Back to Badge Engineering?

This week marked an important event in the life of the motor industry as a whole as the latest generation of Volkswagen Golf, the seventh since 1974, broke cover. Now I can appreciate Golfs and the older ones have a definite charm (even if it’s a very Germanic and ‘efficient’ sort of charm) but I just can’t make myself like them. They’re just tools to move people around. Very well designed, generally good-looking, well built and well marketed tools.

However it’s one the best selling car models in history and one of the kingpins on which the motor industry turns so when a new one comes along it’s worth paying attention to. The Mark 7 Golf is, surprise, surprise, slightly taller, slightly longer and slightly wider than the Mark 6 but it is in fact slightly lighter. It also looks pretty much the same as the Mark 6.

Volkswagen in new Golf styling shock….oh wait a minute, I mean the opposite of that.

The new Golf is particularly important to VW as it is their first mass-market car to use their new corporate platform design, the MQB. The architecture of this platform means that it can be stretched, squeezed and chopped to build cars. This is nothing new – VAG have been doing it for years. In fact I’ve long suspected that there’s a machine looking bit like a Las Vegas slot machine sitting in a central room at Wolfsburg. Every now and then someone goes and pulls the lever, the wheels thunk into place and the spec for a new VW product is born.

Rather like this handy little VAG Car Generator I’ve thrown together. Try it out:


Random VAG Car Generator

See how easy it is to create world-dominating range of cars covering every possible market niche?

The introduction of the MQB platform takes this principle to a new level because it is replacing no less than three existing VAG platform designs. Currently the recently-launched Audi A3 uses it, the Golf sits on it and the soon-to-be-launched Seat Leon will be based on it as well. No problem so far- those cars have always shared the same underpinnings. But VW say that the MQB will also underpin the next Octavia, the next Touran, the next Caddy van and the next Seat Altea. So that’s an executive sports hatch, a mid-market family saloon, a van and an MPV all based on the same platform and using the same mechanicals.

Can VW’s powerful marketing department really get away with this? Plenty of people are already wondering what the point in buying a VW when Skoda offer the same basic thing for less money. Equally it’s not hard to find people who decry Audis as just ‘posh Volkswagens’. When they share a platform with not only their VAG siblings but other, widely different and less glamorous products, the distinctions become even fuzzier.

I’ve now gone for over 800 words without mentioning British Leyland so it’s time to do so. BL and BMC were (in)famous for their badge-engineering in the most literal sense. Whole duplicate ranges of cars were maintained that differed only in their badging. The ADO16 range was available in no less than ten different models spread across seven marques. If it was hard for people to tell the difference between the models that was because there was often no difference. The Austin and Morris versions were identical in mechanics and trim. The Riley, Wolseley and Vanden Plas versions were all luxury versions with slightly varying amounts of wood and leather. The MG was a sporty model, but was mechanically identical to the Austin 1300GT, which was also identical to the Morris 1300GT. And so it went on- Austin and Morris Mini, the Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet, the Austin and Morris 1800/2200, the Austin and Morris 18-22…

Even the adverts were the same…

Some people have wondered how VW have got away with doing what appears to be the same thing for so long. The answer, of course, is that they haven’t been doing the same thing because badge-engineering and platform-sharing are very different and VW carry it out with their trademark attention to detail. If you knew nothing about cars, there’s no way of knowing that a Polo is the same as an A1 is the same as a Fabia is the same as an Ibiza. Each one carries its own house styling inside and out and you won’y find a VW logo anywhere on a Seat. Coupled to this is VW’s careful range and marketing pitch which carefully gives each variant its own niche. Skodas may be cut-price VWs but you can only really tell that by the interiors, which just aren’t quite as nice places to be as in a VW, which in turn isn’t as luxurious and isn’t quite as beautifully put together as an Audi.

There are signs of this approach flagging a little, though. The new Up! range consists of three cars (the VW Up!, the Skoda Citigo and the Seat Mii) which, aside from all having really daft and illiterate names, are stylistically, mechanically and structurally identical apart from the badging and a few mild tweaks to the shape of the front grille and lights. This is badge-engineering rather than platform sharing and it really does raise the question of who would pay over £1000 more for a car with a VW badge over the one with a Skoda logo. The MQB platform will be taking this to a different level. The MGB gets enough flak for being, in essence, a sports car based on a van which was based on a saloon car. Will the Audi A3 be able to get away with the same thing when it’s rolling around on the same underpinnings as a Volkswagen Caddy?

For some reason I’m much more confident that VAG will pull it off than BL.


Back to Badge Engineering? — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for another excellent blog.

    Who knows, if VW had bought Rover (well, just about everyone else had a go with various bits of the old BL) instead of (or aswell as) Skoda, we could be driving Rover badged clones of VWs.

    There was an MG6 parked round the corner me (not a million miles from Longbridge) a few weeks ago but I have not seen it for a while.


    • It’s an interesting thing to consider. Austin-Rover were on very good term with VW (VW let them use the Golf gearbox in the Maestro) but of course at that time they were in bed with Honda, and then came BMW.

      We can but dream of a Rover-badged executive saloon based on the Audi A7…a sort of Rover SD1 for the 21st century. If VAG can turn Skoda from laughing stock to near-premium brand in less than a decade they could have done amazing things with Rover.

  2. IMO the issue is that head to head VWs are tending to actually *beat* Audis. Not good. If VAG is going to have a premium brand it should have legitimate differentiated value and not simply be a way for “smart buyers” to ridicule those with “more money than sense who buy a badge like suckers”

    Some people truly love cars and are willing to pay for a product that is more than A to B commodity transportation because they appreciate other virtues. 4 rings and different sheet metal us not enough. Any Audi must be better in *every way* than any equivalent VW, at a higher price, for Audi to be more than just a marketing scam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *