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NEW YORK — With the new Lincoln Zephyr midsize sedan, Ford Motor Co. offers the first glimpse of a new engineering strategy designed to save the automaker billions of dollars and accelerate its product development process.

Ford promises the 2006 Zephyr will look, feel and drive like a luxury Lincoln even though it will share a basic design with future Fords and Mercurys.

The sleek five-passenger sedan, debuting as a concept today at the New York Auto Show, is one 10 vehicles across three brands Ford is spinning off a single design developed by Mazda.

Creating multiple vehicles from the same basic underpinnings — sometimes called platform-sharing — is a high-risk, high-reward proposition that more and more automakers are employing as competition intensifies.

Toyota Motor Co.p., for example, builds the Camry sedan, Sienna minivan and the Lexus RX-330 sport-utility from a common design.

Done well, the strategy can save billions in engineering costs. But junkyards are littered with vehicles that were, but for their names, virtually identical to others on the same dealer lot, derisively known as “badge engineering.”

“We’re using a lot of shared componentry and sub-systems where we can get a lot of economies of scale,” said Jim Padilla, Ford executive vice president. “We probably took out 15 months of development.”

Based on a program code-named CD3, the Zephyr and a pair of sedans from Ford and Mercury will share their ancestry with the critically acclaimed Mazda6 sports sedan.

But there will be no mistaking Zephyr for a Mazda, said Phil Martens, Ford group vice president of North America product development.

“You have very (different) attributes at Mazda and Lincoln,” Martens said. “Toyota, Audi, Nissan, Honda — they’ve been (mixing products) for years. It’s not an issue. It really is not an issue.”

Historically, Detroit automakers have struggled as they sought to exploit commonality without sacrificing value.

“The imports differentiate better than the domestic manufacturers,” said Rebecca Lindland, senior automotive analyst at Global Insight. “I think it’s a difference in strategy. Especially (General Motors Corp.) They had this strategy of giving the same vehicle to every brand. (Japan’s automakers) have never had that strategy.”

Consider the Cadillac Cimarron, a failed 1980s experiment that saw GM put the Cadillac marque on a slightly modified Chevrolet Cavalier.

General Motors Corp. plans to avoid a repeat of this scenario with the pending launches of a new Saab sport wagon.

The 9-2x sport wagon, which reaches showrooms this year, shares technology with the WRX from Subaru, of which GM owns 20 percent. But Saab engineers refined the Subaru hardware, said Saab Cars USA president Debra Kelly-Ennis.

“This vehicle meets everything that I think our customers will want in a Saab, and we will be getting to market — not last in the segment, but among the first in the segment — with a vehicle that will have all-wheel drive,” Kelly-Ennis said.

The Zephyr will be distinct from the Ford and Mercury sedans, said Lincoln Mercury President Darryl Hazel. From interior appointments to suspension tuning, there is a “notable difference,” Hazel said.

“I have driven all three of them. You’ll feel it. You’ll hear it.”

Zephyr revives a name used by Ford more than six decades ago. It will be built in Hermosillo, Mexico, as will the Mercury and Ford models.

Zephyr will be powered by a 3.0L V-6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmissions. It will feature front-wheel drive at launch, with all-wheel drive becoming available later.

Analysts said Ford’s strategy is sound so long as they can pull it off.

“I’m very encouraged that they’re using Mazda,” Lindland said. “I think Mazda has done a great job in their designs and in their differentiation.

“You can’t really tell the difference between a Sable and the Taurus,” Lindland said, referring to the Mercury and Ford sedans, respectively, that will be eventually be replaced by CD3 cars.

Ultimately, Ford expects the CD3 program, which will also underpin the next-generation Lincoln Aviator SUV, to supply 800,000 vehicles annually to Ford’s production total. By today’s standards, this would rank it among the U.S. industry’s most prolific programs.

General Motors Corp.’s GMT 800 supports 10 vehicle lines, ranging from the Chevrolet Silverado pickup to the Cadillac ESV full-size SUV, says Sales of GMT 800 models totaled nearly 1.53 million units in 2003.


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