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Gleanings From 2006 Naias

More than just bright, shiny cars and trucks—concepts and production vehicles—the North American International Auto Show afforded the opportunity to learn some things about product development from industry leaders. Here’s some of what we gleaned...

The Niche Approach of Mazda

“We look at segments; we don’t do that much work with demographics because our products tend to stretch across the range of age groups,” observes Moray Callum, design chief for Mazda, who adds, “It’s usually the car enthusiasts within the segments, and car enthusiasts aren’t always in the same demographics. They’re 17 to 97.” So with that enthusiast brief in mind, Mazda designers go to work, developing vehicles that will appeal to those people, not to some fictitious persona. They don’t work alone, however. As Franz von Holzhausen, Mazda North American Operations’ director of Design, observes, “We have a process that brings design, marketing and product planning together as a team to develop concepts for our brand.” He explains that they look at a “positioning map,” one that shows different vehicle categories and where Mazda products ought to be located on that grid. He points out, for example, that the RX-8 was a product that is a result of having identified an open space on the map for a niche-type vehicle, so they developed it.

Another mechanism that is deployed for vehicle development at Mazda is called the “Triple A, or Annual Advanced Activity process,” which Callum describes as a gathering of different types of people from throughout the organization who get together and “come up with the new concepts that we feel will differentiate Mazda as a brand.” He emphasizes, “It’s specifically for new concepts.” One of which is the Kabura, which was designed by von Holzhausen, a designer who came to Mazda from General Motors, where he’d managed the design process for vehicles including the Pontiac Solstice (arguably one of the closest competitors to the Mazda MX-5—von Holzhausen, by his own admission, is a driving enthusiast, so it is no wonder that he worked on the Solstice?. . .?and was interested in working at Mazda).

 

ADDRESSING THE NICHE

One of the more interesting aspects of Mazda vis-à-vis many of the competitive brands in the market is that, according to Callum, they’ve developed the means by which they can do “reasonably small volumes”—and, yes, make money doing so. The sales goal for Mazda in North America for 2006 is 300,000 vehicles (which is a third of the number of F-Series trucks that Ford sold in North America in 2005). By having this small(er) volume capability and a clearly distinctive understanding of whom they are trying to appeal to with their designs (“We understand our customers because we are customers ourselves,” Callum says), the designers have the latitude to do something that others might envy: “We don’t always need to please the masses; we can do very edgy cars that some people might find to be too much for them,” Callum explains. Yet it should be noted that this is edginess with a purpose, edginess meant to meet the needs of the enthusiast cadre: “Enthusiasts like honesty in their cars,” Callum claims. “I think Mazdas are quite honest in that sense. We design cars that look like they are fun to drive—and they are fun to drive.”

All of that said, however, there is something that Mazda designers did that validated their vision to management (always a critical aspect for those who are endeavoring to do something outside the norm): they created the Mazda6, a car that made a remarkable statement in the market about what a midsize car could be when the production version was shown for the first time at the North American International Auto Show in 2002. “Since the introduction of the Mazda6,” Callum says, “I think design has gained the trust of management. They listen to us.” It probably helps that there is an apparent understanding of the mission to create cars and trucks that people—even if they’re not “enthusiasts”—can be enthusiastic about. The proportions, stance, design language can be left to the designers, not the suits.

 

A PROACTIVE APPROACH

Whereas some vehicle manufacturers tend to have designs that are seemingly reactive to the market, Callum thinks that being proactive can be a competitive advantage. While he, not surprisingly, thinks that Mazda is a proactive company, he cites, for example, BMW as a company that is proactive in its approach to vehicle design—“whether you like what they’ve done, or not.” BMW has staked a claim. In a world that is populated by more and more cars on a daily basis, carving out space is difficult. “We need to be recognized on the street as a slightly different brand,” Callum says. A less commoditized product. “We are getting more individual in our products, and we’re learning that individuality works.”

But it’s not all about the looks. As von Holzhausen points out, “There’s a balance between looking good and actually functioning. People are getting more and more demanding about what’s important to them. They’re spending more time in vehicles so they want more pieces, more technologies, more stuff.” Which can lead to a situation where there is interior overload or functionality which isn’t particularly functional in the context of those who actually have to use it. For example, think of all of the gauges, dials, buttons, knobs, and other man-machine interfaces that are now de rigueur on even entry-level cars. Callum suggests that there needs to be a clear recognition of what is actually required by the driver, not ancillary, distracting information. He says that while sports enthusiasts still like gauges—say the oil pressure gauge in the MX5 that actually fluctuates in use, doesn’t get pinned to a number as seems to be the case in many vehicles—for the daily driver, there aren’t a whole lot of necessary bits of information needed to commute from point A to B.

Callum even claims that for many people, vehicle hoods are simply “the most expensive bottle tops ever because the only people who open them up are those who put water in the window washer.” While he likes the appearance of engines (because of his confessed car enthusiasm) and dislikes engine covers (“usually there to hide the mess underneath”), he thinks that it is conceivable that cars could be developed “for people who just run them to the shops” that wouldn’t have a conventional hood. “What do they need to see the engine for? When’s the last time you opened the back of your laptop to look at the processor?”