What do the Volvo XC60 and Lexus RX F-Sport have in common? Not much. Yet. Today’s vehicles aren’t just built on “modular” platforms, sharing parts with other vehicles from the same manufacturer, they are also “parts bin creations.” You’ll find the same power mirror switch in a Chevy, Jeep, Peugeot, Citroën, Lancia, Lincon and many more. That’s because car parts are like Lego pieces, made by a handful of car parts companies and designed to be everything for everyone. It’s cheaper for everyone to design one switch, one control module, one key fob and just alter some of the plastics and a connector to suit your new car design.
Parts sharing isn’t new of course, it’s been going on ever since “badge engineering” was invented in 1917, but this is different. Instead of one company buying parts from another, or GM tossing a new logo on an Oldsmobile to create a Buick, these parts are made by a third party, available for sale to anyone with the cash. Ever wonder how Fiskar and Tesla can create a unique vehicle so quickly? The universal parts bin is how.
Most car companies dive into the same interior parts bins time after time, rarely seeking new foraging grounds. This is why the Big Three seem to frequently share things like those window switches, seat controls, etc. Meanwhile the Europeans and Japanese tend to have their own circle of parts suppliers. It’s also why the Coda sedan looks so odd to Americans; Coda raided a Chinese market parts bin. When it comes to powertrains, geographic divisions drop because engines and transmissions are expensive to develop resulting in a smaller global pond to fish from.
The big boys in passenger car automatic transmission design are: ZF, GM, Aisin, Mercedes, Jatco and Hyundai. Why am I not including Chrysler and Honda? Chrysler is easy: they have chosen to license/tweak transmissions from ZF rather than developing their own. Ford can’t make up their mind co-developing a 6-speed transaxle with GM, then licensing ZF’s 6-speed RWD swapper. All indications seem to point to Ford licensing the 8-speed RWD box from ZF while splitting development costs with GM on new xx-speed transaxles for smaller cars. Honda doesn’t tend to sell its in-house transmissions to other companies and if the rumor mill is correct, Honda will be buying ZF’s 9-speed transaxle while they shift R&D dollars to CVT development.
What does that mean to you as a consumer? And why are we talking Volvo and Lexus? Because companies tend to stick with a transmission maker for the long haul. BMW has a history of buying GM and ZF. Luxury car companies (and now Ford and Chrysler) typically use ZF cog-swappers. Ford Europe and Renault are in bed with Jatco. Chrysler likes Hyundai’s FWD transaxles. Toyota, Lexus, Volvo, MINI, VW, Mitsubishi and Porsche order from Aisin’s transmission catalog. Consequently when a new Euro sedan comes out with ZF’s latest widget, you know that sooner-or-later every ZF customer have it. (There is usually a delay because companies will pay extra to have a period of exclusive access to new technology.)
When the 2013 Lexus RX 350 F-Sport dropped quietly last year at a Lexus event, I was excited and intrigued. Not by the refreshed RX, but by what;s under the hood: the first production 8-speed automatic transaxle. Since the RX is a Lexus, we know that the transmission was made by Aisin (Toyota doesn’t use anyone else). Logically it was only a matter of time until this tranny landed on the Aisin general catalog and today appears to be that day. As a footnote in Volvo’s press release about their new four-cylinder engine family is buried one line “Volvo will also introduce a new 8-speed automatic gearbox that contributes to a refined drive and excellent fuel economy.” I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts the new slushbox is the same 8-speed unit that’s in the RX F-Sport I’m driving this week. Next stop: 8-speed Mazda 6, VW Jetta, MINI Cooper.
If you’ve ever wondered why it took so long for the four speed automatic to be developed, while 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 speed units have happened so rapidly, part of the answer is in this shift to communal parts-bin technology. While this means technology can develop more rapidly with more resources being applied to the same development project, it also means cars lack the uniqueness they once had. No longer can we sit around the card table drinking beer and arguing the eternal question: TorqueFlite vs Cruise-O-Matic vs Hydra-Matic.