When we reference a car’s platform at Cars.com, we mean the basic structure on which a vehicle is built, which defines its general size, strength and body construction.

“Platform” is rather ill-defined for a term that is thrown around as much as it is in automotive circles and, for that matter, on Cars.com. Typically, when someone notes that a vehicle shares another vehicle’s platform, it’s for the purpose of conveying its general size and capability. For example, saying that the Nissan Xterra is built on the Frontier pickup truck platform lets you know that the SUV is roughly the size of a compact pickup and that it is itself a truck, more or less — a heavy-duty machine with ride quality to match.

It’s difficult to discuss platforms without touching on body construction, the two main styles of which body-on-frame and unibody, also known as unitized or unitary. In the former, a ladder-style steel frame provides the vehicle’s strength and attachment points for the mechanical components and body. It remains the standard for heavy-duty vehicles such as pickup trucks and most offroad-capable SUVs. In unibody construction, an integral floor pan — the metal that forms the vehicle’s underside — serves the same role as the separate frame. Virtually all passenger cars use unibody construction, so when you hear of a “car-based” sport utility vehicle, in almost all cases it is designed for light-duty use.

To understand the significance of platforms, one must appreciate that manufacturers spend a fortune developing platforms and the production lines that build them. As a result, automakers only have so many platforms available to them, and building multiple models from a single platform yields economies of scale. This is why you’ll hear that, say, the Volkswagen Beetle is built on the Golf platform. While the two cars’ bodies are totally different, the platform is basically the same. In other cases, a vehicle’s platform may be “based on” an existing platform, which adds cost but comes nowhere near the expense of a whole new platform. Incremental changes to the wheelbase and overall length are among the simplest alterations, so producing regular-cab, extended-cab and long-box versions of a pickup model is relatively painless. The location of the door pillars, firewall and other so-called “hard points” is less negotiable.

Extensive body changes are also simpler and less expensive with a body-on-frame construction, which is how automakers offer pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles of different appearances and price ranges but the same undersides. Such vehicles are built alongside one another in the same plants, and in many cases the company can adjust the percentage of the factory’s total capacity each model represents, with minimal downtime, to meet market demands. While current SUV demand is declining, the market’s atmospheric growth over the past decade is due in part to manufacturers’ ability to sell them at affordable prices and collect a handsome profit as well.

Information for this was taken from the Cars.com’s glossary, written by Joe Wiesenfelder.

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Answered by Joe Bruzek on October 21, 2008 in Glossary | Permalink

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