How talent like hers might help Mazda gain an advantage over Honda and Toyota  

Derryn Wong

Find out how Mazda’s design process is unlike any other carmaker’s, and how it’s using this prowess to make ‘artful’ cars that will move away from the Japanese mainstream
Mazda doesn’t just want to make cars, it wants to make art.

It made this bold claim at the inaugural Mazda Design Forum Asean 2018, held on November 6, 2018.
“We want to take the quality of our design to an artistic level. We aim at the level of art,” said Mr Yasushi Nakamuta, the general manager of the Advance Design Studio and Design Division for Mazda Motor Corporation, at the event.   

If any other mainstream carmaker made a statement like that, it’d risk being laughed off the stage. But we all know by now that Mazda is anything but a conventional carmaker.
It may not be the largest automaker by any measure (it ranked as 16th largest in 2016), but its plucky commitment to new technology nobody else can replicate and unique approach to building cars means it punches far above its size in terms of impact.
Like Kia, Mazda has been hitting bullseyes with its car design in recent times: A look at its CX-5, CX-9, and facelifted Mazda 6 sedan (below), are almost proof enough.

At the inaugural Mazda Asean Design Forum in Bangkok, the brand was justifiably proud of its design accolades. Numerous models such as the MX-5, Mazda 6, CX-3 and more have been nominated or won design awards, while the Mazda design team itself was nominated as the industry’s best in 2015 by the German Design Council.
At the event Mazda showed off its RX Vision (below in red )and Vision Coupe concepts (below in grey), both of which took Most Beautiful Concept Car honours at the 31st and 33rd iterations of the Festival Automobile International.

Still, beauty would count for nothing if it didn’t translate into the moolah that keeps engines running, and 2018 sees a 27 percent jump in growth in the first half of the fiscal year for Mazda.

Mazda says Asean is a tremendously important region for it moving forward – hence to location of the event – and that its volumes in Asia have grown a massive 50 percent in the past four years.

So it isn’t just about art, but also about making beautiful objects that people have the impetus to own or be around.
If that sounds cynical and un-artistic, well just ask Andy Warhol about art and mass market culture, or Damien Hirst about art with a financial component. Art as an investment isn’t a new thing either, but the craze is even spreading to classic cars as well.
Here are four other things we learnt about Mazda’s approach to design, and how it makes for better cars from the ‘renegade’ Japanese carmaker.
1.It’s mastered the alchemy of turning exciting ideas into exciting objects – and vice versa

Honestly when car designers talk about a car, a quarter of what they say is fascinating, one half is ‘I, as a barbarian motoring journalist who likes burnouts, really don’t see the connection’, and the final quarter is ‘What is it you are smoking monsieur, I want some too merci’.
So when Mazda talks of its design language, Kodo design, as ‘breathing life into the car’, it’s easy to write that off as the abovementioned 75 percent.
The difference is, Mazda has a clearly defined way of achieving that, and it really does seem to work.

Part of that process is seen in its ‘design objects’ approach: The design studio comes up with sculptural forms that embody aspects or themes, that are hand-sculpted, and then made into cars only afterward.

“We begin with design objects, which are then shaped into cars, and it’s a unique approach that only Mazda design uses,” says Mr Nakamuta (pictured above). 
In conventional car design, it’s the other way around: The car is a sketch first, then a model.

The design objects made are really quite pleasing aesthetically, as shown here in a gallery-like setting. Yet if you put the forms next to the cars, the process works in reverse – the cars are visually pleasing, and exciting – and you can see a very clear lineage of where Mazda’s sexy concept coupes, and the rest of its cars, have their beginnings.

2. It believes its design teams need to sweat – literally 

Car designers are really good at drawing, they work with sculptors or CAD artists to translate their designs to a three-dimensional form. But at Mazda there’s much more of a balance between sketching and sculpting.
As mentioned in our in-depth design story: “Unusually, the design department’s sculptors are given equal status with the sketch designers, too. Mazda says it consumes more sculpting clay every year than any other carmaker.”

Mazda also uses a special type of extra-hard clay for its sculpting process, as shown here in a live demonstration during the event. It’s dry to the touch and feels more like wood than clay.

Other carmakers like Lexus have master craftsmen (‘takumi’) involved in the manufacturing process, but Mazda has a whole team of takumi involved in the design process, including master clay sculptors – two of whom were at the forum for a live demonstration of their skills (above) – that define the cars in their conception.
So compared to other carmakers, Mazda’s car designs involve a lot of literal sweat. “Mazda believes in the value of hand-made design, and in forms created by the human hand,” says Mr Nakamuta.

In fact, he adds, the most difficult part of Mazda’s design process is the fact that much of the athletic forms and lines are achieved through simple trial-and-error and countless hours of hard work by the sculptors. The Vision Coupe, for instance, took two years and 10 different clay model initial concepts to reach its final form.
3. It’s not just looking at cars for inspiration

Here we’re on slightly more conventional ground, with automotive design studios commonly branching out into related areas of industrial and consumer goods design.

Porsche Design is one example, and famously Giorgetto Giugiaro who came up with the VW Golf also designed the Nikon F4 camera and a Seiko watch worn by Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’.
Mazda design has made its own couch CX-5 couch, and the MX-5 bicycle (shown above) , and even its own perfume. And while these are recent examples, Mazda Design also created a lovely, quirky chronograph with German watchmaker Sinn in 2006.

In Julen’s previous visit to Mazda’s Hiroshima design studio he found out how its designers wanted to ‘breathe life into a chair’. While the designers were lucky enough to avoid finding out how Ju-Len ‘breathes life’ into chairs in the CarBuyer office, he at least brought back a useful story about Mazda’s design approach.  
What’s the use of a carmaker doing chairs and perfume? Cars are the single-most expensive consumer item anyone is likely to purchase, but sometimes we forget that they’re just that: Consumer items made for human use.
The strength of a design language and aesthetic is its ability to be translated not just across models, but also across design genres.
4.The artistic edge will help Mazda move away from the Japanese mainstream and to a more premium positioning

As one of the Japanese carmakers that gained international acceptance and recognition from the 1950s onward, Mazda has always been part of the Japanese mainstream, but it’s actually moving away from that and towards a more premium direction.
It revealed to Car & Driver at the debut of the Vision concept last year that part of the drive to making such beautiful concepts (which will become real-life production machines) is for the brand to ‘become a premium version of itself’.

Mr Hiroshi Inoue (pictured below), Managing executive officer, in-charge of Asia & Oceania, and New Emerging Markets of Mazda Motor Corporation, President of Mazda Southeast Asia, confirmed this is the direction the company is taking in future.

He told CarBuyer in person: “It is clear for us to differentiate (Mazda) from regular, or mass selling brands, like Toyota or Honda, by imbuing our products with high technology and high quality. Design is a critical example of this, if people see our design with a quality and premium perspective, we can raise our image.”
However he was quick to emphasise that moving toward such a direction will not result in Mazdas becoming more expensive overall. “No, it doesn’t mean (Mazda cars) will become more expensive. Of course in applying new technologies, there may be some markets or some model variants, where we will have to raise the price a little, but our ‘premium’ doesn’t mean it will make our vehicle price more expensive,” he added.


concept Coupe design mazda premium rx Vision

About the Author

Derryn Wong

CarBuyer's chief editor brings 15 years of experience in automotive journalism. Previously, he was the editor for Top Gear Singapore, and a presenter for CNA's Cruise Control motoring segment. He's contributed to The Business Times, Today, and many other publications, and also covered technology as editor of Stuff magazine. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he is the Chief Slave of two cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong

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