CHANCES are you haven’t heard much about Ulrich Hackenberg but, for sure, global motor industry executives know all about him.
He is the Volkswagen executive whose idea is driving the seemingly inevitable rise of Volkswagen to the position of world’s biggest car maker, a position it will likely hold for some time when it takes it, excepting some unforeseen crisis in China, where it shifts about 30% of its volume.
Hackenberg is the brain behind something called MQB, a kind of vehicle platform that will underpin almost all small and medium-size front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Group vehicles. That’s a fact worth stopping and thinking about; nearly all small and medium-size front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Group vehicles — on one platform. It is simply a vast number of cars.
Of course, platform-sharing is nothing new. A VW Golf is a SEAT Leon is a Skoda Octavia is an Audi A3. They are the same car, with variations in branding, trim levels and cost. A Toyota Hilux is a Toyota Innova is a Toyota Fortuner.
But MQB takes component commonality to a level hitherto unimagined, with the company able to share common parts across a vastly increased number of individual units, nameplates and brands, meaning, according to one report, that Volkswagen can ask its component suppliers to quote not for 6-million or 8-million parts, but rather 35-million. The consequences are obvious. Colossal economies of scale kick in, margins fatten and prices of the end product start to look attractive.
The key, of course, is extensive, mind-boggling flexibility, meaning cars sitting on the MQB platform will vary in size significantly — from a VW Polo (or a genetically identical Audi A1), through to a Golf, the Audi A3, the VW Touran, Tiguan and up to a VW Passat.
And because they all sit on the same platform and share so many parts, no matter whether the brand be SEAT, Volkswagen or Audi, they can all be built in the same plant, on the same line, should that suit a certain market.
There are threats to the strategy, of course (a faulty part could trigger a crippling vehicle recall if the part is common across various brands and nameplates), but MQB is likely to catapult Volkswagen ahead of Toyota as the world’s biggest car maker because two-thirds of the group’s output will eventually sit on one platform.
And all of that just goes to show that there will be fewer component contracts coming out of Volkswagen AG — but, good grief, those that are will be worth a fortune and will come with the capacity to really change communities.
Let’s hope the Department of Trade and Industry is aware of what’s going on at Volkswagen.
MQB has rather left the rest of the industry scrabbling to keep up, but Volkswagen’s $70bn bet that the platform will work, and that designers and engineers will be able to engineer character and brand feel within the platform’s confines, will either go as a God before the industry, or not at all.
I suspect it will — the first cars with the new platform have already arrived in South Africa, the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 among them, and all reports seem to suggest that the cars are excellent.
MQB will probably end up widely imitated, as were systems designed by Henry Ford and the remarkable Eiji Toyoda, who will turn 100 in September, and who developed the famous Toyota Way, endlessly copied and regurgitated as "lean manufacturing".
Toyoda visited a Detroit Ford factory in the 1950s and was aghast at the scale of the operation, which was pumping out 8,000 cars a day. He copied the scale, but that was about all he copied, realising efficiencies could be found everywhere.
And the Americans have, frankly, been scrambling to catch up on quality and efficiency every since.
For years, I’ve found American cars to be, by comparison with European and Japanese cars, poorly built with inefficient engines and woeful interiors. They very often looked great — especially in the 1960s and, to be fair, recently too — but the thrill never made it into the car.
And so, when somebody dropped off the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, my response was to note that, indeed, it is a truly handsome SUV and then ignore it completely and carry on pootling about in a very clever Toyota Prius.
After all, it would likely be complete rubbish and I was vaguely aware it has been about for a year or so anyway, even if I hadn’t driven it.
Well blind me if I wasn’t utterly, utterly wrong. Eventually somebody collected the Prius and, just as I was contemplating the walk home, I remembered the large Jeep in the garage. And, boy, what an improvement.
In every single way, the Grand Cherokee is improved out of sight. The 3-litre diesel (developed with Chrysler’s owner, Fiat) is strong and frugal, the car is well balanced and has class-leading real legroom.
There’s leather, active cruise control, automatic windscreen wipers, keyless go and bi-xenon headlights that they might as well use as landing lights on an Airbus.
And the interior! I almost can’t believe this is a Chrysler product. It’s great — soft-touch plastics, half-decent fake wood and leather abound. It’s really rather nice.
Of course the Jeep works off-road, but it’s the real-world purpose of school runs, shopping trips and family holidays (feel free to tow, there’s 550Nm on tap here) that will see the Grand Cherokee in its element.
Jeep reckons, as an example, that the car is almost 150% stiffer than its predecessor, which translates into a quiet ride and solid handling. In fact, you might as well say that the Grand Cherokee is 150% better in almost every way.
If it sounds like I’m gushing a little, I’m sorry. But it really is that good, and, at R630,000 for the CRD version, you’re really looking at an awful lot of value for the price (the Grand Cherokee can be had from R550,000 with a petrol V6).
It goes to show that the initially odd-seeming mixture of Fiat’s genius for fuel-saving tech and car interior design, and Chrysler’s genius for building a good ol’ American truck has really worked.
The question is, can Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne develop a platform that will work for Fiat, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler? It sounds mad, but he might just have to — and he can thank Ulrich Hackenberg for that.