- Published: Friday, 28 August 2015 01:19
Mazda is one of Singapore's most exciting brands this year, especially with the all-new MX-5 on the way. Here's the inside story of how Kodo design helps it to make slender cars... and fat profits
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN — If you think that Mazda’s cars have been looking better lately, you’re not alone. The latest models from the relatively-small, Hiroshima-based carmaker have picked up wins and nominations at design awards around the world.
The Mazda 6 was a finalist in 2013’s World Car Design Of The Year Award, alongside flashy stuff from the likes of Aston Martin and Jaguar. Three of its cars — the Mazda 2 and the upcoming MX-5 roadster and CX-3 crossover — picked up honours at the prestigious Red Dot design awards this year.
MORE > Cool pics of the all-new MX-5
Europeans, in particular, seem to like what they see. Readers of Auto, Motor und Sport, an influential German magazine, put Mazda in the top 10 of their list of car companies with the best design. It was the highest-ranking non-premium brand, and the only Japanese one to make the cut at all.
MORE > Details of the upcoming Mazda CX-3
Kudos like that matter. It turns out that, just as humans associate beauty in people with qualities like health and intelligence, car brands can benefit when its products can turn heads.
Another Auto, Motor und Sport survey shows that Mazda has recently seen its brand rise in terms of emotional appeal and quality perception, says Atsuhiro Takahashi, who manages its Advanced Design Studio.
The result comes half a decade after Mazda rebooted its styling direction, under new design chief Ikuo Maeda. He set its 200-strong design department to work under a unifying principle called “Kodo”.
Loosely, Kodo means “soul of motion”, but in practical terms the ideas it’s supposed to invoke can be tough to grasp. The public’s first encounter with the motto was with 2010’s Shinari (pictured above), a concept car created to introduce the new design language. It eventually morphed into the Mazda 6.
“We often talk about cheetahs in our explanation of the motto. It's a symbol of the beauty that living creatures show when they move,” says Takahashi. “We want to express this with our cars.”
That being so, it’s literally by design that when you look at today’s Mazdas from the side, you’ll see that their rear haunches bulge like the powerful hind legs of a pouncing cheetah.
Takahashi says it took some doing to get the Kodo philosophy to take shape. Much of that involved tearing up the rulebook for car design. “We threw away the idea of drawing sketches first. Instead, we started with sculptures,” he says. Cars are usually conceived the other way around.
Takahashi says the designers went at it as a “pure artistic activity” (today, the department’s slogan is “Be an artist.”) and played around with shapes. It didn’t matter if what they generated didn’t result in an actual product.
Sure enough, the early results were nebulous forms with names bordering on the pretentious. He shows us slides of sculptures with names like “Men and Female” and “Speed Rhythm”.
Eventually the essence of a leaping cheetah was condensed into this form, which then formed the basis for the Shinari. Kodo design had produced its first actual car.
Since then, Mazda’s designers have applied Kodo to other forms, starting with a chair in 2013, and then a racing bicycle and a sofa that were displayed at this year’s Milan Design Week.
“You might not believe this, but we seriously wanted to breathe life into a chair,” says Takahashi.
That must have been something of an inside joke, because chairs are for flopping down into. Conversely, Mazda’s cars are meant to be driven with some vim, which gels much better with the Kodo concept.
The company views its products as an entry point to a brighter life, according to Hidetoshi Kudo, the general manager of the communications department. “We try to refresh the body and soul with the joy of driving,” he says. Before that can happen, Kodo design has to catch the eye first.
Takahashi says Mazda’s design and product development teams work closely, anyway.
One example of this is how the designers pondered where to position the driver in the new MX-5 to make the car look best. They decided to place him (or her) closer to the back than in the previous model. “We can get a stronger sense of beauty, with a kind of visual stretch that way,” says Takahashi.
Moving the driver position rearwards ended up helping engineers achieve their target of a 50:50 weight distribution.
Yet, for all their collaboration, you get the feeling that design is king at Mazda. "Our engineering team deeply understands beauty. That's Mazda's advantage,” is how Takahashi puts it.
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.
The truth, though, is that Mazda has to do things its own way because it is small, with a patchy profit record. Four of its last 10 years were loss-making, and its production volume last year was just 1.375 million cars — that makes it smaller than, say, a niche player like BMW. Toyota is six times bigger.
Yet, Mazda can use its small size to its advantage, says Kudo from the communications department. Its global market share is around 2 percent and at home, it’s roughly 5 percent, so it can afford to have all of its cars conform to a single design language like Kodo.
“In Japan, the market share of Toyota is approximately 50 percent,” he says. “If Toyota had the same design in all its products, it would be kind of Communist.”
In any case, Kodo design and the underlying athleticism that it tries to express could well be paying off. 2014 was the company’s most profitable year in its 95-year history, with S$2.4 billion in profits.
In more than one way, taking an artist’s approach to crafting cars can lead to a beautiful outcome.