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If Mitsubishi's Concept-RA coupe-which debuted at the 2008 North American International Auto Show-seems to bring to mind a Hot Wheels car, that's not entirely an accident. Its exterior was penned by senior designer Gary Ragle, who got his start in product design as an intern at Mattel Toys' Hot Wheels division, where he assisted in designing some of the games that bring the miniature cars to life. Ragle says his experience at Hot Wheels proved to be beneficial as he moved to cars that were more accommodating to average adults and ran on more than kid power. "While the end product is very different, the process used at Hot Wheels requires a design brief from management, just like we have here," he says. The competition to design new Hot Wheels models was fierce, although the plethora of models offered allowed most designers to have a crack at bat at least once. Ragle's partner on the Concept-RA, senior interior designer Chris Schuttera, has an equally colorful history. He interned at Little Tikes Toy Co., maker of the Cozy Coupe kiddie car, which taught him first-hand the "cutthroat" nature of the toy business, where the latest products have a shelf life of mere months, as opposed to the auto industry's numerous year cycle: "It was very interesting to see the process of bringing a toy to market, because the toy business works very fast."
His work at Hot Wheels (and Fisher Price) notwithstanding, Ragle takes his influence from the animal world. The Concept-RA takes cues from a shark, complete with its menacing trapezoidal grille and slim headlamps with eye-like lenses pushed out to the edges. "I try not to look at cars for influence; nature and animals play a big role in my designs," he says, adding he's most impressed by MINI's exterior design, which looks somewhat like a bulldog: "cute, but aggressive."
When it comes to interiors, Schuttera says he takes his influence from architecture and the latest consumer gadgets. For the Concept RA, however, he took cues from the F35 Joint Strike Fighter: "I was surprised at how streamlined the cockpit is and the fact that the heads-up display has been moved to the pilot's helmet-that's radical." When it comes down to it, Schuttera believes vehicle interiors must be simple and straight-forward: "It's important to have a minimum of display and control interfaces. We're at a point where we can put so much information and interaction in the vehicle that it could overwhelm the customer."
As Mitsubishi prepares to break out from the pack through more distinctive design themes, Ragle says he does not want his designs to give in to fads. "I want to create something that is pure and timeless, simple, pure shapes. That's what I strive for in every one of my designs and I think the RA has hit that pretty good." Schuttera, meanwhile, summarizes his design ethos as being "functional for the occupants and thoughtful when it comes to materials and the use of technology." It appears Mitsubishi's design future seems to be in good, thoughtful hands.