America currently has three (two and half, really) auto manufacturers. Germany also has three, when you count Audi and Porsche under the Volkswagen banner. Japan, however, has seven. A recent Bloomberg article suggests that further consolidation would be good for Japan’s auto industry. As Star Trek’s Borg say, “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” Fewer companies would be competing for the same resources, and it’s been well proven that unlike GM’s past, it’s possible for rather different brands to share the same basic platform while retaining each brand’s distinctiveness – the Fiat 500X and the Jeep Renegade, for example. But exactly how would this consolidation go down? Who would acquire who, and who would be consolidated in the process? And how might enthusiasts benefit from the situation?
Let’s grab the low hanging fruit first. Thanks to Dieselgate dethroning Volkswagen, Toyota has reclaimed the throne of the world’s largest automaker. They’re going to be the ones gobbling up other companies, not getting gobbled themselves. In fact they’ve already started, by buying Daihatsu last month. Subaru has already partnered with Toyota to build a car – the BRZ that’s parked in my garage right now. That partnership could extend further. Subaru’s sales are already limited by their production capacity, which Toyota may be able to help supplement. Subaru could remain its own brand, with its own styling, standard all wheel drive, and such. But platform sharing would reduce costs for both companies, and open the door to all wheel drive versions of the Corolla and Camry. Eventually Subaru may lose another one of their distinctive features, the boxer engine, in favor of Toyota’s more refined inline motors. Alternately, Toyota may refine Subaru’s designs and use them in appropriate applications, like sports cars.
Mazda also shares their technology with Toyota – in this case, the entire Mazda 2, sold in North America as the Scion (soon to be Toyota) iA. Though holding their own after their divorce with Ford, Mazda suffers from a lack of diversity in its small car and crossover lineup. Car & Driver speculated that Mazda needs another partner for long term survival in 2013, and that remains true today. Both companies have a history of making great enthusiast’s cars, though Mazda is better known for it these days. We expect it from the Miata, but even their crossovers are surprisingly fun to drive, as we’ve learned with the CX-3 and CX-5. Toyota could use some of this fun. In fact, having just killed off Scion, Mazda would be the perfect replacement, and their “Zoom-Zoom” philosophy would be the perfect direction that Scion always lacked.
Platform sharing could happen here, too. The NC Miata shared its platform with the RX-8, so there’s nothing new here. Mazda and Toyobaru both insist that the Miata and FR-S/BRZ are not direct competitors, despite numerous head to head comparisons. So why not use the same platform for the next generation of both? They’re similar cars with similar goals. Any extra chassis rigidity given to the convertible Miata would also help the hardtop coupe.
Mazda builds fun cars. Subaru has it in them, too, if they put their mind to it. These two brands, with the resources of Toyota behind them, could do really amazing things for us enthusiasts. And Toyota, with a reputation for some of the most solid, reliable, but boring cars in the world, would benefit from a fresh injection of fun. Everybody wins.
We likely won’t see much change at Nissan. That’s OK, because Nissan is doing quite well on their own. We don’t hear much about them, but then we’re surprised to see them competing closely with Honda for second place behind Toyota. They might buy up Suzuki, having partnered with them in the past to build the Equator pickup truck, a thinly disguised Nissan Frontier, as well as other cars not sold in the US. But overall, Nissan seems to be the strong, silent type. They also already have a full range of cars, trucks, SUVs, crossovers, and such. Unlike…
Honda has a good, solid car line. The new Civic ought to do well, and the Type R will no longer be unobtainium in North America. That’s a wonderful thing. The Fit and Accord are good at what they do. The CR-V is a decent crossover. The Pilot isn’t that popular, and the HR-V and Odyssey are yawn. The Ridgeline is coming back, but even in its more truck-like form, many truck fans still believe it’s not a real truck. Sedans are on the way out, trucks and SUVs are in, and Honda is being caught short. What to do?
I know this sounds utterly ludicrous, but hear me out. CEO Sergio Marchionne seems desperate to merge FCA with someone. He’s banking the future success of FCA on trucks and SUVs while allowing cars like the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200 to run their course, then fade away. FCA’s strengths are the exact opposite of Honda’s – and that’s why they’d be excellent partners. Honda would instantly gain a strong, successful truck and SUV line. Just like that, Honda has a full line of “real” pickup trucks, thanks to Ram. They even get the crown jewel of SUV brands – Jeep. FCA’s own lackluster small cars could be replaced by Hondas, which have been among the best small and midsize cars available for many, many years.
Whether you ask J.D. Power or Consumer Reports, none of the FCA brands have the best reputation for durable, high quality products. In fact, their brands tend to rank toward or at the bottom of these lists, with Fiat at the bottom of both. Quality and reliability are Honda’s strengths, and you can bet that nothing under Honda’s banner will be allowed to be poor quality. Honda’s acquisition of FCA would hopefully lead to Honda quality spreading throughout the FCA line, curing one of their few current weaknesses.
And while we’re at it, why not revive Diamond Star Motors by bringing Mitsubishi into the fold as well. They’re small and not doing so well these days. They’ve benefited from Chrysler’s help before, so why not do it again. With any luck this could lead to a reborn Eclipse that goes back to its turbocharged, AWD, fire breathing roots instead of a sporty looking Chrysler Sebring.
Will any of this actually happen? Who knows. Most of these companies are doing all right on their own right now. It may actually make more sense for the Japanese manufacturers not to consolidate, but to keep working together and licensing each other’s technology while remaining independent. But it’s fun to speculate and ask “what if.”