Mazda's Design Goal
'Another big step,' not just another Alfa
By MARK RECHTIN | AUTOMOTIVE NEWS
Mazda raised some eyebrows with the Nagare concept, which it displayed last month at the Los Angeles auto show.
LOS ANGELES -- Mazda designers are not resting on their laurels.
The brand is seen as a Japanese version of Alfa Romeo - not a bad place to be, considering where it was. But Hiroshima's style honchos now want to create a design identity that is all Mazda.
As Mazda struggled to erase its bland image during the 1990s, designers fixed on an idea. Sporty and affordable European brands like Alfa Romeo would be good to emulate. Of course, the Mazda cars' performance needed to back up the design promise.
The vehicles that emerged hit the mark. Comparing the current Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-7 with the older Protege, 626 and Tribute is a lesson in how quickly a company can transform a brand. But that's not enough.
"Mazda design needs to make another big step," said Laurens van den Acker, Mazda Motor Corp.'s general manager of design.
This year, van den Acker took the top design spot from Moray Callum, who now heads Ford's passenger car design division.
"Under Moray, Mazda cars went from zero to hero," van den Acker said. "Now we need to make them go from hero to superhero. I don't want to be the Japanese Alfa. I want to be Mazda."
Emphasis on sportiness
Does that mean styling with more Japanese influence? Contrary to what Nissan design boss Shiro Nakamura believes, van den Acker doesn't think there is a distinctive Japanese design. Instead, van den Acker wants to accentuate the sporty nature of the Mazda vehicles, regardless of country of origin.
Kouichi Hayashi, Mazda Motor deputy general manager of design added: "Every company likes to think it has sporty design. But Mazda has to deliver it with more expression and aggression because the brand statement is that of performance."
The first vehicle to have van den Acker's stamp will arrive in 2008. Next year's CX-9 and Tribute crossovers and Mazda6 car will still have Callum's imprint.
Not that Mazda will walk away from Callum's work.
"Moray had a difficult job because he was creating an entire generation of vehicles from scratch," van den Acker said. "Instead of starting over, we will take those strengths and make natural changes."
Another problem: The edgy Alfa Romeo style has picked up imitators besides Mazda.
"Five or six years ago, sporty and affordable was just Alfa Romeo, but now it's also Ford of Europe, Seat, Hyundai and Kia," van den Acker said. "Our design needs to show that we make authentic sporty cars, whereas the others take ordinary cars and dress up sporty."
And though Mazda vehicles may be distinctive in the United States, they are less so in Europe and Japan, van den Acker said.
Mazda has four design studios. Two are in Japan, in Hiroshima and Yokohama. The others are in Frankfurt and Irvine, Calif. Mazda has about 300 people employed in design, modeling and digital modeling in the four studios.
But unlike other automakers, Mazda does not designate any single studio as its "advanced design" center. All are responsible for long-range products, as well as immediate production models.
"When Moray was here, the studios were more autonomous," van den Acker said. "Now that the newer studios (in Frankfurt and Yokohama) have come up in strength, they will be more collaborative."
Mazda has hinted at long-term styling cues with concepts such as the Nagare coupe, unveiled last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
But the Nagare was meant to express a Mazda in 2020, hardly a strong indicator of what's coming this decade. Concept vehicles coming in 2007 will show those cues closer to production status.