Design Time: Next RX-7, New Datsuns and Pedestrian Crash Standards
Chief designers for Mazda and Nissan share some clues -- and frustrations.
Fuel efficiency and fancy touch-sensitive displays are great ways to market a new car, but let’s face it: If the body looks strange, awkward or nasty, it’s most likely doomed to fail. (Without gagging, look at the Buick Rendezvous or Subaru B9 Tribeca from 2007. Or the weirdo Murano CrossCabriolet that Nissan is trying to sell now.)
Conservative designs, no matter how often journalists poke fun at them, plain work. That’s why most of the best-selling cars, like the latest Toyota Camry, stick with flat-planed shapes and generic front and rear ends. The BMW 3 Series sedan, another continual success, is just a hair more exciting to watch than its predecessor. They neither excite nor offend.
Mazda and Nissan, as I’ve written here before, are taking chances by making truly fun-looking cars. Sometimes their wild risk rubs off on others; see the CrossCabriolet’s spawn, the Range Rover Evoque Convertible. Other times, they trudge alone in niche segments; see the Mazda 5. At the New York International Auto Show, I sat down with Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president of design for Nissan, and Derek Jenkins, design director for Mazda North America, to find out what they’re dreaming for the future.
For Mazda, one thing has to happen: the return of the RX-7, a sports car that looks just as hot and silky smooth today as when it disappeared from the U.S. 17 years ago. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fundamentally opposed to the RX-8, now discontinued, since it came out. The extra doors distort the coupe profile and in no way belong on a flagship sports car.) While Mazda engineers supposedly are working on the next rotary engine, Jenkins wouldn’t comment on a new RX-7. But in his words, I found hope.
“You can see what we’ve done so far with our concept vehicles like Shinari and Takeri (Editor's note: pictured above), kind of a general direction, and we’re moving toward this cab-rearward proportion with all of our products. You can even see it in the new CX-5; the cab is definitely pulled back. And that lends itself naturally to a sports car. So I think the push in that direction is a strong indication where you could imagine that going.
"But I think for Mazda it’s critical that they have a performance flagship. We have to have one in the future. From my point of view, stylistically, it’s the ultimate opportunity to express Mazda design and proto-language.”
At Nissan, the big news isn’t about the redesigned 2013 Altima, perennially one of the top-selling U.S. cars. It’s about Datsun, the low-cost Nissan sub-brand that will debut in India and Indonesia in 2014 -- and possibly to the U.S., if the cars could pass safety standards, Nakamura said. Here is his vision:
“We don’t want to make just a cheap car. For those customers, it’s not cheap, it’s an expensive car, comparing with their income. It’s an expensive thing. So we cannot give them a cheap-looking car because the price is cheap.
"But design-languagewise, it is not the same as the Nissan. Probably I want to put a little bit more functional feeling, show some robust quality, and because of the market we are going to is like India and Indonesia, the condition of the road is not necessarily very good, so they want to have higher ground clearance. We cannot make a car sitting high very sleek … but it’s not an SUV, it’s still a passenger car.”
In Europe, where cars are required to meet pedestrian impact standards, automotive design has changed dramatically – and not for the better, both Nakamura and Jenkins agree. Front ends are now more rounded and hoods flatter with fewer creases. Higher ride heights and raised belt lines are another result, which often come at the expense of added weight and less visibility --- all to meet the myriad of rules defining how a person should crush a hood or bounce off the fender.
“It’s a headache. For us probably the most difficult thing is the pedestrian [rules] -- so many restrictions for the shape of the front. You cannot do this. This is the hard point you have to keep. The angle of the front has to be 30 degrees … this is the criteria,” Nakamura said.
Jenkins had this to say:
“It’s horrible. It’s had a profound impact on just how cars are evolving. It’s probably one of the sides of [fuel-economy] standards and things like that. It’s probably the most significant legislation that’s impacted design directly. It’s not just design, it’s more systemic to make cars taller, make cars bigger, make cars heavier, redesign drivetrains. I’m not a fan of that legislation. I think it’s gone too far, personally, but not because I’m an opponent of safety for pedestrians … there are so many variables in a pedestrian-vehicle impact.”
In short, safety laws make it tough to sell beautiful things. But the most successful automotive designers, engineers and marketers will find ways around them, and hopefully retain personality and flavor in every new model. If that fails, we’ll all have to tighten our top buttons, join the rank-and-file Camry crowd and stop attending auto shows altogether.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association, and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics and The Times of London.
Plus, in my opinion rear doors aren't necessary for children. Rear seats are, but rear doors aren't.Then you are a better man than I. I hated having to poke half or most of my body into the vehicle from the outside just to be able to reach in. It would get especially bad, in my experience, any time I had children ride in the vehicle.
Why do you think, after so many years of driving coupes, and after owning so many of them, I ditched them in favor of a station wagon? I am a big guy, and I really hated being cramped in a coupe. Not having rear doors really soured the whole experience for me. Finally, after putting up with it for so many years, I had decided that enough was enough, and went on to realize my childhood dream of owning a diesel station wagon. Then I learned what having vast amounts of space and being comfortable behind the steering wheel was like: what bliss! And to my amazement, I lost none of the handling, too! It was unbelievable.
Had an RX 7 1990 MODEL for 100K miles. The motor was a mystery to every dealer mechanic. They never told any owner NOT to use synthetic oil and 13 B engines used up the apex seals by 5K miles IF YOU DID.
a great big full rear seat like the RX-8
Huh? The rear seat of the RX-8 is neither, great, big nor full. I'm not saying that the rear seat in a car like that NEEDS to be either of those three things, but come on now.
I'm barely 6 foot tall and I was unable to get into the back seat of the last RX-8 I drove even with the rear hinged doors. Not that it mattered. If I was in the market for a car like that, I wouldn't care much about the back seat (as long as it had one).
- The rear doors must be rear hinged and the front doors must be front hinged (check and obvious)
- There must be no pillar between the front and rear doors (check)
- The front and rear doors must be open-able independently of each other (not check)
(Full disclosure: I’ve been fundamentally opposed to the RX-8, now discontinued, since it came out. The extra doors distort the coupe profile and in no way belong on a flagship sports car.)Besides really slick styling, the suicide doors were one of the most unique and compelling reasons for a couple with children to get that sports car!
Full disclosure: I’ve been fundamentally opposed to the RX-8, now discontinued, since it came out. The extra doors distort the coupe profile and in no way belong on a flagship sports car.
I agree on the clamshell doors, but I hope the next RX car is a 2+2 or has a 2+2 variant. I am not talking about a great big full rear seat like the RX-8, but something on the scale of the FR-S would be nice. Basically, a 2 seater with two occasional use jump seats in the back.
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