The general drill goes like this: A vehicle manufacturer creates a car for an auto show. Typically, this is a “concept car.” Something that is meant to provoke the imaginations of all of the thousands of people who attend auto shows. Something that will catch their attention amid the seeming geometric acres of shiny sheet metal. Something about which they will say, “Hey, that’s cool. I want to buy one of those.” Something that, with few expectations, when built, comes out looking like, well, something else. The name may remain the same, but for a variety of reasons-cum-excuses (e.g., “We can’t do that in production”), the magic of the concept remains with that artifact.
There are exceptions, of course, like the Volkswagen Concept One, which became the New Beetle, and the Pontiac Solstice, which went from concept at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in 2002 to a production vehicle as a model year 2006 car. One man worked on both vehicles. He worked rather extensively on the latter, as chief exterior designer. His name is Franz von Holzhausen. Today he is responsible for Mazda’s North American Design Center.
A Trio of Takes. Von Holzhausen and his colleagues at Mazda—and he emphasizes it is the whole team, the entire organization, not just the design staff—are involved in an undertaking that is unlike what ordinarily occurs with concept cars. That is, starting with the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show, then moving to the NAIAS in Detroit in January 2007, then at the 2007 Geneva International Motor Show, the company revealed three cars: the Nagare, Ryuga, and Hakaze. The first of these three vehicles gives form and name to the “design philosophy”—as von Holzhausen puts it, repeatedly—that Mazda is pursuing for its future vehicles. Nagare (“nah-gah-reh”), he says, is a word that means flow. “We came up with this philosophy because we’re trying to take Mazda design to the next level and express the ‘emotion of motion,’ to really express that the cars are moving even while they are standing still.” Now of the three cars, he says that the forms of the Nagare are expressive of the future, of a car designed for the year 2020. He describes it as “a speed form that kicked off the expression.” Then there is the Ryuga (“ree-yoo-ga”). Here, they are reeling it in a bit: “It has a similar silhouette and proportion, but it is more realistic,” and it is a car for, say, 2012 to 2015. Then, finally, the Hakaze (“ha-ka-zay”), which he says “is really not too far in the future from a believability point of view, and I think what you’re seeing is us paving the way for production cars with this same philosophy embedded in it. We’re narrowing that gap between the distant future and production models.”
And, yes: “We’re on a path to making this concept purchasable.”
Not Just for One. Von Holzhausen explains that the approach here is different than the normal car company modus operandi. He cites the Solstice as an example. “Pontiac was all about cladding, about extra bits and pieces on the car, and Solstice was trying to reverse that direction, and clean the car up—get back to its roots. Simplify everything. I think it did its job pretty well.” Since the Solstice, the Pontiac models have exhibited clean, taut surfaces. The Nagare execution is different. “Rather than doing it in just a particular car, we’re doing it in a philosophy that will go through all of our cars. It’s not that we’re trying to get people excited about a specific car”—although he is appreciative of those who are excited about the vehicles he’s worked on—“but about the philosophy or an ideal. You can imagine this kind of design language on any of our products, not just one.”
Which leads to at least a couple of issues. One relates to the translation from hand-built models to production. A primary characteristic of the Nagare approach is that the body panels are pulled to show flow. The question is whether this is something that von Holzhausen has considered from the standpoint of producability. He responds (a) methods such as the sheet hydroforming used for the production Solstice permit making Nagare-like panels and that (b) Hisakazu Imaki, who heads Mazda Motor Corp., who has a background in production engineering and manufacturing, who is, in von Holzhausen’s term, “a body guy,” is supportive of what they are doing. “Mazda engineers are unbelievable in what they can deliver,” he says. “It is such a joy to work with guys who continue to surprise you by what they can pull off. I believe if anyone can do it, it’s definitely Mazda.”
Not Always the Same. The other issue is that of the one-trick pony approach to design, wherein a significant form or shape is created for a particular vehicle, it becomes successful, and then it is applied to everything else, whether it is suitable or not. Speaking to how they’re going to handle Nagare, he references another brand, BMW. He suggests that in a BMW showroom, it is clear that all of the models are members of the same family, but that they are all different, right down to the kidney-shaped grilles. “We’re trying to do the same thing—tailoring for the different segments the appropriate use of Nagare.” As in: “Is a Nagare theme similar on a sports car as on an SUV? Probably not. Is the intended buyer the same? Definitely not.”
Mazda sales have been moving in the right direction thanks to products starting with the Mazda6 and continuing through the CX-9. (In March ’07 it had its best-ever March sales, 47,206 vehicles; its month-to-date sales from March ’06 to ’07 were up 47.9% in the U.S.) Clearly, there is a successful model there. Why not hang onto it? Why initiate the Nagare approach? “We looked at other companies,” von Holzhausen says, “and their success peaks and valleys and found that it is very cyclical.” He explains that they achieve success, hang on to it, and then the competitors work to beat them. “If you don’t reinvent your design direction, then you will be surpassed.” That observation should be committed to memory and acted on not only by all designers, but all those who are involved in product and process development.
While the feedback on Nagare has been mainly positive, he admits, “You have to open the door a little bit for a chance of failure or you’re not pushing the boundaries far enough—at least in design. We did open that door.” And if his and Mazda’s records are any indication, things will be good on the other side.