The severe competition for buyers in volume segments is forcing Europe's carmakers to load new models with advanced technology from suppliers.

VW's new Golf is one of the most striking examples. The fifth generation Golf brings innovative features to the C-segment that are meant to emphasise its dynamic ride and handling qualities.

In part, the rise of the mini-MPV sub-segment has brought about this approach. Vehicles such as the VW Touran and Opel Zafira occupy the functional, family-oriented slots in the C segment.

The differences in styling between Renault's radical Megane II and the more conservative Scenic version also reflect the various approaches to the sub-divisions within the segment.

Many of the attractive options on the Golf and other competitors in the segment come from suppliers, though they may be marketed as OEM-engineered systems.

German joint venture ZF Lenksysteme supplies the new Golf's electric power steering system. Electric steering systems reduce power demands by around 80%, which results in fuel savings of up to 0.2 litres per 100km, according to Volkswagen.

The system also offers easier installation options to carmakers, as the gear is self-contained and there is no requirement for hydraulic reservoirs and hoses.

Electric steering systems also can be electronically programmed to account for the weight of the vehicle. So any additional equipment ordered as options on the vehicle are built into the steering system's software.

BorgWarner's DualTronic double-clutch transmission debuted in the first quarter of 2003 as the VW Direct Shift Gearbox. DualTronic uses two clutches to offer the dynamics of a manual gearbox in an automatic transmission.

The interaction between DualTronic and diesel engines is promising, too, offering at least a 15% improvement over a standard automatic diesel.

BorgWarner expects take up of around 20% on the Golf's PQ35 platform, compared with 10% for the current four-speed automatic.

VW Kassel has capacity to produce around 1,000 Direct Shift Gearbox units per day.

Aisin is responsible for both the new automatic and manual six-speed transmissions offered on PQ35 vehicles.

The automatic, marketed by VW as Tiptronic, is the first transversely mounted six-speed auto in the world [it quietly made its debut with the Mexican-built New Beetle cabriolet].

The six-speed manual transmission is standard on all FSI engines as well as on all TDI diesel engines. A six-speed manual offers advantages over five-speed gearboxes both in terms of agility and performance and improved fuel consumption.

VW's in-house capability

But while Volkswagen calls on suppliers for some of the more advanced technology, VW has one of the most extensive sets of in-house component operations of any large car manufacturer.

It has a high level of vertical integration in many of its core plants. These include gearbox and exhaust system production in Kassel (including assembly of the DualTronic transmission) and axle, steering and suspension production in Braunschweig.

The rear axle was redesigned for the new platform at Braunschweig, where around 3.1 million complete rear axles are assembled annually.

The operation is one of the largest axle producers in the world and has annual revenue of around €2 billion.

The 6,600 employees at Braunschweig also produce the standard steering systems for the Golf as well as some seven million shock absorber sets every year.

The 2004 Opel Astra enters full production in January, and Ford will unveil its new European Focus before year-end. Throw in the arrival of BMW's 1 series by autumn 2004, and VW's push for driver-relevant technology makes sense. But is everyone running only to stand still?

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