Explained: the VW Group's MQB platform
WHAT THE HELL IS MQB?
Almost every vehicle from the VW Group that is transverse-front-engined and bigger than a VW Up will eventually be based on the MQB parts matrix. MQB stands for Modularer Querbaukasten, or modular transversal toolkit. It lays down a series of hard points for a huge range of cars and powertrains. These hard points determine the common design of production line. But they also allow systems (for example entertainment systems or aircon or axles) of
differing sizes and complexities to be fitted, provided their mounts link with the hard points. All the electric systems are also designed to pair up with the MQB’s unified electrical architecture.
Five million is a lot of anything. A lot more matchsticks than you need to build a model of the Houses of Parliament – maybe even at full scale. Five million mid-size hatchbacks in a bumper-to-bumper jam would stretch along the most direct road route from the North Cape of Norway to Cape Town, South Africa. And all the way back. And then to London.
And that’s how many cars the Volkswagen Group intends to build out of its MQB components system every single year, by about 2018. But right now, the system is producing only these four cars: the A3, Golf, Leon and Octavia. Back in the dark days of the ‘platform strategy’, their predecessors were notoriously alike. If VW really wants to build five million MQB cars, they’d better be more diverse, or we’ll all die of boredom.
While MQB is actually about more standardisation in some ways, to save money, it also gives less standardisation in others, to broaden choice. In the fullness of time, the MQB kit will be used for a new generation of most cars in the VW catalogue – Polo, Golf, Passat, four crossovers, at least two MPVs, a coupe or two and the Beetle. Plus Audi’s A1, A3, Q3, Q1, TT and more. Skodas from Fabia to Superb, and the growing Seat range.
The sheer diversity of those vehicles is the reason the VW Group engineers get shirty when you use the word ‘platform’. The biggest MQB vehicle will be a crossover the size of a Land Rover Discovery with three rows of seats. The smallest will be superminis. Engines will go from 3cyls to a twin-turbo VR6, and there will be 4WD via propshaft and via electric rear drive. It’s future-proofed against a bewildering array of alternative powertrains – I’ve driven a plug-in hybrid diesel Jetta, a plug-in hybrid petrol Audi A3, a gas-powered A3 and a pure-electric VW Golf prototype. The scope of it all makes your head spin.Advertisement - Page continues below
But amid all that difference, there will be constancy. Certain dimensions are fixed, including the critical one between the pedal box and the front-wheel centre line – and, once that’s set, many engine-bay dimensions follow along. Which is why the engines all have certain physical sizes and mounts too, and the crash protection beams. This stuff is among the most expensive portions of a car to develop and the production line also has to be built around it. Standardising it saves fortunes and allows the plants to build whatever demand dictates. The steel platform can be built in a range of wheelbases and there are various levels of suspension system, several suites of driver aids, different levels of entertainment/navigation. The important fact is they all use common physical mounting points and electrical architecture.
That sounds like abstract industry talk, but when you drive these four cars, you get to feel how each set of designers, engineers and marketers has elected to shape, set up and spec their car to be congruent with what they want their brand to be.
Don’t expect drastic differences, mind. The constraints of the format inevitably impose themselves. The mid-size five-door hatch is one of the most rigid templates in motordom. It’s no surprise these MQB machines aren’t so very different from each other or from the Ford Focus, new Peugeot 308 or Mazda3. Frankly, you could add anything from an Alfa Giulietta via a Mercedes-Benz A-Class to a Hyundai i30 to the mix too, and you wouldn’t be straying far off this well-trodden path.
All these four cars use the excellently quiet and responsive 184bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine, FWD, the 6spd manual gearbox and have five doors. The VW, Skoda and Seat are the diesel hottish-hatch versions on sports wheels and suspension. But because an Audi configurator has more tick boxes than a US visa application form, we actually ended up with something slightly different from Ingolstadt. The A3 here is a sport spec but with the no-cost option of the softer standard suspension. It’d have been more like the others if it were an S line.
Seeing the four of them converge at the TG track, there’s no confusion between them. They look well-proportioned, too: MQB fixes a good relationship between the front wheels and the screen, and a shortish front overhang. The Skoda is longer than the others, both in the wheelbase and the rucksack rear overhang, because Skodas are all about space. The Audi, VW and Seat sit on a shorter wheelbase. Actually there’s a shorter wheelbase again, used by the 3dr versions of the Audi and Seat (but not VW). So each brand can decide how it wants to balance the priorities of space, style and weight.
Bending metal is pretty much a fixed cost, so you wouldn’t expect to see a price stratification in their body shapes. And since the Skoda, Seat and VW are top-line spec, they all get LED running lights and tail-lights, so no advantage to the Audi where those things are optional. Inside, there’s a broadly upward slope in quality versus price. But with bumps along the slope.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Skoda’s cabin seems honest and workmanlike: lots of space, and big doorhandles you could operate in a Czech winter with gloves on. The materials are good too, though that cavern of a boot is cheaply lined. But the vRS adds man-hug Recaro seats.
The Seat doesn’t seem so good inside. Part of that is visual: it’s very angular, and somehow the sharp edges look a bit cheap. But these edges are the Seat theme, and on the outside they work well. After all the Leon was designed by the man who did the Lamborghini Gallardo. But the Seat’s seats (sorry) are flatter than the Skoda’s, because the FR isn’t the top sports Leon – there’s still the Cupra to come.
The VW feels better. More touch-feely. More grown-up. More premium. The check cloth seats are knowing rather than tweedy, and make the Seat’s optional leather feel a bit cheap. But there’s a theme inside the VW, Skoda and Seat. They all use the same range of colour touchscreens (no satnav standard, two levels of nav and screen size optional). The same climate controls and stalks, and the same kind of vents.
If you want to feel posh, you need the Audi. The plastics are better. The clocks and switches are all different. Knurled aluminium encases the knobs and controls, and the vents let you choose between diffused or jet airflow. The seats adjust for tilt as well as height. The test car also had lovely LED rings around the cup-holders and speakers, but they come as part of a package with the LED exterior lights and xenons. The Audi’s satnav is about twice the price it is on the others, but has a better screen and is operated by the exquisite MMI controller.
There are clues in the standard specs about whom the brands think their buyers are. The Seat, as an introductory offer, has LED lights and navigation as standard, and a great sound system as a cheap option. These are highly visible, and they matter to younger buyers. The VW has radar emergency city braking, park sensors all round and active head restraints. Stuff that looks after you even if it doesn’t get headlines. Audi doesn’t give you much, so when you start equalising the kit, the price difference between VW and Audi grows to a gulf – but the extras you buy from Audi, eg its nav screen, are of a better kind.
On the road, the Audi feels good too and you can’t put a price on that. Audi specced aluminium for the cast front suspension sub-frame, and bonnet and front wings; the others have steel. And so the A3 turns just a little more keenly, especially in tight corners, even though its suspension and tyres are less aggressively specced. It rides fluently and quietly. Only issue is when you drive it like a GTI, the damping comes up soggy. Maybe the sports chassis (no-cost, amazingly) would be a wiser choice.
The Golf is most fun through corners. You can loosen the nose or the tail at a twitch or lift of your right foot. Yet it’s still reasonably supple and refined. The steering has more weight and feeling than the A3’s too, possibly as a result of the bigger tyres, though, overall, a GTI is sharper again. The Golf feels better damped than the A3, if firmer riding, though not hard. The Leon is very similar and plays the hot-hatch thing just as well as the Golf. But again you can feel money being saved in soundproofing. They all use the same engine, but it’s quietest in the A3 and notably harsher in the Leon, which has more road noise too. But it’s to the sort of degree where you would need a side-by-side drive to be sure.
You don’t need it for the Octavia. The ride is emphatically more turbulent over bumps and there’s a harsh grittiness to the way it goes over coarse surfaces. Are they using cheap dampers? It has the same multi-link back axle design as the others (all other Octavias, as well as most Leons, a few low-power Golfs but no A3s have a lighter, simpler, cheaper torsion beam suspension). The steering is heavier than the others, but offers no more feel. The handling is more inert at normal speeds, and if you really push on, it gets untidy where the others stay serene. There’s more noise generally – small wonder maybe, when you’ve got that huge echo chamber of a boot.
We all share an assumption about the VW group price ladder, don’t we? But we’re all wrong. The cheapest here isn’t the Skoda but, by a useful amount, the Seat. And right now, the Seat comes with the navigation and LED headlights package. And the Skoda emits 119g/km CO2 versus 109 by the Seat, meaning you pay another 2 per cent BIK if it’s a company car. Given that the Seat drives with so much more sophistication, this is a ridiculously easy choice unless you carry mountains of stuff with you, or you feel the need to wear Skoda’s austere and chaste image.
The VW is, at base price, more expensive than the Audi. That said, if we’d had the Audi as an S line, it would have had a body kit, bigger wheels and xenons as standard, putting it just above the Golf. But even an A3 S line really only gets interesting when you prostrate your finances before its biblically lengthy options list and add the lovely baubles and technological gadgetry. For most of us, the Golf is the best-thought package here.
Small wonder it’s the one that sells so many. You can’t help feeling that although MQB is a group project, the others all had to shuffle out the way of VW’s position as the senior partner.Advertisement - Page continues below