In the spring of 2009, Ikuo Maeda was named head of design at Mazda Motor Corp., replacing Laurens van den Acker, who at the time said he had decided to leave the company "to pursue other interests." That turned out to be a job as head of design at France's Renault.
So it was out with van den Acker, who joined Mazda in 2006, and with him Mazda's years-long flirtation with its Nagare or "flow design" language. Mazda was the darling of auto show dreamers with its numerous Nagare concept cars - from the Furai race car version to the Taikai, with almost Gothic folds and laps and LED lighting to the Ryuga, which at one point was on view at a Louis Vuitton Classics Award display.
Mazda's new design theme
Dramatic and imaginative as they were, the Nagare concepts struck many as utterly impractical and absurdly fanciful. They did not seem consistent with Mazda's more gutsy "Zoom-Zoom" image and branding.
At last month's unveiling of Mazda's new design language, not many Nagare words were spoken. Instead, the talk was about Kodo, Japanese for "soul of motion," which describes Mazda's future design direction.
Yes, executives say Kodo is an evolution of the swoopy Nagare philosophy; the redesigned Mazda5 compact minivan that goes on sale in January is the first to show the Nagare design language. But they were at pains to emphasize that Kodo will "lead to the next generation of Mazda design and will lead to other elements," said Maeda, general manager of Mazda's design division.
The new Shinari sports coupe, a four-door concept, best encapsulates where Maeda wants Mazda design to go. At a design seminar in Milan, Maeda said the Shinari - and all so-called Kodo vehicles - looks ready to leap at any second, as in a sudden release of pent-up energy.
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The Shinari's distinctive front fenders are an evolution of the prominent fenders introduced on the RX-8, which Maeda himself designed. The so-called three-dimensional sculpting of the front grille expresses movement that is reflected in the line continuing through the bonnet, fender, front lamp modules and bumper. The interior has a look intended to link ergonomics with basic mechanical functions.
"As designers, we are constantly challenging ourselves to find something fresh and new," Maeda said. "Being athletic is the core quality for us, part of our DNA. It's something that will always be there, no matter what."
The styling of future Mazdas will flow from Kodo language in the Shinari, but there is more afoot in Mazda design. Maeda and Mazda North American design director Derek Jenkins say the company will also jump-start the quality level of interiors over the next three years.
"We want to play in the same group as BMW and Audi," said Jenkins. "On fit and finish, we want the same level of quality."
Maeda seems intent on moving Mazda forward from the far-out Nagare concept cars (Taiki, Kiyora, Ryuga and Kazamai) to something mainstream and functional. Critics say Mazda design has been too focused on nonfunctional styling. Mazda needs to focus on launching solid production models - vehicles that are functional yet emotional in a Mazda sort of way.
If Maeda himself is any indication, Mazda will move ahead quickly with new designs. After all, his nickname is Speedy as a result of his excellent driving skills. But a word of caution: in his younger days, Maeda twice had his Japanese driver's licence revoked for speeding.
Mazda surely believes Maeda, 50, has learned to channel his speedy instincts into quickly churning out production cars that sell.
Mazda's new design theme