated, is a quaint and unrealistic one. Better, then, to come up with some guidelines for safe and responsible parts sharing.

Don’t share parts we can see.

Automakers have mostly internalized this one—the sort of badge engineering that was common in the 1970s and 1980s is now rare. And yet, there are new vehicles that wear their shared parts all too blatantly. Take a look at the BMW Active Tourer that’s debuting at the Geneva auto show. Sure, it wears brand-correct cues and kinks, but that stubby nose broadcasts the fact that this Bavarian has been slumming with front-wheel-drive Minis.

Don’t share parts everyone can feel.

The Lincoln MKZ looks different from a Ford Fusion, probably at no small expense. And yet from behind the wheel, there’s simply no mistaking it for a Ford Fusion. It raises the question: why not just buy a Ford Fusion?

Automakers often dig themselves a deeper hole by downplaying the extent of such under-the-skin sharing. Executive editor Todd Lassa remembers Pontiac representatives insisting the Grand Am was sportier than the Oldsmobile Alero, but declining to explain how. “When I pushed them on it, they said it had something to do with the seat mounts,” he says.

DO share parts you cannot make better on your own.

It should be noted that in the right relationship, parts sharing can be harmless—beautiful even. Few fault modern Bentleys for using Audi components. Why? Because Audi components are pretty great. The fact that Bentley doesn’t have to engineer and produce its own platforms and powertrains frees it to spend its resources on stuff it’s uniquely good at, like hand-stitching fine leather hides and selecting wood veneers.

Design editor Robert Cumberford, who himself long ago tried to develop his own low-production automobile, adds that some small firms source parts as a means of survival “because doing your own taillight might cost more than the rest of the project.”

Don’t use a part for something completely different than its original use.

Question: What do you get when you re-orient the front suspension of a Chevrolet Citation? Answer: The rear suspension for a Pontiac Fiero.

Do disregard any and all advice if the car is fantastic.

We’d rather have a Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ that are identical than not have them at all. We’re happy to drive an Audi R8 that shares its guts with a Lamborghini Gallardo. We’re quite certain we’ll be just fine with a Mazda Miata that’s related to an Alfa Romeo. Smart parts sharing, like so many elements of car development, is very subjective.

Senior editor Michael Jordan remembers that many Ferraris, until recently, used Fiat switchgear. “It never bothered me because when you’re driving a Ferrari at an appropriate speed, you shouldn’t be looking away from the road, eh?”