Automakers rapidly are moving toward a new era in vehicle architectures that promises lower costs, turn-on-a-dime manufacturing and shorter product-development lead times.

But is the new direction all it's cracked up to be? Will these modular platforms provide the purchasing advantage some expect, or is this new designed-in flexibility a simple case of over-engineering?

Industry insiders may be split on how much actually can be achieved, but the goal is clear: To create scalable architectures that share components across a wide range of model lines and allow nearly any vehicle, no matter what size, powertrain or body configuration, to be built at any manufacturing plant in the world.

The automaker that cracks that engineering code will be able to better match production with fickle consumer demand, create new spin-offs quickly and economically, command the lowest prices from suppliers and offer car buyers the market’s best bargains.

The problem? A litany of hurdles, engineers and analysts say, including varying safety and environmental laws around the world; sourcing challenges; vehicle-performance requirements; and, quite frankly, basic geometry.

“Everybody has wanted to do this before,” notes John Hoffecker, head of the automotive practice for consultant AlixPartners. “The reason they haven’t is it is very difficult to do.”

The concept of a global-scale, modular platform is nothing new. In the past two decades, automakers have been working hard to reduce the number of vehicle architectures in their lineups by stretching platforms to create longer-wheelbase models off the same set of mechanicals and sharing as many components as possible from one car to another.

What’s coming next, though, is an even more elastic approach that will allow track, as well as length to be varied. That will enable small cars, midsize sedans and uncompromising, family-sized CUVs all to be built on a single platform, maximizing both economies of scale and production flexibility.

Volkswagen may be the furthest along as it begins to spin products from its MQB architecture, set to underpin some 39 models covering eight size and market segments by 2019. But other automakers also have some high-volume global platforms in the works, and it’s unclear exactly how big a jump VW may have on its competition or whether too much has been spent on too little of an advantage.

Financial analysts and parts suppliers have been salivating at the cost-savings prospects ever since VW revealed plans for the MQB, which WardsAuto/AutomotiveCompass forecast data shows will cover production of more than 6 million units annually within the next six years.

Debuting with the latest Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf, the MQB ultimately will stretch from the B-class Polo to the D-segment Passat and even beyond to the expected CrossBlue 7-passenger CUV unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January. It will cover myriad brands, ranging from luxury-priced Audis to more mainstream VWs, Skodas and SEATs.

The key, VW officials say, is in making sure each vehicle on the MQB architecture is locked into the same basic engine-compartment configuration, with pedal position and the distance between the front wheels and front wall of the cockpit identical in every model to come.

“Then all that happens at the crash point is the same for all these vehicles,” Ranier Michel, vice president-marketing strategy for Volkswagen of America, says in an interview earlier this year. “The biggest part of car development, when it comes to money, is crashworthiness.”

Assembly sequences are identical from vehicle to vehicle, as are manufacturing machinery and welding and bonding processes, meaning any model can be built on any line at any plant in the world.

The concept also allows for quicker product development as future cars and trucks are derived from the existing platform.

“You take a little more time (engineering) in the beginning, but then (it) can be very fast in ramping up,” Michel says. “That’s the beauty of it. I see behind the scenes what we can work on now and what we are working on now – it’s phenomenal.”

Of course the “big goal,” the VWA executive says, is to “use as many components over as many cars as possible.”

With the economies of scale offered by a multimillion-unit platform, the German automaker could enjoy unprecedented pricing power.

“When you make that jump to those kinds of volumes…you’re spreading both the production capital as well as the development investment over that many units, so that is what drives down those per-unit costs,” says Dave Andrea, senior vice president-industry analysis and economics for the Original Equipment Suppliers Assn.