Larry Printz: With brands, what you see is not always what you think

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Suppose you’re shopping for a men’s dress shirt at a department store. There seem to be a number of brands to choose from: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfinger, Van Heusen, Eagle, Izod, Arrow, Chaps, DKNY, Donald J. Trump, Geoffrey Beene, Joseph Abboud, Michael Kors, Sean John, Ike Behar, Valentino, Ted Baker and Kenneth Cole. Yet all are produced under the auspices of one company: Phillips Van Heusen. It’s not so different when it comes to cars.

You’d probably never suspect that Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati, Lamborghini, Porsche, SEAT, and Skoda are owned by Volkswagen.

Similarly, Fiat Group owns Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lancia and Maserati, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and SRT. This is why the new Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee use an Alfa Romeo platform, while the Dodge Journey is sold in Europe as the Fiat Freemont, and the Chrysler 300 has been rebadged as the Lancia Thema.

But that’s not the case with Ford, which had owned Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and most of Mazda. Ford retained a 3.5 percent stake in Mazda, but sold its British brands to India’s Tata Motors in 2008. Two years later, Ford sold Volvo to Chinese auto maker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, leaving Ford to sell Fords and Lincolns.

Similarly, General Motors, which produces Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC, as well as Opel in Germany, Vauxhall in England and Holden in Australia, sold its one acquisition, Saab, to Dutch sports car maker Spyker Cars in 2010. A year later, production ground to a halt. Now Saab’s assets are owned by the Chinese-backed National Electric Vehicles Sweden, which plans to restart production by year’s end.

Hmm. Swedish cars built by Chinese companies? Does that seem strange?

Wait, it gets stranger. Who would have guessed that German automaker BMW would own two quintessentially British brands: Mini, which it acquired in 1994, and the license to produce Rolls-Royce cars, which it bought four years later from aerospace company Rolls-Royce PLC?

And speaking of unlikely bedfellows, how about Renault? The French company owns 43.4 percent of Nissan, the Japanese automaker behind Infiniti. And last week, the Renault-Nissan alliance announced plans to deepen cooperation of vehicle development with Mitsubishi, a company that had been independent since it ended its relationship with Chrysler, which lasted from 1971 to 2009.

By contrast, Daimler AG looks like a piker. It owns only Mercedes-Benz and Smart, and holds a small stake in Tesla.

Over in Asia, Toyota is a true juggernaut, selling Lexus, Scion, Toyota, Daihatsu and Hino Motors products. And it has small stakes in Tesla, Isuzu and Fuji Heavy Industries — Subaru’s parent company.

Meanwhile, aside from Ford’s small stake, Mazda is a standalone auto maker, as is Honda, which also builds Acuras.

Finally, there’s Korea, where Hyundai and Kia share something besides a chairman. Strip the top off of the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima and you’ll find the same platform and mechanical bits. But like the rest of the line-up, the two cars were designed in different studios and were financed, built and sold by separate companies.

It may seem that you no longer have a lot of choice, but you do. Unlike a dress shirt, you can still buy a car or truck from a handful of companies, rather than just one.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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