4/1/2008 | 5 MINUTE READ

Mazda: Designing Like the Wind

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If there is any vehicle manufacturer that is consistently delivering on design on both the road and on the motor show stage, it’s Mazda. We talk with Laurens van den Acker, head of its Design Division, to discover the what, how and why they’re doing it.


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It's been a couple of years since Laurens van den Acker became the general manager of the Design Division of Mazda Motor Corp. at its headquarters in Hiroshima, Japan. He'd moved over from Ford, the mother ship, in effect. One of the first things that occurred to van den Acker, he recalls, is that given the seemingly popular fascination with things environmental in the market, the whole notion of "Zoom-Zoom," which he describes as "the heart and soul of the Mazda brand," might be irrelevant in five to 10 years. Which would certainly not be a good thing for someone starting out at Mazda, particularly someone whose job is, in part, to formulate what Mazdas will be in five to 10 years. So they sat down and thought about it. "Our conclusion," he reveals, "is that there is no disconnection." Zoom-Zoom is green? Well, sort of. Van den Acker explains, "Our sportiness is not a 500-hp, smoking tire, Camaro or a Corvette. Rather, it is more of the MX-5 driving experience." While someone might be able to smoke the tires of a Miata, note that it has a 166-hp engine, a comparatively diminutive 91.7-in. wheelbase, and has a curb weight on the order of 2,500 lb.

As he's describing this state of affairs, van den Acker is sitting in front of the Furai P2 concept vehicle, a race car-cum-street car that is based on the 2005 Courage C65 chassis, which raced in the American LeMans Series. There is a 450-hp RENESIS-based three-rotor rotary engine under the hood (more or less, as it is a mid-engine configuration). It is a 180-mph car that has done laps at Laguna Seca (or, more accurately, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca). Well, it does run on a "green"-ish fuel: E100 ethanol.

But van den Acker points out that the fundamentals of Mazda Zoom-Zoom include things like light body weight, high-revving lightweight engines, and aerodynamics that reduce drag. High speed with an enviro touch.

The Furai, another in the series of concepts based on the Nagare (Japanese for flow and the embodiment of motion) design language-the others are the Nagare (presumably because it was the first, it set the name for the language), the Ryuga, the Hakaze, and the Taiki-,was designed by Franz von Holzhausen, director of Design, for Mazda North American Operations. His team, as well as members from Mazda's R&D staff worked with Swift Engineering on the aerodynamics of the vehicle. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software was used to help make the vehicle truly aero-efficient. For example, the textures on the side surfaces don't simply provide the appearance of flow, but actually feed air to the rear brakes, oil cooler, and the transmission cooler; headlamp trim pieces help cut aerodynamic lift. The Aria Group (www.aria-group.com of Irvine, CA) developed the composite panels on the vehicle.


Stunning Surfaces.

One of the aspects of the Furai's design that stops people dead in their tracks are its amazing surfaces, which seem to be closer to technology from the 23rd century than even the most contemporary of production cars. Van den Acker observers, "If you really get into aerodynamics and light weight, you can't afford a normal step-by-step improvement." Clearly, this is a step through hyperspace. Yet he points out that forthcoming CAFE regulations are going to make it essential for vehicle manufacturers to come up with the ways and means to achieve greater efficiencies than are now being realized...which could lead to Nagare-type designs. 

One of the characteristics of concept cars seems to be that even within a given vehicle manufacturer there is little in the way of consistency. This year's model gives way to next's. Or, even more severe: "There is nothing as old as a show car that's been shown two weeks ago," in van den Acker's words. He explains that when he'd signed on to Mazda, the company had just done three concepts and there were four more on the docket. "I didn't want to make seven different vehicles. I wanted to make one image, one theme that we could keep on developing."

There are actually benefits to this approach. For one thing, one of the problems that Mazda has in the U.S. market is that consumers are not necessarily familiar with the brand. So there needs to be more awareness. "I would argue that we have gotten a lot of attention with our Nagare series. No one has done a series of vehicles for a long time," he says.

"I think our marketing people realize that if we don't stand out, we're dead. To my pleasant surprise, they have been our biggest supporter in being distinctive"-not only in concept cars, but also in production vehicles like the Mazda3, which is arguably the most well-designed car in its segment-"because they realize that that is the only way to get noticed.

"It is uncomfortable, to be honest, and it makes us nervous, but we have no other choice. It's the classical case of taking no risk would be the riskiest thing." He candidly admits: "We made plenty of anonymous vehicles in the past, but we ended up competing against competitors that we don't want to compete with."


Teams Work.

But there is an additional benefit. "I have four design teams around the world. This gave every design team a shot at playing with the theme." Not only did this permit the designers to look at various aspects of what they could do with the design language, but it also, he explains, allowed them to "show management that this them has legs for the future." He says that there will be Nagare elements deployed on production vehicles that will be introduced during the next couple of years. While they'd thought about the possibility of doing a full-on Nagare execution, he admits, "We need to be brave, but smart, too."

While it seems that many design staffs have to fight tooth-and-nail for holding on to design elements of vehicles that some less imaginative people in the organization might think are simply expensive and superfluous, van den Acker says that Mazda is "really turning into a design-oriented company. My design reviews with the R&D team and the marketing team are, honestly, focusing on design. It's 90% about design and 10% about cost."

He admits, "That doesn't mean that we always get our way, that we always win, but I'm impressed how design-oriented the company is becoming."


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