Blog: Why Platforms Do and Don't Matter, But Mostly Don’t

By Tom Martin

June 01, 2011

When an automobile company rolls out a new car there can be, from time to time, intensive scrutiny of the platform used. Generally, this scrutiny has seemed foolish to me because it detracts from the enjoyment of driving, so I devote most of this blog to articulating the reasons that “platform analysis” mainly counts as an annoying distraction. But there is a situation—applicable to some car people—wherein all this attention to platforms makes sense. I’ll get to that too, in the interests of (semi) fairness.

But first, let’s get on with excoriating all this attention to platforms.

My beef is this: the platform that a car uses is a lousy predictor of how the car will drive. It is a limited predictor of how the car will look and how comfortable it will be as well. In the real world, where we actually drive cars, platform analysis is geekism run amok.

This was all brought to mind by the test vehicle I have this week, the Infiniti G37. The G37 is built on the same platform as the Nissan 370Z, though while we’re at it these cars are built on the Nissan FM platform which covers the G37 sedan, the G37 coupe, the 370Z, the Nissan Skyline (in Japan), and the Infiniti FX and EX crossovers. The driving dynamics of these various cars are, to say the least, different.

Of course you would expect a big, tall SUV to drive differently from a tightly drawn sports car. And yet people persist in naming the platforms involved. To illustrate via analogy, if we can make everything from pasta to chocolate cake with flour, knowing that flour is involved in food isn’t that helpful for actual eating. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant and when ordering your entrée say "give me something with flour in it" and call it a day. Knowing the ingredients simply doesn't tell you much. Spaghetti is more like steak (savory, entree) than it is like cake (sweet, dessert). 

Then consider the G37 coupe and the 370Z. There you might expect the underlying platform to me more predictive. But you would be wrong. The G37 coupe automatic is a relative isolation chamber with an involvement index in the 60s (meh). The 370Z is a real sports car, and makes it into the 80s (darn good) when we’re measuring involvement. Platform tells you very little.

If this weren’t the case so often, I wouldn’t belabor the point. But time after time, platform is just a distraction: Pontiac G8 and Camaro; Porsche Cayenne and VW Toureg; Honda Fit and Insight. It is closer to accurate to say, “Platform tells you nothing” than to suggest it has some understandable meaning.

The exception to all of this applies to that group of enthusiasts for whom a car is more art than a driving experience. In that case, a car’s platform somehow signals its authenticity (or lack thereof). If one cares about branding, then one wants one’s car to be authentically BMW, or Ford, or Lexus. A shared platform, particularly between companies (e.g. GM and Saab) may seem to diminish the genuineness of what is being purchased.

I can see this argument about authenticity, and my beef is not with those who value lineage of a sort. My beef is with those who feel compelled to diminish the accomplishments of a car in order to display their superficial esoteric knowledge. That’s just an unhelpful diversion.