We'll see fewer copycat cars over the next few years

Line of car hoods

At some point in our lives we've heard, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Our moms told us if a schoolmate dressed like us, cut their hair like us or adapted some affectation of ours, we should feel honored rather than creeped out or angry.

Maybe this is true in the schoolyard, but it certainly doesn't apply to the auto business.

For more than half a century, domestic carmakers virtually had the corner on the U.S. market.

During decades of limited, outside competition, profits were high and each brand had its own brigades of product planners and engineers, designing and building unique products.

Buick and Oldsmobile were both built by General Motors, but they were nothing alike.

Entire product lineups changed annually with highly anticipated new-model-year reveals each fall.

Suddenly in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. auto business model changed with fears about fuel shortages and escalating pump prices. More fuel-efficient imports began taking market share from the domestic brands and profit margins thinned.

Domestic makers somewhat protected profits through badge engineering. That is, essentially building the same car across a company's divisions with minor design and content differences.

With the pain of the relentless loss of market share somewhat softened through badge engineering, GM, Chrysler and Ford became sloppy, lazy and less competitive.

Imports aren't immune to badge engineering, but the American car companies raised it to an art form.

Because of this practice, several brands became redundant and irrelevant, eventually disappearing. Think: Mercury and Oldsmobile.

To a certain degree, badge engineering will always be with us. Carmakers will continue to share engines, platforms, systems and technologies across divisional lines.

But the badge engineering mind-set is changing, translating into more defined choices for us.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne recently told Automotive News that he is curtailing brand engineering among Chrysler brands.

The first step will be with the next generation minivan when the Dodge Grand Caravan will feel the ax, leaving the Chrysler Town & Country as the carmaker's sole minivan. Likewise, the Chrysler 200's Dodge clone, Avenger, will also disappear.

GM always makes things more complicated than they need be, but even it -- the most blatant of brand-engineering offenders -- has created an entire department to keep its several brands and their product lines distinct.

How successful GM's effort will be remains to be seen, but just addressing the issue marks a major shift in strategy on cars.

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